Category Archives: Landmark

Jeff Sessions Wants Courts to Rely Less on Science and More on “Science”

Mother Jones

On April 10, a group of lawyers, scientists, judges, crime lab technicians, law enforcement officers, and academics gathered in Washington, DC, for the final quarterly meeting of the National Commission on Forensic Science, a group whose two-year charter expired in late April. The two-day meeting of the commission was a no-frills bureaucratic affair—a few dozen attendees seated in rectangle formation facing each other to deliberate and listen to expert panels. But the bland exterior could not mask ripples of tension. Had the 2016 presidential election turned out differently, the commission’s charter would likely have been renewed. But under President Donald Trump and Attorney General Jeff Sessions, members arrived that morning fearing that their efforts to reform the field of forensic science would be cut short. Shortly after 9 a.m., Andrew Goldsmith, a career Justice Department attorney, delivered the bad news: The commission was coming to an end.

Follow-up questions from a few commissioners revealed more bad news. Efforts to improve forensic science and expert testimony, initiated under the previous administration, were now on hold. Kent Rochford, the acting director of the National Institute of Standards and Technology, the research arm of the Commerce Department, acknowledged that ongoing pilot studies into bite-mark and firearm analyses would not be completed. A representative from the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Policy, Kira Antell, conceded that a project to create guidelines for expert forensic testimony had been paused as well. The message was clear: The era of independent scientific review of forensics is over.

Julia Leighton, a commission member and retired public defender, conveyed the disappointed mood of the room when she spoke a few minutes later. “We have to understand the importance of this juncture that we’re at, where we’re really grappling with, frankly, are we telling the truth as a matter of science to judges and jurors?” she said. “And that can’t be put on hold. It is inconsistent with the Department of Justice’s mission to put that on hold.”

For years, scientists and defense attorneys have fought an uphill battle to bring scientific rigor into a field that, despite its name, is largely devoid of science. Evidence regularly presented in court rooms—such as bite-mark, hair, and lead bullet analysis—that for decades have been employed by prosecutors to convict and even execute defendants are actually incapable of definitively linking an individual to a crime. Other methods, including fingerprint analysis, are less rigorous and more subjective than experts—and popular culture—let on.

But on the witness stand, experts routinely overstate the certainty of their forensic methods. In 2015, the FBI completed a review of 268 trial transcripts in which the bureau’s experts used microscopic hair analysis to incriminate a defendant. The results showed that bureau experts submitted scientifically invalid testimony at least 95 percent of the time. Among those cases with faulty evidence, 33 defendants received the death penalty and 9 had been executed. No court has banned bite-mark evidence despite a consensus among scientists that the discipline is entirely subjective. One study found that forensic dentists couldn’t even agree if markings were caused by human teeth. Until this month, the National Commission on Forensic Science was the most important group moving forensics into the modern scientific era.

A few minutes after the commission learned of its fate, the Justice Department publicly announced its next steps. A new Justice Department Task Force on Crime Reduction and Public Safety, established by executive order in February to “support law enforcement” and “restore public safety,” would now oversee forensic science. Sessions, the press release said, would appoint a senior forensic adviser and the department would conduct a “needs assessment of forensic science laboratories that examines workload, backlog, personnel and equipment needs of public crime laboratories.” Rather than an independent body that uses science to evaluate forensics, the new administration seemed to be basing its forensic policies largely on increasing conviction rates for law enforcement.

Forensic science is a mess. Historically under the sole purview of cops and prosecutors, the advent of DNA evidence exposed the failures of older forensic methods. Fingerprint identification became standard practice in police departments around the early years of the 20th century and for decades was considered the gold standard of forensic science. Firearm or “tool mark” evidence connecting a bullet to a specific gun was also in full swing in the early 20th century—and played a major role of the famous, flawed case against Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti in 1921.

