Roberts “Liberal” Court Under Siege from the Far Right

Attacks from the Right mount over “liberal” rulings. But first: Has SCOTUS really tacked to the left?

Last week wasn’t a dream — the Supreme Court handed-down three solid victories for progressive causes: healthcare, marriage equality, and the Fair Housing Act all earned the judicial stamp of approval. Add in this week’s thumbs-up for independent commissions on redistricting, and we’ve got a grand slam for team Democrat.

While conservatives and GOP presidential hopefuls bitch and moan about the “new” lefty tilt to the bench, threatening all manner of retribution, Democrats are viewing the recent decisions as some kind of fluke, but are they?

The New York Times Upshot parsed the high court’s data base on rulings from 1946 to 2014, and found that under Roberts the court has demonstrated a nascent pattern of political moderation, in spite of the infamous Citizens United and McCutcheon rulings. Not since 1969 has SCOTUS ventured substantively into liberal territory, albeit not with a Warren Court verve, or anything close to it. The Upshot provided a graphic illustrating that under Roberts the scales of justice have weighed-in on the liberal side four out of ten years, including the past three years — and that’s before the 2015 rulings are factored in.

Supreme Court Rulings graphic

Source: New York Times

Predictably, Justice Robert’s position in support of the Affordable Care Act drew fire from the Wall Street Journal with the assertion that the Chief Justice is “revealed as a most political Justice.” Conversely, he earned some carefully qualified praise from Ruth Marcus at the Washington Post, who described his vote on the ACA thusly:

“This is not judicial activism, rewriting legislation from the bench. It’s judicial deference with a brain.

Does anyone think that John Roberts, citizen, or John Roberts, member of Congress, would vote for the Affordable Care Act? Or President Obama? Of course not. The health-care ruling helps — or should help — undermine the cynical view that all judges are mere partisans in robes, reflexively ruling for their team.”

If we’ve learned nothing else these past few days, we should take home the notion that the judiciary’s role remains unique from that of the legislative and executive bodies — their independence is part and parcel of their effectiveness as a democratic creature. Yet some conservatives are openly calling for extraconstitutional punitive measures in the wake of rulings they simply do not like.

Legislative threats to an impartial judiciary

There have been rumblings from the fringes on the far right for high court impeachment after last week’s judicial assault on their retrograde “values.” Although, court watchers note that this bench has also handed conservatives a spate of prize rulings, especially in the early years. The Upshot reminds readers:

The most conservative term since before the Warren court era was the fourth one of the court led by Chief Justice Roberts, in 2008, and the first term of the Roberts court was close behind. Conservatives certainly have many reasons to be happy with the Supreme Court’s recent work. On campaign finance, gun rights, race and abortion, the justices have delivered strongly conservative rulings.

If states are the laboratories of democracy, then we can expect a troubling swell of political attacks on our Federal Court system. Democracy Tree has reported about various state-level legislative attempts to hamstring their judicial branches in recent years, often over the marriage equality issue, and now we hear calls for similar punishments over the Supreme Court’s definitive ruling on the topic.

Some weeks prior to Thursday’s hallmark decision, Jamie Barnett and Liz Seaton, board members of the watchdog organization Justice at Stake, identified a trend in state legislatures articulated in their article in Governing about the legislative “War on Our Courts” over marriage equality. The attorneys describe the national crisis:

The reality in many states is now this: Legislators are pushing bills to intimidate, punish or fire public employees, including judges, who recognize or grant marriage licenses to same-sex couples. This follows threats by legislators to impeach judges over single rulings they disagree with. In the wake of judges overturning state bans on marriage for same-sex couples, these impeachment calls have multiplied.

Two years ago, the Iowa legislature attempted to cut the pay of their state supreme court justices by 85 percent after the high court overturned their ban on same-sex unions. Republicans additionally tried to impeach the justices. They subsequently ousted two justices through a richly bankrolled smear campaign.

The U. S. Constitution is clear on the impeachment issue — strictly limiting its application to “high crimes and misdemeanors.” A ruling, one way or another, on any issue is the courts’ constitutionally protected prerogative, not a criminal act. Barnett and Seaton warn:

If one judge were impeached over a decision, who honestly thinks that would be the end? In a hyperpartisan political climate, impeachment hearings could become all too common. No credible system of justice could survive such a political wrecking ball.

Before the ink was dry on the ACA ruling last week, the conservative group Freedom Watch issued a fatwā on the Supreme Court calling for the impeachment of the six Justices who upheld the federal healthcare exchange program. Larry Klayman, leader of the conservative group told McClatchy Newspapers:

“The six U.S. Supreme Court justices who voted to uphold ObamaCare should be impeached for abandoning the rule of law.

