Monday, February 21, 2011

Marching in Madison

What did the Republicans expect other than an outdoor media event in Madison?

“I hope I’m inspiration just as much as others are an inspiration to me,” Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker said last week. He just did not say what he inspires. State Democrats walked out of the legislature, preventing a quorum and thus a vote and people came out to demonstrate, of which Madison has a long tradition.

Walker, “Wisconsin’s new union-busting governor”, as Paul Krugman called him, announced plans to cut the bargaining rights and benefits of public workers. The measures in question would prohibit unions from bargaining over issues other than wages. They would stop unions from having dues deducted from state paychecks and require them to hold annual elections to stay in existence.

It should be noted that Wisconsin’s pension fund is better off than most pension funds in the US. The state does not suffer the large shortfalls that other states face and it has a 7.5 percent unemployment rate, well below the national average.

“Workers’ rights — including the fundamental right to organize and bargain for better pay, benefits and working conditions — are under attack in states from Maine to Ohio, from Wisconsin to Florida,” said Gerald McEntee, president of the main union of Wisconsin state employees.

“It’s like Cairo has moved to Madison,” First District Congressman Paul Ryan (R-WI) said. Never mind that the Wisconsin protesters, unlike those in Egypt, have jobs, homes, families, plenty of food on their plate, police protection, and are engaging in completely risk-free protests.

Besides, even Rush Limbaugh, Rick Santorum, and Glenn Beck denounced the uprising in Egypt and insisted that President Obama should have helped Mubarak put it down.

Like many Republicans in states like Wisconsin, Walker came to power last November by defeating union-backed Democrats. Now those newly elected Republicans are attacking union wages and union power, as they face budget gaps in those states that were largely created in the first place by Republicans prior to 2008.

The Mid-East comparison trivializes the protest in Madison. That is what a media event is: a shiny bit that attracts attention and rhetoric but no substantive discussion. It is the false analogy that a protest is a protest is a protest to which I object. The whole purpose of a protest is to call attention, foment debate and call for amendment, and it should affect the discussion that emerges when Wisconsin Democrats return.

Governor Scott Walker is one heck of an inspiration, all right, especially for those who are interested only in power and not in consequences. He certainly is not interested in making any concessions or negotiating with anyone. He most certainly is not interested in bargaining with state workers. He wants to terminate their ability to bargain. That appears to be his Republican brand of politics.

Begging the rhetorical question of whether Wisconsin is the Tunisia of collective bargaining rights has a lot of coincidental appeal, but it is off point. The point is what President Obama called “an assault on unions” which is all about politics, especially in center-left Madison, where it is cold.

However, the spring will come, the freeze will thaw and the protests will be what used to be called a Kodak moment. Follow it on Twitter and Facebook.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Patriot Action: Suspending the 4th Amendment

After the Republican House procedurally failed at their first attempt to have the Patriot Act extended, they succeeded and passed it with little debate. The bill now goes to the Senate and begs a very important question. Where is the oversight on this issue? The answer is, there isn’t any oversight. There is fear mongering, like the claim that our country is facing unprecedented threats both at home and abroad. What threats? Where at home? Where abroad?

The Patriot Act is the post-9/11 law created during the Bush/Cheney administration that violates the 4th Amendment’s ban on unreasonable searches and seizures. Its authorization is so broad that the government does not even have to specify the suspect’s name to get a warrant. It authorizes the following:

1. Examination of library and bookstore records of suspects, along with hard drives, tax documents and gun records, without being required to show probable cause

2. Roving wiretaps on a terror suspect without the government specifying the suspect’s name to get a warrant

3. Surveillance of so-called “lone wolf” suspects, permits secret intelligence surveillance of non-US persons who are not affiliated with a foreign organization. Although it has never been used, the Congress seeks to renew it without debate.

Additionally, National Security Letters (NSLs) permit the government to obtain the communication, financial and credit records of anyone deemed relevant to a terrorism investigation even if that person is not suspected of unlawful behavior.

The ACLU also offers a detailed look at how congress and the public “have yet to receive real information about how these [Patriot Act] powerful tools are being used to collect information on Americans.” The ACLU makes it easy for you to contact your Senator. Reasonable suspicion or probable cause before undertaking an investigation that infringes upon a person's privacy is suspended under the Patriot Act, which needs to expire.

The House vote came in and by a margin of 65, approved the Patriot Act extension. As the NY Times reported, “it is likely that the Senate will approve the House’s bill — putting off a larger debate over the provisions until later in the year.”

Or so we hope.

In the Senate, a bill proposed by Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-CA) would extend the provisions for three more years without new safeguards. Another bill by Senator Mitch McConnell (R-KY) would make the provisions I mentioned permanent. Although Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT) offers a bill that would add several safeguards, it also extends the expiring provisions in the Patriot Act through 2013.

Some have argued that it is like the tree falling in the woods with no one around and asking if it makes a sound. The tree’s falling creates a disturbance whether anyone is around to hear it or not. Moreover, the use of such a postulation demonstrates a lack of understanding of the issue, if not ignorance.

If you pardon the reference, the issue is clear cut. First, The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated,” which the Patriot Act allows, especially whether or not a person knows it. Second, “no warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized,” which the Patriot Act authorizes.

Of course many English colonists, perhaps even a majority, asked the same question, “Why get worked up over things that only theoretically threaten liberty?” No one asked you to concern yourself about the “right of the people” or civil liberties at all. The Constitution takes care of that, whether or not you know it.