The use of bite marks to identify a suspect began with an actual witch hunt. In 1692, authorities from Salem, Massachusetts, arrested the Reverend George Burroughs for allegedly biting, pinching, and choking girls in order to turn them into witches. During the trial, Burroughs’ mouth was pried open to compare his teeth to the markings found on the injured girls. Twenty years after he was hanged, the colonial government of Massachusetts compensated Burroughs’ children for his wrongful death. Bite-mark evidence should have been put to bed then, but in 1975 a California appeals court upheld a conviction for manslaughter based on bite-mark evidence—even though the court acknowledged a lack of scientific research to support such evidence. Soon, the practice became widespread around the country.

These forensic methods and others were largely developed by law enforcement and guarded from the rigorous testing and peer review used in every other scientific field. As molecular biologist Eric Landler observed in 1989, “At present, forensic science is virtually unregulated—with the paradoxical result that clinical laboratories must meet higher standards to be allowed to diagnose strep throat than forensic labs must meet to put a defendant on death row.”

DNA emerged as a reliable tool in the late 1980s. It has since exonerated tens of thousands of suspects during criminal investigations and more than 349 convicted defendants, according to the Innocence Project. “I think what we’ve seen with the DNA exonerations,” Paul Giannelli, a member of the commission, told Mother Jones at its final meeting, “is that there’s a heck of a lot more innocent people in prison than anyone dreamed of.”

In 2009, the National Academy of Sciences (NAS) issued a landmark study that shook the field of forensics. Only nuclear DNA analysis, the report found, could “consistently, and with a high degree of certainty,” link an individual to a crime. Around the country, it noted, crime labs lack uniform standards, practices, accreditation, and oversight. And forensic methods that involve expert analysis, as opposed to laboratory testing, really weren’t science at all. NAS proposed creating an independent agency to advance the field of forensic science outside the purview of the Justice Department. “The potential for conflicts of interest between the needs of law enforcement and the broader needs of forensic science are too great,” the report reads. “In sum, the committee concluded that advancing science in the forensic science enterprise is not likely to be achieved within the confines of DOJ.”

Reasons to sever the forensic science research from the Justice Department were numerous. In the early 2000s, the National Academy ditched a planned review of forensic methods after the Departments of Justice and Defense claimed a right to review the study before publication—in other words, the government was reserving the right to alter a scientific study. About the same time, the FBI commissioned its own studies as proof that its method of analyzing fingerprints was sound. In one, the bureau sent the 10-digit fingerprint profile of a defendant and two prints from the crime scene to multiple analysts and asked them for a comparison. When 27 percent of the respondents did not find a match, the FBI asked those respondents for a do-over, this time pointing out exactly what markings the experts should look at to connect the crime scene prints to the defendant. The resulting “test,” Giannelli noted in a 2010 law review article, “was rigged.” Yet cracks began to emerge in the FBI’s own methodology. In a 2002 case, an examiner from Scotland Yard, the London police force, testified that the proficiency tests administered to fingerprint analysts at the FBI were incapable of assessing analysts’ abilities. “If I gave my experts these tests, they’d fall about laughing,” he said.

In 2004, Congress gave the Justice Department money to fund forensic labs with the requirement that grantees turn over investigations into serious misconduct and negligence to outside investigators. But the Justice Department’s inspector general repeatedly found that the National Institute of Justice was handing out millions in grants without enforcing the oversight requirements. “That one anecdote is illustrative of their general approach to forensics, which is they just want more,” says Erin Murphy, a professor at New York University School of Law and the author of Inside the Cell: The Dark Side of Forensic DNA. “They don’t really care about the quality of it, they don’t really care about the accuracy of it. They just want more of it.”

The independent government agency the 2009 NAS report called for never came to be, but in 2013 advocates for reform got the next best thing, the National Commission on Forensic Science. Though it was stacked with Justice Department employees as well as representatives of law enforcement and crime labs—a bloc large enough to veto proposals—the commission was prolific during its four-year existence, issuing dozens of recommendations on forensic standards, testing, and accreditation. At the commission’s urging, former Attorney General Loretta Lynch had adopted new accreditation policies for Justice Department labs. Another recommendation Lynch adopted required experts at federal labs to stop saying “reasonable scientific certainty” on the witness stand, which experts had regularly used to bolster their findings. The phrase, the commission concluded, has no scientific meaning and instead conveys a false sense of certainty. Even beyond federal cases, with the commission’s recommendation in hand, a defense attorney could damage the credibility of an expert witness who uses the misleading phrase.

