SCOTUS Minimus? Are all blacks entitled to vote in all states?

Memo to those who tend to minimize Supreme Court nominations: They matter! A number of recent 5-4 decisions… bears this out.

Right now the high court is dealing with a challenge to the 1965 Voting Rights Act. Those folks who have been warning for the past decade that the act is in jeopardy now see their worst fears possibly borne out.

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At issue is one central provision of the act, the one that says certain states and municipalities must get federal approval prior to changes in voting procedures. This provision, known as Section 5, applies specifically to a number of southern states that in 1965 had a history of disenfranchising black voters. When Congress reauthorized the Voting Rights Act in 2006, they left the criteria for determining states included in Section 5 intact.

It is this hinge on which those who would gut the act now hang their hats. Make no mistake. It’s entirely possible, even likely this will be yet another 5-4 vote, this time in favor of finding Section 5 unconstitutional.

In questioning Wednesday, even those justices who are leaning toward that position are careful not to minimize the overall positive impact of the act. Instead, justices are asking questions about sovereignty. Is the sovereign dignity of Alabama, covered under Section 5 less than that of Ohio, which isn’t?

The Voting Rights Act was one piece of American legislation that moved this country out of the shadow of its racist legacy. It guaranteed a fundamental right of citizenship to those who were denied it simply because of the color of their skin. While it’s true that great strides have been made, there have been naked efforts over the past few years to erode those very same rights.

Voter ID laws, the abrupt closure of polling sites without proper notice to voters and other attempts at backdoor disenfranchisement still exist.

One wonders if the court will consider whether the federal government has ever abused its power under Section 5. Are there concrete examples of the government tyranny in considering states and cities changes to voting laws? (BTW, parts of New York City fall under Section 5). There is also a bailout provision that some counties in Virginia have already used.

So why gut the Voting Rights Act? Why not leave Section 5 intact, with a strong recommendation that Congress review its provisions with an eye toward updating them periodically? Theoretically, that could happen, but right now it doesn’t appear it will.

What do you think. Post a comment here. Should the Supreme Court blow up the 1965 Voting Rights Act?

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Specter Switches from Repub to Democrat – Principle or Self Preservation?

For a lot of Democrats, it doesn’t matter whether Pennsylvania Senator Arlen Specter became a Democrat for ideological or selfish reasons. Chances are… it was both anyway.

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The long serving Republican maverick has been alienated from his party for quite some time now. The deal breaker was his decision to support President Barack Obama on the stimulus bill. That prompted RNC boss Michael Steele to wonder aloud if such treachery should be followed by a stiff, well funded primary challenge when Specter runs for re-election next year.

No such worries now. Specter has already received assurances from Democratic bigwigs that the party will back him to the hilt next year. President Obama has pledged to campaign for him. And of course, Specter’s switch, the 21st among senators since 1890, now allows him to paint the likely Republican senate nominee, former Rep. Pat Toomey, as too conservative for Pennsylvania voters.

If you do the math, Democrats are now one final court case away from holding a veto proof majority in the Upper House. If, as expected, Al Franken is finally seated as Minnesota’s junior senator, there will be that magic 60 the Obama Administration has doubtless prayed for. There will still be work to be done to get major legislation passed, no doubt. Still, this makes the prospects easier.

It also has daunting implications for the GOP. It removes one of their major talking points, the possibility of using reconciliation to move past possible Republican filibusters. Yet there’s a deeper meaning here. It makes the GOP’s alleged “big tent” look small. It further marginalizes a party that’s already out of power.

There could well be increased calls for Michael Steele’s head, calls that glib, pseudo-hip sound bites won’t quiet. And it all could have been avoided if conservative blowhards in both Congress and the media hadn’t acted as if Specter’s vote on the stimulus bill amounted to some sort of high treason.

So let’s see now. We’re in midweek, and already a powerful Republican senator has jumped ship, and the Senate paid no attention to Sarah Palin fans who vowed to derail Kathleen Sebelius‘ nomination to be Health and Human Services secretary.

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In baseball parlance, that’s oh for two. The GOP echo chamber will doubtless use today’s first 100 days hoopla to pound on Obama and all things Democrat. The real question is, will anyone be paying attention?

Somehow those tea parties seem like a long time ago.

You tell me. Post your comment …here: How important is Arlen Specter’s defection to the Democrats?

Jet Photo-Op Over NYC- What Were They Thinking?

It  was supposed to be a photo opportunity, a 747, one of two used as Air Force One, flying over the Statue of Liberty. Trouble is, a combination of secrecy and New York City’s collective muscle memory turned it into a public relations disaster. For about a half hour after the workday began Monday, that plane, escorted by an F-16 fighter, flew frighteningly low over the city. For many, it was a nightmarish reminder of 9-11.

