Taking care of each other

September 5, 2017

Americans have been celebrating the reaction to Hurricane Harvey as an example of Americans taking care of each other. There is much to celebrate. But we have also wrestled for centuries with the problem of taking care of each other – the out of work, the working poor and others struggling to stay afloat.

An economic reversal in the lives of many of us is just temporary. But it does permanent damage when it unravels peoples’ lives, leaves them with debts that spiral out of control so that they cannot hope to pay, or leaves them homeless, in broken families, or housed in barred cells. When people have little, events that would be a minor inconvenience for most of us can drop them over the cliff, unable to climb back. As the Founders recognized, all of us can expect some of our offspring to be poor. So what are the options?

Welfare has been cut back but some pieces of a social safety net remain, mostly funded by the federal government. One reason they are funded nationally is because some local governments don’t want to do anything about the problems of poverty. Another reason is that the problems fall unevenly on local governments. The process of creating suburbs and new communities is a process of seceding from the places where people have problems and therefore avoiding any responsibility under our laws about local government. By shifting the obligations upward to the feds we all share those problems at least to some degree.

We could provide jobs. Instead of just giving things and money out, we could take advantage of the time, labor and skills of people who are otherwise out of work, to get some useful things done. But the city can’t save the money that goes into the social safety net because that money isn’t city money. Albany’s Mayor Sheehan pointed that out at a house party before she was first elected. Fair point. But turning welfare money over to localities would invite them to divert the cash. Some form of cooperative federalism might be better for everyone.

Public services for everyone are also an option. We have created many sorts of services that all of us have rights to. Clean water fit to drink is a lot cheaper for everyone than buying it in bottles – provided that government isn’t asleep at the switch and doesn’t let the water supply fill with lead and other poisons. Sewage systems make everyone better off than a crazy quilt of individual efforts to deal with garbage, their own and their neighbors. And it saves a lot of money both because of economies of scale and because sewage can breed disease for all of us. Roads, bridges, sidewalks, other transportation amenities, libraries, postal services and regulated public utilities like phone and electrical service make life better for everyone. And all of them make life cheaper which is especially important for the impoverished.

In other words, making some things available for all of is good for us all and are also ways of helping the least among us. That used to be true of the health care system until we privatized it, demolished the many county, municipal and not-for-profit hospitals, only to try to restore some of the benefits of a public health system with Obamacare.

Republicans call measures like that socialism. I just call it smart, efficient and decent – Americans taking care of each other.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, September 5, 2017.

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Sotomayor’s dissent in Utah v. Strieff, Part II

September 6, 2016

Last time I read a portion of a dissent by Justice Sotomayor.[1] The Supreme Court of Utah had held that the Utah police had violated the defendant’s constitutional rights. The United States Supreme Court overruled that decision. In the portion of her opinion I read you last time, Justice Sotomayor explained what happens, not always, but what often happens when police stop people. And she explained what the Supreme Court authorizes police to do. Justice Sotomayor explained the ways that stops of people regardless of innocence of any crime, let alone any crime deserving jail time, can injure decent citizens. I didn’t have time to read you the last part of her opinion, so I will read it now:

This case involves a suspicionless stop, one in which the officer initiated this chain of events without justification. As the Justice Department notes,[2] many innocent people are subjected to the humiliations of these unconstitutional searches. The white defendant in this case shows that anyone’s dignity can be violated in this manner.[3] But it is no secret that people of color are disproportionate victims of this type of scrutiny.[4] For generations, black and brown parents have given their children “the talk”—instructing them never to run down the street; always keep your hands where they can be seen; do not even think of talking back to a stranger—all out of fear of how an officer with a gun will react to them.[5]

By legitimizing the conduct that produces this double consciousness, this case tells everyone, white and black, guilty and innocent, that an officer can verify your legal status at any time. It says that your body is subject to invasion while courts excuse the violation of your rights. It implies that you are not a citizen of a democracy but the subject of a carceral state, just waiting to be cataloged.