Now, reform advocates see progress halting, and even backsliding, under the new administration. “Definitely bite marks should be terminated,” Giannelli said. “Hair evidence, the way it’s been used, should be terminated. Testimony with respect to fingerprints and firearms identification should acknowledge the limitations of those disciplines, because right now I think the juries are being misled.” He continued: “One of the risks that I see is we’ll go back to the time when there is not science in forensic science.”

Sessions is known as a strong supporter of the use of forensics. As a former prosecutor himself, the attorney general has long supported increased funding for crime labs so that law enforcement can get test results faster. During his 20-year career in the US Senate, he pushed to increase DNA testing—a bipartisan issue. But when it comes to regulating local crime labs or subjecting forensics to scientific studies, Sessions has been a skeptic. Questions about the reliability of forensic methods irked him because they hurt prosecutors’ ability to win convictions based on forensic evidence; calls for more oversight contradicted his desire to see local law enforcement unencumbered by federal oversight or regulation. Given this history, it wasn’t a surprise that Sessions chose to end the commission and bring forensic science research back under the direct supervision of the Justice Department.

In 2009, the Senate Judiciary Committee held a hearing on the bombshell 2009 NAS report. In his opening statement, Sessions, the committee’s top ranking Republican at the time, expressed skepticism of the report’s findings. “I don’t accept the idea that they seem to suggest that fingerprints is not a proven technology,” he said. “I don’t think we should suggest that those proven scientific principles that we’ve been using for decades are somehow uncertain.” Instead, Sessions’ worried that the NAS report would be used by defense attorneys during cross-examination to discredit exerts, leaving prosecutors “to fend off challenges on the most basic issues in a trial.”

The hearing took place in the shadow of new information about the case of Cameron Todd Willingham, a Texas man who was executed in 2004 after he was found guilty of murdering his three children by setting fire to their home. The principal evidence prosecutors used against Willingham was the findings of two fire investigators who claimed that the conflagration could only have been caused by arson. Yet even before Willingham’s execution, the arson evidence against him had been debunked by a premier fire expert, though Texas’ clemency process had failed to heed the report. In August 2009, a few weeks before the Senate hearing, a fire scientist hired to review the case issued a blistering report denouncing the original investigators’ work as “characteristic of mystics or psychics,” not scientists. A few weeks later, The New Yorker published a detailed investigation of the Willingham case. Based on flawed forensic science, an innocent man had been executed.

When Sessions had his turn to question the witness panel, he brought up the Willingham case. Sessions read extensively from a piece of commentary submitted to a small Texas newspaper by John Jackson, one of the prosecutors in the Willingham case, who had gone on to become a local judge. In his op-ed, Jackson claimed that despite the flawed forensic evidence, Willingham was guilty, and listed bullet points intended to prove Willingham’s guilt. But Jackson’s points read like someone in denial of the newfound facts about the case—in fact, the author of The New Yorker piece, David Grann, had already written his own rebuttal to Jackson’s list by the time of the Senate hearing. Still, Sessions proceeded to read several misleading facts about the case. “That does not excuse a flawed forensic report,” Sessions concluded. “But it looks like there was other evidence in the case indicating guilt.”

The 2009 investigation into the Willingham case was the work of Texas’ own Forensic Science Commission—a state-level version of the national commission that Sessions just closed down. In the last few years, the Texas commission has received increased funding and responsibilities from the state Legislature, becoming a national leader in reviewing the scientific validity of forensic disciplines. It has taken up issues such as hair analysis and problems with DNA testing, and last year it recommended a ban on using bite-mark evidence in the courtroom. Texas, not Washington, is now carrying the torch for forensic reformers.

