Thursday, June 27, 2013

If They Only Had a Brain...

...they could while away the hours, conferrin' with the flowers, Consultin' with the rain.  
And their heads they'd be scratchin' while their thoughts were busy hatchin'  

If they only had a brain.

I don't know about you but I've had just about enough of the mindless 'reporting' from the media.  Be it left, right, or center, they've all demonstrated a lack of an ability to think and express coherent thoughts over the past 24 hours.  How many headlines have you seen that says "Supreme Court declares DOMA unconstitutional" or "Supreme Court strikes down ban on gay marriage as unconstitutional"?  Plenty, I'm sure.  As I was driving to the office this morning I heard the mouthpiece on MPB (that's Mississippi Public Broadcasting for those outside the state...not allowed to call it NPR here) say "the Court declared DOMA unconstitutional" and "the Court struck down California's Proposition 8."  Uh, no they didn't.  On either account.  So what exactly DID the Court do yesterday?

Defense of Marriage Act
 The case for this is United States v. Windsor (2013) and involves same-sex couple Edith Windsor and Thea Spyer, who were legally married in Canada but resided in New York.  The state of New York recognized the couple as legally married.  Ms. Spyer died in 2009 and left her estate to Ms. Windsor.  However, because federal law (due to DOMA) did not recognize same sex marriages Ms. Windsor was assessed an inheritance tax on the estate of about $363,000.  Had the federal government recognized their marriage the tax would not have been applicable.  Windsor sued the IRS, setting up the challenge to DOMA.  In 2011, President Obama announced that he would not defend DOMA in court so the House Republicans stepped in to defend the law.  The specific question before the Court was whether the federal government could establish a different definition of marriage than a state for the purpose of federal benefits and federal law.  Section 3 defined marriage as the union of one man and one woman for federal purposes.  

So what did the Court rule?  The majority opinion in the case, authored by Anthony Kennedy, is that section 3 infringed upon the traditional role of states in defining what is and is not marriage.  The federal government has never played a role in defining marriage and that is beyond the scope of the powers granted to it by the constitution.  Defining marriage is a 10th amendment power reserved for the states, or the people.  States are free to define marriage however they want and the federal government must recognize marriages that are legally sanctioned by a state.  Failure to do so creates two classes of citizens, one which has arbitrarily been denied due process of law.  The ruling invalidated section 3 of DOMA.

But the Court did NOT strike down DOMA nor did it declare it unconstitutional.  Section 2 of the law remains in force.  Section 2 exempts states from the Full Faith and Credit clause of Article IV of the constitution.  No state is required to recognize the official acts of another state regarding same sex marriage if that marriage is not legal in the state.  That part of DOMA is still law until such time as it is challenged.  When that happens, I think DOMA will fall because Congress lacks the power to exempt states from the provisions of Article IV without amending the constitution.

Proposition 8

Opponents of prop 8 argued that the law violated the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th amendment.  A District Court in CA agreed and struck down the law.  Proponents of the law then appealed to the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, which affirmed the District Court ruling in a 2-1 decision.  The proponents then appealed to the US Supreme Court.  In the 5-4 ruling yesterday by Chief Justice John Roberts Jr. the Court ruled that the proponents of the law had suffered no injury or harm as a result of the District Court decision and that the 9th Circuit had unduly accepted their appeal.  Thus, the proponents lacked the standing to sue and so the 9th Circuit ruling must be vacated.  The Court then sent the case back to the 9th Circuit and ordered the Court to dismiss the case. 

What Does That Mean?
The short story is that it means the District Court decision striking down prop 8 stands...for now.  Same sex marriage will be legal in CA as soon as the 9th Circuit complies with the Supreme Court's order.  But...the ruling by the Supreme Court does NOT itself say anything about the validity of state or voter sanctioned bans on same sex marriage.  In other words, the Court dodged the question about whether the 14th amendment requires states to recognize same sex marriages on equal protection grounds.  It allows all the states that have such bans in place to keep those bans.  Nothing changes outside of California, for now.