We must not pretend that the countless people who are routinely targeted by police are “isolated.” They are the canaries in the coal mine whose deaths, civil and literal, warn us that no one can breathe in this atmosphere.[6] They are the ones who recognize that unlawful police stops corrode all our civil liberties and threaten all our lives. Until their voices matter too, our justice system will continue to be anything but.

***

I dissent.

Justice Sotomayor was born in New York City to parents from Puerto Rico. After compiling stellar records at Princeton and Yale Law School, she became a prosecutor, eventually going into private practice. She spent six years as a federal judge, another decade as a federal appellate judge, and joined the Supreme Court in 2009. She writes from every angle of the criminal justice system, as an experienced prosecutor, attorney, member of the community, and judge. Her citations are to decisions of the United States Supreme Court. Before she left the Court, Justice O’Connor wrote a stinging dissent to one of the decisions Justice Sotomayor cites.[7] She was coming to understand the enormity of what the Court has authorized. But this is the Court we have. Is this the Court we want?

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, September 6, 2016.

[1] Utah v. Strieff, 136 S. Ct. 2056, 2069-71 (2016) (Sotomayor, J., dissenting).

[2] [Dept. of Justice, Civil Rights Div., Investigation of the Newark Police Department 8, 19, n. 15  [2069]  (2014), online at https://www.justice.gov/sites /default/files/crt/legacy/2014/07/22/newark_findings_7-22-14.pdf.] at 8,

[3] See M. Gottschalk, Caught 119-138 (2015).

[4] See M. Alexander, The New Jim Crow 95-136 (2010).

[5] See, e.g., W. E. B. Du Bois, The Souls of Black Folk (1903); J. Baldwin, The Fire Next Time (1963); T. Coates, Between the World and Me (2015).

[6] See L. Guinier & G. Torres, The Miner’s Canary 274-283 (2002).

[7] Atwater v. Lago Vista, 532 U. S. 318, 360 (2001) (O’Connor, J., dissenting).


Sotomayor’s dissent in Utah v. Strieff, Part I

August 31, 2016

I want to read you a portion of a recent dissent by Justice Sonia Sotomayor in which she explains what I think many do not understand about what happens when police stop people on the street.[1] I will skip her citations but you can read them on the website. She wrote the last part of her dissent for herself alone. I think it is well worth your hearing that portion of her dissent in Justice Sotomayor’s own words:

Writing only for myself, and drawing on my professional experiences, I would add that unlawful “stops” have severe consequences much greater than the inconvenience suggested by the name. This Court has given officers an array of instruments to probe and examine you. When we condone officers’ use of these devices without adequate cause, we give them reason to target pedestrians in an arbitrary manner. We also risk treating members of our communities as second-class citizens.

Although many Americans have been stopped for speeding or jaywalking, few may realize how degrading a stop can be when the officer is looking for more. This Court has allowed an officer to stop you for whatever reason he wants—so long as he can point to a pretextual justification after the fact.[2] That justification must provide specific reasons why the officer suspected you were breaking the law,[3] but it may factor in your ethnicity,[4] where you live,[5] what you were wearing,[6] and how you behaved.[7] The officer does not even need to know which law you might have broken so long as he can later point to any possible infraction—even one that is minor, unrelated, or ambiguous.[8]

The indignity of the stop is not limited to an officer telling you that you look like a criminal.[9] The officer may next ask for your “consent” to inspect your bag or purse without telling you that you can decline.[10] Regardless of your answer, he may order you to stand “helpless, perhaps facing a wall with [your] hands raised.”[11] If the officer thinks you might be dangerous, he may then “frisk” you for weapons. This involves more than just a pat down. As onlookers pass by, the officer may “‘feel with sensitive fingers every portion of [your] body. A thorough search [may] be made of [your] arms and armpits, waistline and back, the groin and area about the testicles, and entire surface of the legs down to the feet.’”[12]

The officer’s control over you does not end with the stop. If the officer chooses, he may handcuff you and take you to jail for doing nothing more than speeding, jaywalking, or “driving [your] pickup truck . . . with [your] 3-year-old son and 5-year-old daughter . . . without [your] seatbelt fastened.”[13] At the jail, he can fingerprint you, swab DNA from the inside of your mouth, and force you to “shower with a delousing agent” while you “lift [your] tongue, hold out [your] arms, turn around, and lift [your] genitals.”[14] Even if you are innocent, you will now join the 65 million Americans with an arrest record and experience the “civil death” of discrimination by employers, landlords, and whoever else conducts a background check.[15] And, of course, if you fail to pay bail or appear for court, a judge will issue a warrant to render you “arrestable on sight” in the future.[16]

More next time.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, August 30, 2016.