At the final meeting of the National Commission on Forensic Science, the group held a session on wrongful convictions, featuring Keith Harward, who had served 33 years in Virginia for a rape and murder based on bite-mark evidence before being exonerated by DNA evidence. When the panel ended, a few members expressed a sense of helplessness now that the commission was shutting down. John Hollway, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania Law School, rose to apologize to Harward for the decades he lost in prison. “Your story brings up the tragedy of putting this commission on hold,” said Hollway, who was not a commission member but was involved in subcommittee work. Hollway said he worried that “we will lose time to help the other people like you who are incarcerated improperly or, worse, the people who are still to be incarcerated improperly because we cannot solve these problems yet.”

Link: 

Jeff Sessions Wants Courts to Rely Less on Science and More on “Science”

Posted in FF, GE, LAI, Landmark, LG, ONA, oven, PUR, Radius, Uncategorized, Venta | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

DeVos Pick to Head Civil Rights Office Once Said She Faced Discrimination for Being White

Mother Jones

<!DOCTYPE html PUBLIC “-//W3C//DTD HTML 4.0 Transitional//EN” “http://www.w3.org/TR/REC-html40/loose.dtd”>

This story originally appeared on ProPublica.

As an undergraduate studying calculus at Stanford University in the mid-1990s, Candice Jackson “gravitated” toward a section of the class that provided students with extra help on challenging problems, she wrote in a student publication. Then she learned that the section was reserved for minority students.

“I am especially disappointed that the University encourages these and other discriminatory programs,” she wrote in the Stanford Review. “We need to allow each person to define his or her own achievements instead of assuming competence or incompetence based on race.”

Although her limited background in civil rights law makes it difficult to infer her positions on specific issues, Jackson’s writings during and after college suggest she’s likely to steer one of the Education Department’s most important—and controversial—branches in a different direction than her predecessors. A longtime anti-Clinton activist and an outspoken conservative-turned-libertarian, she has denounced feminism and race-based preferences. She’s also written favorably about, and helped edit a book by, an economist who decried both compulsory education and the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1964.

Jackson’s inexperience, along with speculation that Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos will roll back civil rights enforcement, lead some observers to wonder whether Jackson, like several other Trump administration appointees, lacks sympathy for the traditional mission of the office she’s been chosen to lead.

Her appointment “doesn’t leave me with a feeling of confidence with where the administration might be going,” said Theodore Shaw, director of the Center for Civil Rights at the University of North Carolina School of Law, who led Barack Obama’s transition team for civil rights at the Department of Justice.

“I hope that she’s not going to be an adversary to the civil rights community and I hope that the administration is going to enforce civil rights laws and represent the best interests of those who are affected by civil rights issues.”

On Wednesday, DeVos formally announced Jackson’s position as deputy assistant secretary in the Office for Civil Rights, a role that does not require Senate confirmation. The 39-year-old attorney will act as assistant secretary in charge of the office until that position is filled. DeVos has not yet selected a nominee, who would have to receive Senate confirmation. As acting head, Jackson is in charge of about 550 full-time department staffers, who are responsible for investigating thousands of civil rights complaints each year.

Jackson referred ProPublica’s interview request to the U.S. Department of Education, which did not respond to our request. Neither Jackson nor the department responded to ProPublica’s emailed questions.

Jackson takes over an office that has been responsible for protecting students from racial, gender, disability and age discrimination for decades. Under the Obama administration, the office increased its caseload. It emphasized to colleges that they could give preferences to minorities and women to achieve diversity, and advised them to be more aggressive in investigating allegations of rape and sexual harassment on campus. Some of the guidance from the office provoked controversy, particularly among Republicans who have long called for the office to be scaled back.

Jackson grew up in the Pacific Northwest, where her parents operate two medical practices, specializing in family and aesthetic medicine. Her father, Dr. Rick Jackson, also ran unsuccessfully for Congress and is a country music singer under the name Ricky Lee Jackson. Jackson’s brothers have acting and music careers as well. Jackson and her mother have helped provide “business and legal” management for her father and brothers, according to a biography on her website from 2016.

In 2009, Jackson co-wrote a Christian country song with her father and brother, called “Freedom, Family and Faith.” The lyrics had an anti-government tinge: “Some politician wants our liberty/ They say just trust me, we’re all family/ I’ve got a family and hey, it’s not you/ Don’t need Big Brother to see us through.”

