All Three Branches of Government are Broken

Over the past 2-1/2 years, we’ve seen how broken the executive and legislative branches of the U.S. government are. We have a president who refused to stand up to the minority party while his party had historic majorities in both houses of Congress. Thanks to this president’s weak-kneed fealty to “bi-partisanship” and his predictable willingness to cave to the Republicans on just about any issue, he no longer has a supermajority in Congress.

Blue Texan at FDL makes a very good case for why Obama and the Democrats lost in 2010.

Democrats lost because they lost independents by 15 points, and independents don’t care what liberals think.

So why did Democrats lose independents?

Because the economy hadn’t improved enough because the stimulus bill was inadequate. It didn’t help matters that the Affordable Care Act was stripped of its most popular feature [a public option] or that HAMP was a total failure or that the Democrats punted on immigration and host of other progressive goals — but it was mostly about the economy.

The lesson, then, is…that Democrats need to deliver — especially when they promised CHANGE YOU CAN BELIEVE IN — and when they don’t, they lose elections.

For the past few weeks, we’ve seen the House Republicans and the White House bicker over cutting the budget when what we really need to do is raise taxes on the richest Americans. If Obama had any guts at all, he would have refused to extend the Bush tax cuts period. But, because he’s a lily livered wimp, he caved.

Today, Nicholas Kristof said the Congresspeople are acting like junior high school children.

It’s unclear where the adults are, but they don’t seem to be in Washington. Beyond the malice of the threat to shut down the federal government, averted only at the last minute on Friday night, it’s painful how vapid the discourse is and how incompetent and cowardly our leaders have proved to be.

Kristof doesn’t specifically chide Obama, but come on. If he weren’t so focused on getting “bipartisan support” for every initiative, he could have accomplished much more and gotten more respect from the Republicans at the same time. He was and is still simply too inexperienced to do the job of POTUS.

Tonight I want to put the spotlight on the third branch of government. Our judicial system is broken too. We have an epidemic of wrongful convictions in our justice system, and we have an ultra-right wing majority in the Supreme Court that refuses to do anything about it.

As of February 4, 2011, 250 wrongly convicted people had been exonerated by DNA testing, according to The Innocence Project,

There have been 268 post-conviction DNA exonerations in United States history. These stories are becoming more familiar as more innocent people gain their freedom through postconviction testing. They are not proof, however, that our system is righting itself.

The common themes that run through these cases — from global problems like poverty and racial issues to criminal justice issues like eyewitness misidentification, invalid or improper forensic science, overzealous police and prosecutors and inept defense counsel — cannot be ignored and continue to plague our criminal justice system.

According to the Death Penalty Information Center, more than 130 people have been released from death row because they were exonerated based on evidence that proved they were innocent. The chart below shows those exonerations state by state. The chart comes from a fact sheet (PDF) produced by the Death Penalty Information Center.

I’m sure I don’t need to tell you that about 70% of the people who have been exonerated are members of minority groups–mostly African Americans. One of the most frequent causes of false convictions is prosecutorial misconduct. For more information on this problem, see this report (PDF) by the Innocence Project. In late March, the Supreme Court basically gave carte blanche to dishonest prosecutors by deciding that a wrongfully convicted man who had spent 14 years on death row has no right to sue for damages. From the LA Times:

John Thompson

A bitterly divided Supreme Court on Tuesday tossed out a jury verdict won by a New Orleans man who spent 14 years on death row and came within weeks of execution because prosecutors had hidden a blood test and other evidence that would have proven his innocence.

The 5-4 decision delivered by Justice Clarence Thomas shielded the New Orleans district attorney’s office from being held liable for the mistakes of its prosecutors. The evidence of their misconduct did not prove “deliberate indifference” on the part of then-Dist. Atty. Harry Connick Sr., Thomas said.

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg emphasized her disapproval by reading her dissent in the courtroom, saying the court was shielding a city and its prosecutors from “flagrant” misconduct that nearly cost an innocent man his life.

“John Thompson spent 14 years isolated on death row before the truth came to light,” she said. He was innocent of the crimes that sent him to prison and prosecutors had “dishonored” their obligation to present the true facts to the jury, she said.

Besides Justice Ginsburg, Justices Sonia Sotomayor, Stephen Breyer and Elena Kagan also dissented from the majority opinion.

The Supreme Court has consistently shielded prosecutors from accountability for misconduct in the past, but Thompson had sued the New Orleans District Attorney’s office, claiming the office had demonstrated a “pattern of wrongdoing” and had failed to ensure that its attorneys obeyed the law. Now the Supremes have eliminated another check against willful misconduct by prosecutors.

Here from NPR is a brief summary of the case against Thompson:

In December of 1984, Raymond Liuzza Jr., the son of a prominent New Orleans business executive, was shot to death in front of his home. Police, acting on a tip, picked up two men, Kevin Freeman and John Thompson.

Thompson denied knowing anything about the shooting, but Freeman, in exchange for a one-year prison sentence, agreed to testify that he saw Thompson commit the crime.

Prosecutors wanted to seek the death penalty, but Thompson had no record of violent felonies. Then, a citizen saw his photo in the newspaper and implicated him in an attempted carjacking — and prosecutors saw a way to solve their problem. John Hollway, who wrote a book about the case, said the solution was to try the carjacking case first.

A conviction in the carjacking case would yield additional benefits in the subsequent murder trial, Hollway observes. It would discredit Thompson if he took the stand in his own defense at the murder trial, so he didn’t. And the carjacking would be used against him during the punishment phase of the murder trial.

It all worked like a charm. Thompson was convicted of both crimes and sentenced to death for murder.

Harry Connick, Sr.

Ten years later, after Thompson’s appeals were exhausted and he was days from be executed, an investigator for his attorneys found that the blood of the perpetrator had been left at the scene of the murder. The lab report showed that Thompson had a different blood type than the person who committed the crime. The DA had deliberately concealed this information from the defense.

At a new trial, more exculpatory evidence that had been suppressed by the DA was presented–10 pieces of evidence in all–and the jury acquitted Thompson in half-an-hour. Thompson then sued and won a $14 million judgment against Connick and the NOLA DA’s office. But, now the right wingers on the Court have nullified that judgement.

On March 31, the editors of The New York Times wrote that a lack of empathy led to this injustice.

The important thing about empathy that gets overlooked is that it bolsters legal analysis. That is clear in the dissent by Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Her empathy for Mr. Thompson as a defendant without means or power is affecting. But it is her understanding of the prosecutors’ brazen ambition to win the case, at all costs, that is key.

After detailing the “flagrant indifference” of the prosecutors to Mr. Thompson’s rights, she makes clear how critically they needed training in their duty to turn over evidence and why “the failure to train amounts to deliberate indifference to the rights” of defendants.

The district attorney, Harry Connick Sr., acknowledged the need for this training but said he had long since “stopped reading law books” so he didn’t understand the duty he was supposed to impart. The result, Justice Ginsburg writes, was an office with “one of the worst” records in America for failing to turn over evidence that “never disciplined or fired a single prosecutor” for a violation.

One thing about conservatives, they rarely show any empathy or compassion for anyone who isn’t just like them.

Today John Thompson himself contributed an op-ed to the NYT. Please read the whole thing, but here is just a bit.

I SPENT 18 years in prison for robbery and murder, 14 of them on death row. I’ve been free since 2003, exonerated after evidence covered up by prosecutors surfaced just weeks before my execution date. Those prosecutors were never punished. Last month, the Supreme Court decided 5-4 to overturn a case I’d won against them and the district attorney who oversaw my case, ruling that they were not liable for the failure to turn over that evidence — which included proof that blood at the robbery scene wasn’t mine.

Because of that, prosecutors are free to do the same thing to someone else today.

[….]

The prosecutors involved in my two cases, from the office of the Orleans Parish district attorney, Harry Connick Sr., helped to cover up 10 separate pieces of evidence. And most of them are still able to practice law today.

Why weren’t they punished for what they did? When the hidden evidence first surfaced, Mr. Connick announced that his office would hold a grand jury investigation. But once it became clear how many people had been involved, he called it off.

According to NPR, former DA Harry Connick Sr. “feels vindicated” by the SCOTUS decision.

“I think that he committed … a murder, and I think that obviously we thought we had enough evidence to gain a conviction,” he says. “So I was delighted that the Supreme Court ruled in our favor.”

Never mind the ten pieces of exculpatory evidence that his prosecutor covered up in order to convict Thompson. And, by the way, the prosecutor confessed what he had done to a friend, so it was no accident. Relatives of the murdered man, Ray Liuzza, still believe Thompson is guilty. Liuzza’s sister

Maurine Liuzza said she has reviewed all of the evidence in the case and still believes that Thompson is guilty.

“Just because you are found not guilty does not make you innocent,” she said.

It’s time for radical change in all three branches of our broken government.


Thursday Reads

Good Morning!! There’s quite a lot of news happening, so I probably won’t be able to cover everything. I’m hoping you can help me out in the comments. Anyway, here are some stories that caught my eye.

The Guardian UK: 2 US airmen killed in Frankfurt airport shooting

Two U.S. airmen were killed and two others were wounded at Frankfurt airport when a man opened fire on them at close range with a handgun, the first such attack on American forces in Germany in a quarter century.

[….]

The alleged assailant, identified as a 21-year-old Kosovo man, was taken immediately into custody and was being questioned by authorities, said Frankfurt police spokesman Manfred Fuellhardt.

Family members in Kosovo described the suspect as a devout Muslim, who was born and raised in Germany and worked at the airport.

The attacker got into an argument with airmen outside their military bus before opening fire, killing the bus driver and one other serviceman, and wounding two others, one of whom was in life-threatening condition, Fuellhardt said. He said the attacker also briefly entered the bus.

The suspect has been identified as “Arif Uka, a Kosovo citizen from the northern town of Mitrovica.” There is quite a bit more information about him at the Guardian link. The victims had not yet been identified when I wrote this.

I’m sure you heard that yesterday the Supreme Court decided that the Wesboro Baptist Church is within their First Amendment Rights when they protest homosexuality at servicemen’s funerals. However, there are some limits on the decision, according to USA Today.

The court majority made plain that states may regulate funeral protests in some situations. Roberts observed that since the 2006 Snyder funeral, the Maryland Legislature has enacted a law prohibiting picketing within 100 feet of a funeral. Roberts also noted that Westboro’s picketing would have complied with that restriction.

The chief justice said demonstrations may be regulated as long as laws are neutral — that is, not aimed at any particular views — and narrowly crafted.

In recent years, Congress and 46 states have enacted laws to minimize picketing near cemeteries during a funeral, according to a brief filed at the court by Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., and 40 other senators who sided with Snyder. They said state personal-injury laws, such as the Maryland one Snyder invoked to sue Phelps, supplement government picketing restrictions.

From the news reports, it sounds like the protests in Libya are starting to turn into a full-fledged war. Late last night Voice of America reported serious “clashes” in eastern Libya:

The fighting included ground clashes and airstrikes by Libyan military planes.

Witnesses said pro-Gadhafi forces stormed into the town of Brega on the Gulf of Sirte and briefly seized its oil installations and an airstrip. Opposition fighters say they recaptured both sites. Later, Western media reported loud booms that they linked to at least two bombings from Libyan aircraft.

Witnesses say military forces carried out an airstrike in the nearby town of Ajdabiya. Both towns are on the western edge of the region of eastern Libya that is now largely under opposition control.

Gadhafi is still delusional:

The fighting occurred on the same day that Gadhafi delivered a televised speech to supporters in Tripoli. He said he could not resign because he holds no political office in a system that he said puts all power in the hands of the people.

There is a lot of pressure on President Obama to do something other than mumble meaningless cliches. At CNN, they seem to be rooting for military intervention (h/t Minkoff Minx). I’m sure CNN has visions of improving their ratings by presenting lots of carnage live and in color, like they did during the two Iraq wars. But Secretary of Defense Gates is doing his best to stifle such talk.

With rebels in Libya calling for Western airstrikes on forces supporting Col. Muammar el-Qaddafi, Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates warned Congress on Wednesday that even a more modest effort to establish a no-flight zone over Libya would have to begin with an attack on the country’s air defenses and would require “a big operation in a big country.”

Mr. Gates’s caution illustrates the chasm between what the rebels and some leading members of Congress are calling for and what President Obama appears willing to do in Libya. Mr. Obama and his aides have argued that it is not yet clear that the insurgents need the help — and they have warned that the use of American airpower could fuel the arguments of those in the Middle East who see a Washington conspiracy behind homegrown uprisings.

But others disagree.

…even some members of the president’s own party sounded unconvinced on Wednesday. Senator John Kerry, the Massachusetts Democrat who is the chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee and one of the president’s chief foreign policy allies in Congress, argued that “a no-fly zone is not a long-term proposition” and warned that other nations and NATO should not be “on the sidelines” as Colonel Qaddafi’s jets begin to attack the antigovernment insurgents.

“We ought to be considering a wide range of responses, and a no-fly zone ought to be an option,” Mr. Kerry said late Wednesday. “We have a number of tools, and we should not remove any of them from the table.”

Of course no one is screaming about the deficit now or about how much all this military action would cost–that only happens when there is talk of helping pregnant women, children, the elderly, and other powerless groups.

Here’s an article by a law professor that explains the legal implications of the U.S. getting involved in military action in Libya.

It’s possible the situation in Wisconsin could continue for months with ongoing protests and the Democratic State Senators remaining in exile. This is what happens when you elect a governor who doesn’t believe in compromise and simply wants to behave like a tyrant.

The governor isn’t budging. AWOL Democrats aren’t planning to come back. And, despite talk of deadlines and threats of mass layoffs, the state doesn’t really have to pass a budget to pay its bills until at least May. Even then, there may be other options that could extend the standoff for months.

“This is a battle to the death,” said Mordecai Lee, a political scientist at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee. “Unless one party can come up with a compromise that the other party will buy, which I doubt, this really could go on indefinitely. I could see this going on until the summer.”

We have a union contract dispute going on here in the Boston area with a lot of parallels to the one in Wisconsin. The local PBS/NPR station, WGBH, which produces much of the best content for public TV stations around the country, is playing hardball with their unionized employees, who have been working without a contract since October.

