Perceptions About Wisconsin State Supreme Court Matter

I felt uncomfortable Sunday while reading the front page of the Wisconsin State Journal concerning the state’s high court.  Within a few paragraphs it seemed that Chief Justice Shirley Abrahamson was making decisions on cases based on something other than a firm legal finding.  It appeared that lawyers who donated money to her campaigns were getting something for their money.  As the story unfolded it also was reported that justices tended to rule in favor of clients whose attorneys contribute to the  justices’ election campaigns.

It seemed that justice could be manipulated with money.

At the outset it should be noted that I have deep respect for Justice Abrahamson.  I find her to be honorable, highly intelligent, and one of the most pleasant women to have a conversation with that one can meet.  I sat a little straighter as I read the article as it made me feel that she was being tarred in a way that was not fair.    I am sure there are many others around the state who feel the same about the other justices mentioned in the story.

While I would hope that a financial contribution would not bend an otherwise smart jurist from rendering a legal opinion, it also has to be stated up front that the whole question would be moot if some common sense proposals were enacted into law.  While I want to think that justices are a caliber or two above others in government, (and I guess that view harkens back to my civics education) I also am aware that the perception of justice not being handed out in a fair manner is one that exists among the citizenry.  The question therefore is what can we do to find a remedy.

The underlying themes that were presented in the story are not new, and in fact have long been talked about by good-government types for many years.  It is troubling that there is a partisan angle to our judicial elections.  I argue it is unwise that we even have elections for the high court in the manner they are now held.  And I certainly have problems with the cash that is allowed to be used in these races.

Many have advocated for merit selection for the court, and failing that at least public financing for judicial races.  The reason something must be done is that citizens deserve a supreme court that can be viewed as a fair arbiter on the big judicial questions that face the state.  When public approval of our government and public institutions are shrinking we need to find the path forward to instill trust and a sense of competence.

At the heart of the matter is the blending of very costly judicial campaigns that blur into political races.  With that as a fact it is almost impossible not to then have a collision of interests and ethics when cases are heard.  To allow for the corroded electoral process of electing justices to continue does not serve the greater good, or live up to the standards of justice that we were taught in civics class.

What was on the front page of the paper should trouble us all.  Not only because we may know that one or more of the justices are really mired in the law and the process of hearing and ruling cases in a fair manner, but that there does exist a tangled set of ethical matters that needs to be clarified and then fixed.

Vice-President Dick Cheney Over-Stepped HIs Bounds, As Did His Staff

There is one most delicious story in the Sunday newspaper that demands to be read.  In the book section Days Of Fire by Peter Baker is reviewed, and it is one amazing critique.

White House management in the first term could be summed up by the formula Dick Cheney > Karl Rove > Andy Card, with Bush a sometimes amused, sometimes frustrated observer of his administration’s internal power struggles. In the second administration, Bush replaced Card as chief of staff with a steely enforcer of presidential supremacy, the quiet policy wonk Josh Bolten.       

A story from 2007 shows the Bolten method in operation. The Supreme Court had decided to hear an important case on gun rights. Cheney discovered that Solicitor General Paul Clement planned to file a brief that fell short of Cheney’s own views. In protest, he signed his name to a much stronger brief filed by 55 pro-gun senators and 250 members of the House of Representatives.       

Bolten was appalled. He warned Cheney there could be only one administration position. “I did it in my capacity as president of the Senate,” Cheney answered. (Cheney made ingenious use of the constitutional quirk that makes the vice president both an executive and a legislative officer.) Cheney’s top aide, David Addington, reminded Bolten that he, Addington, was paid by the Senate, not the White House.       

“ ‘Understood,’ Bolten replied, ‘but if we have another episode like this, I will make sure that all of your belongings and your mail are forwarded to your tiny office in the Senate and you won’t be welcome back inside the gates of the White House.’ ”

Gay Marriage Starts Monday In New Jersey

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Another step is being taken in the long march for full civil rights for gay Americans when New Jersey starts to allow for marriage ceremonies on Monday.

Late last week New Jersey’s highest court cleared the way for gay marriage even though Republican Governor Chris Christie for what I think is purely presidential reasons (such as Iowa caucus goers) has spoken out against the nuptials.  With the first “I do” New Jersey becomes the 14th state allowing for gay marriage.

That is a good thing for our nation and our society.

The court ruling is spawned from a lower court decision that found the existing civil-union legislation to be unconstitutional and discriminatory.  The state high court when ruling in favor of gay marriage stated “We can find no public interest in depriving a group of New Jersey residents of their constitutional right to equal protection while the appeals process unfolds.”

It is most clear to all that civil unions are more than half-a-loaf short of meaningful protection when it comes to legal rights for gay people.  Civil union partners in New Jersey were not eligible for a long list of federal benefits including such things as leave time under the Family and Medical Leave Act, or the attaining of coverage for health benefits as a “spouse” of a federal employee.  Gay couples were also not able to file a joint federal tax return.

No matter how one slices or dices the issue there is only one solution.

That is the fair and equitable allowing of gay men and women to marry not only in New Jersey but in all fifty states.

The opposition to gay marriage, such as the fake partisan rationale of Governor Christie, must end.

How President Kennedy Changed Televison

One of the most interesting articles in the Sunday newspaper.

KENNEDY

And the nation was transfixed. Following the White House confirmation of Kennedy’s death, nearly half of all the country’s TV homes were in use. A few hours later, nearly two-thirds of all TV homes were tuned in. And on Monday afternoon, during the funeral coverage, viewers in 81 percent of the nation’s homes had their eyes glued to the screen, according to Nielsen.

This upended a world where people still got most of their news from print, when newsreels still accompanied the features at movie theaters.

“It was the coming of age of television news,” says Dan Rather, who was in Dallas to coordinate CBS’ coverage of a political visit by the president that was expected to produce little actual news.

“Television intensified all the emotions of those four days. It intensified the shock and horror of the murder, and then the murder of the murderer,” Caro says, referring to Lee Harvey Oswald’s slaying. “It intensified the grief and the mourning and the mystery. And it intensified the healing process of the funeral ceremonies.”

But TV also assisted with a seldom-recognized part of the transition process, Caro adds: It reintroduced a man who for three years toiled in the margins — Johnson, Kennedy’s vice president — as he was summoned to command at a crisis point of trauma and alarm.

Says Caro, “You have to recognize the relationship of television not only to the dead president, but also to the new president taking over — his reassuring, calming effect on the public because of his demeanor.”