Against a New Constitutional Convention for New York State

October 31, 2017

In a week, we will be voting to decide whether to call a constitutional convention for the State of New York. The powers of the Convention would be wide open. Before going further, it is important to look at the provisions for calling the Convention:

in case a majority of the electors voting thereon shall decide in favor of a convention … the electors of every senate district of the state … shall elect three delegates at the next … general election, and the electors of the state voting at the same election shall elect fifteen delegates-at-large.

Let me repeat one crucial phrase, “the electors of every senate district of the state.” The New York Senate as we all know has been gerrymandered for many years to maximize Republican control of the Senate. Although the increasingly blue hue of our state politics has forced them into coalition with the so-called Independent Democrats, the NY Senate remains much more conservative than the Assembly, and not fairly representative of the people of the State. Everyone should be represented. Everyone’s ideas count. But everyone should be represented fairly and their ideas should be considered by a body that represents us fairly. Since the Convention would be shaped only by senatorial districts plus a few delegates chosen at large, I would not be willing to trust our future as a state to such a body.

You may have repeatedly heard me talk about gerrymandering. Many of us who have been fighting gerrymandering for years have continued to fight it regardless of who is the temporary beneficiary. Republicans should not have to accept a convention gerrymandered toward Democrats any more than Democrats should have to accept a convention gerrymandered toward Republicans, as it is now. Frankly, that alone determines my vote. End gerrymandering first and than we can talk about constitutional change.

The current New York State Constitution was adopted in 1938. In other words it was adoped near the end of the Great Depression. As such it had important provisions with the great mass of us in mind, not just the one-tenth of one percent who often think everything should favor them. That too makes it important to protect this Constitution. Of course it is not perfect. And when we get rid of gerrymandering, we may be able to fix it. But now losing this Constitution would be too dangerous.

Moreover, much that is wrong with this Constitution has nothing to do with its language and everything to do with the interpretation of the Courts. Just as I would not jettison the U.S. Constitution because of Scalia’s misreadings, so I would not jettison the 1938 New York Constitution because the courts screwed it up.

To the extent that some people believe some provisions could be improved, it would be sufficient to propose those specific improvements to the people of this state without using them as a Trojan Horse to threaten the entire document.

If any more reasons are needed, there is no reason to believe the delegates will be a step up from the legislature which already has the power to propose amendments. And I would be much more comfortable if the powers of any convention elected to revise the Constitution were limited to matters carefully defined in advance so that we could know how large a threat they pose.

I believe the people of this state would be wiser, safer and better off voting no.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, October 31, 2017.

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The Fourth Shattering

October 25, 2017

Chilling! Points in the same direction as my own Unfit for Democracy: https://www.juancole.com/2017/10/america-donald-shattering.html.


Dictators, War, Children

October 7, 2017

Have you noticed how many dictatorships are family affairs? No doubt because they can’t trust anyone else. And also wondered how many wars are started to rally the public around unpopular leaders? Have any of your friends, as have some of ours, started to stock up on potassium iodide to protect their grandchildren against some of the damage in the event nuclear weapons are used? It’s hard to stomach people being killed for political reasons – soldiers, civilians, children, anyone. May it be beyond imagination and possibility.


Puerto Rico

October 7, 2017

My classmate and friend, now Judge Jose Cabranes, who is originally from Puerto Rico, pointed me to an op-ed of his about the tragedy there, for which click here. He makes clear the devastation yet to come because of the human drain. I wrote him back that I feared that our mainland politics would not straighten out until Puerto Ricans came and straightened us out. Like Jose, I’m praying for our Puerto Rican brothers and sisters and the land they call home.


My Undocumented Friend

September 26, 2017

A friend since my law school days knew he’d been adopted. We saw a lot of each other when we both lived in New York City, where I met his adoptive parents. In a distinguished career, he’s been president of his professional society, recipient of honorary degrees in the US, France, and Greece, an advisor to the Director of the United States Central Intelligence Agency, and he taught at several of this country’s finest universities and war colleges.

A few years ago, when we ran into each other at a professional meeting, he told me that he had discovered that his birth mother had tossed him out the window of a train headed for the concentration camps into the waiting arms of someone she hoped would save her infant son. He was working on trying to learn more about what happened.

My friend has been traveling in Europe but we’ve been in touch and I wrote and asked him what if anything he had found out. He wrote me back:

The short take on my background is that fortuitous circumstances produced reasonable evidence that I was born in France to a foreign family who had fled the Nazis, most likely from Germany. I was hidden in a village, smuggled out of France by the Jewish underground, entered the US as an illegal immigrant, was sent to an orphanage and adopted by an American family.

That of course is the family I knew. He adds that “I’ve managed to track down and interview people involved in these several steps.”