So, the next time you hear a reporter or talking head say the Court struck down prop 8 just start whistling and singing like the famous scarecrow from Oz...if they only had a brain!

Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Death of the Voting Rights Act: A Law No Longer Needed or a Prescription for Voter Suppression?

After signing the landmark Voting Rights Act of 1965 (VRA), which gave Congress and the Justice Department the authority to pre-clear any and all changes to voting practices, laws, etc... in the states (mostly southern) with past histories of grievous discrimination on the basis of race, President Lyndon B Johnson reportedly remarked that he had just ensured southerners would vote Republican for generations to come.  History tells us that his remark was accurate, though the change did not happen nearly as fast as Johnson had forecast.  A quick look at the electoral maps in the presidential elections since 1968 shows a growing pattern of southern voters, predominately white southern voters, switching from the Democrats to the Republicans.  By 1980, the transition was complete, though Bill Clinton, a moderate southern Democrat, was able to carry a few states south of the Mason-Dixon line in 1992 and 1996.  The transition was much slower in the House and the Senate, though today there are few Democrats representing any of the old confederacy.  Those that do are usually from districts drawn with a majority population that is African-American (i.e., Mississippi's 2nd Congressional District).  During that same period, African-American participation in elections, particularly in the South, rose dramatically to the point where it is now on par with that of white participation in elections.  There seem to be two primary viewpoints on the matter today.  I'll discuss them each in turn.

The first view is that because black participation in elections has increased to the level of whites, the Voting Rights Act is moot and no longer necessary.  Or at least the part of it requiring any changes to voting procedures by the states subject to the law be given clearance by the Justice Department prior to implementation.  That's what the Supreme Court said in a 5-4 ruling issued by Chief Justice John Roberts Jr. on June 25, 2013.  In Roberts' view, the states singled out by the 1965 law have changed.  Racism and voter suppression efforts are a thing of the past.  Thus, the formula determining which states are subject to the law is outdated and unnecessary.  The Court did not strike down the concept of pre-clearance, just the formula that was devised in 1966.  Given the dysfunctional Congress we have today, however, it seems the concept is effectively dead anyway. 

The second view holds that black participation in elections has reached the level of whites because of the protections afforded black citizens by the VRA.  They argue that if the protections are removed those who want to suppress voting by blacks and other minorities will enact laws aimed at doing just that.  Further, those laws, such as Texas' and Mississippi's voter ID requirements, will not be subject to clearance by the Justice Department.  This may lead to a decline in black/minority participation in the electoral process in those states, advocates of the VRA claim.  In essence, Jim Crow will once again thrive throughout the South.

I won't pretend to know who's right and who's wrong on this issue.  What I do know is that both major political parties and their supporters try to suppress the vote for the other party's candidates in every election.  Protections must be put in place to prevent majorities in power from manipulating the law to cement their own power at the expense of the minority.  What the Court did yesterday is to take the burden of proof that changes to existing voting procedures would not disenfranchise black/minority voters away from the states and their legislatures.  The burden of proof will now rest upon individuals, or groups of individuals, to prove that a law or procedural change has, in fact, disenfranchised them.  States will henceforth be considered innocent until proven guilty in a court of law.  Given the extreme difficulty (and expense) of proving voter suppression and/or disenfranchisement, it seems the Court has given states (and the majorities that control their legislatures) free reign when it comes to election law.  My hope is that they will use this power to enhance the democratic process by making voting simpler and easier for all legal citizens.  My fear is that they will not.

Monday, June 24, 2013

Politics: It's as Dangerous as War...Battlestar Galactica Episodes 11-12

Episode 11 begins with the news that the fleet is running short on fuel.  Commander Adama sends scouts out to look for asteroids laden with fuel that can be mined.  What they locate is a Cylon base guarded by hundreds of Cylon Raiders.  Adama once again finds himself making military command decisions and decides that a surprise attack on a superior force is what he needs to do.  He chooses Starbuck to design the plan due to her unconventional thinking.  Roslyn comes aboard Galactica and stands in as Starbuck lays out the battle plan.  Roslyn approves and the battle is on.  It seems detente between Adama and Roslyn has settled in.