Managers of the giant Boston-based public broadcast operation and officials of the Association of Employees of the Educational Foundation, Communications Workers of America, Local 1300, have been seeking a new three-year contract to replace an agreement that expired at the end of October.

WGBH employs 850 people; Local 1300 represents 280 writers, editors, production workers, and marketing employees who enjoy using automated out reach software like Apollo.

Management has been seeking concessions that include cutting in half the company’s match for employee retirement plans and is demanding authority to redefine job descriptions. That would allow WGBH to assign employees to work across various media platforms, including TV, radio, and the Web.

Union officials said they are willing to make some concessions to preserve jobs and WGBH’s financial health, including cuts in company contributions to retirement plans. But they are not willing to go along with such provisions as allowing WGBH to outsource work without negotiations, or to terminate on-air talent without cause. Union officials said they do not want WGBH to be able to assign members to perform work outside their job description.

“If they retain the ability to outsource anything and everything, it would tend to make moot all the gains we made in other areas of the contract,’’ said Jordan Weinstein, president of the AEEF/CWA, Local 1300, and local host of public radio’s “All Things Considered,’’ the weekday news program. “This is not the warm and friendly way to deal with your employees.’’

That’s all I’ve got for now. What are you reading and blogging about today?

 


Sam Alito Raising Funds for Right Wing Causes in Violation of Code of Conduct for U.S. Judges

Justice Samuel Alito

Lee Fang of Think Progress reports:

Last night, the American Spectator — a right-wing magazine known for its role in the “Arkansas Project,” a well-funded effort to invent stories with the goal of eventually impeaching President Clinton — held its annual gala fundraising event. The Spectator is more than merely an ideological outlet. Spectator publisher Al Regnery helps lead a secretive group of conservatives called the “Conservative Action Project,” formed after President Obama’s election, to help lobby for conservative legislative priorities, elect Republicans (the Conservative Action Project helped campaign against Democrat Bill Owens in NY-23), and block President Obama’s judicial appointments. The Spectator’s gala last night, with ticket prices/sponsorship levels ranging from $250 to $25,000, featured prominent Republicans like RNC chairman Michael Steele, hedge fund billionaire Paul Singer (a major donor to Republican campaign committees and attack ad groups), and U.S. Chamber of Commerce board member and former Allied Capital CEO William Walton. Among the attendees toasting Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-MN), the keynote speaker for the event, was Supreme Court Justice Sam Alito.

Fang, who was at the event, asked Alito why he was attending a partisan fund-raising event. Alito responded, “It’s not important that I’m here.” Fang pointed out that Alito had headlined the same event in 2008 and had used his speech to ridicule now Vice President Joe Biden.

Apparently, Alito is a regular benefactor for highly political conservative fundraisers. Last year, he headlined the fundraising dinner for the Intercollegiate Studies Institute (ISI) — the same corporate front that funded the rise of Republican dirty trickster James O’Keefe and anti-masturbation activist Christine O’Donnell. According to the sponsorship levels for the event, Alito helped ISI raise $70,000 or more.

Documents exposed by ThinkProgress last month revealed that Justice Scalia and Justice Thomas have also attended secret political fundraisers. We published a memo detailing fundraising events, organized by oil billionaires David and Charles Koch, to fund Republican campaigns, judicial elections, and groups running ads in the 2010 midterm election. The fundraisers, attended by some of the nation’s wealthiest bankers, industrialists, and other executives, help fund much of the conservative infrastructure. The memo stated the Thomas and Alito were past participants of the Koch fundraisers.

What the hell?! This kind of conduct is explicitly forbidden by the Code of Conduct for United States Judges (via Raw Story), which clearly states that a “judge should refrain from political activity.” Specifically, he or she should not:

“solicit funds for, pay an assessment to, or make a contribution to a political organization or candidate, or attend or purchase a ticket for a dinner or other event sponsored by a political organization or candidate.”

According to Raw Story,

In 2009, Alito also headlined a fundraising dinner for the Intercollegiate Studies Institute, which funded the conservative journalist James O’Keefe and Delaware Senate candidate Christine O’Donnell. Alito is reported to have helped the institute raise $70,000.

This is absolutely outrageous! Will the Obama administration or Congress respond, or are these kinds of partisan political activities on the part of Supreme Court Justices just fine with them? Keep in mind that these three justices voted in favor of “Citizens United” in the recent controversial decision that opened the doors to unlimited campaign spending by corporations. Lest we forget, “Citizens United” was originally called Citizens United Not Timid (get it?), and was formed in order to destroy Hillary Clinton’s presidential candidacy.

By the way, have you heard that Alito plans to skip the State of Union Address this year? This man does not belong on the Supreme Court.