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The saga over Donald Trump’s tax returns rolls on

Mié, 01/06/2016 - 18:24

IN FEBRUARY, Donald Trump said he hoped to release his tax returns in “three [or] four months.” Progress has not been forthcoming. His excuse for the continued delay is that the taxman is auditing the returns, and that his lawyers say he should keep his papers private in the meantime. If Mr Trump does not release any tax returns before November, he will be the first major candidate since 1976 not to do so.

There is no legal reason Mr Trump cannot release his returns while they are under audit. Paul Krugman, a New York Times columnist and economist, has argued that the audit should in fact make him more willing to go public—were no audit underway, he might fear that newspaper headlines would trigger one. A generous explanation for Mr Trump’s stance is that his lawyers think that a crowdsourced effort to find problems with Mr Trump’s (no doubt complex) tax affairs might be more effective—or less forgiving—than that of the chronically-underfunded IRS. This, though, seems a stretch. Even if it is true, it means that...Continue reading

Mothers are the government’s best allies against Islamic State recruiters

Mar, 31/05/2016 - 16:47

DEQA HUSSEN is the mother of Abdirizak Warsame (pictured above), one of ten Minnesota Somalis indicted in the trial of young men allegedly recruited by Islamic State (IS), and one of six who have already pleaded guilty to charges of conspiring to provide material support to IS. A mother of eight, she has urged members of the Somali community to stop denying the danger that IS poses to their children and to work with the FBI. This has made her enemies within the Somali community and led to tensions with her own children.

On May 25th Mr Warsame testified against his former friends, Guled Omar, Abdirahman Daud and Mohamed Farah, who didn’t agree to a plea deal and are on trial for attempting to join IS and commit murder abroad. They face a maximum sentence of life in prison. (The six who pleaded guilty face a maximum sentence of 15 years in prison; the tenth of the indicted Somalis is presumed to be in Syria.)  Mr Warsame was about to resume his testimony when his sister, Sahra Warsame, was handcuffed and led away after a noisy row with her mother. Ms Warsame once dated Mr Daud and wanted to show solidarity by sitting with the...Continue reading

Donald Trump is not a fascist*

Lun, 30/05/2016 - 11:04


THAT there is debate among conservative thinkers about whether the Republican nominee might in fact be a fascist is quite a thing. Andrew Sullivan thinks that to apply the label to Donald Trump might be an insult to fascism. Robert Kagan thinks Mr Trump is a precursor to a 1930s revival in politics. The problem with the comparison is that it comes with an accusation of impending genocide that overshadows whatever enlightenment might come from making it. Mr Trump is not a fascist, if by that you mean a successor to Mussolini or...Continue reading

A new law in South Carolina chips away at Roe v Wade

Jue, 26/05/2016 - 20:22

EVER since 1973, when the Supreme Court ruled that women have a limited constitutional right to end their pregnancies, states have imposed restrictions designed to curtail that right or make it more difficult to exercise. Two recent examples illustrate the varying levels of intensity with which pro-life activists are trying to chip away at Roe v Wade.

Last week in Oklahoma, lawmakers passed a bill that undermines the very basis of Roe. By a vote of 33-12 in the Senate and 59-9 in the House of Representatives, Senate Bill 1552—which would have made it a felony for doctors to perform abortion unless the procedure is necessary to save the woman’s life—sailed through the Oklahoma legislature. But the governor, who is pro-life, Mary Fallin, vetoed the bill on the grounds that it was clearly unconstitutional. “The bill is so ambiguous and so vague”, she wrote, “that doctors cannot be certain what medical circumstances would...Continue reading

Authorities investigate whether Terry McAuliffe violated lobbying restrictions

Jue, 26/05/2016 - 18:15

TERRY MCAULIFFE—a long-term ally of Hillary Clinton—was elected governor of Virginia in 2013 because, as a Democrat, he represented a clean break from the corruption scandal that brought his Republican predecessor, Bob McDonnell, low. Indeed, Mr McAuliffe made ethics reform a major theme of his administration. But only three years later, Mr McAuliffe has found himself under investigation by the Department of Justice.

Virginia, which produced many of the early icons of American representative government, is usually known for upright politics; for two consecutive governors to be tarnished in this way is unfortunate. Mr McDonnell was convicted in 2014 of selling his office, but is appealing to the Supreme Court. The McAuliffe controversy, though it should not be compared to Mr McDonnell’s case, may be important for different reasons. Mr McAuliffe is a major fundraiser for Mrs Clinton, and he governs a swing state that is critical to her chances in November. While Mrs Clinton’s nomination in July may be assured, she still faces many challenges, foremost among them federal scrutiny of her use of a private email server as secretary of...Continue reading

A judge sends government lawyers to an ethics class

Mié, 25/05/2016 - 04:49

AN ODD side scuffle is taking place in the legal fight over the executive orders Barack Obama issued in 2014 to soften America’s immigration policy. With a Supreme Court decision pending in United States v Texas, a 26-state challenge to Mr Obama’s move to temporarily protect up to 5m undocumented immigrants from deportation, the Texas judge who first brought those orders to a halt is picking a fight with the Department of Justice in Washington, DC.

On May 19th, Judge Andrew Hanen released an angst-filled 28-page order making unprecedented demands on the Justice department after savaging its lawyers for lying to him. Sprinkled with dialogue from movies ranging from last year’s Cold War thriller “Bridge of Spies” and “Miracle on 34th Street” (the Christmas classic), the order hammers home the importance of good old-fashioned values like respect for rules and being honest. (The Judge: “Tommy, you know the difference between telling the truth and telling a lie, don’t you?” Tommy Mara Jr.: “Gosh, everybody knows you shouldn’t tell a lie, especially in court.”) But in the course of crafting his jeremiad, Judge...Continue reading

The Supreme Court cracks down on racist prosecutors

Lun, 23/05/2016 - 20:24

THE Supreme Court tends to expend more energy detangling questions of law than it does sorting through questions of fact. But on May 23rd, in a decision that could spare the life of a death-row inmate in Georgia, the justices took a microscope to the jury selection process in the trial of Timothy Tyrone Foster, a black man sentenced to die by an all-white jury in 1987 for murdering an elderly woman a year earlier. After examining evidence that emerged in 2006, the justices decided, by a 7-1 vote, that prosecutors were illicitly motivated by racial bias when they struck two blacks from Mr Foster’s jury pool. Justice Clarence Thomas, the lone dissenter, wrote that there were “credible” non-racist reasons for dismissing them from the list of potential jurors; his colleagues’ dive into a three-decade-old trial, Justice Thomas charged, was “flabbergasting”.

In his majority opinion in Foster v Chatman, Chief Justice John Roberts methodically marched through rather damning evidence that the men prosecuting Mr Foster were hell-bent on keeping black people...Continue reading

Why America’s food labels are approaching their best before date

Lun, 23/05/2016 - 16:37

SELL by; use by; best by; expires on. American food products display a range of authoritative-sounding labels that are often inconsistently applied and confusing. Many people think expiration labels are federally regulated. In fact, they are decided upon at the state level or by manufacturers themselves—and they often cause consumers to throw away perfectly good food. 

A new law could change that.The Food Labelling Act, which was introduced on May 18th, would ensure that “Best if used by” meant that food was still safe, if not at its most fresh, while “Expires on” (used on packets of raw meat and fish, say) would indicate just that. The bill's proponents say that a national system of labelling, requiring manufacturers to use the same terms consistently, would reduce confusion and waste. 

The act would also prohibit states from preventing shops or retailers from donating products which appear to be past their expiration date but are perfectly safe to charities and homeless shelters across America. Currently, 20 states restrict the donation of post-date food.

The National Resources Defence Council says...Continue reading

Trump’s Supreme Court wish-list is designed to reassure conservatives

Jue, 19/05/2016 - 19:30

DURING his run for the Republican nomination, Donald Trump has shown willingness to defend opposing views on nearly every big issue in American politics. He once supported women’s reproductive rights, including so-called partial-birth abortion, yet now savages Roe v Wade as having created a “culture of death”; women who terminate their pregnancies, he said in March (before backtracking), should face “some form of punishment”. Mr Trump identifies nuclear proliferation as a grave threat to global security; he also thinks it would be a good idea for more countries, including Japan and South Korea, to have nuclear weapons. The untold complexity of Mr Trump’s positions extends to matters from gun control and the war in Afghanistan to interrogation techniques and his pet issue, Continue reading

Why Americans will be more vulnerable to Zika than they should be

Mié, 18/05/2016 - 20:54

IF ANYTHING could persuade Republican congressmen to put aside their partisan gripes, you might think it be would the imminent arrival in America of a disease that causes babies to be born dead, with brain and eye lesions, or with shrunken heads. You would be wrong. The refusal of Republican congressmen to meet Barack Obama’s request for $1.9 billion to fight the Zika virus, which culminated this week in the Senate voting to release much lesser sums, shows American democracy at its worst. It will leave Americans more vulnerable to Zika than they should be.

Over 500 Americans—including 48 pregnant women—have already contracted the virus, in most cases by travelling to the more than 40 countries, mostly in the Americas, where it is present. Around 700 people have contracted the virus in Puerto Rico; it is expected to spread to the southern United States any time soon. It is not expected to rage countrywide, as it has in some poorer, hotter countries. Primarily spread by the Aedes aegypti mosquito, whose lightning bite makes it hard to swat, Zika does not thrive in places with modern buildings and air conditioning. But it is...Continue reading

The Supreme Court dodges a decision on contraceptive coverage

Mié, 18/05/2016 - 18:15

THE SUPREME COURT refuses a hearing to about 99% of the 7,000 or so cases that reach its inbox each year. But once the justices accept a case onto their docket, they generally side with one party or another. Not so in Zubik v Burwell, one of this year’s most closely watched cases which fizzled to a close on May 16th. The diminished 8-member court issued a unanimous 3-page ruling sidestepping all of the substantive questions it faced in a battle between religious groups and the federal government over birth control and Obamacare. With only a smidgen of guidance from the highest court in the land, the cases will head back down to federal appeals courts for another go.

Speaking in one voice, the eight justices papered over their demonstrably contrasting views on the legal merits of the religious non-profit groups’ challenge to Obamacare. The organisations charge that the Obama administration’s opt-out policy still violates their religious liberty because the notice they are required to provide of their objection triggers their insurance company to provide...Continue reading

Pfizer’s move throws a wrench into America’s death-penalty machinery

Lun, 16/05/2016 - 19:11

“FIRST, do no harm.” Executives of pharmaceutical companies are not subject to this guiding principle of the Hippocratic oath—only doctors are. But increasingly, drug manufacturers are taking steps to ensure that their formulations do not wind up in syringes used for lethal injections of condemned prisoners. Last week, Pfizer, one of America’s largest drug companies, announced that it would no longer supply prisons with seven drugs used to impose the death penalty. “Pfizer’s mission is to apply science and our global resources to improve health and well-being at every stage of life”, the statement says. “Consistent with these values, Pfizer strongly objects to the use of its products as lethal injections for capital punishment.” The firm will sell the drugs “only for medically prescribed patient care and not for any penal purposes”, and take pains to ensure that the “select group of wholesalers, distributors and direct purchasers” who buy these drugs—pancuronium bromide, potassium chloride, propofol, midazolam, hydromorphone,...Continue reading

The Obama administration tells schools to accommodate gender identity

Vie, 13/05/2016 - 08:40

WHEN John Locke chose Cicero’s dictum “salus populi suprema lex esto” (“let the public welfare be the supreme law”) as the epigraph for his Second Treatise on Government, it’s safe to say he wasn’t thinking about toilet rules. But 327 years after Locke wrote his defence of limited government and natural rights, America’s latest legal-political spat involves grown-ups debating who gets to use which loo.

First, in March, legislators in North Carolina sought to subvert an anti-discrimination ordinance in Charlotte, the state’s biggest city, that permitted transgendered people to use public restrooms corresponding to their gender identity. The Republican-led legislature quickly drafted and passed a law, the Public Facilities Privacy and Security Act, requiring people in schools and government buildings to use the bathroom matching the sex recorded on their birth certificate. Then, in response, the federal government wrote North Carolina’s governor, Pat McCrory, a rather strongly worded letter telling him that the bathroom bill violated the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and threatening to withhold more than $4...Continue reading

A battle rages over the renaming of a law school after Antonin Scalia

Mar, 10/05/2016 - 18:00

IT IS in part an accident of geography that George Mason University has become a sprawling public institution. It sits in the prosperous Northern Virginia suburb of Fairfax County, home to thousands of lawyers, lobbyists and bureaucrats who work in Washington, DC. Proximity to the nation's capital means that since it opened 44 years ago the university has become a well-financed perch from which public intellectuals and political figures attempt to influence federal policy.

Many of these idea-brokers are conservatives, backed by such benefactors as brothers David and Charles Koch, the Midwest industrialists. Now, a huge slug of cash donated to George Mason by conservative donors has caused a row at the university. In recognition of a combined $30 million gift—$20 million from an anonymous donor steered to George Mason by the Federalist Society, a conservative legal reform group, and $10 million from the Charles Koch Foundation—the university has said it will name its law school after Antonin Scalia, the late associate justice of the Supreme Court. The donor of the larger portion requested the name change.

A conservative...Continue reading

Why the Supreme Court is slowing down

Lun, 09/05/2016 - 05:21

WITH five votes, the late Justice William Brennan liked to tell his clerks, “you can do anything around here”. Justice Brennan’s rule still applies after the death in February of Antonin Scalia. But with only eight justices remaining, the magic number of five is now harder to come by. Twice since Mr Scalia's death the Supreme Court has performed the judicial equivalent of throwing up its hands. In a small case concerning banking rules and in a hugely consequential case challenging the future of public-sector unions, the justices issued one-sentence per curiam (“by the court”) rulings: “The judgment is affirmed by an equally divided court.” A tie in the high court means that the ruling in the court below stands. But a tie-induced affirmance does not bind other lower courts, and the judgment has no value as a precedent. A tie, in short, leaves everything as it was and as it would have been had the justices never agreed to hear the case in the first place.

That’s a lot of wasted ink, paper, time and breath. And now it seems the justices may be keen to reduce future futile efforts as they contemplate a year or more with...Continue reading

How balancing America’s budget became a game

Vie, 06/05/2016 - 21:48

THE BROOKINGS Institution and the Wilson Centre, two Washington think-tanks, are putting the “fun” in “funding the federal government”. They have launched an online minigame which challenges all comers to balance the budget (or at least, keep the debt-to-GDP ratio from rising) over 25 years, without throwing their favourite policies overboard. Choose imprudently and the “fiscal ship”—also the title of the game—will sink. The wonks hope to reach perhaps half a million voters and schoolchildren who might otherwise never realise that tweaking the corporate tax code can be fun. The Wilson’s Centre’s previous effort, “Budget Hero”, was played over 2m times. Hopefully, players will find it easier to control spending than the think-tanks did: the new game set them back about $1m.

A Texas law could disenfranchise 600,000 voters

Jue, 05/05/2016 - 05:15

FIG LEAVES are often draped over controversial laws coming out of the Republican-dominated legislature in Texas. But when a judge takes a closer look, the reality of the legislation tends to be laid bare fairly quickly. In March, Texas's solicitor general struggled, during a hearing at the Supreme Court, to explain how onerous regulations that have closed three-quarters of the state’s abortion clinics are actually a boon to women’s reproductive health. And despite repeated losses in federal courts, the Lone Star state’s attorney general, Ken Paxton, stands resolutely by a 2011 voter-identification law that could keep 600,000 minority and young Texans away from the polls in November. The law, Mr Paxton says, is necessary to protect the integrity of elections. On May 2nd, the Supreme Court signalled it may step in to evaluate that counterintuitive proposition if a lower court does not resolve the matter by July 20th.

New voter-ID laws have come to much of...Continue reading

John Kasich leaves the Republican battle with his reputation intact

Mié, 04/05/2016 - 21:32

PUNDITS have spent months mocking the Republican presidential ambitions of Governor John Kasich of Ohio, who finally dropped out on May 4th, clearing the field for Donald Trump. As other, more successful rivals dropped by the wayside, leaving the governor to trudge on with his one victory (in his home state, Ohio) and his paltry haul of delegates, commentators called Mr Kasich delusional, vain and a bore. One compared Mr Kasich to a party guest who has stayed too long, and is now angling to sleep on the sofa. But Mr Kasich was not a joke. Yes, he can be moody, sometimes startlingly candid and an undisciplined campaigner. But he is also a successful, experienced and thoughtful governor, touting a distinctive brand of pragmatic, sleeves-rolled-up midwestern conservatism. His campaign could have been viable—just in an election cycle wholly unlike this one.

More doctrinaire conservatives loathed Mr Kasich, accusing him of drawing votes from Mr Trump’s chief rival, Senator Ted Cruz of Texas. They grumbled that he had committed acts of Republican apostasy, as when he took federal money to expand Medicaid, a government health scheme for the...Continue reading

Why Ted Cruz’s plan to win over America’s disgruntled conservatives failed

Mié, 04/05/2016 - 18:50

HANDS triangled in prayer, then a sideways karate chop. Those two gestures, often performed in quick succession, were the signature gesticulations of Ted Cruz’s stump speeches during his now-abandoned bid for the Republican nomination. They also embody the main themes of his campaign, namely piety and violence, both real and rhetorical, which he promised to inflict on enemies from the corrupt halls of Congress to the glowing sands of the Middle East. 

The rationale was that yoking religiosity to anti-establishment ire would tie up the evangelical vote with those of other disgruntled conservatives—millions of whom, in the estimation of the Cruz campaign, had stayed away from the polls in recent elections because no true believer was on the ballot. The strategy seemed to be vindicated by the Iowa caucuses, the season’s first contest, in which Mr Cruz narrowly beat Donald Trump. “Father God, please,” ran his regular sign-off in Iowa, “continue this spirt of revival, awaken the body of Christ.”

But although the plan was sufficiently sound for Mr Cruz to outlast the other non-Trump contenders, and despite his...Continue reading

Donald Trump knocks Ted Cruz out of the race

Mié, 04/05/2016 - 08:59

“TRUMP is scary,” says Jim Adkins, the manager of a branch of Olive Garden, a restaurant chain, as he is coming out of the banquet hall of the St Peter & Paul Macedonian Church, where he just cast his vote for Hillary Clinton. Mr Adkins usually votes for the Republican Party, but this time he overcame his dislike for Mrs Clinton, he says, because she is “the lesser evil". An election volunteer, who overhears the conversation, says numerous Republican voters are defecting to the other side, thanks to the seemingly unstoppable rise of Donald Trump.

These defections will play a role in the November elections, but in the primary election in Indiana on May 3rd only Republican votes counted for Mr Trump—and he won big. In spite of the local Republican establishment’s best efforts to halt his advance, he received 53% of the votes, compared with only 37% for Ted Cruz, the Texas senator who was the figurehead of a “Never Trump” alliance. John Kasich, the governor of Ohio, had ceased to campaign in Indiana to improve Mr Cruz’s chances; he got a measly 8%. Most of Indiana’s 57 delegates are likely to go to Mr Trump. He is now...Continue reading