Archive

December 11th

Supreme Court justices are not immune to the news

    Monday, just a few days after the shootings in San Bernardino, California, the U.S. Supreme Court announced it won't hear a challenge to a Chicago suburb's ban on semiautomatic weapons. Tuesday, in the wake of a semester's turmoil over race on campuses from Missouri to New Haven, the court is hearing a challenge to affirmative action.

    Coincidence? Well, sort of.

    The court's actions -- refusing to hear the gun challenge while considering affirmative action -- are case studies of judicial timing that raise a broader question: How is the court influenced by day-to-day headlines and current events? The answer turns out to be more complicated, and more interesting, than you might think.

    To start with, it's important to remember that the justices are limited in their actions and case selection by parties' decision to ask them for review. Unlike, say, the Supreme Court of Pakistan, which opens cases on its own motion (sua moto, in law Latin), the U.S. court can't actively shape its own agenda.

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Stop Tying Terrorist Attacks to Unrelated Issues

    Traumatic national events often lead promoters of various causes to attempt a product tie-in. The terrorist attack in San Bernardino, California, was no exception.

    The agendas may be worthy of support, but trying to Scotch-tape them onto only vaguely related circumstances comes off as phony. This is done across the political spectrum, but in the recent tragedy, the left has gotten especially sloppy.

    Yes, America needs to ban weapons of war and the sale of all guns to crazy people. But the gun control advocates' campaign to make the outrage in San Bernardino about the free flow of guns is disingenuous.

    Gun control laws do not deter terrorists who can make bombs out of common household chemicals. France has strict gun laws, and look at the weaponry the Paris monsters got their hands on. The Sept. 11 hijackers used box cutters. It's not that our uncontrolled flow of guns isn't a serious problem. It's just that it is not this story.

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Obama team weighs cyberwar options on Islamic State

    After the massacre at San Bernardino, President Obama's national security advisers are re-examining when to ask Internet companies to take down jihadi propaganda and social media accounts, according to U.S. officials.

    The issue is not new. Al-Qaida and its franchises have used the Internet systematically for more than a decade. But the Islamic State has flooded social media like Twitter and Facebook to provide future recruits all over the world a steady stream of slickly produced material that encourages the kind of do-it- yourself terrorism that has plagued Europe and the United States in recent years.

    The problem for U.S. policymakers is whether to treat this flood of social media as a cancer that must be eradicated or a source of valuable intelligence on the plots and techniques jihadis use to attack the West.

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Obama fails to deliver in tone. Congress fails to deliver on war against Islamic State.

    President Barack Obama has the impossible job of calming a freaked-out nation while trying to " destroy ISIL (the Islamic State) and any other organization that tries to harm us ," as he vowed in his Oval Office address Sunday night. And he has to do it in a presidential election year when emotions trump facts, red-hot rhetoric passes for policy and rational debate is futile.

    Because said task is impossible, Obama's speech was bound to leave folks unsatisfied. If his tone were an oven setting, it was "pre-heat" while the nation clamors for "broil" in the wake of the Islamic State-inspired slaughter in San Bernadino, Calif., last week and the Islamic State-directed attacks in Paris last month. Predictably, Republicans leapt on the president like so many Agent Smiths on Neo in "The Matrix." But I'm going to focus on only one aspect of the president's address: war.

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Downsizing the News Staff; Downsizing Quality and Credibility

    On Monday, Nov. 2, every National Geographic staffer was told to report to the magazine’s Washington, D.C., headquarters the next day to await a phone call or e-mail from Human Resources.

    Ever since Rupert Murdoch’s 21st Century Fox corporation bought the magazine in September, there were rumors the new owner would maximize profits by terminating employees. Those predictions came through when Management fired 180 people, and told dozens of others they were being offered “voluntary buy-outs.” The corporation also announced it was eliminating health coverage for future retirees and was freezing all pensions. Management told the public there would be no loss of quality, but it’s hard to believe those claims when the same management sliced photo editors, designers, writers, and several fact-checkers from the payroll.

