Welcome to another edition of TWiA, the internet’s best wrap-up of the week’s news, bears, and the just plain cool. Take a gander, check the links, and send in your tips and arguments.
This Week in SCOTUS, Take 1
The Supreme Court ruled this week that since having laws against murder has successfully reduced the murder rate, those laws will be rescinded. In a 5-4 ruling, they announced that they’d like to see if the murder rate stays low, now that murder is no longer illegal.
Okay, no, they didn’t say that. But they might as well have.
Instead, they tore the heart out of the legislation that’s been the underpinning of all civil rights advances in this country for the last 50 years.
In a 5-4 ruling, the court ruled that Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act is unconstitutional. Section 4 is the section that provides the formula that determines where Section 5 applies. Section 5 is the key provision, the one that allows the Justice Department to intervene when certain states—states with a history of voting rights abuses—try to restrict voting rights. The court didn’t say that Section 5 hasn’t worked. They say it worked too well to keep it, that things have gotten so much better that we have to do away with the law that made them better.
That’s me paraphrasing, but not by much. In his majority opinion, Chief Justice Roberts wrote, “There is no doubt that these improvements are in large part because of the Voting Rights Act. The Act has proved immensely successful at redressing racial discrimination and integrating the voting process.”
It’s working, so we’d better dump it. Or, as Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg wrote in her dissent, “Throwing out preclearance when it has worked and is continuing to work to stop discriminatory changes is like throwing away your umbrella in a rainstorm because you are not getting wet.”
Conservatives often like to decry “judicial activism.” There has rarely been a more extreme case of judicial activism than this, yet I don’t hear a lot of complaints from the right.
The fact is, in the run-up to the 2012 election, voting rights were restricted all around the country by Republican legislatures. They usually used the fiction of combating “voter fraud,” but the kinds of restrictions they passed didn’t really address in-person voter fraud (which is what they claimed to be worried about) and in-person voter fraud happens so seldom that it’s not really an issue. What is an issue is eliminating the rights of huge numbers of American citizens to cast their ballots, on the pretense of worrying about the two or three cases in any given state where someone comes to a polling place to cast a ballot to which he’s not entitled.
Don’t get me wrong—I love that people feel so strongly about our democracy that they’ll stand in line for 4 or 6 or 8 hours to vote. But I don’t think anybody should have to stand in line that long to vote, and I especially don’t think someone should be made to stand in that line because some legislators believe—on the basis of their skin color or income level or age—that they will vote in a particular way. And that’s what happened. Around the country, states intentionally made it hard for minorities to vote. For students to vote. For poor people to vote.
Why? Because they’re afraid those people will vote for Democrats.
In some jurisdictions—because of Section 5—the federal government was able to step in and tell the states they couldn’t restrict voting rights. In some, just asking questions was enough to make states back away from their worst impulses.
In other places, jurisdictions not covered by Section 5 because they didn’t have histories of voter disenfranchisement, the federal government could not demand preclearance of those voter restriction efforts.
That’s an argument for extending Section 5, not eliminating it.
The Voting Rights Act is nothing new. It was passed in 1965 to address a serious problem—the continuing discrimination, on racial grounds, against certain sets of voters. We as a nation decided that human beings are human beings—that people with black and brown and yellow skin are still people, and that everyone who is legally entitled to vote should be able to vote. But there were enough places around the country that didn’t agree with that impulse that legal protections had to be put in place. Section 5, requiring preclearance in the places with the worst records, was a key element of those protections. The Voting Rights Act, after this decision, still protects the rights of individuals to vote, but without preclearance, the only remedy for anyone denied that right is a lawsuit. By the time a lawsuit can be filed, much less heard in court, the election under discussion will be long since over.
Standing in line to vote in Florida (Alan Diaz/Associated Press)
During its existence, Section 5 has been upheld by the Supreme Court, and the Voting Rights Act has been renewed by Congress multiple times, most recently in 2006. At that time, Congress held literally dozens of hearings and amassed 15,000 pages of testimony. The renewal passed unanimously through the Senate and 390-33 in the House, and was signed into law by President George W. Bush.
