The Innocence Project

December 26, 2017

I want to talk about people we are less used to talking about around Christmas.

Several times a year I am guaranteed to have a good cry – whenever I get the latest bulletin from the Innocence Project. Without fail they describe at length someone who spent decades in prison, sometimes on death row, for crimes they did not commit. As a human being I am always heartbroken. As an American who believes that we all have a right to liberty, I am both sick and outraged.

And once freed, what education, training or experience do they have? Did they have a chance to start a family and are any left to warm their hearts? The dislocation of freedom is immense. I’ve met men in prison afraid to come out. Those lost decades freeze the soul as they scar past, present and future. Freedom is precious. It also unravels.

I am outraged because there are too many in this country, too many with the power, to keep people in prison, even execute them, even after it has become clear that they were innocent of the crimes for which they were convicted. Justice O’Connor, bless her heart, saw that as unacceptable, although we didn’t always agree on the facts. But the Supreme Court has not yet found the character or the will to conclude that it is unconstitutional to hold an innocent person once that becomes clear, or to sit tight and deny a hearing once evidence has been found that makes it improbable that the prisoner was guilty. The Court has refused to find a right to DNA evidence when that could prove innocence. And prosecutors repeatedly do everything they can to withhold evidence that could result in justice instead of in conviction. The Supreme Court has even said that there are no penalties for withholding evidence even when it is in clear violation of constitutional obligations.

As an American, it is an understatement to say that is no source of pride. As an attorney and a human being, it is a source of disgust – and fear. A legal process that ignores justice is a threat to us all. The purpose of the Bill of Rights and of the Fourteenth Amendment is to protect us all from the abuse of law to polish the prosecutor’s reputation or prejudices instead of serving the cause of justice. Unfortunately attorneys know that the criminal process is more like a canning factory than an effort to separate the innocent from the guilty, truth from lies, and fairness from abuse.

The ACLU and the CATO Institute, otherwise often on opposite sides, come together in support of truth and accurate decision-making. But when the issue is the rights of people accused of crime or the rights of people who have been imprisoned, too many eyes glaze over, not from tears but indifference. Yet those rights, if and when they are honored, are what differentiate us from a police state where people can be imprisoned because of their politics, their parentage or their refusal to kowtow to the unreasonable demands of authorities. These are part of the central meaning of being an American.

The people whose title is Justice of the United States Supreme Court who vote most consistently to protect the right to life of fetuses are the least likely to protect life in any other context. That is hypocrisy under black robes. The behavior of callous prosecutors and unqualified Supreme Court justices is an American disgrace.

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

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Trump’s Audience

August 23, 2016

Behind Trump’s remarks and his imperviousness to criticism is the audience he’s after.

Trump charges that this election is rigged because his audience doesn’t like who can vote. One can respond that elections have been rigged by the Court since it stopped the count in Florida to make Bush president, but that misses Trump’s and his audience’s objection. The Court has unleashed the full contents of corporate treasuries, tightened the screws on union finances, encouraged states to exclude African-Americans from the voting booths and supported gerrymandering so that Republican controlled legislatures could rig elections against Democrats. Those decisions rigged the election in Trump’s favor. But for his audience, rigging the election means including what some still call Fourteenth Amendment citizens. They object that the first sentence of the Fourteenth Amendment makes everyone born here citizens, especially Blacks and browns.

Trump’s inconsistency on foreign policy is also because of the audience he wants. While claiming Democrats are weak on foreign threats, Trump also wants to withdraw from NATO which has held the Russians at bay for over half a century. And he has told us that he would consider not coming to the aid of an attacked NATO member. Never mind speculating whether he’s a wimp, a loudmouth, or a Russian agent. The important question is who’s his audience and why? Actually extremists have imagined international conspiracies that only they can believe in. Trump clearly wants their support. That leaves the rest of us wondering whether they would be center stage if he won. Making international conspiracies the number one villain helps explain Trump’s admiration for Vladimir Putin, and his invitation to Russia to hack into the computers used by a Secretary of State. One points out in vain that’s an invitation to foreign espionage. Trump got his message across; he’s with the fringe, the conspiracy theorists, and the people with lots of hate.

Then there’s Trump’s comment that Second Amendment people might have a way of dealing with Hilary and her judicial nominees if she is elected. When questioned about those remarks Trump responded that he was just kidding. Besides, he said maybe. No advocacy there. He wasn’t trying to get anyone killed. But why did he do that?

Politicians have reasons for what they say. He was seeking support from precisely those people who could imagine using guns that way. Surely some would just like to have violent dreams. But some are more likely to act on dreams like that when encouraged by people like Trump, and will understand his words as a call to violent action, action that undermines democratic self government.

Beyond whether Trump should be expected to talk like a responsible adult, is the question whether we have the responsibility, whatever our politics, not to enjoy such language, responsibility not to reward it, but to stand tall for the real America, the America that claims to believe in law and order and in self government that celebrates our ability to disagree without threats, assaults and murder.

Trump makes statements like that because he has an audience for it. If most of that audience has the maturity and the loyalty it claims, it must be prepared to turn against candidates who misuse it. Supporters of gun rights must believe that gun owners have an obligation to act and speak responsibly and to keep political and racial hatreds away from trigger fingers.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, August 21, 2016.