While many writers are concerned with pontificating about Egypt, a subject vastly beyond their understanding, concern about their own liberties go ignored. To keep our eye on the ball, compromising our constitution affects us more than current events abroad in Africa. Egypt now has no constitution. Its military accomplished that. It is our Bill of Rights that is threatened here at home by our Congress that demands our concern.

The reason for concern is as the American Civil Liberties Union motto states, “Because Freedom Can’t Protect Itself.”

Thursday, February 3, 2011

Landmark or Landmine: Roe v Wade

“I am committed to protecting this constitutional right,” President Obama said in a statement. “I also remain committed to policies, initiatives, and programs that help prevent unintended pregnancies, support pregnant women and mothers, encourage healthy relationships, and promote adoption.” Mr. Obama said the 1973 Supreme Court ruling “affirms a fundamental principle: that government should not intrude on private family matters.”

We’ll see how that commitment works.

The phrase that it “ain’t what you say, it’s the way that you say it” comes to mind whenever I consider landmark Supreme Court decisions, none more so than that of Roe v Wade. Whenever the 38-year-old case comes up, the next words to follow are “that legalized abortion.” Those three words express an often repeated opinion of what the Court ruled when it struck down Texas criminal abortion statutes as “…vague and over broadly infringing the plaintiffs' Ninth and Fourteenth Amendment rights.”

What the ruling says is different than such a “that legalized abortion” modifier. It would be more accurate to say of Roe that “the unborn have never been recognized in the law.” In fact, it is exactly what Justice Harry Blackmun wrote. Roe is not about abortion.

Roe is about the right to privacy which, while not specifically articulated in the Bill of Rights, comes from a previous landmark decision, Griswold v Connecticut. In that 1965 case, the Court identified a constitutionally protected right to privacy, which the Court reasoned prohibited states from denying birth control to married couples. In that case the Court ruled that the Constitution protected a right to privacy by the due process clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.

As the Roe decision declares, “State criminal abortion laws, like those involved here, that except from criminality only a life-saving procedure on the mother's behalf without regard to the stage of her pregnancy and other interests involved violate the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, which protects against state action the right to privacy, including a woman's qualified right to terminate her pregnancy.”

It is not a carte blanche for the termination of pregnancy, however, as Justice Blackmun wrote.We, therefore, conclude that the right of personal privacy includes the abortion decision, but that this right is not unqualified, and must be considered against important state interests in regulation.”

The controversial nature of public opinion relating to abortion and to the Roe decision is polarized. The opposing sides try to be careful with their use of language, as in what they call themselves: Abortionists or Pro-Choice on one side and Anti-Abortionists or Pro-Life on the other. Both sides are highly politicized and their confrontations have a history of violence.

The prevailing view of the Pro-Choice side is characterized by organizations such as the National Abortion Federation. As a “professional association of abortion providers in North America,” the NAF says, “We believe that women should be trusted to make private medical decisions in consultation with their health care providers. NAF currently offers quality training and services to abortion providers and unbiased information and referral services to women.”

The more activist Pro-Life side is characterized by organizations such as the Pro-Life Action League, which organizes and participates in marches, such as the recent one in San Francisco. The League says, “We confront the abortionists and abortion promoters wherever they are. We picket and demonstrate outside abortion facilities, pro-abortion events, the offices of abortion organizations like NOW and Planned Parenthood and even abortionists' houses. We infiltrate their meetings and groups.”

Each side of the abortion issue has a different position on when life begins, at conception or later. It is an argument that has its roots in the 19th Century. But the Roe v Wade decision side steps that debate, leaving it outside of the rule of law.

“Texas urges that, apart from the Fourteenth Amendment, life begins at conception and is present throughout pregnancy, and that, therefore, the State has a compelling interest in protecting that life from and after conception. We need not resolve the difficult question of when life begins. When those trained in the respective disciplines of medicine, philosophy, and theology are unable to arrive at any consensus, the judiciary, at this point in the development of man's knowledge, is not in a position to speculate as to the answer.”

If the debate is outside of the rule of law, it is not outside of the legislation of laws. The American Civil Liberties Union cautions that Congress is trying attempting to legislate around the Roe decision, “making access to abortion services harder to obtain for low-income women.” The ACLU says, “No woman plans to have an abortion, but that is the point of health insurance.” It contends, “That’s why the majority of plans currently include coverage for abortion care. Politicians should not be working to take away coverage that already exists for most women.”

While that may or may not be, the question becomes how legislators will respond to their constituencies and to public opinion. The group Priests for Life president, Father Frank Pavone, asserts that even after 38 years the public still does not understand what the ruling in Roe means.Perhaps it is more accurate to say our nation is beginning to awaken to the fact that Roe’s policy – imposed by a Court rather than voted on by the people’s representatives -- has never represented what the majority of Americans think about abortion.” Perhaps.

So, what is that thinking? Let us turn to Gallup where you too can look at the data. Two years after the 1973 Roe v Wade ruling “gave sweeping constitutional protection to abortion”, Gallup asked Americans to say whether they believe abortion should be "legal under any circumstances," "legal only under certain circumstances," or "illegal in all circumstances."

The survey results said, “In the most recent period, from 2005 to 2009, the majority of all age groups favored the middle "legal only under certain circumstances" position.” Gallup further observed that even though the topic of abortion is a contentious social issue, “in recent years, the generational distinctions have blurred.” Gallup asked about abortion, not about the right to privacy.

Given the mood swing of the country that put a new Republican majority in Congress with its avowed anti-abortion agenda, the President’s right to privacy commitment is either to a Constitutional landmark or to a political landmine.

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Originally published on Blogcritics, January 25, 2011