So what’s really going on here? The truth is this. Republicans have only won a single presidential election since 1992 (and one by decision, but even if you give them that, then two since 1992). Demographic changes are making it harder for them to win nationally, and they’re seeing some states that were once solidly red turning purple or drifting toward blue. Their policies are unpopular with the majority of voters, and in the last few cycles they’ve had a technological disadvantage. Since they’re concerned about their ability to win elections, they’ve decided that they’ll have a better chance if they can sculpt the electorate their specifications. If blacks will vote Democratic, make it harder for blacks to vote. And so on. So we’ve seen states and counties passing laws, sometimes blatantly, flagrantly racist, and others disguising the racism under the guise of “voter fraud,” but all designed to limit the ability of the nonpreferred groups to vote. They’ve cut early voting, cut polling place hours, cut the number of polling places in certain areas, passed ridiculous voter ID laws, made it harder to vote by mail, and more. Many of those efforts were blocked, thanks to the preclearance required by Section 5. Others were overcome by voter enthusiasm—the best way to get people to vote, it turns out, is to make voting intentionally difficult.
In the aftermath of the 2012 election, a lot of Republicans seemed to realize that they can’t survive into the future as a whites-only party. There was a lot of lip service given to inclusion, to diversity. But now their court has gutted enforcement of the Voting Rights Act, and states are already announcing their plans to pass new voter-disenfranchising legislation. When they do—and particularly if they manage to kill immigration reform (only 14 Republican senators voted for it)—they will be, for the foreseeable future, the whites-only party their leaders dread. And it’ll be their own fault.
Voting is the most fundamental right in our democracy. Without that—without the ability to choose those who are supposed to represent us—the other rights and freedoms are meaningless. Recent history has shown that there’s no shortage of people willing to restrict the right to vote, that purely racist laws are, sadly, not a relic of the past but are still with us, even enjoying a resurgence.
Congress could still act, and act quickly, to restore Section 4 and therefore protect Section 5. But there are many, especially in the places where voter-restriction laws are popular, who don’t see racial discrimination as a problem, but as a solution to the problem of demographic changes and outdated policies. If we had a functional Congress—if we had two parties that were both dedicated to the idea of governing—something could be done. But we don’t. We have gridlock and obstruction, we have an extremist House whose members are protected by gerrymandering and who answer only to their base, not to party leaders or the general public. Is there any hope that those members will put the interests of all the country—the interests of the very principles on which this country was founded—ahead of their narrow self-interest?
Yeah, that’s what I thought, too.
To his credit, House Majority Leader Eric Cantor (R/VA) said, “My experience with John Lewis in Selma earlier this year was a profound experience that demonstrated the fortitude it took to advance civil rights and ensure equal protection for all. I’m hopeful Congress will put politics aside, as we did on that trip, and find a reasonable path forward that ensures that the sacred obligation of voting in this country remains protected.” Likewise, Representative James Sensenbrenner (R/WI) said, “The Voting Rights Act is vital to America’s commitment to never again permit racial prejudices in the electoral process. Section 5 of the Act was a bipartisan effort to rectify past injustices and ensure minorities’ ability to participate in elections, but the threat of discrimination still exists. I am disappointed by the Court’s ruling, but my colleagues and I will work in a bipartisan fashion to update Section 4 to ensure Section 5 can be properly implemented to protect voting rights, especially for minorities. This is going to take time and will require members from both sides of the aisle to put partisan politics aside and ensure Americans’ most sacred right is protected.” I hope they’re right, and Congress acts quickly for the benefit of all Americans.
(Side Note: In his majority opinion, Chief Justice Roberts never actually explained what part of the Constitution Section 4 supposedly violates. He wrote, essentially, that it was unconstitutional “because it is.” That wasn’t a good argument in second grade, and it still isn’t.)
This Week in SCOTUS, Take 2
After that horrific ruling, the Court redeemed itself a little with its decisions to overturn the Defense of Marriage Act and to kick California’s Prop 8 back to the states. As noted above, the idea upon which the United States was based is that all human beings deserve the same rights. When we abridge the rights of any one group, based upon skin color or gender or what’s in their bank account or who they love, it’s a disservice to that founding ideal. Any law that singles out and hurts one set of Americans hurts us all, because we are all in this together.