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Workers poured out of their office buildings. Some lower Manhattan buildings were completely evacuated. Windows reportedly shook in their frames as the planes passed by. And for what? So someone could take a picture of the 747 flying over the Statue of Liberty? Who in the world gave this exercise the green light?

Worse still, the federal government threw a veil of secrecy around the fly-over. Even Mayor Michael Bloomberg wasn’t told by the one member of his staff that was notified (that hapless employee was reprimanded). The Department of Defense and FAA combined to joined forces to keep New Yorkers in the dark about a giant plane, accompanied by a fighter, flying 1500 feet over their heads. What were they thinking would be a charitable question, and one figures Mayor Bloomberg had a more blunt response once he was informed.

Even President Obama is being described as furious when he found out. No, he wasn’t actually on the plane. Of course, this sort of thing makes it look like the left hand doesn’t know what the right hand is doing in his administration. Fly-overs for photo-ops might not look like the best use of the government’s time, what with the economy and swine flu and all.  However, we’re still waiting for an explanation as to why all the cloak and dagger, and why anyone thought this made sense.

In the end, two people ended up falling on their swords. The city official who knew and didn’t tell the mayor is one, the other is the director of the White House military office. Louis Caldera apologized for the whole mess, most likely at the behest of someone in the Obama inner circle.

All that is cold comfort for New Yorkers, especially those who remember a cloudless day almost eight years ago when their city was changed forever.

So you tell me. Does any of this make sense?

Et Tu, Swine Flu?

Thus far, the swine flu outbreak that has killed 103 people in Mexico is described as a “public health emergency of international concern” by the World Health Organization. That means they fear it could create a worldwide pandemic. It’s already spread to the US and several other countries, and with travel being what it is in the 21st century, it could easily become that pandemic the WHO fears.

Here in the US, the largest number of cases, eight, are in New York City. Some countries have quarantined people who have recently returned from Mexico. Several have also banned pork imports from both Mexico and the US. The danger, however, doesn’t just come from eating tainted pork. The flu can spread from human to human, and in the process become harder to treat or fight off. 

There are few people still alive who remember the Spanish flu pandemic of 1918. Reading about it, however, sends chills up your spine. It killed more than 100 million people worldwide, double the number killed during all of World War 1. No one is suggesting the current outbreak will equal those numbers, but it certainly is a cause for concern. Symptoms of swine flu include fever, lethargy, lack of appetite, coughing, runny nose, diarrhea, and vomiting.

Apparently the swine flu outbreak is having an unintended consequence. Financial markets are trending lower in early trading around the world. There are fears if the outbreak turns into a pandemic it can cripple efforts at economic recovery. Some economists are estimating a pandemic could cost the planet $3 trillion dollars and result in a 5% drop in world gross domestic product.

There are, believe it or not, precautions people can take to at least minimize the possibility of exposure to swine flu. Some recommend carrying a surgical mask, and using it while exposed to large numbers of people. Frequent, thorough hand washing is also recommended. 

Right now, swine flu is just starting to enter our collective consciousness here in the US. The number of people affected is relatively small, and even the death toll in Mexico might not alarm us. Yet we need to pay attention. Sickness like this almost always sneaks up on people.

Are you paying attention to swine flu yet?

Admit it…do you watch Jerry Springer?

NB: Boy, did I mess up yesterday. I gave the impression that Obama’s 100th day was today. Actually, it won’t be until next Wednesday. So on top of not keeping track, I can’t even count! Mea Culpa.

So I was thinking the other day about my television viewing habits, and why I watch what I watch. I began this exercise by trying to figure out which stations I watch most frequently. If I’m honest about it, movie channels seem to pop up most often. Not the HBO and Showtime pay variety, but Turner Classic, IFC, and Sundance. TCM shows some really great old stuff, and IFC and Sundance (though they repeat stuff way too many times) also have film fare worth watching. And oh yeah, Sundance is home to my favorite series, Shameless.

I then realized that for someone who follows news closely, I don’t watch a lot of cable news programming. The talk shows and banal and/or infuriating, but even the regular news broadcasts don’t hold my attention. I tend to follow the news arc on computer instead. For some reason it seems faster, even if it’s not.

Then I began to delve into the darker, less logical areas of my TV viewing. What could explain my pathological affection for “The Jerry Springer Show?” Most folks think it’s the dregs of the medium, but I find it wildly hilarious. When I told Jerry on meeting him for the first time I was a fan of his show, he looked at me with pity and said “You have my deepest sympathy.” Then there’s my love/hate relationship with reality television. Most reality shows I won’t watch. From American Idol to Flava of Love to Real Housewives of Wherever, I find most of them to be totally useless.