[1] Utah v. Strieff, 136 S. Ct. 2056, 2069-71 (2016) (Sotomayor, J., dissenting).

[2] Whren v. United States, 517 U. S. 806, 813 (1996).

[3] Terry v. Ohio, 392 U. S. 1, at 21 (1968).

[4] United States v. Brignoni-Ponce, 422 U. S. 873, 886-887 (1975).

[5] Adams v. Williams, 407 U. S. 143, 147 (1972).

[6] United States v. Sokolow, 490 U. S. 1, 4-5 (1989).

[7] Illinois v. Wardlow, 528 U. S. 119, 124-125 (2000).

[8] Devenpeck v. Alford,  [2070]  543 U. S. 146, 154-155 (2004); Heien v. North Carolina, 574 U.S. ___,  (2014).

[9] See C. Epp et al., Pulled Over, at 5 (2014).

[10] See Florida v. Bostick, 501 U. S. 429, 438 (1991).

[11] Terry, 392 U. S., at 17.

[12] Id., at 17, n. 13.

[13] Atwater v. Lago Vista, 532 U. S. 318, 323-324 (2001).

[14] Florence v. Board of Chosen Freeholders of County of Burlington, 566 U. S. ___,  182 L. Ed. 2d 566, 573 (2012); Maryland v. King, 569 U. S. ___, 186 L. Ed. 2d 1, 30 (2013).

[15] Chin, The New Civil Death, 160 U. Pa. L. Rev. 1789, 1805 (2012); see J. Jacobs, The Eternal Criminal Record 33-51 (2015); Young & Petersilia, Keeping Track, 129 Harv. L. Rev. 1318, 1341-1357 (2016).

[16] A. Goffman, On the Run 196 (2014).


Cooperation Required for Major Health Threats

June 10, 2014

First, it’s so good to have WAMC back doing regular programming. Congratulations all.

Many stations try to give us “news you can use,” by which they mean the things we can do for ourselves. But the things that really matter are the things that require our cooperation.

If we look at our major health threats, I think most people would name heart disease, cancer, diabetes, obesity. I sympathize with that position. With the help or advice of my doctors I’m keeping diabetes and my heart under control, partly by getting closer to what I weighed in college. So now we have a national health care system. Got those licked. Read the rest of this entry »


Environment Needs A Moral Revolution

October 29, 2013

I commented last week about the need to deal with global warming, population growth and protecting the lands and forests that produce the oxygen we depend on. Those problems are interrelated, and if the rising seas aren’t bad enough, the loss of atmospheric oxygen will suffocate us all. I confess that puts a different perspective on other issues. Can we improve people’s health and job prospects if we have to hold down the impact on the environment? Well yes, but the question is whether we are willing to share in the sandbox we call earth?  Read the rest of this entry »


Environmental Patriotism

April 2, 2013

Our two small granddaughters visited us this weekend. For me, their lives have been the most compelling reason to do something about global warming, to accept responsibility and to invest in a better future for them. But there is also the call of patriotism. Many have laid down their lives for this country. Can the rest of us deal with a little burden, a little expense, to save this country from catastrophe? Are we patriotic enough? Read the rest of this entry »


But for the Grace of God

November 20, 2012

I have often thought back to a conversation I had many years ago with one of my students. She had come from a rural background with a strong, and in many ways admirable, streak of self-reliance. She was dumbfounded when I quoted the saying “There but for the grace of God go I,” often attributed to a sixteenth century evangelical preacher and martyr, John Bradford. How could I, her professor, imagine myself in the position of people who were down and out, people without jobs who needed help? Read the rest of this entry »


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