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Will the Supreme Court patch a hole in its same-sex marriage ruling?

Mar, 15/12/2015 - 21:18

WHEN the Supreme Court ruled last summer that gay and lesbian couples have a constitutional right to wed, Justice Anthony Kennedy emphasised the welfare of children as a central reason for expanding marriage laws. A right to marry “safeguards children and families”, he wrote. It “affords the permanency and stability important to children’s best interests”. No more, Justice Kennedy declared, will the offspring of gay and lesbian couples be “relegated through no fault of their own to a more difficult and uncertain family life”.

All well and good if the couple is married. But many gay couples are not hitched, and in some states, the partner lacking a biological connection to the child may have a hard time winning joint custody through “second-parent adoption”. This is the heart of a Scrabble-hand of a case, V.L. v E.L., that the Supreme Court stepped into on December 14th.

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American Muslims in New Jersey talk about Donald Trump

Mar, 15/12/2015 - 20:58

“Hey, I watched when the World Trade Center came tumbling down. And I watched in Jersey City, NJ, where thousands and thousands of people were cheering as that building was coming down.”

Donald Trump’s claims, made in November, about Muslims in America celebrating the collapse of the Twin Towers in Manhattan in 2001, were comprehensively debunked. But the Republican presidential candidate refused to back down. His supporters were even more specific, saying said that Muslims celebrated on a rooftop near Journal Square in Jersey City.

Journal Square is a bustling commercial district with a commuter train that runs regularly to New York City. The area has many Muslims: halal shops and restaurants line John F Kennedy Boulevard, a main thoroughfare which runs through the square. Jersey City itself is diverse; one third of its population was born overseas. At Hudson Community College, which faces Journal Square, there is a large number of Muslims students, among them Raad Basra.

The afternoon your correspondent met Mr Basra, he had just completed an English exam. The day before, Mr Trump said all Muslims should be banned...Continue reading

The Supreme Court seems suddenly worried about partisan gerrymandering

Lun, 14/12/2015 - 20:46

ON DECEMBER 8th, the Supreme Court heard back to back arguments in cases involving the idea that everyone’s vote should bear roughly equal weight—the so-called “one person, one vote” principle that was developed in a series of cases in the 1960s. Evenwel v Abbott, a challenge to the calculus Texas uses to work out population, makes an appearance in this week’s paper. Harris v Arizona Independent Redistricting Commission, which poses a similarly fraught question about district map-drawing, was argued one hour prior to Evenwel. Harris re-ignites a debate most court watchers thought was long settled: whether and to what extent America's constitution permits partisan considerations to factor into the drawing of electoral maps. Until last week, the justices looked askance only at racial gerrymandering. Now at least a few Supremes seem to be entertaining the idea that there may be sharp limits on partisan political considerations as well, at least where...Continue reading

Donald Trump's supporters reveal why they back him

Vie, 11/12/2015 - 20:46

HOW MIGHT Republicans stop Donald Trump? A gathering of twenty-nine Trump supporters this week in northern Virginia mostly offered lessons in how not to do it. The three-hour session on the night of December 9th was organised by Frank Luntz, a veteran Republican media consultant, for the benefit of CBS television and a dozen or so invited reporters, among them your columnist.

The Trump supporters—all of whom voted Republican in the 2012 presidential election, and who ranged fairly widely in income and education—were asked to rate a series of TV attack ads, pounding their hero as a liar, a hypocrite, a flip-flopper and a bully. The attacks were almost comically ineffective, as the group twisted itself into knots to avoid criticising the Republican front-runner.

One campaign spot showed old footage of Mr Trump voicing any number of conservative heresies: from defending legal abortion to praising Hillary Clinton. Another caused a few ripples of unease: a doomy, downbeat series of interviews with blue-collar folk and small contractors who had suffered when doing business with Mr Trump’s property empire, and blamed him for the...Continue reading

The justices appear split on racial preferences in university admissions

Jue, 10/12/2015 - 06:41

IN THE shadow of student protests highlighting racial injustice on American campuses, the Supreme Court is once again scrutinising public universities that take account of race when admitting students.