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Yet a closer examination of what I watch makes me out a hypocrite. I actually have watched more than one episode of Dog the Bounty Hunter. Yeah, I should know better. I also find Manhunters: Fugitive Task Force oddly compelling. After all, those folks are based here in the New York area. And then there’s Cheaters. Trash TV at its worst, yet I’ll still catch it now and then. My wife and daughter, Idol fans both, are quick to point out the contradiction of trying to be high-minded and yet attracted to junk at the same time.

Much as I hate to admit it, they’re right. And never mind sports on the tube. I spend hours on Saturday morning yelling at the footballer on the Fox Soccer Channel, especially if there’s a game on with my favorite team, Arsenal.

Am I the only person whose tv watching doesn’t always match up to my ideals? How about you? Come on, admit it!

Are you overdosing on Obama’s First 100 Days?

Yes, in case you haven’t been paying attention, it’s tomorrow!

Barack Obama’s first 100 days in office…that is.

Is it me, or have we been counting these days since, well, January 20th? Certainly the state of the nation’s economy has contributed to the deep scrutiny of this president’s every move. That, and a cable news netherworld which feeds on little else. We’ve learned so much about Barack Obama and his family it’s a wonder we have time for anything else.

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Barack’s basketball skills, Michelle’s gardening skills, Malia’s fashion sense, Bo the dog, Michele’s clothes, Barack’s smoking habit…we know so much! It’s all been delivered with the same deadly earnest with which news anchors discuss the economy. Maybe we should have expected this, what with the whole first black president thing. Still, shouldn’t we expect more from the media?

One thing is for sure. When it comes to actual policy, Americans and the cable networks might as well be in two different worlds. The faces of hosts like Glenn Beck, Bill O’Reilly, and Sean Hannity are mingled with Republican retreads like Karl Rove, Newt Gingrich, and Dick Cheney to create a near seamless anti-Obamathon.

This is doubtless where their bread is buttered, but the problem with their collective analysis of Obama’s first 100 days (coming tomorrow to a tv near you) is the idea they speak for America.

After all, if they didn’t have Obama to bash, what in the world would they talk about? Oh yeah, I forgot. Carrie Prejean , the Craigslist killer, and Susan Boyle. Mike Lupica of the Daily News ran a column the other day that made a whole lot of sense. Why not just let Obama do his job? Why the constant examination of all things Barack?

To be sure, not all the analysis of the president’s first 100 days will be trivial , nor should it be all positive. Is it too much to ask that it be measured? Probably. Thoughtful? Nah, doesn’t sell. Accurate? That only matters if someone gets caught playing fast and loose with the facts.

How will you handle the coverage of Barack Obama’s first 100 days? I may be an aging cynic, but it’s getting to the point where I’m scared to watch for fear of throwing something at the television. My one comfort? Almost nobody covers a presidents second hundred days like they do the first.

You tell me. Will you overdose on Obama’s first 100 days?

How Should Obama Deal With Torture

As President Obama approaches his first hundred days, the issue of what to do about alleged Bush Administration abuses of various treaties and  conventions on the subject have taken center stage. In a way, it’s sad to see Obama get caught in a quagmire that was not of his own doing. On the other hand, maybe he didn’t handle it as well as he could have.

It certainly made sense to release CIA memos on the torturing of certain “enemy combatants”.

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That’s the sort of fresh air his administration promised to deliver. Yet it was a mistake to seemingly offer blanket immunity to those who oversaw America’s detour into thuggery.

Now that it’s become apparent that “we’re moving on” wasn’t working for the president, there are broad hints from the White House that it might convene a bipartisan commission to investigate possible abuses.

This comes as new reports say  no one had even bothered to look at the history of brutal interrogation techniques like waterboarding before they were approved. Nice work, GW.

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The Obama flip-flop could have been avoided had someone in the new administration lobbied for a truth and reconciliation commission like the one convened in South Africa to probe the abuses of the apartheid system.

Now, after the president told CIA workers just the other day they were home free, he appears to be backtracking. And below it all is the specter of the increasingly vocal yet irrelevant former Vice President Dick Cheney.

He now says Obama should release CIA memos showing the success of waterboarding in wringing actionable intelligence from its victims. This tells us a couple of things.

First, Cheney must have been in the loop on the original decision to torture. Okay, how about he might have actually been the architect? Second, and just as important, this person believes the end justifies the means, that torture is okay if it works.

Leaving aside for the moment the howling of some former CIA officials at Cheney’s claim, he must know that one good turn deserves another.

If the US tortures people, why would any enemy hold back on doing the same to Americans?

But the central issue is this. President Obama must take firm action to assure the world that America rejects the use of torture, and will investigate and bring to justice people in power who think otherwise. How about he starts with Dick Cheney?

What do you think?