While in college, Jackson joined the Stanford Review as a junior, after transferring to the university in 1996 from a community college in Los Angeles. When she arrived, according to a Review article she wrote during her senior year, she was “eager to carry the message of freedom to Stanford through the only conservative publication on campus.”

Eric Jackson, no relation, who is Candice’s friend, former classmate and book publisher, said the conservative perspective of the Stanford Review often went against the status quo on campus. It took “courage,” he said, to write for the publication, which was co-founded in 1987 by PayPal billionaire and Donald Trump adviser Peter Thiel. “A number of us got death threats,” he recalled.

One topic of heated debate on campus was affirmative action, which California banned in public institutions, such as universities, in 1996. The prohibition did not affect private universities, like Stanford, which could continue to employ preferential policies both in admissions and in special programs designed to assist minority students in college-level math and science courses.

During her senior year, Candice Jackson penned her objections in an op-ed, contending the university “promotes racial discrimination” with its practices.

“As with most liberal solutions to a problem, giving special assistance to minority students is a band-aid solution to a deep problem,” she wrote. “No one, least of all the minority student, is well served by receiving special treatment based on race or ethnicity.”

Jackson was far from the only critic of such minority-only programs. In 2003, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology opened up similar programs to all races.

In another article Jackson penned for the Review during her senior year, entitled “How I Survived Stanford Without Entering the Women’s Center,” she condemned feminism on campus.

“In today’s society, women have the same opportunities as men to advance their careers, raise families, and pursue their personal goals,” she wrote. “College women who insist on banding together by gender to fight for their rights are moving backwards, not forwards.”

In the article, she encouraged women to choose conservatism over feminism. “I think many women are instinctively conservative, but are guided into the folds of feminism before discovering the conservative community,” she wrote.

She concluded, “the real women’s issues are conservative ones.”

Her former Stanford Review colleague, Eric Jackson, told ProPublica that her college writings are nearly 20 years old and that it’s important to understand the context of her commentary. “The feminist culture she was critiquing was different than what happens today,” he said. Jackson, he added, is “very pro-woman.”

After Stanford, Jackson “exchanged conservatism for libertarianism,” she later wrote. She did a summer fellowship at the Ludwig von Mises Institute, a free-market think tank in Auburn, Alabama, according to an institute publication. The institute was reportedly founded with money raised by former congressman and 1988 Libertarian Party presidential candidate Ron Paul, and is a leading hub of contemporary libertarian scholars.

While at the Institute, Jackson provided editorial assistance on a book of collected essays by the institute’s co-founder, economic historian Murray N. Rothbard. A charismatic figure who devoted his life to ideas, Rothbard died a few years before Jackson’s fellowship. Mark Thornton, an economist and a senior fellow at the Mises Institute who vaguely recalled Jackson but did not specifically remember her role at the center, said that her editorial assistance may have involved proofreading.

Rothbard’s 1999 book, “Education: Free and Compulsory,” advocated for a voluntary education system, denouncing government-mandated schooling. Currently, all U.S. states require students to attend school until they are at least 16 years old.

“To force these children to be exposed to schooling, as the State does almost everywhere, is a criminal offense to their natures,” wrote Rothbard. “In any case, the instruction has almost no effect on these children, many of whose hours of life are simply wasted because of the State’s decree.”

This was not Jackson’s only connection to Rothbard’s work. She also wrote two papers analyzing his theories. One essay compared his philosophy to that of libertarian novelist Ayn Rand. In the other, she wrote that his 1982 book, “The Ethics of Liberty,” “shines as a monumental achievement, meeting Rothbard’s goal of setting forth ‘a positive ethical system … to establish the case for individual liberty.'”

In other essays, published on a former colleague’s website, Rothbard called the Civil Rights Act of 1964 “monstrous,” and lambasted one provision of it, which prohibited employment discrimination, as “a horrendous invasion of the property rights of the employer.”

Rothbard was “about as fringe as you could be and still be a tenured professor,” said Bryan Caplan, an economics professor at George Mason University, who met him twice.