My friend was a “childhood arrival” in the language of Obama’s executive order establishing “Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals,” or D.A.C.A. It allows people who were brought here as children to stay, study and work here without being deported so long as they behaved themselves properly. That’s the order that President Trump is trying to terminate. My friend was brought here as an undocumented infant. His birth parents likely perished in the concentration camps, without knowing what became of their son.

When I asked him if I could quote him for this commentary, he expanded on the process of his becoming an American:

immigration officials [looked] the other way when the group of 100 children I was with – all older than me – were offloaded at night from our boat and entered the country as illegal immigrants. We were sent to orphanages, from which I was liberated [by] the American family who adopted me. In NYC in the 1940s adoptions took five years to become legal, so I well remember appearing in court and telling the judge, in response to his questions, that my parents loved me and treated me well. He in turn had the court issue me a birth certificate with NYC as my place of birth, thus laundering me.

Half a century later, my friend is widely admired. “Most remarkably,” he added: “my German colleagues – many of whom are former students or post-docs – took it upon themselves to do something,” even though he didn’t have his original surname or birthdate, so that, in addition to his American citizenship, “courtesy of the German parliament – I am [also] a German citizen.”

I can only thank heaven that he and his boat weren’t among those this country turned back during World War II. For me and my friend, the issue of DACA is very personal.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, September 26, 2017.


I’m an Affirmative Action Baby

September 20, 2017

I went out for an early walk recently. One of the things I like about taking a walk is the way it clears the mind. This morning, the fog lifted and I realized with great clarity that I was an affirmative action baby. About a decade before I applied, Princeton had made the decision, not just to eliminate the quota that limited the number of Jews admitted, but to actively encourage Jews to come.

When my high school college advisor suggested I apply to Princeton I was surprised. Princeton was not on my radar. But all the top students at Midwood wanted to go to Harvard, so I figured it was worth a try. I will never forget the day my parents drove me to campus for an interview. I expected to be grilled on whether I was good enough. The admissions office was on Cannon Green, cattycorner from Nassau Hall where the 1783 Treaty of Peace ending the Revolutionary War was signed. I don’t remember the man’s name, but I think he was an assistant Dean. And the whole interview was about trying to convince me to come.

I walked out and told my parents, in a tone that must have revealed both my joy and surprise, that they want me to come. Is it ever great to feel wanted. After that, there was never any question in my mind where I was going. I remember trying to conceal my sense of joy from fellow students at Midwood High – I didn’t want to be taken as bragging. And by the way, Yale Law School treated me much the same way four years later. This was not the education I expected. But I would have had to be dumb to turn it down.

It doesn’t seem to have occurred to anyone to challenge my credentials because Princeton decided to encourage Jews to apply and come. I think it was a good bargain for everyone. As a group we were hungry for knowledge, opportunity and a chance to make the world better. And Princeton designed its program so that we students got to know our professors. Some of them invited us to their homes; some of us invited them to dinner with our friends.

Only one African-American graduated with our class. So I was proud of the school when it made the same decision to bring African-Americans to campus and then did it again with women. That’s quite a transformation between about 1944 and 1969. And it didn’t hurt a bit. Princeton is still at the top of everybody’s chart of the best schools to go to 55 years after yours truly graduated.

When I got to law school, I really got to experience and appreciate the value of diversity. Students came from literally all over the world to study with a couple of my teachers. I learned a great deal. Some of it was comic, like the student who wanted to work for Pakistan in order to promote the independence of Kashmir, directly contrary to Pakistani policy. One of my fellow students nearly burned my stomach with Indian spices. And I was terrified to introduce my dates to him because they all thought he was gorgeous. But they all enriched my life, my understanding and my appreciation of different peoples.

So yes, I’m an affirmative action baby. I’m not the least bit embarrassed about it. I hope I’ve justified their confidence in me – I’ve certainly spent my life trying.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, September 19, 2017.

 

 


Book Picks for heart and mind

September 8, 2017

I’d like to recommend a pair of books, the first partly for very personal reasons. I worked with Lew Steel, who wrote The Butler’s Child, for four months at the legal office of the NAACP between graduating from law school and heading for Peace Corps training. I know many of the people he writes about and have enormous admiration for all of them. We knew that Lew had money though I didn’t know it came from a family connection to one of the Warner Brothers. We followed different career paths but not different goals. So for me his story is very personal. It’s a beautifully written book about the Civil Rights struggle. Bless Lew both for the memories and for carrying on the struggle.

The other by Bruce Bueno de Mesquita and Alistair Smith is called The Dictators’ Handbook and is the best explanation I’ve seen of what is going wrong in Washington. I met Bruce through a mutual friend but don’t know him well – this is all about admiration for his work and their ability to write a very readable and widely recognized book that beautifully explains the different incentives and behavior of autocrats and democrats. Written several years before Trump, the Donald is reflected on every page. Well worth reading.

Steve


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