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Downsizing the News Staff; Downsizing Quality and Credibility

    On Monday, Nov. 2, every National Geographic staffer was told to report to the magazine’s Washington, D.C., headquarters the next day to await a phone call or e-mail from Human Resources.

    Ever since Rupert Murdoch’s 21st Century Fox corporation bought the magazine in September, there were rumors the new owner would maximize profits by terminating employees. Those predictions came through when Management fired 180 people, and told dozens of others they were being offered “voluntary buy-outs.” The corporation also announced it was eliminating health coverage for future retirees and was freezing all pensions. Management told the public there would be no loss of quality, but it’s hard to believe those claims when the same management sliced photo editors, designers, writers, and several fact-checkers from the payroll.

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The unlikely alliance to reform U.S. prisons

    The most interesting political meeting this week may be the one between Valerie Jarrett, the closest confidante of President Barack Obama, and Mark Holden, the general counsel for Koch Industries, the conglomerate owned by the anti-Obama Koch brothers.

    This will be their fourth meeting. They correspond regularly and have developed a mutual respect while working on the most sweeping reform of the U.S. criminal justice system in decades.

    Addressing the economic and social cost of the huge prison problem -- more than 2.3 million people are incarcerated in America, a higher share of the population than almost anywhere else -- is a priority for both the White House and the Kochs.

    The effort is advancing in both houses of Congress; House Speaker Paul Ryan and Senate Leader Mitch McConnell are committed to bringing legislation to the floor.

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No, you don't have an absolute right to own guns

    The "Second Amendment," more than a right, has become a rhetorical device. It's a counterargument in two words, a rallying cry designed to end debate. Want to restrict firearms, or regulate their sale, or limit which kinds Americans can buy?

    Meet the Second Amendment, the simplest rebuttal goes. It creates the unfettered right to own guns in America. Full stop.

    This claim -- prominent among gun-rights advocates -- implies that the Second Amendment establishes not just a right to own guns, but a right that the government cannot legally limit. The problem with this argument: None of our rights work this way.

    "The Supreme Court has said repeatedly that no right under the Constitution is absolute," says Adam Winkler, a law professor at UCLA and the author of "Gunfight: The Battle over the Right to Bear Arms in America. "In general, where the government has very strong reasons to restrict a right, it can."

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In Baltimore, not even Santa on a Harley can ease tensions from Freddie Gray case

    In this slightly off-kilter, riot-scarred city, Santa arrives on a tugboat. Or roars past the rowhouses on 34th Street in Hampden on a Harley.

    The gum is smack-chewed, the eyeglasses are cartoonishly cat-eyed and folks invite strangers onto their porches to look inside at the white-flocked motorized Christmas tree that is slowly twirling, even while dad opens the mail on the couch in his jammies and the dog sleeps with his hindquarters smooshed against the glass front door.

    This is Bawlmer, hon. And we are strolling the Miracle on 34th Street, a block of rowhouses that goes bazonkers every year with the most animatronic and explosively fabulous Christmas decorations.

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Congress gets a positive year-end review

    I jab at the majority Republicans in Congress when they don't do their job, so I should give them credit when they do.

    A five-year highway bill has been sent to the president. That's something Republican Congresses since the 1990s (and the Democratic ones in 2007-2010) have found difficult to do. Bloomberg View columnist Barry Ritholtz makes a reasonable argument against the way the bill is funded, but I agree with Kevin Drum of Mother Jones on this one: Muddling through is good enough.

    Up next is an education bill. Legislators have had revising or replacing No Child Left Behind on their to-do list for years. This Congress is getting it done, with just a final Senate vote remaining.

    In both cases, Republicans in the House and Senate demonstrated the ability to compromise and cut deals to get much of what they wanted, even if it wasn't everything they hoped for.

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