These six Justices have violated their own long-established rules of interpretation for applying statutes to instead advance their own political objectives or burnish their public persona. Such personal goals corrode the role of the Court. The justices abandoned the rule of law and have become merely a political focus group.”

A writer on the ultra-conservative website Western Journalism echoed the call for impeachment, but based it on the marriage equality ruling:

“So here’s the challenge, for ‘We the People’ to stand up against tyranny. It’s not free speech. It’s not love. It’s not tolerance. It’s tyranny. And no matter what the Supreme Court calls it, it’s not marriage. Congress now must muster the courage to impeach those Supreme Court justices, just as Associate Justice Samuel Chase was impeached in 1805.”

GOP presidential contender Ted Cruz blogged in the Washington Post calling the Justices “black-robed Houdinis”, but held back on calling for impeachment in a National Review op-ed — not because it’s a bad idea in his estimation, but because he believes the Senate couldn’t muster the votes. While Mike Huckabee, also vying for a 1600 address, was prompted to opine in USA Today that “We can’t bow to judicial tyranny on health care or gay marriage, remained in step with the social agenda of his party. He went on to refer to religious liberty as “America’s most fundamental right” — a sentiment that just as easily applies to the second amendment among avid conservatives when they are otherwise preoccupied with the imaginary loss of their personal arsenals. GOP contenders know that their base is all about God and guns, in no particular order — a combustible cocktail spiked with the potent elixir of irrational fear.

Even the high court isn’t immune to the vicissitudes of mutable gumption. Justice Scalia, disagreeing strongly with the marriage equality ruling, got in on the act of under-cutting the court’s constitutional authority, tagging his fellow adjudicators as:

Scalia

Justice Jiggery-pokery

Constitutional interpretation and application appears to be a situational thing among the sour grapes wing of the GOP, and yet in spite of that — the record of the Roberts Court is surprisingly not quite so bad after all. (Save Scalia, of course – that dude’s pure applesauce)

DSCN0444Amy Kerr Hardin

Update 7-1-15: Oklahoma lawmakers initiate impeachment against their state Supreme Court over display of ten commandments ruling. Read HERE.
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Twitter Pulls the Plug on Political Transparency Exclusively for U.S. Politicians

“A member of Congress does not and should not have the same expectation of privacy as a private citizen. Power can only be accountable with a generous application of transparency.” — Christopher Gates, Sunlight Foundation President, speaking on Twitter’s new policy exclusively protecting U.S. politicians.

A significant blow to social media transparency in U.S. politics:

Earlier this month, Twitter abruptly cancelled their 2012 agreement with the U. S. transparency advocacy group, Sunlight Foundation – ending the nonpartisan and nonprofit organization’s ability to curate and catalogue deleted tweets of elected officials and candidates from accounts accessed in their official capacity. Up till June 3rd of this year, Sunlight had been charged with the responsibility of archiving the material through a popular searchable public database of U.S. public figures’ regrettable tweets, termed Politwoops, with content ranging from mere typos to colossal 140 character political blunders.

But no more — at least not in the good ole US of A. Elsewhere though — other nations’ Twitter Politwoops websites are still going strong, cataloging political faux pas of all manner from leaders around the world.

Politwoops

In the run-up to the 2016 election, indiscreet political tweets remain a delicious inevitability, and Sunlight’s Politwoops archive would have been a savory resource. One need only consider those 2008 and 2012 non-Twitter screw-ups — with Mitt Romney’s covertly recorded “47 percent” remark, Herman Cain’s overt “Uzbeki-beki-beki-beki-stan”, Sarah Palin’s prime-time choke moment on the reading material query, and Rick Perry’s infamous (pre-smart glasses) “ooops!” — these bungles illustrate the importance of the “in the moment” kind of situations which can make or break a candidate. Late night television continues to relish those slip-ups with the unending pleasure of the kind found in a box of cheap wine.

Christopher Gates, President of the Sunlight Foundation, penned a eulogy for Politwoops expressing deep disappointment in Twitter’s decision and the unprofessional manner in which they delivered the blow.

“We are truly mystified as to what prompted the change of heart, and it’s deeply disappointing to see Twitter kill a project they had supported since 2012. It is also disturbing to us that our feed was cut almost three weeks ago and our only direct communication came from Twitter last night, when we were told that their decision was not something that we could appeal, and, most surprisingly, they were not interested in reviewing any of the email conversation from 2012. Clearly, something changed — and we’re not likely to ever know what it was.”

A few items from the department of irony:

It is unfortunate that Twitter decided to take a Snapchat approach to its political speech content. Gates lamented with this warning:

“Unfortunately, Twitter’s decision to pull the plug on Politwoops is a reminder of how the Internet isn’t truly a public square. Our shared conversations are increasingly taking place in privately owned and managed walled gardens, which means that the politics that occur in such conversations are subject to private rules.”