On December 9th, the justices heard arguments in Fisher v University of Texas (UT), a reprise of a case they first considered two years ago. Abigail Fisher, a white woman, says she was discriminated against in 2008 when she was rejected from UT’s flagship campus in Austin. Though Ms Fisher had less than stellar grades and could not prove she would have been admitted under a race-neutral admissions policy, she and the organisation backing her, the Project on Fair Representation, insist that the UT scheme violates the constitution.

When the plan was first under a microscope in 2013, the justices Continue reading

In New Orleans, call 911 and wait for an hour

Mié, 09/12/2015 - 20:49

A COUPLE of years ago, the gonzo television journalist Charlie LeDuff wanted to show people how impotent the police department of Detroit, a city then spiralling into bankruptcy and dysfunction, had become. So he visited a woman who had just called 911 to report a burglary at her house, and rolled film as they waited. To great comic effect, Mr LeDuff checked the house for intruders himself, then went to McDonald’s—twice—took a bath, and read a book to a child. The police finally showed up after four hours.

Mr LeDuff’s viral video could just as well have been filmed in New Orleans. A recent joint investigation by The New Orleans Advocate and WWL-TV found that New Orleans police have taken an average of 79 minutes to respond to 911 calls so far this year. That figure has tripled since 2010. And while police usually come more quickly to priority calls, response times in those cases have doubled as well, to an average of 20 minutes.

With its persistent violent-crime problem, there are plenty of genuine emergencies to worry about in New Orleans. The city’s murder rate is always among the nation’s...Continue reading

Who is entitled to representation in America?

Mar, 08/12/2015 - 20:58

TWO hundred and twenty-six years after America’s Constitution was ratified, it might come as a surprise to learn that a fundamental question about the nature of the republic has never been resolved—or even posed. It is well known that America is a representative democracy where the people elect officials who serve in local, state and national institutions to make laws and carry them out in their name. It is a bit less well understood that, for the past half-century, the principle of “one person, one vote” has meant that the states’ electoral districts must be roughly equal in population. If 100 people are served by one state senator, for example, while another senator represents a district of 1000 people, the former group has 10 times the clout of the latter. The Supreme Court ruled in 1964 that these types of inequalities violate the 14th Amendment’s equal protection clause.

But the court has never been asked to say which “population” is the right one to count when attempting to equalise districts. With the encouragement of conservative...Continue reading

Donald Trump's new anti-Muslim outrage is a fresh test for his rivals

Mar, 08/12/2015 - 06:15

DONALD TRUMP plays the press “like a fiddle” by saying “outrageous things and garnering attention,” grumbled Jeb Bush recently. “That’s his strategy, to dominate the news.” Mr Bush, a former governor of Florida who is stuck near the back of the field of Republicans seeking the 2016 presidential nomination, has half a point.

Mr Trump, a property tycoon and born salesman, does have a genius for dominating the headlines. This Monday has been a sorry case in point. The day began with journalists atwitter about a Monmouth University poll which showed Mr Trump losing his first place in Iowa—the farm state which will on February 1st host the first party selection contest of the presidential season—to Senator Ted Cruz of Texas.

As a bully, braggart and narcissist, Mr Trump does not enjoy being overshadowed. Right on cue, in the late afternoon he lobbed a large rock into the race: a breathless and confusingly-worded statement calling for “a total and complete shutdown of Muslims entering the United States until our country's representatives can figure out what is going on”. The statement cited two opinion polls,...Continue reading

Can Rahm Emanuel survive the biggest scandal of his career?

Mar, 08/12/2015 - 02:06

RAHM EMANUEL had perhaps the toughest week of his political career last week. This week will hardly be any better, judging from its start. On the morning of December 7th, Loretta Lynch, the attorney general, announced that the Department of Justice (DOJ) has opened an investigation into whether the Chicago Police Department (CPD) has engaged in “a pattern or practice of violations of the Constitution or federal law”. The DOJ will pay particular attention to the CPD’s use of deadly force, racial, ethnic and other disparities in its use of force and its accountability mechanisms, said Ms Lynch.

Also today the CPD’s head of detectives, Constantine Andrews, resigned. His resignation came on the heels of the sacking on December 6th by Mr Emanuel of Scott Ando, the head of the Independent Police Review Authority, a watchdog that has lost credibility thanks to its apparent tendency to proclaim the fatal shooting of suspects by police officers justified under nearly all circumstances. Mr Ando’s departure followed Mr Emanuel’s dismissal on December 1st of Garry McCarthy, the chief of police he appointed in 2011.

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Squeezing political capital from the attacks in California

Sáb, 05/12/2015 - 02:11

GOVERNOR Chris Christie of New Jersey earned a striking round of applause at a forum for Republican presidential candidates on the afternoon of December 3rd. It came as the governor scolded Barack Obama for being slow to confirm that a mass shooting the day before in San Bernardino, California, was a work of terrorism. From the moment he had begun to watch the news unfold, Mr Christie said, he had been “convinced” that this was a terrorist attack. His audience—hundreds of members of the Republican Jewish Coalition (RJC), a conservative group—clapped loudly and with a distinct air of vindication.

From his perch in the press gallery, your correspondent pondered that applause. Objectively, it is terrible news that the mass shooting in California, which left 14 dead and wounded 21, appears, indeed, to have been inspired by the death cult that is the Islamic State. On December 4th, the FBI said that the massacre was being investigated as an act of terrorism. Ever since the slaughter in Paris last month, Americans have been justifiably anxious that a terror attack would occur here. Now it seems to have happened.

At the moment...Continue reading

A foray into democratic theory that could hurt Democrats

Jue, 03/12/2015 - 20:37

UNLIKE the democratic societies of ancient Greece, where every citizen had a direct role in the administration of the polis, the hallmark of modern democracy is representation, not participation. The mechanics of elections are thus critical to the operation of American democracy, and on December 8th the Supreme Court will consider a fundamental question it has elided in previous rulings: When states draw electoral districts, who should they consider to be the population that is being represented? Is it the eligible voters who count—a category that excludes non-citizens, children and felons, among others? Or is the total population—including people who are not eligible to vote—the right metric?

The parties’ briefs in Evenwel v Abbott give the impression that the question may be best addressed in a university seminar room. The dispute in those pages has the air of a dry academic exercise, with few glimpses into the political issues involved. But to pick up the many amicus (friend-of-the-court) briefs on both sides is to see the centrality of the case to the...Continue reading

Mark Zuckerberg has pledged to give away most of his Facebook fortune

Mié, 02/12/2015 - 15:43

MANY people take to social media to share major life events. On December 1st, Facebook’s boss, Mark Zuckerberg joined in the tradition he helped create, when he and his wife, Priscilla Chan, announced the birth of their daughter on the social-networking site, along with news that they will give away the majority of their fortune during their lifetime. Around 99% of the shares they own in Facebook will go into the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, a sum worth around $45 billion today. Their aim, they wrote, is to improve the world for their daughter, Max, and future generations.

Mr Zuckerberg and Ms Chan, who are 31 and 30, respectively, bring a touch of youth to what has been an elderly tradition of giving to charity. Warren Buffett made a similarly large pledge in 2006, when he was 84. Bill Gates, the founder of Microsoft, started his foundation with his wife in 2000, when he was 45. Seeing young tech titans involve themselves in philanthropy earlier could inspire other wealthy youngsters to donate to good causes before they grey.

Successful tech entrepreneurs, who have made fortunes designing solutions to change the status...Continue reading

How spotty data make it hard to judge crime levels

Mar, 01/12/2015 - 17:39

THIS year, newspapers have been filled with dramatic headlines about a supposed surge in murders. Many cities saw large jumps in crime during the first half of the year: the murder rate rose 48% and 59% compared to the same period the previous year in Baltimore and St Louis, respectively. At the same time, police have been under increased scrutiny: the deaths of Freddie Gray in Baltimore and Michael Brown in Ferguson at police hands have sparked large protests around the country. The fatal shooting of Laquan McDonald by a cop, also last year, did not spark protests because by the time a video of the killing was released on November 24, 2015, the officer had been charged with murder. Pundits and police chiefs have speculated that the increase in crime is a result of the “Ferguson effect”—that is, cops will be reluctant to crack down on criminals if they’re being constantly watched.

A recent report from the Brennan Centre provides some new evidence that casts doubt on this theory by showing that crime may not be up by much this year at all. The study looks at crime statistics for 25 out of the 30 largest cities in America and...Continue reading

The Supreme Court dives into a dispute over what diversity means

Lun, 30/11/2015 - 20:38

NEXT week, the Supreme Court will hear Fisher v University of Texas II, an important case asking how race may fit into admissions decisions at public universities. The Roman numerals denote this as the second time Abigail Fisher’s lament against the University of Texas (UT), which denied her admission to its flagship campus in Austin seven years ago, will be aired before the justices. In the sequel, the characters and the conflict are unchanged. Ms Fisher, a white woman who has since graduated from Louisiana State University, still claims that UT violated the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment when it rejected her under a race-conscious admissions policy. The University responds that its consideration of race is a modest factor in a holistic analysis of about a quarter of its candidates that previous Supreme Court cases permit. It insists that this limited use of race is necessary to ensure the benefits that flow from a diverse student body.

Why the repeat performance? When the Supreme Court last Continue reading

Marco Rubio’s tax plan is efficient. It is also expensive and regressive

Jue, 26/11/2015 - 18:02

FEW policy choices bring the trade-off between efficiency and equality into sharper view than taxes on capital. On the one hand, capital taxes harm the economy by discouraging productive saving and investment; many economists argue that capital should not be taxed at all. On the other hand, capital owners tend to be rich—if you are struggling, you are unlikely to have much of a stock portfolio. Capital taxes, then, are progressive. Marco Rubio’s tax plan places him squarely in the efficiency camp—and at great cost to the federal budget.

Mr Rubio would eliminate all personal capital taxes, whether on interest, dividends or capital gains. This would encourage Americans to invest, in property, stocks, and by starting small businesses. In the long-run, that would be welcome. Americans typically do not save enough, and productivity growth could do with a fillip from investment. Capital taxes encourage jam today rather than jam tomorrow; choose to spend your earnings, and there is no tax to pay, but choose to invest them and the returns are taxed again before they can be cashed out. If you invest in a business, it typically must pay a levy...Continue reading

Obama "deeply disturbed" by death of black teenager

Jue, 26/11/2015 - 06:14

THE IMAGES, released by Chicago police on November 24th, are appalling. A young man, 17-year-old Laquan McDonald, jogs along the middle of a road at night and slows to a brisk walk as he sees two police cars that have stopped ahead of him. He swerves away from the two policemen who emerge from one of them, then briefly turns to them; whereupon one fires, and the young man staggers and falls to the ground.

Spasmodic clouds of dust rise as more bullets—making 16 in all—are pumped into his writhing body. Having emptied his entire magazine, Officer Jason Van Dyke, it has since transpired, made to reload. His partner suggested he stop firing. Mr McDonald, who was black and had been spotted earlier that evening trying to break into parked cars, and was carrying a small knife, died in an ambulance soon after.

Mr McDonald was killed on October 20th, 2014, barely two months after the explosion of protest that followed the killing of another black teenager, Michael Brown, in Ferguson, Missouri. His death was less widely publicised, partly because investigators in Chicago had sought to delay release of the video, which was filmed from...Continue reading

John Roberts reflects on leadership at the Supreme Court

Mar, 24/11/2015 - 22:20

IN A rare public appearance on the evening of November 20th, John Roberts, the chief justice of the United States, gave a talk at the New York University School of Law. The subject of the chief’s presentation was one of Mr Roberts’s predecessors: Charles Evans Hughes, the white-bearded, aquiline-nosed figure who steered the Supreme Court through the fraught New Deal era in the 1930s. Though the programme’s sponsors promised an exploration of Mr Hughes's "impact on our legal history", nary a word was heard about doctrine or jurisprudence. Specific cases were mentioned only in passing. The focus of the evening was on the whiskers and spirit of the man Teddy Roosevelt once called a “bearded iceberg” and whose career included stints as associate justice of the Supreme Court, governor of New York, secretary of state and Republican nominee for president before he was tapped by Herbert Hoover to return to the Supreme Court to take the chief's gavel in 1930.  

Though clean-shaven and undoubtedly perkier than his stiff forebear, Chief Justice Roberts offered a jaunty analysis of...Continue reading

Obama asks the Supreme Court to act fast to save his immigration orders

Mar, 24/11/2015 - 18:36

FIVE months ago, the Supreme Court turned back a challenge to the Affordable Care Act that would have scuttled Barack Obama’s signature legislative achievement. On November 21st, the president’s solicitor general, Donald Verrilli, asked the Supremes for another favour. Mr Verrilli urges the justices to step in to save Mr Obama’s immigration plan before the president bids farewell to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue on January 20th 2017.

The president announced the policy changes a year ago via a series of executive orders. Since Congress had failed to pass an immigration package, Mr Obama explained, he would do what he could within the boundaries of existing law to ease the plight of some of America’s 11m undocumented migrants. But Republicans cried foul. By unilaterally delaying the deportation of some 4.4m...Continue reading

Louisiana gets its first Democratic governor in more than a decade

Lun, 23/11/2015 - 17:19

EVEN If all the polls predicted it, this election result was a stunner by any measure. On November 21st, Louisiana, among the reddest of all American states, became the first in the deep South to elect a Democratic governor in more than a decade. The last time the Pelican state elected a Democrat to statewide office was in 2008.

And yet here was John Bel Edwards—a little-known state representative from a rural area best known for bequeathing Britney Spears to the world—positively thumping his GOP opponent, Senator David Vitter. His margin of victory was 56-44, a landslide by most definitions. But the major story line of this election was not the ascent of Mr Edwards, who, even after his surprising win remains something of a mystery to most Louisianians. It was the epic crash-and-burn of Mr Vitter, once the state’s dominant Republican, now on his way to Palookaville.

Mere months ago, Mr Vitter appeared a potent political force. He had raised more money than his three major opponents combined. He was considered a master strategist: he had never lost a race over more than two decades in office. And he had helped...Continue reading

An American mayor says no to Syrian refugees, flunks history

Jue, 19/11/2015 - 17:19

“THOSE WHO cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it”, George Santayana, the philosopher, is famous for saying. David Bowers, the Democratic mayor of Roanoke, Virginia, showed yesterday that people who think they remember the past, yet recall it incorrectly, are equally doomed, and this can be especially problematic when the errant student of history occupies a seat of power.

Truth be told, Mr Bowers isn’t a particularly powerful man. He has one vote on a 7-person council that is tasked with hiring the city manager who conducts Roanoke’s day-to-day business. He apparently lacks the clout to determine his community’s policy regarding foreign refugees. But Mr Bowers’ limited authority did not stop him from issuing a statement on November 18th summoning the memory of the internment of Japanese Americans during the second world war to call for a halt to the settlement of Syrian refugees in Roanoke:

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