Episode 12 is all about politics.  Terrorist turned statesman Tom Zarek is named as a delegate to the council of 12 meeting with the president.  He says that it is necessary to choose a VP in case of Roslyn's demise.  Zarek is nominated by several delegates.  Roslyn initially chooses a long time friend but when worried that Zarek may win she chooses Dr. Gaius Baltar.  As the votes are counted Zarek takes a 6-5 lead over Baltar with one vote remaining.  Afterwards, Adama and Roslyn share a drink and Adama says 'Politics.  It's as dangerous as war.'  Roslyn responds 'In war, you only die once.  In politics, they kill you over and over.'  Truer words were never spoken.

Sunday, June 23, 2013

The Politics of Battlestar Galactica: Episodes 6-10

The tension between the civilian leadership (Roslyn) and the military leadership (Adama) continues to worsen.  It is somewhat reminiscent of the relationship Harry Truman had with General Douglas MacArthur, though Adama has not outright disobeyed an order from the president yet. 

Each side of the leadership is presented with several difficult challenges in these episodes.  On the military side, one of Adama's top pilots has disappeared after an encounter with a Cylon raider.  He dispatches a team to search for the pilot with no success.  All the while, the president is getting antsy about the entire fleet being exposed to an imminent Cylon attack if they do not jump to a new location ASAP.  Adama tells Roslyn that finding his pilot is a 'military decision' and she tells him that ensuring the survival of her people takes precedence over the life of a single pilot.  Adama concedes her point and orders the fleet to prepare to jump.

As a feeling of safety and security begins to permeate the fleet, President Roslyn tells the people that Cylons have managed to infiltrate the fleet and now look human.  Adama worries that this will lead to everyone suspecting everyone else, reminiscent of post 9/11 America and the fear that anyone among us could be a terrorist in deep cover. 

As episode 9 opens Gaius Baltar is accused of aiding the Cylons to destroy the defense ministry just prior to the attack.  The accusation is made by a copy of the number six model onboard Galactica, placing both Commander Adama and President Roslyn in a difficult situation as both have trusted Baltar and given him access to much data and equipment.  Baltar maintains his innocence in meetings with both Adama and Roslyn.  Adama hopes for Baltar's innocence but Roslyn's 'gut' tells her he is guilty.  Baltar asks forgiveness for not wanting to be executed based on her gut feeling. 

Episode 10 begins with the discovery of a Cylon saboteur who claims he has planted a nuclear warhead somewhere in the fleet.  He is taken into custody and tortured by the military officer in charge of interrogating him, though he refuses to give up any information.  President Roslyn arrives and asks what has been learned while expressing disgust over the military tactics.  She apologizes for the torture, offers to grant him a pardon in exchange for the information about the bomb and offers peace.  He admits the bomb is not real and tells Roslyn that Adama is a Cylon.  Roslyn then orders him tossed out into space through the airlock.  Roslyn has now taken control and, like Nixon, believes that being president makes her actions legal and beyond question.  Justice is now determined by a single judge, President Roslyn.

Sunday, June 16, 2013

The Politics of Galactica, Episodes 3-5

Episode 3: 33

The tensions between President Roslyn and the military continue to simmer.  On more than one occasion Commander Adama refers to President Roslyn as a 'schoolteacher.'  We see clearly a lack of respect for the political order (and politicians) as Adama believes the most important thing is winning the war (though he privately admits the war is over and humanity has lost).  More importantly, the Cylon attack fleet arrives every 33 minutes so the entire fleet must 'jump' to a new location every 33 minutes.  Until one of the civilian ships is left behind.  Then the Cylons do not arrive.  Both Adama and Roslyn agree that there must be some kind of tracker on the civilian ship that leads the Cylons to the fleet.  When the ship fails to shut down its engines and remain at a safe distance from the fleet Roslyn is faced with her first major executive decision.  Does she order the destruction of a ship with 1300 humans aboard or does she risk the entire fleet? 