If someone was a follower of Rothbard, Caplan told ProPublica, “instead of thinking of discrimination as a rampant problem, they would say the free market would take care of it.”

Jackson has often collaborated on articles with William Anderson, an associate scholar at the Mises Institute and a professor of economics at Frostburg State University in Maryland. Their work has appeared in the publication Reason and on the website of Llewellyn Rockwell, a co-founder and chairman of the Mises Institute.

Anderson, who told ProPublica that he has known Jackson for years, said that she would likely approach her position at the Education Department from “the standpoint of individual rights and due process.”

After graduating from Pepperdine University’s School of Law in 2002, Jackson also worked for Judicial Watch, a conservative legal advocacy group, for nearly two years as a litigation counsel, according to her LinkedIn page.

In the past few years, she has operated her own law firm. According to a recent biography on her website, her practice specialized in “business, entertainment, and litigation matters,” for a range of clients, “from restaurants to medical clinics, and from authors and musicians to filmmakers and record labels.”

In 2005, Jackson wrote a book on the allegations of sexual misconduct against Bill Clinton, titled “Their Lives: The Women Targeted by the Clinton Machine.” She gained national attention last October after she arranged for several of Bill Clinton’s accusers to attend a presidential debate between Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. Jackson sat with the women in the front of the audience. A few days before the debate, Jackson established Their Lives Foundation. In registration documents, she described two of its purposes as “giving public voice to victims of women who abuse positions of power” and “advocating for and against candidates for political office.”

Less than a week after the debate, Jackson posted on Facebook that her foundation “supports all victims of power abusers,” but labeled Trump’s accusers “fake victims.” Since the initial announcement of her Education Department role, her Facebook page has been taken offline.

Research assistance provided by Vivian Lam.

Link: 

DeVos Pick to Head Civil Rights Office Once Said She Faced Discrimination for Being White

Posted in alo, FF, GE, LAI, Landmark, LG, ONA, ProPublica, PUR, Radius, Uncategorized, Venta | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

It’s Not Every Day That a Federal Judge Pens a Tribute to a Transgender Teen

Mother Jones

<!DOCTYPE html PUBLIC “-//W3C//DTD HTML 4.0 Transitional//EN” “http://www.w3.org/TR/REC-html40/loose.dtd”>

Gavin Grimm, a 17-year-old transgender boy from Virginia, has had a rough few months. He’s suing for access to the boys’ bathroom at his high school, and in March the Supreme Court announced that it was kicking this landmark transgender rights case back to a federal appeals court.

Today, that appeals court rejected his request to expedite his case, which means it won’t be heard until after he graduates. But along with today’s order, Judge Andre Davis of the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals penned a remarkable, must-read tribute to the teen, calling him a “brave individual” and quoting Dr. Martin Luther King:

Our country has a long and ignominious history of discriminating against our most vulnerable and powerless. We have an equally long history, however, of brave individuals—Dred Scott, Fred Korematsu, Linda Brown, Mildred and Richard Loving, Edie Windsor, and Jim Obergefell, to name just a few—who refused to accept quietly the injustices that were perpetuated against them. It is unsurprising, of course, that the burden of confronting and remedying injustice falls on the shoulders of the oppressed. These individuals looked to the federal courts to vindicate their claims to human dignity, but as the names listed above make clear, the judiciary’s response has been decidedly mixed. Today, G.G. adds his name to the list of plaintiffs whose struggle for justice has been delayed and rebuffed; as Dr. King reminded us, however, “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.” G.G.’s journey is delayed but not finished.

The tribute ends with a footnote of a poem by Naomi Shihab Nye. Read the whole thing here.

Original article – 

It’s Not Every Day That a Federal Judge Pens a Tribute to a Transgender Teen

Posted in alo, FF, GE, LAI, Landmark, LG, ONA, Radius, Uncategorized, Venta | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Republicans Just Went Nuclear. Neil Gorsuch Is Heading to the Supreme Court.