 


Let’s take the Constitution back – from the deniers

January 22, 2016

Republicans repeat over and over that they want to take back the Constitution. That’s nonsense. Actually they are trying to destroy it. It’s important to understand where it comes from. After the Civil War, generations of Southern writers tried to win the peace after losing the War. They succeeded. There is no chance that you were not brought up familiar with elements of it.

In history, that’s called the Dunning thesis.[1] It refers to the claim that, after the Civil War, radical Republicans acted out of spite and revenge rather than out of deeply seated conviction. Historians discredited that thesis a century ago but it kept coming up in the textbooks as if no one bothered reading the historians who discredited it. In fact the Republican leadership who wrote the Fourteenth Amendment were totally committed to the ideal of equality. Thaddeus Stevens, a Republican leader in Congress, told the House he dreamed of the day when “no distinction would be tolerated in this purified republic but what arose from merit and conduct.” The Republican leadership knew and respected African-Americans and former slaves, employed them in responsible positions, welcomed them as friends and in some cases lived with them.

I have to deal with the fallout in law all the time. From the beginning of our country, Southern slaveholders tried to convince Congress and the people that the Constitution had granted Congress little or no power over the states and the country.[2] The courts repeated that formula endlessly, citing the writings of various Founders to prove their point. They are cherry-picking the data. The Convention that wrote the Constitution was dominated by nationalists; the states-righters stayed home. They wrote a powerful document. In the debates over ratification, however, both sides confused the issue. Proponents of the Constitution tried to reassure the public by saying how little the Constitution would do. Opponents tried to scare the public by saying how much it would do.

Regardless of any ambiguities in the original 1787 document, the Civil War Amendments made much of Congress’ power clear, but not to the Roberts Court. President Andrew Johnson sent Gen. Carl Schurz south to report on conditions in the former Confederate states.[3] His Report revealed the ways that former slaves were being re-enslaved by new rules, tracked, beaten or killed for trying to leave, work for themselves, or what we would call walking while Black. Most clearly Congress did give itself the power to deal with those abuses, public and private in the Reconstruction Amendments, the Thirteenth, Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments.

You may have heard present day self-styled conservatives who have now taken over the modern Republican Party, trying to take back what the original radical Republicans tried to do, calling African-Americans and others “Fourteenth Amendment citizens.”[4]

Americans of the Civil War generation believed that citizenship gave people a number of rights and they were determined to make sure that the freedmen had those rights. The draft of the first section of the Fourteenth Amendment, as it was brought to the floor, included the right to the privileges and immunities of citizenship, due process and equal protection – each of which overruled the notorious Dred Scott decision just a few years before the Civil War. But on the floor a motion was made to make the point indisputable: “All persons born or naturalized in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States and of the State wherein they reside.”[5]

Those are elegant words America can be very proud of. We don’t always live up to those ideals. But those ideals justify a great deal of pride. Hold onto them and don’t believe anyone who denies them. They are nothing more than apologists or dupes of the old Confederacy and modern racists.

— This commentary was broadcast on WAMC Northeast Report, January 19. 2016.

[1] See The Dunning School: Historians, Race, and the Meaning of Reconstruction, 36-39 (Univ. Press of Ky., eds. John David Smith, J. Vincent Lowery, 2013), https://books.google.com/books?id=OcJKAQAAQBAJ&pg=PA22&lpg=PA22&dq=the+Dunning+thesis&source=bl&ots=885Fs23eFw&sig=3AN6KTp5IG5gE7DF6AfL5t-5COA&hl=en&sa=X&ved=0ahUKEwiKxdeskLHKAhXHwj4KHb11BEEQ6AEIUTAI#v=onepage&q=the%20Dunning%20thesis&f=false

[2] Prior to the Civil War, counsel argued that the southernmost states would not have joined the union if they had reason to believe that Congress would have had any power over slavery. See Groves v. Slaughter, 40 U.S. 449 at app. lvii-lviii, lxv (1841); Prigg v. Pennsylvania, 41 U.S. 536, 611 (1842); Dred Scott v. Sandford, 60 U.S. 393, 411 (1856) (Taney); and see R. Cover, Justice Accused, 234, 240-41 (1975).  Thus they argued that the commerce clause had to have a narrow meaning. The Court struggled with the meaning of the commerce clause in a group of cases involving regulation of passengers. See Mayor of the City of New York v. Miln, 36 U.S. 102, 136 (1837) and The Passenger Cases, 48 U.S. 283, 474 (1849) (Taney, C. J., dissenting).  To have treated people as subject to commerce clause jurisdiction would have enlarged the possibility of power over slavery.

[3] Carl Schurz, Report on the Condition of the South, 39th Cong., 1st Sess., SENATE, Ex. Doc. No. 2 (December 19, 1865).

[4] Garrett Epps, Trump’s Birther Libel and American History, Atlantic Online, April 12, 2011, accessed on Lexis/Nexis, Jan. 17, 2016, and see online literature of the “Freedom School,” http://freedom-school.com/citizenship/fourteenth-amendment-citizenship.html.

[5] The seminal study of the history of the Fourteenth Amendment is Horace Edgar Flack, The Adoption of the Fourteenth Amendment (Classic Reprint, 2015) (1908). For a brilliant recent discussion, see Richard Aynes, Unintended Consequences of the Fourteenth Amendment and What They Tell Us About its Interpretation, 39 Akron L. Rev. 289, 309-21 (2006).


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