Tuesday, October 29, 2013

The Gentlemen of the House

Imagine a politician who valued compromise over controversy, whose candor was refreshing and never nasty. Imagine a politician who worked effortlessly with his own party and the opposition party. Now, imagine that politician is the Speaker of the House of Representatives. It may seem a distant memory given the recent turmoil in Washington, D.C., but two decades ago the tenure of one such Speaker of the House came to a close and with it the existence of compromise.

That politician was former Speaker of the House Tom Foley (D-Washington).

Imagine a politician that opposed abortion rights, was an adamant supporter of the Second Amendment and actually voted against President Obama's chief legislative achievement while still losing his seat in the next election. All of this as a member of the Democratic Party. Imagine a politician whose legacy will forever be his dedication to the men and women who serve this nation in uniform and his chairmanship of the House Armed Services Committee as this country took a new direction in two wars.

That politician was former Congressman Ike Skelton (D-Missouri).

In the last two weeks this country lost two dedicated public servants who truly put their love of country and their belief that they were making decisions in her best interest above all else. Both men put that belief above partisanship, reaching across the aisle to work with colleagues who may not have shared their ideology, but shared their dedication to the greater good.

Over the last several weeks we have had a front row seat to a dysfunction in Congress that brought this country to the brink of breaching the debt ceiling and shutdown the government over established law that a small minority believed should be halted. Whether Tom Foley or Ike Skelton would have made the difference in the brokered deal or even in the days leading up to the shutdown itself we will never know. But as hard as it is to imagine politicians like Foley and Skelton, it is even harder to imagine that this nation wouldn't be better with more like them serving it.

Approaching the Anniversary: 'The Weekend America Lost Its Innocence'

This weekend on Face the Nation, Bob Scieffer spoke about being one of the few remaining newsmen who covered the Kennedy assassination and what the assassination meant for America. It was a powerful commentary and one everyone should take a few minutes to view.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

11 Years in the Making: The Case of Freddie Hall

Editor's Note: For legal purposes, the Court refers to those with mental disabilities as mentally retarded. My distaste for a word that is used too often as an epithet has resulted in me referring to Mr. Hall as mentally disabled and other inmates in similar cases as such.

Freddie Hall is sitting on Florida's
death row for the kidnapping
& murder of a store clerk in 1978.
It was announced last week that the United States Supreme Court will hear the case Hall v. Florida during the winter session and a decision could come in early summer. Hall's case hinges on whether the states can rely on a single, simply IQ test for determination of mental disability. The court decided in 2002's Atkins v. Virginia that it is unconstitutional to execute the mentally disabled and in 1986's Coker v. Virginia that it is unconstitutional to execute the mentally ill or insane.

It has been an issue since 2002 when the Court ruled in Atkins how the states would determine whether an inmate was disabled. Many have relied on a single IQ test and a threshold of a 70 point IQ to decide whether or not an inmate may be executed. 

 Andrew Cohen wrote in The Atlantic how overdue the hearing of this issue is:
"For over a decade, especially in the South, those rules have been manipulated by local officials and judges in ways that undermine the Court's 2002 landmark ruling in Atkins v. Virginiawhich banned the execution of the mentally disabled—but permitted states to define for themselves that loaded term."
Freddie Hall's case is not unique. It seems every month there is a new case that comes to my attention that regards an inmate awaiting execution who is challenging the constitutionality of their execution based on mental competence. The last case I noted was that of Warren Hill.

That there can be states that define mental disability in a way that is different than their bordering neighbors is ludicrous. That some states like my own can have no route for a defendant to plead guilty by reason of insanity makes it equally frustrating for those of us who believe that justice is blind and, at its core, equal. Unfortunately, we have seen far too often in the history of this country that justice is not equal whether it be from county to county or state to state.

Coinciding with the decision by the Court to hear this decision, I happened to pick up a copy of A Wild Justice: The Death and Resurrection of Capital Punishment in America by Evan J. Mandery (Norton, 2013). It was eye opening in its portrayal of how the justices came to the decision that reinstated the death penalty in the states in 1976. 

Wild Justice addressed the decision in Tison v. Arizona, a 1987 decision that concluded, "that the death penalty could be appropriate for participants in felonies who didn't kill if they nevertheless displayed reckless indifference to human life." This, of course, followed a distinct line from Coker v. Virginia, a 1986 decision that laid the groundwork for the Eighth Amendment argument that executing the mentally disabled could be deemed unconstitutional and indeed, the 2002 ruling in Atkins v. Virginia established just that. I anticipate all three cases will be cited ad nauseam in whatever decision the Court comes to in Hall v. Florida.

Where Cohen, Madery, SCOTUSblog and I all agree is that addressing the underlying issue in Hall v. Florida is long overdue. Unfortunately, the overall issue of capital punishment is not to be addressed by the Court anytime soon. I say unfortunately, not only as someone who opposes the death penalty, but as someone who believes what Justice Antonin Scalia said about the decision to return to the process: "The decision of the constitutionality of capital punishment boiled down to the feelings and intuitions of the justices (p. 460)."

Mandery elaborates more on this in the book, a book a highly recommend to anyone interested in moral justice and the history of the Court on this topic:
"Finally, what if the constitutionality of the death penalty could have been decided by each justice at the end of his life, with the benefit of his full collected wisdom? Almost certainly history would have been changed, for three of the men who decided the 1976 capital cases, including two members of the notorious troika, later changed their views on capital punishment (p. 433)."
We can only hope that when the Court hears Hall v. Florida, they will think seriously about case law and the responsibility we have as moral human beings and not about any ideology, political viewpoint or unsubstantiated feeling. There is room for intuition in Court rulings, but that intuition must be supported by case law and, in this particular case, the meaning of the Eighth Amendment.

As Cohen wrote, "too late for those already dead, perhaps in time for those still living."

For more on Freddie Hall's case, you can visit the Commission on Capital Cases here. Unfortunately, in 2011 the Florida Legislature voted to no longer fund the Commission, but the page exists as an historical reference.

Rest in Peace, Lou Reed

 It isn't very often I use the term "musical genius," but with the passing of Lou Reed it is required. His songwriting remains some of the best I have heard in my life. His gift was and will forever be a huge gain for the musical history of this country. Lou Reed was 71.

Thursday, October 24, 2013


Monday, October 21, 2013

Return to 'the Ranch'

What would provoke the editor of one of the state's more read newspapers to write, "I was scared. Knot-in-the-stomach scared"? A visit to Zeb Bell's "Zeb at the Ranch" radio show. But the bigger question is, what would provoke this editor to write what amounts to a puff piece that writes off the underlying vigilantism, hatred, talk of violence and bigotry of Zeb Bell?

When I read Autumn Agar's "From the Editor: Times-News at the Ranch," I was taken back to the year in which the editor of The MountainGoat Report and myself devoted our time to following Zeb Bell's radio show. We chronicled some of the most disturbing issues and comments to arise on the show and came to the ultimate conclusion that the hatred spewing from the microphone of Zeb Bell and his guests is harmful to Idaho, both the residents who hear the show and the reputation of the state as a whole.

Unfortunately, the piece in the Times-News is nothing more than a puff piece. It talks of Zeb Bell's guests as if they're a likable bunch that occasionally say something outlandish that is uncomfortably funny. Agar noted the caller who told Zeb he should have a baseball bat ready when the folks from the Times-News showed up. 

Agar wrote about the baseball bat threat:
"Did I think Zeb was going to hit me with a baseball bat? No. But there was something in that woman’s voice. She hated us. I was afraid I was going to learn something about how people in the Magic Valley really felt. I was afraid the curtain would be pulled back and I would never be able to forget what I saw."
Ms. Agar would close the piece by returning to the baseball bat: "The hour ended. The baseball bat never came out."

This would be a cute anecdote if it weren't for the history of violence, real and imagined, displayed by Zeb's guests, the callers and Zeb himself. Back in February of 2009, the case of Roger Barnett made news and Zeb and his callers were particularly adamant in their support of Barnett's history of detaining people illegally who crossed his property on our southern border. Those detained were always Latinos, always accused of being in this country illegally and were always treated harshly. I remember clearly the conversation that day between Zeb and a caller. The caller said that if an illegal immigrant were cutting his fence, the second day it happened the authorities would be picking up bodies on the other side of his fence. It wasn't the first time I'd heard Zeb's callers speak this way and it certainly wasn't the last.

Even more disturbing is an event that actually occurred on Zeb's ranch in Murtaugh. Zeb spoke of the incident candidly and with a degree of pride. You see, it isn't just talk of violence and the simmering hatred threatening to boil over that makes "Zeb at the Ranch" threatening and dangerous, it's the man behind the microphone, his own behavior and the behavior he condones. On one of his shows, Zeb went into great detail about holding a Hispanic man at gunpoint on his ranch after the man had run into a fence on Zeb's property. You can listen to the entire story as told by Bell here, but the gist of the story is this: Zeb approached the man who ran into the fence finding him slumped in the front seat and rather than offering the man help, Zeb held a gun on the man and even went so far as firing a shot. Zeb bragged about the incident on the airwaves. Airwaves that reach as far as Pocatello and Bliss and can be heard around the world online every Monday through Thursday morning.

When the folks from the Times-News ended their visit at Zeb's place, they said "they had a blast." Ms. Agar wrote almost glowingly about Zeb's expertise and interest in the issue of wolves in Idaho. What wasn't said is that the show is anti-gay, anti-immigration, racist. bigoted, and vile. And, to the dismay of this Idahoan and others, it is visited and supported by members of our congressional delegation including Mike Crapo and Jim Risch, various Idaho legislators, the former Idahoan and certifiable wingnut Bryan Fischer of the American Family Association, and even the Idaho State Police.

It is unfortunate and perhaps self-serving that the participants from the Times-News didn't note any of the above mentioned issues with "Zeb at the Ranch." It's hard to believe that this is the same paper that once gave Gary Eller a platform where he spoke about the insane and danger-laced tirades of Zeb and the Magic Valley callers who truly believe every bit of filth that emanates from Zeb's microphone. 

Sure, Zeb and many of his listeners refer to the paper as a "liberal rag" and its employees as the "lamestream media," but isn't it the media's job to show both sides of the coin? Where is the other side? They mention the caller who suggested the baseball bat, but only as a joke, really. Is that self-serving or just irresponsible? 

Saturday, October 19, 2013

Stallings: 'Failure of Citizen Government'

Editor's Note: It is with great pleasure that I share a recent op-ed by former Congressman Richard H. Stallings. In the interest of fairness, I must tell you that Stallings is a dear friend of mine and that I spent four years processing his congressional papers at Idaho State University. -Tara

Failure of Citizen Government

By Former U.S. Rep. Richard Stallings

This nation, and even the world, has witnessed the humiliating debacle of the United States Congress using a self inflicted wound to make fools of themselves and to damage the image and standing the United States Government; in a doomed effort to change a law (Obamacare) that was enacted into law, signed by the President and approved by a conservative Supreme Court. In effect, a handful of radicals drove the entire Republican Party into a ridiculous attempt to ignore the results of the 2012 election and pursue a policy that has hurt millions of Americans and did irreparable damage to their own brand.

I had the great honor of representing our state in the United States House of Representatives for eight years (1985-1993). My terms bridged two Republican Presidents (Reagan and Bush) and, while I disagreed with many of their ideas, I had great respect for both of them and did what I could to support them. We, Democrats, held majorities in House of Representatives but we never considered holding the nation hostage to further our own ends or to harm the President. A recession during the Reagan years damaged his public support but the thought of damaging the economy to further weaken his administration never entered our minds. Instead we worked with him to provide jobs and to help those of our fellow Americans who were suffering.

As we reflect on the debacle that seems to have ended, at least for now, we can’t take any pride in the efforts of Idaho’s delegation. Our two Congressmen seemed to have played slightly different roles as Rep. Labrador embraced the most radical elements of the Tea Party and was willing to damage the “full faith and credit” of the United States and impose long lasting pain on his constituents. Congressman Simpson, while sounding a bit more moderate, did little to mitigate the damage a minority of his party was imposing on Idaho and the nation. Perhaps it was the fear of his Republican challenger that silenced him but when thousands of INL workers, government contractors, and other federal employees, were hurting, his silence spoke volumes.

As to our Senators, they were not to be found. They released statements blaming the President for the government shutdown and Risch made campaign stops blaming the president using half-truths and distortions to make his point. The bottom line is that neither of these politicians will ever be considered for a chapter, or a mention, in the next volume of “Profiles in Courage”. In fact I believe neither will leave a legacy that future political aspirants will wish to emulate. I think the government spectacle we have witnessed has done great damage to the image of the Congress of the United States and polls that show that hemorrhoids have a better poll number than our Congress people seems to bear this out. Polls show that, even in Idaho, citizens are disgusted with Congress.

When the Senate brokered a deal to end the crisis, and the House of Representatives, without a majority of Republicans, agreed to the proposal we avoided a calamity that would have done great damaged our economy and rocked the financial markets worldwide.

As we assess the damage of this irresponsible action perpetrated by small number of radicals we have to ask what was accomplished. The estimated cost of $24 billion of lost productivity as well as the billions of dollars Congress approved to pay the wages of nearly a million furloughed workers is more than we have spent on many of our national disasters. And the cost to families and communities that were impacted by this foolish shutdown is nearly impossible to determine.

The tragedy is that nothing but pain was accomplished. While the Republicans suffered the greatest loss, all members of both Houses were damaged, as was the President. Our nation’s reputation was hurt and our international enemies were gleeful by our incompetent display. We Idahoans can take little consolation in the actions of our Congressional delegation. One, Mr. Labrador was one of the instigators of this mess and our two Senators did nothing to help the situation and when the Senate voted to end the mess the joined their radical colleagues and voted to continue the crisis. One member, Congressman Simpson, showed some courage and voted with a minority of his Party to re-open the government. Thomas Jefferson said that people get the government they deserve. It pains me but I believe he was correct.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

'Opposition Without Alternatives'

Fifty years ago next month, President Kennedy was set to deliver these remarks at the Trade Mart in Dallas. His remarks were meant for the leadership of a city embroiled in contention and divisiveness. They seem particularly fitting after the past two weeks in Washington, D.C. and on the eve of the government reopening.
"In a world of complex and continuing problems, in a world full of frustrations and irritations, America's leadership must be guided by the lights of learning and reason or else those who confuse rhetoric with reality and the plausible with the possible will gain the popular ascendancy with their seemingly swift and simple solutions to every world problem.

"There will always be dissident voices heard in the land, expressing opposition without alternatives, finding fault but never favor, perceiving gloom on every side and seeking influence without responsibility. Those voices are inevitable.

"But today other voices are heard in the land--voices preaching doctrines wholly unrelated to reality, wholly unsuited to the sixties, doctrines which apparently assume that words will suffice without weapons, that vituperation is as good as victory and that peace is a sign of weakness. At a time when the national debt is steadily being reduced in terms of its burden on our economy, they see that debt as the greatest single threat to our security. At a time when we are steadily reducing the number of Federal employees serving every thousand citizens, they fear those supposed hordes of civil servants far more than the actual hordes of opposing armies.

"We cannot expect that everyone, to use the phrase of a decade ago, will "talk sense to the American people." But we can hope that fewer people will listen to nonsense. And the notion that this Nation is headed for defeat through deficit, or that strength is but a matter of slogans, is nothing but just plain nonsense."
Unfortunately, Kennedy never delivered these remarks, due in part to his message being lost on some in the Dallas community.

Friday, October 11, 2013

Approaching the Anniversary

It may not have come to the attention of too many politicos until the possibility of the next debt ceiling deadline falling on it was floated yesterday, but among historians the approaching anniversary of the assassination of the 35th President of the United States has not gone unnoticed. The anniversary will certainly be noted on this blog. Until then, here are a few links to items that have been published in the last few weeks in the lead up to one of the darker anniversaries in our nation's history.
A note on the final link. Unfortunately, CableONE viewers in Idaho will be unable to watch the commemoration on Turner Classic Movies barring a contract reached between the cable provider and Turner Broadcasting Inc.

Sunday, October 6, 2013

From Absurdity to Asshattery

There appears to be a heightened bit of absurdity on the interwebs this evening as the nation prepares for another week of all-out war in the nation's capital over whether the government should be open, the signature piece of policy enacted by the current administration should stand and the people's representatives should raise the debt ceiling. This particular evening there are three items floating around out there in the world where reality and fiction seem to co-exist that are worth noting.

First, Justice Antonin Scalia, thankfully not a part of the whether the government is open or the debt ceiling is raised, has given an interview on the eve of the fall session of the Supreme Court. In it, he says some of the more insane things we have heard from him. Of his more insane points are these: "Words have meaning. And their meaning doesn’t change." He has friends he "very much suspects" are gay. And, profanity and nudity is overused in television and movies except for when it is essential to the plot.

Just let all of that sink in for a minute. Ready? The meaning of words don't change? Really? Of course, by saying this is he really saying that the words of the Constitution don't change. Forget slavery and all that, right? Forget segregation and Jim Crow. The meaning of words doesn't change. Right. What kind of friend "very much suspects" that his friend is gay and says so like this? There are so many questions I have about this statement and not a single one of them will give me any better idea of what Scalia thinks of his friends than if he had said "some of my best friends are gay (or black, liberal, etc.)."

Next, much has been said about the motives of the Tea Party contingent of the U.S. House of Representatives in their successful effort to shut down the government. There is no question that this was part of their plan since being elected in 2010. However, if you want to read a piece that will infuriate you, check out what the Boston Globe has out today on the planning of this government shutdown. Yes, the planning. They were planning this for years and especially since Obama's re-election.

Last, but not least, take a deep breath before you read this: Rep. Ted Yoho (R-Florida) says that refusing to raise the debt ceiling will, and I quote exactly, "bring stability to the world markets." Yoho's sentiment, one that likely isn't unique to just him, is as startling as it is stupid. Consider how dangerous listening to this sentiment would be to the U.S. economy and yes, even those world markets Yoho claims would be brought into balance.

How is it that all of these people are in a position of leadership? How is it that these people with their radical, absurd ideas are actually asked for their opinion? It's no wonder the government is currently closed, the debt ceiling threatens to completely upend the recovery this country has been seeing in recent years and, well, the Supreme Court continues to make some of the worst rulings in its history. There have got to be wiser heads out there that will prevail. Right?

Friday, October 4, 2013

TGIF Tunes

Cary Brothers and Garrison Starr with "Disappear."