Mother Jones

<!DOCTYPE html PUBLIC “-//W3C//DTD HTML 4.0 Transitional//EN” “http://www.w3.org/TR/REC-html40/loose.dtd”>

Senate Republicans on Thursday voted to kill the filibuster for Supreme Court nominees, invoking the so-called “nuclear option” so that a minority party will no longer have the ability to block a vote for nominees to the nation’s highest court. The rule change cleared the way for the confirmation of Neil Gorsuch, President Donald Trump’s nominee to fill the empty seat of the late Justice Antonin Scalia. Gorsuch is expected to be officially confirmed Friday.

Over the past two weeks, Democrats coalesced around a strategy of filibustering Gorsuch when all but three Democratic senators announced they would oppose him—even though it was widely believed that Republicans would respond by changing the rules to prohibit filibusters of Supreme Court nominees. The decision was risky because it means Democrats will now have even less leverage if one of the more liberal justices leaves the court while Trump is in the White House.

Democrats’ actions were in part a result of the party’s activist and donor base, which has been pushing lawmakers to resist Trump and his nominee to the fullest extent possible. Democrats want to keep their base energized, not demoralized. But Democrats had other reasons for filibustering, as well. There was the issue of Merrick Garland, President Barack Obama’s nominee to the Supreme Court last year, whom Republicans in the Senate refused to even consider. The Garland episode helped persuade Democrats that temporarily preserving the ability to filibuster would be of little use, since Republicans were already prepared to do whatever it takes to put conservative justices on the court. As a progressive activist explained to Mother Jones, “Any vote that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and Senate Republicans take is really just the icing on the cake—this thing has been cooked since Senate Republicans defied any sense of decorum in their treatment of Barack Obama.”

Democrats were also motivated by deep concerns about Gorsuch’s jurisprudence and his performance during his confirmation process. In his confirmation hearings, Gorsuch was so disinclined to reveal anything about his judicial philosophy that it took considerable cajoling to get him to express an opinion on Brown v. Board of Education, the landmark decision that struck down segregation in public education.

What Democrats could ascertain from Gorsuch’s record suggested that he was an ultra-conservative jurist who would go out of his way to issue broad rulings rather than taking a narrow approach to decisions, including in a case that limited aid for special education children in public schools. In remarks on the Senate floor Thursday, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) suggested that Gorsuch could become the most conservative member of the Supreme Court.

Finally, Democrats were put off by how Gorsuch conducted himself in the meetings he held with senators. Three senators, all women of color, claimed Gorsuch had failed to meet with them after their offices had tried to schedule a meeting.

As Ian Millhiser, a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress, explained to the Washington Post, Gorsuch hurt his chances with Democrats throughout the process: “He mansplained fairly basic concepts to women senators. He pushed way too hard on the ‘I’m not going to express a view about anything, ever’ fallback—much harder than previous nominees. And then, after the Supreme Court unanimously overturned one of his opinions, he defended himself by misrepresenting his own opinion.” On the third day of Gorsuch’s confirmation hearings, the Supreme Court handed down a unanimous opinion overturning Gorsuch’s approach to enforcement of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act, a piece of Gorsuch’s record that had particularly irked Democrats.

Gorsuch will soon be a Supreme Court justice, but his confirmation will go down as a major moment in the continued breakdown of the US Senate.

Read More:

Republicans Just Went Nuclear. Neil Gorsuch Is Heading to the Supreme Court.

Posted in FF, GE, LAI, Landmark, LG, ONA, Radius, Uncategorized, Venta | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Jeff Sessions Does Not Think Your Local Police Department Is His Problem

Mother Jones

Attorney General Jeff Sessions on Monday ordered a review of all reform agreements between the Department of Justice and police departments nationwide, such as a recent consent decree entered to overhaul the troubled Baltimore Police Department. In a memo to DOJ staff, Sessions wrote that “it is not the responsibility of the federal government to manage non-federal law enforcement agencies.” The review—which will be led by Sessions’ two top deputies—was ordered as part of a broader assessment of all DOJ activities.