(Side Note: Justice Antonin Scalia, to almost nobody’s surprise, disagrees vehemently. But then, his blistering hatred of homosexuality has long been apparent. He might have topped himself this week, though, arguing in the decision that guts the Voting Rights Act that it’s fine for the Court to overturn laws passed by Congress, while in his fiery dissent on DOMA, an entire 24 hours later, arguing that it’s not within the purview of the Court to overturn laws passed by Congress. Little wonder that constitutional law professor Adam Winkler said, a year ago Tuesday, “Scalia has finally jumped the shark. He claims to respect the founding fathers, but his dissent channels the opponents of the Constitution. Back then, opponents argued that the Constitution denied states their sovereignty by giving too much power to the federal government, as with immigration. Now Scalia echoes their complaints that states are being denied their sovereignty. States are not sovereign when it comes to powers vested in Congress, such as the authority over immigration and naturalization.” The only things consistent about Scalia are rank hypocrisy and the fact that he’s the most nakedly political of SCOTUS justices, now and perhaps ever. He just keeps on jumping that shark.)
(Additional note: Bad as Scalia is, according to Esquire’s Charles Pierce--to whom my hat is permanently doffed, because he’s the best writer in the world of political bloggers, bar none—Samuel Alito is the worst of the worst. He might have a point.)
This Week in “Scandal”
Remember the IRS “scandal?” Remember how upset all those people were that the IRS was targeting poor, misunderstood Tea Party groups, and it was probably all President Obama’s way of going after his political enemies?
Didn’t happen. As the New York Times reported this week:
The instructions that Internal Revenue Service officials used to look for applicants seeking tax-exempt status with “Tea Party” and “Patriots” in their titles also included groups whose names included the words “Progressive” and “Occupy,” according to I.R.S. documents released Monday.
The documents appeared to back up contentions by I.R.S. officials and some Democrats that the agency did not intend to single out conservative groups for special scrutiny. Instead, the documents say, officials were trying to use “key word” shortcuts to find overtly political organizations — both liberal and conservative — that were after tax favors by saying they were social welfare organizations.
But the practice appeared to go much farther than that. One such “be on the lookout” list included medical marijuana groups, organizations that were promoting President Obama’s health care law, and applications that dealt “with disputed territories in the Middle East.”
This AP piece suggests that while liberal groups were subjected to the same kind of scrutiny, the difference is that they didn’t whine about it. They’re used to it and they expect it.
So there was apparently no special targeting of conservative groups by the IRS—which doesn’t mean some groups weren’t singled out for attention. Not by the IRS, though; by House Republicans and/or by the inspector general’s office (specifically, by J. Russell George, the George W. Bush appointee who headed it). The IG’s office and the House Republicans are pointing fingers at each other, but the fact is that somebody told the IG to produce a report about how Tea Party groups were being targeted—and to restrict the report to just those groups. Given that direction, it’s not at all surprising that the report seemed to indicate that only those groups received special attention, since the report’s authors were instructed not to look at any other organizations.
Was there a cover-up? Yes, Representative Darrell Issa (R/CA) released cherry-picked segments of committee interview transcripts intended to make it look like the IRS agents were targeting conservative groups at the request of “Washington” (strongly implying White House involvement). A more thorough transcript release showed that to be a lie. Was there a special focus on conservative and Tea Party organizations? Yes, directed either by House Republicans or the IG’s office. Was the White House involved in any way? No. Was there wrongdoing on the part of the IRS? Doesn’t look like it.
(Side note: Jon Chait delivers a eulogy to the whole “Obama scandal” narrative.)
This Week in Leadership
“So the question is not whether we need to act. The overwhelming judgment of science — of chemistry and physics and millions of measurements — has put all that to rest. Ninety-seven percent of scientists, including, by the way, some who originally disputed the data, have now put that to rest. They’ve acknowledged the planet is warming and human activity is contributing to it.
“So the question now is whether we will have the courage to act before it’s too late. And how we answer will have a profound impact on the world that we leave behind not just to you, but to your children and to your grandchildren.
“As a President, as a father, and as an American, I’m here to say we need to act.
“I refuse to condemn your generation and future generations to a planet that’s beyond fixing. And that’s why, today, I’m announcing a new national climate action plan, and I’m here to enlist your generation’s help in keeping the United States of America a leader — a global leader — in the fight against climate change.”
--President Barack Obama, June 25, 2013 (full transcript)
Great speech. But in lack of leadership, the administration’s record on fracking is abysmal. Let’s hope we see some real progress here.
This Week in Math
Last week, House Republicans killed a Farm Bill that their own leadership wanted to pass. This week, representative and former vice presidential candidate Paul Ryan (R/WI) blamed the defeat on Democrats. According to Ryan, “The Democrats promised 40 votes and they didn't deliver the votes that they promised. Our leaders brought the bill to the floor based on the commitment that the Democrats from the agricultural districts made, and then during consideration on the floor, they reneged on the promise. You have to keep your word on whether you're going to vote for … you can't govern that way if people don't keep their word on what they're going to do. I think the Republicans actually produced the votes they said they were going to.”
Originally, 40 Democrats announced support for the bill, although the House version was far more conservative—and devastating to food stamp recipients—than the Senate version. But that was before House Republicans pushed it ever further to the right. The more extreme the bill became, the fewer Democrats could support it. So what Ryan’s claiming as a broken promise was actually a promise made about a very different version of the bill.
Moreover, even if every one of those 40 had voted for it, there were still so many Republican defectors that they couldn’t have passed it. In the end, 24 Democrats voted in favor of the bill. So did 171 Republicans, for a total of 195 votes in favor. If the other 16 Democrats had remained on board, that would have brought the total to 211—still short of the 219 needed for passage.
We here at TwiA World Headquarters realize that math skills aren’t a prerequisite for governing. But maybe Ryan’s fans should stop saying he’s a numbers wonk. Clearly, he’s not.
(Side Note: Ryan was one of the House Republicans who voted against the Farm Bill that he’s now blaming Democrats for killing.)
This Week in Court
So the trial of George Zimmerman for Trayvon Martin’s killing got under way in Florida. Astonishingly, despite Zimmerman’s own words during his interrogation by police, he has not yet been found guilty.
This Week on the Border
Senator John McCain (R/AZ) is excited about the prospects for border security in the immigration bill before the Senate. He says that the border protections the bill offers will make our southern border the “most militarized border since the fall of the Berlin Wall.”
Of course, when he’s in Arizona, McCain lives in a ritzy estate more than a hundred miles from the border. TwiA World Headquarters is 12 miles from the border. We’ve lived in Cold War-era Germany. We choose not to live there now. But McCain’s thrilled to bring Cold War-era Germany to Arizona. Yippee? (Side Note: Whenever McCain gets all exciting about arming this group or that, whether it’s foreign rebels or Border Patrol agents, it’s worth remembering that he’s the single U.S. Senator who’s received the most financial support from the NRA in American history. The NRA loves gun manufacturers, and gun manufacturers love huge bulk orders. McCain apparently knows where his bread is buttered, and he puts a lot more effort into making sure the arms merchants stay healthy than into worrying about the health of the people all those guns are shooting.)
Meanwhile, self-certified ophthalmologist Senator Rand Paul (R/KY) demonstrates that he doesn’t understand the definition of the word “serious.” Too bad for him the bill passed by a big margin, 68-32. Now we’ll have to see how the House moves to kill it.
This Week in Rand Paul’s Brain
Speaking of Senator Paul, he did himself no favors with thinking people when he appeared on Glenn Beck’s show (okay, appearing on Glenn Beck’s show is automatically a mistake, because Beck is a national disgrace all by himself) and, discussing the DOMA ruling, said this: "I think this is the conundrum and gets back to what you were saying in the opening -- whether or not churches should decide this. But it is difficult because if we have no laws on this people take it to one extension further. Does it have to be humans? "
You know, I mean, so there really are, the question is what social mores, can some social mores be part of legislation? Historically we did at the state legislative level, we did allow for some social mores to be part of it. Some of them were said to be for health reasons and otherwise, but I'm kind of with you, I see the thousands-of-year tradition of the nucleus of the family unit. I also see that economically, if you just look without any kind of moral periscope and you say, what is it that is the leading cause of poverty in our country? It's having kids without marriage. The stability of the marriage unit is enormous and we should not just say oh we're punting on it, marriage can be anything."
Just to unpack that a little bit—you don’t want it unpacked all the way, because it’s absolute insanity—Paul’s saying that marriage is good because having kids outside of marriage is a major cause of poverty. No argument from me there. But he jumped to that from an argument that gays and lesbians marrying is bad (so it’s okay if gays and lesbians live in poverty?), because if adult human beings with the ability to reason and to choose their partners and give informed consent can marry, then the logical next step is that people will be able to marry animals.
No, really. He said that. Or maybe I’m presuming too much; maybe he meant people would be able to marry space aliens, or vampires. Or department store mannequins. It’s impossible to say—certainly impossible for anybody sane to say (and, not incidentally, nobody whose native tongue is English would actually say “The stability of the marriage unit is enormous.”)
Sorry, Senator Paul. That’s off the deep end. Not that you’re not comfortable off the deep end. But a sitting US Senator has a responsibility to constituents and country, and that responsibility includes remaining grounded in the real world. Insane conspiracy theories and lunatic mental leaps that include people marrying animals should be the stuff of carnival sideshows, not the “world’s greatest deliberative body.” Paul is either deeply silly, deeply disturbed, or both, but either way he doesn’t belong in a position where he gets to make decisions about other people’s lives.
(Update: Having been called on this by just about every media organization out there, Paul has decided to claim that he was joking, leading to the best headline of the week: Rand Paul mentions non-human marriage while discussing gay marriage, says it was joke. You decide: the audio is here.)
This Week in Statehouses
In Pennsylvania this week, State Representative Brian Sims, an openly gay Democrat, rose on the House floor to discuss how that state would deal with the changes required by the demise of DOMA. But Republican Rep. Daryl Metcalfe silenced him with a parliamentary objection. Why? According to Metcalfe, “I did not believe that as a member of that body that I should allow someone to make comments such as he was preparing to make that ultimately were just open rebellion against what the word of God has said, what God has said and just open rebellion against God's law...For me to allow him to say things that I believe are open rebellion against God are for me to participate in his open rebellion. There's no free speech on the floor.”
And apparently no separation of church and state, either. At least now we know that if we ever need the word of God explained, Metcalfe is the guy to see.
Republican legislators in Texas, meanwhile failed to distinguish themselves this week, except through their advances in time-travel technology. But State Senator Wendy Davis, a Democrat from Fort Worth, showed us all what “fortitude” means when she held an 11-hour filibuster (standing, no food, no water, no bathroom breaks—all while wearing a back brace and pink Mizuno sneakers. (Thanks to TwiA special correspondent Marcy Rockwell).
This Week in Putting the Yahoo in Yahoo
Does Rachel Rose Hartman of Yahoo News still have a journalism job? Does her editor? If so, why?
Somebody want to remind Ms. Hartman that Hawaii is in the United States, not somewhere on the continent of Africa?
This Week in Awesome
Representative Tammy Duckworth (D/IL), an Army helicopter pilot who lost both legs in Iraq (and an arm, but that was reattached), tears into a businessman who scored $500 million in government contracts because he had a small business owned by a “disabled veteran.” His disability? He twisted his ankle playing prep-school football. His service? That prep school. He never wore the uniform, never served for a minute.
In California, love wins.
This Week in Photography
This Week in RIP
We’ve lost one of our best writers, the great Richard Matheson. He mastered every genre he tried, in every medium. His horror novels and his western and his teleplays and his screenplays will live forever, as will the memory of his kindness and good humor. Every writer of genre fiction has been influenced by him and by others he influenced. We’re losing a generation of American originals, including Richard, and his friends Ray Bradbury and Forry Ackerman and others, and the loss is profound and hard-hitting. We will miss you guys, and we love you, and we will ever be appreciative of the gifts you left for us.
This Week in Bears
And in Knoxville, TN, a black bear climbed a 10-foot fence to break into a zoo.