Episode 4:  Water

After a saboteur destroys a large portion of Galactica's water reserve tanks, Adama sends pilots on a mission to locate water supplies for the fleet.  At the same time, Roslyn is wrestling with the decision she made regarding the civilian ship and confides in Lee Adama (the commander's son) that leaders make decisions and often second guess themselves.  Yet, even when they privately know a wrong decision was made they must stand by it in public.  Roslyn is quickly developing the art of being a politician.  Meanwhile, Commander Adama is stoic and resolute, saying that leaders make decisions and accept the consequences of those decisions, right or wrong. 

Episode 5: Bastille Day

Needing labor to retrieve the water from the moon, Adama and Roslyn agree to use prisoners as their labor force.  Adama sees them as criminals and slaves who can be ordered to do what he wants.  Roslyn sees them as human beings with dignity and prefers persuasion to forced labor.  One of the prisoners, Tom Zarek, an anti-government rebel organizes the prisoners to oppose the labor idea and begins a rebellion.   Zarek demands the resignation of President Roslyn followed by free elections.  Adama decides to storm the ship and take it back from the prisoners.  Lee convinces Zarek to have the prisoners help retrieve the water in exchange for elections within a year and turning the ship over to the prisoners.  Adama is angered by this and Roslyn at first expresses disdain until Lee reminds her that her term expires in 7 months.  If Democracy means anything and she respects the rule of law she will honor the constitution of the now destroyed colonial government.  Back on Galactica, Dr. Baltar, who is taking orders from Cylon number Six, tells Commander Adama that he can only build a Cylon detector if he has a nuclear warhead.  Adama is taken aback at this but decides to give it to him without consulting President Roslyn.  It seems we are always just one step away from a military coup.

Battlestar Galactica (2004): The Politics of Leadership

An interesting piece appeared on The Monkey Cage the other day by a former grad student colleague about the politics of Battlestar Galactica (2004).  It got me to thinking how much I had enjoyed the show but never really paid much attention to executive decisionmaking portrayed in the series.  So now I'm going back to watch all the episodes and plan to selectively blog about some of the highlights from a political science perspective.  I'll try not to spoil the episodes for those who have not seen the series.  For those who have, perhaps you'll see it from a different perspective.

Main Characters:
  • Commander William Adama (Commander of the Battlestar Galactica)
  • Laura Roslyn (Education Secretary, 43rd in line to the presidency)
  • Gaius Baltar (philanderer, scientist, traitor)
  • Number Six (one of the 12 models of human looking Cylons)  
  • Starbuck (Galactica's top fighter pilot) 

Battlestar Galactica: The Mini-Series (Episodes 1 & 2 on Netflix)

 The series revolves around the ongoing war between the human created Cylons and their creators (an analogy to the war man has declared against God, according to some biblical expositors).  One of the main characters, Commander William Adama, makes an allusion to this in his farewell address as the Battlestar Galactica is set to be decommissioned when he compares human beings to God. 

The series begins with the arrival of Education Secretary Roslyn aboard Battlestar Galactica for the decommissioning ceremony.  Commander Adama greets Secretary Roslyn and immediately lays down the ground networked computers aboard Galactica.  We see this rule enforced again when his son, Captain Lee Adama, arrives and is instructed he must do a 'hands on' landing rather than an automated one, per the commander's orders.  One of the themes we will see in the series is the recurring struggle between the leaders and those under their authority, much as we see in the political arena.  Adama is a military leader so he is used to simply giving an order and expecting his subordinates to carry it out.  Roslyn, on the other hand, is a political leader who must rely on skills such as persuasion and popularity to get things done, especially by those who disagree with her. 

After a devastating Cylon attack on Caprica, everything changes.  Laura Roslyn is sworn in as president on board Colonial 1 in a scene eerily familiar to when LBJ took office.  Commander Adama decides to take control of the military fleet after the death of the admiral and an ensuing power struggle between military and civilian control begins.  Roslyn must learn the art of persuasion while Adama must learn how to deal with challenges to his authority. 

More next time....