The move alarmed civil rights and police reform advocates. “We have a very serious problem in this country with the relationship between police and the communities they serve,” Jonathan Smith, who oversaw nearly two dozen investigations into police departments as head of the Special Litigation Section of the DOJ’s Civil Rights Division under President Barack Obama, told Mother Jones in a phone interview. Sessions’ memo signals “a retreat from the federal government’s commitment” to ensuring police departments comply with the Constitution, Smith said, adding that widespread misconduct in police departments is “not about bad police officers. It’s about bad systems, lack of accountability, bad policies, and bad practices.”

Under Obama, the Department of Justice opened 25 civil rights investigations into police departments and enforced 14 consent decrees, or agreements with departments that mandate reforms. All of them are all still active. In mid-January, the DOJ announced that it had reached a consent decree with the Baltimore Police Department and an agreement with the Chicago Police Department to pursue a decree just days before Trump’s inauguration. The investigation into CPD—and the negotiation process for BPD’s consent decree—were reportedly rushed to a close due to fear that both would stall under Trump. Sessions criticized the use of consent decrees during his confirmation hearings and has said the DOJ will “pull back” on police oversight efforts under his leadership.

A report released in February by Samuel Walker, a police reform expert at the University of Nebraska in Omaha, determined that most consent decrees enforced by the Department of Justice since 1994—when Congress passed legislation granting the DOJ oversight authority over local police agencies—have been successful in achieving long-term reforms. Consent decrees are binding legal agreements, and once signed, they are overseen by a federal judge and an appointed monitor. The DOJ’s ability to interfere with that process is limited, Smith said.

But there are things the DOJ can do to undermine it. It could ignore violations of decrees and stop taking police departments to court because of them. It could also seek to renegotiate the terms of a decree or to have it dropped altogether—though that would be difficult even with the cooperation of a police department, Smith said. “After all, these injunctions are entered to protect the public interest,” Smith said.

Sessions’ review calls into question whether the DOJ will follow through on enforcing a nascent consent decree with the Baltimore Police Department or enter into a decree with the Chicago Police Department at all. After Sessions sent out the memo calling for the review, DOJ attorneys asked a Maryland judge to delay a court hearing so that it could “review and assess” Baltimore’s consent decree. The city’s mayor and police chief said on Monday that they oppose any delay in the process. Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel and the city’s police chief also said in a joint statement yesterday they are committed to following through on the police reforms recommended by the DOJ’s report whether or not the federal government is involved. The DOJ launched investigations into the Baltimore Police Department and Chicago Police Department in 2015 amid outrage over the police-involved deaths of Freddie Gray in Baltimore and Laquan McDonald in Chicago.

Sessions has already suggested that the DOJ will stop opening new civil rights investigations into police departments. And President Donald Trump’s March budget proposal would cut more than $1 billion from the department’s resources. Funding for the department’s Civil Rights Division—which handles police reform work—is not addressed explicitly in the budget outline, but a blueprint drafted by the Heritage Foundation, from which parts of Trump’s budget appear to be lifted, would cut $58 million from the Civil Rights Division, or 33 percent of its current budget.

Christy Lopez, who also helped to oversee police reform investigations at the DOJ under Obama, said such a drastic budget cut would be a “silent killer” of the Civil Rights Division, including its work on police reform. “At that point it’s not a matter of will. You just don’t have the people” or resources to open new cases or follow up on existing consent decrees, Lopez said. “There were dozens of cases we wanted to do but couldn’t because we didn’t have the staff,” Smith said of his police reform work at the DOJ.

Given the tone Sessions and Trump have set, Smith thinks state attorneys general will now be crucial to ensuring police accountability and should exercise more oversight over their local police departments. “If the federal government is not going to do it, the states in general and other local bodies are critical to this process,” Smith said. States could mimic legislation like that in California, for example, that gives the state attorney general the authority to conduct DOJ-style investigations into local police departments and pursue a consent decree, Smith said. “There are 18,000 law enforcement agencies in the United States. The US Department of Justice is never going to get to those. But an attorney general can really make an enormous difference in their state.”

Read article here:  

Jeff Sessions Does Not Think Your Local Police Department Is His Problem

Posted in FF, GE, Jason, Landmark, LG, ONA, PUR, Radius, Uncategorized, Venta | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment