Can’t Begrudge Him

26 07 2009

Ta-Nehisi Coates on the President’s more tempered remarks on Friday afteroon:

I really can’t begrudge him–his priority is health-care. Me, on the other hand, I’m pretty exhausted. What follows is the raw. Not much logic. Just some thoughts on how it feels.

I feel pretty stupid for going hard on this, and stupider for defending what Obama won’t really defend himself. I should have left it at one post. Evidently Obama, Crowley and Gates are talking about getting a beer together. I hope they have a grand old time.

The rest of us are left with a country where, by all appearances, officers are well within their rights to arrest you for sassing them. Which is where we started. I can’t explain why, but this is the sort of thing that makes you reflect on your own precarious citizenship. I mean, the end of all of this scares the hell out of me.

I agree.


“Doing that Crack Cocaine Thing”

18 07 2009

In a moment of unexpected yet welcome levity during the Judge Sonia Sotomayor’s confirmation hearings for to replace retiring Supreme Court Justice David Souter, Senator Jeff Sessions made an unprompted comment about correcting one of Congress biggest blunders: enacting a law creating a 100 to 1 disparity in cocaine and crack sentencing.

In an exchange with a noted civil rights advocate he said, ” Senator Leahy and I are talking during these hearings. We’re going to do that crack cocaine thing that you and I have talked about before.” The comment immediately drew laughs and prompted Sessions to explain, “We’re going to reduce the burden of penalties in some of the crack cocaine cases and make them fair.”

All jokes aside this is undoubtedly a good sign. Sen. Sessions was addressing Wade Henderson a noted civil rights advocate, who has been urging Congress to reform the crack cocaine sentencing including mandatory minimums for years. Under federal law, a dealer with 5 grams of crack cocaine on him, which is the size of two sugar packets can get a five year mandatory minimum sentence. By contrast, a cocaine dealer would have to have 500 grams of cocaine, which is more a little more than a pound, to trigger a five year mandatory minimum.  That creates a 100 to 1 disparity in the sentencing for crack and cocaine.

“Equalization of the sentencing ratio for crack and powder cocaine offenses from 100 to 1 to a ratio of 1 to 1 at the current powder cocaine level is the only fair solution,” Henderson told the Senate subcommittee on Crime and Drugs in April of this year. “The time has come to rationalize drug sentencing laws and practices.  The civil rights impact of these criminal justice reforms can no longer be ignored.”

Those sentiments were later echoed by U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder last month. “ This Administration firmly believes that the disparity in crack and powder cocaine sentences is unwarranted, creates a perception of unfairness, and must be eliminated. This change should be addressed in Congress,” Holder said.

According to the Sentencing Project, a criminal justice reform group, the median drug quantity for a crack cocaine street level seller charged in federal court (comprising two-thirds of federal crack defendants) in 2000 was 52 grams, enough to trigger a 10-year mandatory sentence. For powder cocaine, the median quantity for a street level dealer was 340 grams, not enough even to trigger the 5-year sentence, and often a mere slap on the wrist for first time offenders.

But crack and powder cocaine are pharmacological identical substances. In fact, crack is just a hardened form of  powder cocaine often mixed with baking power. But with cocaine users being disproportionately white compared to crack users who are disproportionately black the law with its penalty structures has a huge unfair impact on who goes to prison and who doesn’t and for how long.

Why did Congress do this? And continue to tolerate it? Interestingly enough, it was the reaction to the story of Len Bias‘ death that led to the passage of the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986, which is the law that contains all the stiff penalties. Bias’ death from a cocaine overdose after experimenting it for the first time the night he was drafted by the Boston Celtics shocked Congress into action and really prompted the war on drugs as we know it.

In fact, the law’s mandatory penalties for crack cocaine offenses were the harshest ever adopted for low level drug offenses and established the drastically different penalty structures for crack and powder cocaine. Lawmakers, however, had a poor understanding of the differences between the drug substances and figured that the disparity would lead to jailing actual drug king pins.

Of course, thanks to the Wire and countless other studies, we now know that it the law affects more low level drug dealers, who are easily replaceable as they come in and out of jail, than it does so called king pins, who often rarely see extensive jail time. This has led to an explosion of incarceration rates with notable racial disparities. Between 1994 and 2003, the average time served by African Americans for drug offenses increased by 62 percent, compared to an increase of 17 percent for white drug offenders, says the Sentencing Project.

An independent federal body called the Sentencing Commission, has called for reforming the sentencing structure for more than a decade now, and the Obama administration supports doing so, but its hard to underestimate the fear of being branded as soft on crime for Republican and Democratic elected officials alike, especially for redstate Dems.

That said, the tide does seem to be turning because with increasing support for a 1 to 1 bill in both the House and Senate. And even Sen. Jeff Sessions, a former federal prosecutor in Alabama with less than enlightened views on racial equality, supported a 20 to 1 bill back in 2007.

To be sure, that’s not exactly where the ratio should be, but its certainly an improvement. This is significant because whatever reform bill comes out the Senate will have to go through the Senate committee where Sessions is currently the top Republican. So, when the Alabama Senator said he wants to work with Senate Judiciary Chairman Sen Patrick Leahy about a “doing that crack cocaine thing” its definitely a good sign.

Shepard Smith Condemns Torture

24 04 2009

Just fascinating. Sometimes Shepard Smith just surprises me.

And this:

On Prosecuting Bush’s Team of Torture Lawyers

20 04 2009

From the New York Times Editorial page:

At least Mr. Obama is not following Mr. Bush’s example of showy trials for the small fry — like Lynndie England of Abu Ghraib notoriety. But he has an obligation to pursue what is clear evidence of a government policy sanctioning the torture and abuse of prisoners — in violation of international law and the Constitution.

That investigation should start with the lawyers who wrote these sickening memos, including John Yoo, who now teaches law in California; Steven Bradbury, who was job-hunting when we last heard; and Mr. Bybee, who holds the lifetime seat on the federal appeals court that Mr. Bush rewarded him with.

Few, except the Obama administration itself, would quibble with what the New York Times is advocating. An official investigation followed by prosecution of those who authorized the use of torture should take place. But the question is when and by whom.

After all, President Obama has an ambitious wish list of legislative priorities inspired by the weight of several crises competing for his attention. That means that pursuing a high profile and public investigation into the abuses of person would almost certainly create a Congressional atmosphere so partisan that it would jeopardize his chances of passing a climate change bill, a health care reform bill, overhauling education No Child Left Behind, immigration reform, in addition to dealing with a likely Supreme Court vacancy even as he and his team struggle to nurse an ailing economy.

Of course, this does not preclude Congress itself from conducting its own low profile investigation while encouraging more open source reporting on the matter. Nor does it prevent certain state bar associations from disbarring the very lawyers who used legal fictions to circumvent the law.

In other words, Obama could allow others to make the case for him based on the record provided thus far over the course during the next few years. Over time pressure by certain Bush officials will mount and cause some of them to flip either because of the level of scrutiny involved, their pariah status within their respective fields, or maybe their conscience will eat at them.

That way provided there’s sufficient pressure from Congress and if the public develops an appetite for prosecuting senior Bush officials, which does not quite exist yet, the Obama administration could go in for the easy kill by appointing an independent prosecutor.

At minimum, it could set the stage for the creation of a Commission of Inquiry, as proposed by Chariman of the Senate Judicary Patrick Leahy. Certain individuals intimately involved in the torture regime could cooperate with the commission’s inquiry in exchange for some immunity.

Perhaps it would not satisfy many human rights advocates who want everyone responsible prosecuted now, but it would afford us an opportunity to learn from our mistakes.

Homeland Security Sees Uptick in Hate Group Recuritment

17 04 2009

A Department of Homeland Security report on the rise of right wing hate groups and extremism was leaked this week. The DHS report is called “Rightwing Extremism: Current Economic and Political Climate Fueling Resurgence in Radicalization and Recruitment.”

Unsurprisingly, the report found that the spike in undocumented immigration, the current economic downtown, and the election of the first African American president have spurred their efforts in winning new recruits.

Not exactly news to many of us, but its different when you see this documented by the government.

Of course, much of the controversy surrounding the report has focused on how these groups recruit disgruntled military veterans that find it difficult to readjust to civilian life, but that’s far from the report’s central focus. And anyone who takes time to read it would soon discover that himself.

But even if some civil libertarians and conservatives raising concerns about whether or not the government should be monitoring political beliefs, I think this presents many civil and human rights advocates with an opportunity to to promote greater awareness about the rise of hate crimes and their clear, though often overlooked, relationship to hate speech. That’s not to say we should go out of our way to criminalize intolerant speech, but being vigilante about countering intolerant speech can be critical to reducing hate crimes.

The Local Law Enforcement Hate Crime Prevention Act, which seems like it will be introduced this session of Congress, would provide local authorities with more resources to combat hate crimes and give federal government jurisdiction over processing hate crimes in states where the current law is inadequate.

In my opinion, I think the key findings in the report include:

  • Over the past five years, various rightwing extremists, including militias and white supremacists, have adopted the immigration issue as a call to action, and recruiting tool. Debates over appropriate immigration levels and enforcement policy generally fall within the realm of protected political speech under the First Amendment, but in some cases, anti-immigration or strident pro-enforcement fervor has been directed against specific groups and has the potential to turn violent.
  • In contrast to the early 90s, the advent of the Internet and other information age technologies s has given domestic extremists greater access to information related to bomb-making, weapons training, and tactics, as well as targeting of individuals, organizations, and facilities, potentially making extremist individuals and groups more dangerous and the consequences of their violence more severe.
  • Lone wolves and small terrorist cells embracing violent rightwing extremist ideology are the most dangerous domestic terrorism threat in the United States. Information from law enforcement and nongovernmental organizations indicates lone wolves and small terrorist cells have shown intent—and, in some cases, the capability—to commit violent acts.
  • Most statements by rightwing extremists have been rhetorical, expressing concerns about the election of the first African American president, but stopping short of calls for violent action.
  • Historically, domestic rightwing extremists have feared, predicted, and anticipated a cataclysmic economic collapse in the United States. Conspiracy theories involving declarations of martial law, impending civil strife or racial conflict, suspension of the U.S. Constitution, and the creation of citizen detention camps often incorporate aspects of a failed economy.

Also, see Department of Homeland Secretary Janet Napolitano’s statement on the report here.

Justice Ginsberg on Foreign Law

13 04 2009

From Jefferey Toobin at the New Yorker:

It looks like Harold Koh, President Obama’s nominee for legal adviser at the State Department, may turn out to be the first real confirmation fight in the new Administration. The controversy has been mentioned in a handful of newspapers, but there’s plenty of Internet fire on the anti-Koh, and pro-Koh, side.

The heart of the attack on Koh, who is now the dean of Yale Law School, is that he believes in “transnationalism,” which purportedly is the notion that American courts should honor and apply the laws of other nations in our courts.

I wonder if the so-called controversy over Koh’s transnationalism can be explained away by simply saying that if citing international law is good enough for the Justices on the U.S. Supreme Court, then it should be good enough for a legal adviser to the U.S. State Department. The Court has cited international law, which is not the same as being bound by it, in cases involving gay rights and the death penalty and the sky did not fall, though it did anger the right.

Adam Liptak reported in the NYT on Saturday that Justice Ruth Ginsberg thinks the debate concerning international is sorta ridiculous.

In her remarks, Justice Ginsburg discussed a decision by the Israeli Supreme Court concerning the use of torture to obtain information from people suspected of terrorism.

“The police think that a suspect they have apprehended knows where and when a bomb is going to go off,” she said, describing the question presented in the case. “Can the police use torture to extract that information? And in an eloquent decision by Aharon Barak, then the chief justice of Israel, the court said: ‘Torture? Never.’ ”

The message of the decision, Justice Ginsburg said, was “that we could hand our enemies no greater victory than to come to look like that enemy in our disregard for human dignity.” Then she asked, “Now why should I not read that opinion and be affected by its tremendous persuasive value?”

My sentiments exactly.

Side note: Toobin, apparently has not been following the battles over President Obama’s other executive nominees fight that closely, since he seems to think that Koh would be the first real confirmation fight.
Dawn Johnsen, Obama’s nominee to head the Office of Legal Counsel in the Justice Department, has come under attack from the far right for being a lawyer for NARAL at one point and her unsparing criticism of Bush’s warrantless wiretapping program and use of torture to extract intelligence information from detainees. Republicans are threatening to filibuster her nomination.

Another nominee, Thomas Saenz, was in the pipeline, though never formally announced, to be Obama’s top civil rights enforcer at the Justice Department until the anti-immigrant right sunk his nomination for his work on successfully challenging local ordinances banning day laborers from city streets and of California’s Proposition 187, a 1994 ballot measure that prevented undocumented immigrants from taking advantage of certain social services.

U.S. Runs for Human Rts Council Seat But Durban II Still a No Go

9 04 2009

Last week, the  Obama administration announced it would run for a seat on the U.N. Human Rights Council in the next round of elections, a body that President Bush avoided and ignored.

In a press statement, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations Susan Rice referred to a need “for the Council to be balanced and credible” an explained that the U.S. is running for a the open seat because “we believe that working from within, we can make the council a more effective forum to promote and protect human rights. We hope to work in partnership with many countries to achieve a more effective Council.”

Throughout the Bush years, U.N.-U.S. relations were always frosty to put it mildly.  Bush hardly felt comfortable around liberal internationalists of the American variety much less those from other countries steeped in global affairs. But his hostility toward the U.N. only hardened in the run up to the Iraq war where he failed to amass support for the March 2003 invasion. As early as the August 2003, President Bush alienated potential U.N. involvement in the creation of an Iraqi central government.

Of course, Dubya and company soon changed their minds once the Iraqi insurgency got going and the U.S. military found itself lacking the knowledge and skills for diffusing a post-conflict situation already cultivated by the U.N. peacekeeping and diplomatic corp.

But such a change of heart even if it was for out of desperation never extended to the Council, given how it was populated by some of the worse human rights abusers such as Sudan, Libya, and Cuba, who were eager to pass resolutions condemning Israel while also blocking scrutiny of treatment of their own citizens. To be fair, this is a problem that has vexed some of the most clear-eyed supporters of the U.N.

The legacy of that sort of politicization of the Council’s mission remains a huge problem even after the round of reforms in 2006, which dissolved the Human Rights Commission that was established in 1946.  The 06 reforms also nearly assured representation from some of the most repressive governments by allotting seats seats to countries based on regional blocs as opposed to a record of improvement.

That’s enough for critics of the Council, particularly Rice’s neoconservative predecessor John Bolton, believe the rights body is too fatally flawed and ineffective to warrant participation from the U.S. Never one to mince words former Ambassador Bolton reportedly told the New York Times, “You don’t show up at every ragtag little organization that comes into existence”.


Though its easy to dismiss Bolton’s criticism as shortsighted and irascible, it does evince a certain view of American power that still persists today in some quarters. The prestige of American power should not be diminished by engaging flawed institutions that provide cover to our adversaries. The world is against the U.S. and we must assert our influence whenever possible to ensure its power is preserved at worst and extended at best.

But hasn’t Bolton been paying attention? Our standing in the world has diminished as a result of human rights abuses during the Bush era. Torturing prisoners at Abu Ghraib and at Gitmo has done more to aid America’s detractors looking to deflect attention from their own human rights record as their criticize the U.S. and do so effectively.  One of the ways to counter these charges is to join the Human Rights Council and make sure that a proper comparison is made between the U.S and other countries on the Council, including the Sudans, Cubas, and Libyas of the world.

That said, the Obama administration is not going to participate in any U.N. forum even if it is human rights related. Consider U.N.’s upcoming conference on racism otherwise known as Durban II. The administration still won’t participate in it even though the latest agenda, or the outcome document, has been purged of nearly all of the things that it said it could not accept namely, references to reparations, strong criticisms of Israel, and severe limitations on freedom of expression.

Perhaps some may think that the U.S. sought to run for the Council seat as a way to placate critics for not participating in Durban II, but that’s a cynical misreading of the situation. As early as late January the administration was pondering joining the Human Rights Council.

The administration really fears that the whole affair will deteriorate into an anti-Israeli and anti-Western hate fest led by certain countries within the Organization of Islamic Conference. Its not an altogether irrational fear, but a very compelling one nonetheless.

Joining the Human Rights Council is a step in the right direction in overcoming that fear.