Speculation of trouble at the top in Twitter

We can’t help but wonder if Twitter was the subject of some political pressure. For weeks speculation swirled about an imminent shakeup in their boardroom which led to the very recent ouster of CEO Dick Costolo, while rumors of a Google takeover continue to circulate. This is not the first time they’ve churned their leadership — The Economic Times likened Twitter to “a place more akin to ‘Game of Thrones’ than Silicon Valley-style nose-to-the-grindstone mettle.” 

Here be dragons?

DSCN0444Amy Kerr Hardin

Enjoy Politwoops European Union, Australia, and Canada — all still going strong as of this writing.

The U.S. Poltiwoops archive (including Michigan) is available HERE – from 2012 to June 3, 2015.

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Snyder’s Poor Legacy Earns Michigan an “F” and an Infamous Place in the Dictionary

QUIZ: What do the expressions colossal squid, colony collapse disorder, photobomb, emoji,  jegging, WTF, and dark money have in common?

ANSWER: They all made the list of most recent additions to the Merriam-Webster Unabridged Dictionary:

dark money

Michigan has become “the dark money capital of America.” — Rich Robinson, Executive Director of the Michigan Campaign Finance Network

While they didn’t specifically cite Snyder or his NERD Fund, nor Michigan’s infamous high court “dark money” addiction, those were both key players in pushing the phrase front and center in trending electioneering jargon that’s now part and parcel of the new media lexicon in the aftermath of the Citizens United ruling.

A snapshot of Michigan through a few political maps:

On dark money disclosure Michigan brings up the rear, earning an “F” on the National Institute On Money in State Politics official scorecard for “essential disclosure requirements for independent spending.” (No worries Michigan politicians, you are joined by many other states.)

Disclosure Scorecard

Next, let’s examine the desire of residents to relocate from their current state. A 2013 Gallup Poll found Michiganders poised to get outta Dodge.

State Residents' Desire to moveThe final map, published in the Washington Post, gauges a hot social public policy issue — same-sex marriage. The deep south is predictably mixed, but the upper midwest measures-up in support of a more liberal view.

Support ofr Gay Marriage - Washington Post

A picture or two it seems, does tell the tale. Michigan voters remain firmly socially progressive, and they are on the overall, unhappy with the governance of their state.

Beyond Dark Money, Lansing suffers from Colony Collapse Disorder

John Lindstrom, Publisher at Gongwer News Service, identified an interesting political anomaly over the recent passage of the package of bills designed to thwart same-sex couple adoption in Michigan under the guise of religious freedom. When governor Snyder signed the legislation into law, a number of scathing newspaper editorials resulted. MLive in particular called-out the governor and those hyper-conservative lawmakers for turning Michigan into a “backwater, intolerant, anti-economic development state.”  The editorial got thousands of comments and social media was on fire with criticisms of Michigan leadership.

Yet, the response from Lansing was: crickets.

Lindstrom found it odd that in the wake of their legislative skullduggery, none of the politicians responsible, or their staffers, stepped-up to defend the move as they typically do when called to task over their job performance:

“The [MLive] editorial got much comment on the main social media sites as well, particularly Facebook and Twitter. On those sites, the commentary was almost universally opposed to the legislation, especially the adoption bills. A number of commentators identified themselves as Republicans who said they were upset with the direction of their party.

But unusually quiet were the legislators and defenders of the administration.

…after reviewing the Facebook pages of most the legislators who voted for the adoption package, nary a word in defense of their action or in rebuttal to the editorial.”

While silence gripped Lansing, the ACLU was immediately vocal about their intent to bring suit against the state. Attorney Brooke Tucker told the Detroit Free Press:

“The constitution doesn’t allow discrimination based on religion and you can’t do that with state funds. We’re looking at our legal options and especially looking to hear from people who will be adversely affected by this.”

Michigan leadership is clearly way out of step with its electorate. Between gross gerrymandering of voting districts, retrograde public policies, duplicitous politicians, and an avalanche of dark money, mostly benefitting far-right nut-jobs, the Great Lakes State is a sinking ship.

Gov. Snyder’s weakness is clearly illustrated by his recent political caving on the adoption bills. He likely sold-out to get a roads-funding package passed, and it’s a miserable one at that.

Some legacy.

DSCN0444Amy Kerr Hardin

 

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Aramark — The Corporate Citizen: Oh, The Humanity!

As corporate “people” go, Aramark Inc. is pretty pleased with itself recently. You see they’ve found a way around their public relations train wreck over their less than humane treatment of inmates in prisons around the nation. Between the maggot and rodent feces laced food they’ve served in Michigan and Ohio correctional facilities, the illicit sex acts in prison kitchens, the lack of adequate portions, the unsanitary conditions, the smuggled contraband, and of course the infamous hit job solicited by one of their employees who wanted to whack a prisoner he didn’t care for — well, now their corporate personhood needs a little polishing to maintain that stellar stock market rating with those deliciously lucrative contracts, not to mention the continued feeding of the gold-plated tastes of Eric J. Floss, their high-flying CEO.

Media Alert: Aramark’s decided to go all-out humane in the course of providing their food services. It’s a shining new policy of kindness and caring, with one caveat — its restricted to those of cloven hoof and their be-feathered friends: pigs, calves, chickens, ducks, and geese.

According to the Online Etymology Dictionary, the word humane is an 18th Century derivative of, somewhat obviously, the word human. The two words were previously interchangeable until that pivotal point in history known as the Age of Enlightenment, when humane took on a loftier meaning. But, in the case of the nascent 21st Century corporate breed of  “person”, that nuanced context appears to be limited to livestock.

While Democracy Tree fully supports the ethical treatment of animals, Aramark’s claim to the moral high ground here is more than disingenuous based on their not so estimable treatment of actual humans.

Yes, in a dodgy PR maneuver, Aramark’s CEO recently boasted:

“Our commitments to health, wellness and sustainability are core to our mission of enriching and nourishing lives and include our pledge to responsible purchasing and animal welfare practices. The broad reach of our supply chain provides an opportunity for us to have a significant impact on animal welfare issues and to shift purchasing practices that impact the clients, consumers and communities we serve.”

Specifically, Aramark pledges to phase-in certain livestock protections:

  • Purchasing only cage-free eggs by 2020
  • Eliminating all pork from animals bred using gestation crates by 2017
  • Since 2011, eliminated the purchase of all foie gras

As a morsel of additional irony, the company intends to build regulatory oversight clauses into the process of negotiating contracts with its food suppliers. Aramark’s own contractual agreements with both the Michigan and Ohio Departments of Corrections have been a tale riddled with gross breaches and punitive measures, leading both states to threaten cutting their ties with the troubled vendor.

pig dinning outThis certainly is good news for animal rights activists, along with the chickens and pigs themselves who will now be afforded some level of dignity in their truncated lives — at least marginally above the “cruel and unusual punishment” level. It speaks little of the private food vendor’s commitment to the 8th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, nor that of those government officials who continue to do business with the company.

DSCN0444Amy Kerr Hardin

More on Aramark in Michigan and Ohio.

 

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Just Released: White House Report on The Affordable Care Act in Michigan

Below is a fact sheet from The White House Office of the Press Secretary on how Michigan is faring under the Affordable Care Act.

FACT SHEET: Health Care in Michigan

What the Affordable Care Act is doing for Michigan families

The Affordable Care Act has already covered one in four uninsured Americans – more than ten million – and improved coverage for virtually everyone with health coverage. Insurers can no longer discriminate against preexisting conditions, charge women more just for being women, or put caps on the care you receive. Hospitals, doctors and other providers are changing the way they operate to deliver better care at lower cost. In the years to come, the ability to buy portable and affordable plans on a competitive marketplace will allow countless Americans to move, start businesses, and dream big American dreams — without worrying if an illness will bankrupt them. Here is how the Affordable Care Act is working for families in Michigan:

 After Health Reform: Improved Access to Care

· Gallup recently estimated that the uninsured rate in Michigan in 2014 was 10.8 percent, down from 12.5 percent in 2013.

· Prohibits coverage denials and reduced benefits, protecting as many as 4,394,173 Michiganians who have some type of pre-existing health condition, including 556,167 children.

· Eliminates lifetime and annual limits on insurance coverage and establishes annual limits on out-of-pocket spending on essential health benefits, benefiting 3,547,000 people in Michigan, including 1,315,000 women and 977,000 children.

· Expands Medicaid to all non-eligible adults with incomes under 133% of the federal poverty level.  399,651 more people in Michigan have gained Medicaid or CHIP coverage since the beginning of the Health Insurance Marketplace first open enrollment period.

· Establishes a system of state and federal health insurance exchanges, or marketplaces, to make it easier for individuals and small-business employees to purchase health plans at affordable prices through which 293,843 people in Michigan were covered in March 2015.

· Created a temporary high-risk pool program to cover uninsured people with pre-existing conditions prior to 2014 reforms which helped more than 2,416 people in Michigan.

· Creates health plan disclosure requirements and simple, standardized summaries so 5,677,800 people in Michigan can better understand coverage information and compare benefits.

 After Health Reform: More Affordable Care

· Creates a tax credit to help 228,388 people in Michigan who otherwise cannot afford it purchase health coverage through health insurance marketplaces.

· Requires health insurers to provide consumers with rebates if the amount they spend on health benefits and quality of care, as opposed to advertising and marketing, is too low.  Last year, 184,297 consumers in Michigan received $13,189,718 in rebates.

· Eliminates out-of-pocket costs for preventive services like immunizations, certain cancer screenings, contraception, reproductive counseling, obesity screening, and behavioral assessments for children.  This coverage is guaranteed for more than 4,543,547 people in Michigan including 1,843,405 women.

· Eliminates out-of-pocket costs for 1,411,770 Medicare beneficiaries in Michigan for preventive services like cancer screenings, bone-mass measurements, annual physicals, and smoking cessation.

· Phases out the “donut hole” coverage gap for 205,170 Medicare prescription drug beneficiaries in Michigan, who have saved an average of $1,052 per beneficiary. 

· Creates Accountable Care Organizations consisting of doctors and other health-care providers who share in savings from keeping patients well while improving quality, helping 322,866 Medicare beneficiaries in Michigan.

· Phases out overpayments through the Medicare Advantage system, while requiring Medicare Advantage plans to spend at least 85 percent of Medicare revenue on patient care.  Medicare Advantage enrollment has grown by 212,812 to 610,553 in Michigan since 2009.

After Health Reform: Improved Quality and Accountability to You

· Provides incentives to hospitals in Medicare to reduce hospital-acquired infections and avoidable readmissions.  Creates a collaborative health-safety learning network, the Partnership for Patients, that includes 91 hospitals in Michigan to promote best quality practices. 

We’re not done.  Other legislation and executive actions are continuing to advance the cause of effective, accountable and affordable health care.

This includes:

· Incentive payments for doctors, hospitals, and other providers to adopt and use certified electronic health records (EHR).  In Michigan more than 67.5 percent of hospitals and 47.6 percent of providers have electronic health records systems.

 · A new funding pool for Community Health Centers to build, expand and operate health-care facilities in underserved communities.  Health Center grantees in Michigan now serve 558,059 patients and received $208,926,298 under the health care law to offer a broader array of primary care services, extend their hours of operations, hire more providers, and renovate or build new clinical spaces.

· Health provider training opportunities, with an emphasis on primary care, including a significant expansion of the National Health Service Corps.  As of September 30, 2014, there were 337 Corps clinicians providing primary care services in Michigan, compared to 162 clinicians in 2008.

DSCN0444Amy Kerr Hardin

 

 

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USA Freedom Act? Pffft! Totally Trumped by a Reagan Executive Order Still in Effect

“The Attorney General hereby is delegated the power to approve the use for intelligence purposes, within the United States or against a United States person abroad, of any technique for which a warrant would be required.” — Executive Order 12333 of 1981, President Ronald Reagan

While the sky-is-falling political rhetoric swirled around the merits of the USA Patriot Act and its watered down cousin, the USA Freedom Act, the debate clouded the real threat to America’s Fourth Amendment protections. Right under our noses, the mass intelligence gathering machine of the federal government is chugging-along unfettered, not troubled in the least over the recent bombastic political posturing and predicating of lawmakers and leaders.

They’ve been listening-in for 35 years.

eavesdropping 2

The hard truth is — they didn’t need the 2001 slap-dash legislation with its byzantine language, nor the latest iteration, to enable their ability to snoop and store information on the communications and activities of citizens. No matter the outcome of the doomed 342 page act, and its notorious Provision 215 enabling the bulk collection of metadata, it would affect little change on the activities of those government agencies bent on domestic spying.

Enter Executive Order 12333, courtesy of the Reagan Administration.

“Most members of Congress have no idea how this is being used at all.” –John Napier Tye, former State Department employee turned whistle-blower, discussing E.O. 12333 on TED Talk

As described by John Napier Tye, who served from 2011 to 2014 as section chief for Internet freedom in the State Department’s Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor (yes, that’s a real department), Executive Order Twelve-Triple-Three makes the Patriot Act look like a paragon of Constitutional virtue. According to documents released by Edward Snowden, NPR’s On The Media reports that more than half the data collected by the NSA is under the authority found in Twelve-Triple-Three.

While preparing a speech for his boss on the impact of Snowden’s leak of NSA surveillance practices Vladeck submitted this draft language: “if U.S. citizens disagree with congressional and executive branch determinations about the proper scope of signals intelligence activities, they have the opportunity to change the policy through our democratic process.” 

Full stop. That just isn’t so.

White House counsel advised him to amend his language to obscure both the scope of data collection and the public’s ability to control it through democratic means. In a 2014 Washington Post op-ed, Tye divulged this scary fact:

“….Section 215 is a small part of the picture and does not include the universe of collection and storage of communications by U.S. persons authorized under Executive Order 12333.

From 2011 until April of this year, I worked on global Internet freedom policy as a civil servant at the State Department. In that capacity, I was cleared to receive top-secret and “sensitive compartmented” information. Based in part on classified facts that I am prohibited by law from publishing, I believe that Americans should be even more concerned about the collection and storage of their communications under Executive Order 12333 than under Section 215.”

The reason Twelve-Triple-Three is scarier than the Patriot Act is two-fold. First, it was accomplished through Executive Order, and therefore not subject to congressional or judicial oversight as is a legislative statute. McClatchy-DC describes the murky nature of the order:

Executive Order 12333…still governs most of what the NSA does. It is a sweeping mandate that outlines the duties and foreign intelligence collection for the nation’s 17 intelligence agencies. It is not governed by Congress, and critics say it has little privacy protection and many loopholes. What changes have been made to it have come through guidelines set by the attorney general or other documents.

Additionally, data collected under Twelve-Triple-Three is ostensibly to be only that originating from foreign parties suspected of potential acts of terrorism, however the Executive Order leaves wide open the government’s ability to collect so-called “incidental” information which is code for domestic communications. The loophole is expanded through the current nature of electronic communications — accelerated under new technologies unanticipated in the Reagan years, but now exploited to the fullest by the NSA’s broad dragnet. Domestically generated email and social media communications are stored in multiple servers by Google, Yahoo, and others across the globe — making this information fair game under Twelve-Triple-Three. That means all of it folks, including those regrettable status updates, and emails even you can’t retrieve.

Steve Vladeck, author of the Just Security blog and professor of law at American University, explains that because data is borderless it is impossible for intel-gathering agencies to segregate domestic from foreign communications. Vladeck asserts “it is increasingly clear that the government is collecting an awful lot of U.S. person communications as well, perhaps not intentionally, but certainly knowingly.”

Vladeck explains that the NSA metadata gathered under the Patriot Act was a “very, very small, almost infinitesimal” piece of the spying puzzle. Unlike the Congressional statute, Twelve-Triple-Three collects the actual content of emails, telephone calls, and web searches. Traditionally, Congress has turned a blind eye, assuming that the data mined under Reagan’s Executive Order was focused solely on foreign communications, so this program has enjoyed virtually no oversight for 35 years, and counting.

And Republican lawmakers whine about President Obama’s use of the power of Executive Order.

DSCN0444Amy Kerr Hardin

 

 

 

 

 

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BANG-BANG! Michigan’s Military-Municipal Complex – Some Counties Out of Control?

Is your local government armed to the teeth? Many in Michigan are.

A recent editorial in U.S. News & World Report cited the drama writer’s principle known as “Chekhov’s Gun” — if they have it, they must use it:

“If you say in the first chapter that there is a rifle hanging on the wall, in the second or third chapter it absolutely must go off. If it’s not going to be fired, it shouldn’t be hanging there.” — Anton Chekhov

True in fiction and, sadly, in real life. Ferguson, Missouri comes to mind.

Michigander’s take note, many of your trusted men and women in blue are dangerously over-armed with much more than rifles hanging on a wall, and based on the recent Task Force on 21st Century Policing report, our President has just put the hammer down on their quasi-military activities and questionable armament purchases.

The 103 page report concludes with 15 pages of detailed recommendations and action items designed to foster community trust, reduce the use of force, encourage outreach, improve training, and a slew of other common sense measures, but the point that’s grabbing the most attention simply reads:

RECOMMENDATION: Law enforcement agencies should create policies and procedures for policing mass demonstrations that employ a continuum of managed tactical resources that are designed to minimize the appearance of a military operation and avoid using provocative tactics and equipment.

ACTION ITEM: The Federal Government should create a mechanism for investigating complaints and issuing sanctions regarding the inappropriate use of equipment and tactics during mass demonstrations.

bayonet knife

Military bayonet knife

If you seek a militarized peninsula, look around you.

For those of you who live in one of the following counties, be warned, your police departments are weaponized at a military level: Barry, Berrien, Clare, Clinton, Eaton, Ingham, Genesee, Kent, Newaygo, Oakland, Ogemaw, and Wayne, along with other counties similarly Ramboed-up to a lesser degree.

Among the newly banned military gear are weaponized vehicles and aircraft, camouflage uniforms, grenade launchers, bayonets, and .50 caliber and higher weapons and ammunition.

Grenade launcher-toting police forces can be found crouching in Barry, Berrien, Ottawa, and Wayne counties. At $720 a bang, Barry County is the winner with five of the devices — they could easily wipe-out a smallish township or two, but clearly lack the fire power to hit Kalamazoo or Battle Creek. That’s a relief! And for those old school militants, bayonets can be found in the police departments of Berrien, Clare, Clinton, Eaton, Genesee, Ingham, Kent, Newaygo, Oakland, Ogemaw, and Wayne. After all, if you can’t shoot ‘em, close-quarter disembowelment is always an option.

From air compressors to wrenches, most of the military gear is truly innocuous, but there remain more than a smattering of dubious acquisitions. MRAPs (Mine Resistant Ambush Protected troop transports) were procured by Allegan, Barry, Berrien, Eaton, Livingston, Monroe, Muskegon, Newaygo, Oakland, and Saginaw counties, with the latter county vowing to dispose of the menacing vehicle in the wake of a thorough shaming on late night comedy shows last year.

Camouflage purchases were harder to pin down, as the bulk of the listed clothing does not specify whether it’s camo or not, with the exception being “trousers, snow camouflage”, of which Oakland County felt the need for 240 pairs.

While we’re on the topic of Oakland County, it’s worth mentioning that they are somewhat of an outlier — but in a rather weird sort of way. Either they have a rogue purchasing clerk with a fascination for military gadgetry, or an imminent coup is in store for the tony upscale community. Let’s assume it’s the former. Of the 238 page report, much of it was devoted to Oakland County acquisitions related to vision technology — with over 5 pages of itemized night vision goggles, 7 pages of infrared illuminators, 11 pages of reflex sights, and 400 infrared transmitter units. Couple that ominous collection of creepy gear with their attainment of 2,950 three-point assault slings (used with assault rifles), and 40 ammunition vests — and well, it looks like they’re preparing to do battle with ISIS. Who knew Oakland County was such a hotbed of crime?

While some would like to characterize this armament ban as federal government over-reach, they may want to consult the database on local police militarization before making that claim. Be sure to set aside a few hours for your state — the database, courtesy the Detroit Free Press, is vast.

DSCN0444Amy Kerr Hardin

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Michigan Bill Would Prevent Job Seekers From Knowing They are Scabs

This week, Rep. Amanda Price (R-89) introduced House Bill 4630, co-sponsored by Rep. Gary Glenn (R-98). The proposal is to amend Public Act 150 of 1962 which laid-down employer rules for dealing with replacement workers during a labor dispute, commonly known as “scabs.” Price’s amendment would eliminate the portion of the law that requires employers to inform applicants for replacement work that they would be, well…replacement workers.

strike 2

It’s something you’d think any earnest person would want to know before making their employment decision. After all, who would want to cross a picket line on their first day of work?

If this all sounds familiar, Democracy Tree reported when Price introduced identical legislation back in 2013. That bill passed in the House, was reported favorably out of the Senate Committee on Reforms, Restructuring, and Reinventing in early 2014, but failed on the Senate floor. The current body of lawmakers is even more conservative than the 2013 GOP dominated legislature, giving this retrograde legislation a more favorable consideration the second time around.

The language of both bills is identical. The Senate Fiscal Agency described it this way, back in 2014:

CONTENT

The bill would repeal a section of Public Act 150 of 1962 that prohibits employers from recruiting or advertising for employees to replace striking workers, without notifying potential employees that the employment is offered to replace employees involved in a strike.

Public Act 150 of 1962 governs solicitations for employment. Section 3a prohibits a person, partnership, agency, firm, or corporation, or its agent, from recruiting, soliciting, or advertising for employees, or referring people to employment, in place of employees involved in a lawful strike or lockout, without adequate notice to the person and in the advertisement, that there is a strike or lockout at the place where employment is offered and the employment offered is in place of employees involved in the strike or lockout. The bill would repeal Section 3a.

Another attack on organized labor — we are not surprised, nor amused.

DSCN0444Amy Kerr Hardin

 

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Aramark CEO Spends $800 Thousand on Air Travel

Aramark, the company that Michigan hired to save money on prison food services, seems to be making a pretty penny off the deal, propelling CEO Eric Foss to the head of the jet-setter class. Foss spent nearly $800,000 flying across the nation last year in the corporate jet — an amount far exceeding that of other members in his peer group of the top 100 executives in the country.

corp jet

The private food vendor justified the expense claiming it was an efficient use of funds. Company spokesperson, Karen Cutler, explained to Bloomberg:

“Aramark’s board of directors established a policy in the best interests of the company for the CEO to use a company plane for all air travel for security and safety purposes — as well as to maximize the effectiveness and efficiency of conducting business. Use of the plane is properly monitored by internal audit and the general counsel to ensure full compliance with all regulations.”

Foss brought down $33.8 million in compensation last year, of that $1.1 million was in the form of perks, including his liberal use of the jet. The average cost of CEO air travel perks in the U.S. is $272,180 — but then, Aramark isn’t your average company.

While the Aramark rap sheet of improprieties and corner-cutting contract breaches continues to grow at corrections facilities, public schools, and sports venues across the nation, they are reporting robust earnings, with the latest quarter’s profits clocking in at $59.8 million as compared to $12.9 for the same period last year. And the driving force behind their success? The lucrative North American market, which grew by 6 percent during the quarter, driven by sales cresting at $2.5 billion. The Michigan Department of Corrections is responsible for a tidy portion of those revenues under its $145 million 3-year contract with the vendor that, halfway through, is proving to be a dubious public policy gamble.

The newly appointed Director of MDOC, Heidi Washington, has been an outspoken critic of the quality of food service under Aramark. She didn’t mince her words in emails outlined in a Detroit Free Press report on the vendor based on documents obtained under the Freedom of Information Act.

“At times I felt like Lansing thought I was just being too difficult and too demanding because I was always complaining,” Washington told a contract manager in one of the e-mails, in March of 2014. “However, I think everyone knows that’s not the case.

“Bottom line is lay down with dogs, get up with fleas.”

Gov. Snyder’s 2015 Criminal Justice Special Message on proposed MDOC reform measures carries a decidedly different tone from the past when it comes to privatization. The only direct mention of public-private partnership is for re-entry vocational training for inmates — an area where the support of the private sector is necessary if Michigan is to reduce the state’s cost of housing 43,000 inmates at $35,000 each per year. However, vague language in the report did leave the door open for possible future privatization schemes.

“I am calling for commonsense reforms to ensure that our jails and prisons are used efficiently and appropriately to best serve the public interest and reduce the cost of incarcerating so many people.”

It appears that at least some Republicans in this administration are beginning to understand that privatization isn’t the magic panacea they once thought.

DSCN0444Amy Kerr Hardin

 

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Senate Considers Repeal of Michigan’s Prevailing Wage Law

“Prevailing wage laws are the best deal for taxpayers. A PWL keeps construction costs down by promoting a high-skilled, high-quality construction workforce that completes jobs on time, the first time.” — Frank Manzo IV, Director, Midwest Economic Policy Institute

Tomorrow the Senate Committee on Michigan Competitiveness will be meeting to discuss a package of bills to repeal the state’s prevailing wage law. GOP lawmakers consider this legislation so important that they were the first three bills introduced in this legislative session back in January — not by coincidence, on the same day Gov. Snyder delivered his 2015 State of the State address, where he emphasized the importance of promoting trades education. The three-bill package, SB-1, SB-2, and SB-3 ,would reverse fifty years of wage policy requiring contractors that receive state funds to pay workers at a union-scale rate. Repeal would impact only about 5 percent of construction jobs because the Depression-era federal prevailing wage law applies to all work drawing federal dollars, yet GOP lawmakers insist the savings would be vast.

The Anderson Economic Group claims the state’s prevailing wage law costs Michigan $224 million per year, but study after study catalogued at FairContracting.org refute those findings, citing backend higher costs as a result of employing under-skilled workers. A University of Utah study that looked at the fallout from the repeal of Kentucky’s prevailing wage law found numerous unintended and costly pitfalls:

“Lost skills and lost experience means greater risk of accidents, greater risks of work interruptions, greater risks that work is not completed on-time and greater risks that the work is done poorly requiring rebuilds and higher downstream maintenance costs.”

Other GOP-dominated states are also pushing for repeal of their laws. The Wisconsin Senate Committee on Labor and Government Reform tabled similar legislation late last week, but the measure could still find its way to the Senate floor without committee approval. They were using numbers provided by the Koch brother-backed Americans for Prosperity which conjured the wild estimate of $300 million in savings to be had. However, the Wisconsin Contractor Coalition disputes that figure, stating that wages are not driving-up construction costs, but building materials are.

Back in Michigan, Sen. Steve Bieda (D-9) explained to the Detroit Free Press “I think we’ve made a really strong case of why we need prevailing wage. It’s about worker safety and quality of work. You’ll be opening up projects to fly-by-night operations. I think it’s a shortsighted approach and an assault on working people.”

The data backs-up his claim. The comprehensive Kentucky study looked at a number of factors, among them the unintended costs involved when employing under-skilled workers at a lower wage. Disability costs alone spiked at an alarming rate.

Prevailing wage law states fewer disabilities

Prevailing Wage Law States Have More Experienced and Safer Construction Workers

A repeal of Michigan’s law does not sit well with Gov. Snyder who has expressed concern that it would conflict with his emphasis on trades education and would drive skilled workers out of the state. He’s been fairly clear he intends to oppose the measure — as recently as last week the governor’s spokesperson, Dave Murray, said “He didn’t support it in his first four years, and he doesn’t support it in his second term.” Doubters have been citing his flip-flop on right-to-work back in 2012, but as a lame-duck governor, he is much less likely to make any effort to politically appease this legislature.

The whole exercise smacks more of union-bashing than a serious attempt to shave labor costs. There is some concern that lawmakers will launch a petition drive for a ballot question to repeal the law. That too is political risky business in the wake of the voter spanking the legislature got over their goofy roads proposal last week.

DSCN0444Amy Kerr Hardin

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