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CHIEF Justice John Roberts did something last week that he hasn’t done in three years: side with the liberal justices against his conservative friends on the Supreme Court. The occasion was a case involving a would-be judge in Florida, Lanell Williams-Yulee, who broke a rule against personally soliciting funds during her unsuccessful bid in 2009 to become a Hillsborough County Judge. For violating Canon 7C(1) of Florida’s Code of Judicial Ethics, Ms Williams-Yulee was slapped with a rebuke and a $1,860.30 fine. She responded with a lawsuit complaining that the ethics rule intruded on her freedom of speech.
The majority opinion in Williams-Yulee v Florida Bar, issued on April 29th, opens by noting a distinction between judges and other elected officials: “Judges are not politicians, even when they come to the bench by way of the ballot,” Chief Justice Roberts writes. "A State...Continue reading
THE civil unrest in Baltimore in response to the death of Freddie Gray has reignited an old debate about the relationship between culture and poverty. The battle lines have been drawn in the opinion pages of the New York Times. On Friday David Brooks argued that costly big-government efforts to alleviate poverty haven't done much to improve conditions for those living in Sandtown-Winchester, the Baltimore neighbourhood where Mr Gray lived. "Saying we should just spend more doesn’t really cut it," Mr Brooks writes. "[T]he real barriers to mobility are matters of social psychology, the quality of relationships in a home and a neighbourhood that either encourage or discourage responsibility, future-oriented thinking, and practical ambition." Ingrained codes of behaviour have "dissolved", he argues, leaving residents of impoverished areas "without the norms that middle-class people take for granted."
GAY marriage is illegal in Georgia, and only spouses can adopt a child jointly. This was a problem for Elizabeth Wurz, whose son recently fell ill. Because her female partner is the boy's only mother recognised on paper, Ms Wurz found herself struggling to convince paramedics that she, too, was a legal guardian. “People don’t realise the fear you feel at a time like that,” she says.
Ms Wurz’s story is increasingly common in a country where two-thirds of the states now allow gay marriage; another 13 states still ban it. The Supreme Court is pondering whether these bans are constitutional. In this week’s paper, we include a dispatch from the oral arguments on April 28th. Few justices appeared to be swayed by the states' defence of their bans, but some still seemed cautious about redefining the institution. Another Continue reading
SITTING in traffic is the worst. It’s frustrating and infuriating. But even the worst jams are fairly forgettable. At some point the congestion clears, riders reach their destination and the story is over. After all, who cares about a traffic jam?
The Department of Justice cares. It cares a lot, at least when the jam in question involves four days of clogged traffic along the George Washington Bridge in September 2013. For 16 months the federal government has been investigating why the Port Authority mysteriously decided to shut down some lanes along the bridge connecting New York and New Jersey, backing up traffic all the way into Fort Lee, a nearby suburb. The jam was extraordinary: police and ambulances had trouble responding to emergencies, children were kept from school and commuters were hours late for work. In January 2014 leaked e-mails revealed that people close to Chris Christie, New Jersey’s governor, were involved. Bridget Anne Kelly, a senior Christie staffer, appeared to signal the closures. “Time for some traffic problems in Fort Lee,” she wrote to the governor’s friends at the Port Authority. Fort Lee...Continue reading
WHEN states began using lethal injection to execute criminals in the late 1970s, the idea was to make state killing more humane. This method allowed states to retire their electric chairs, and it was quietly effective for a couple of decades. But in recent years a key drug in the execution cocktail has been hard to come by. This has led some of the 32 states that have the death penalty to improvise, with grisly results. On April 29th 2014, when Oklahoma used a new regimen to execute Clayton Lockett, the condemned man spent 43 minutes writhing and shouting on the gurney. “This shit is fucking with my head,” he said, head bucking, before he finally died.
Almost a year later, the Supreme Court heard challenges today from three death-row inmates who appear destined for a similar fate. The case, Glossip v Gross, turns on complex and hard-to-verify medical claims about the use of a new drug, midazolam, that apparently caused Lockett's pain and several other less-than-smooth executions in Ohio and...Continue reading
THE last time Baltimore rioted in the way it did last night was in 1968, after the murder of Martin Luther King. In the neighbourhoods of West Baltimore, where the broken glass and burning cars are being cleared up this morning, the derelict houses and vacant lots are partly a legacy of that riot almost half a century ago. Like then, this latest bout of chaos began as an outpouring of anger, this time against the treatment of Freddie Gray, a 25-year-old who died in mysterious circumstances on April 19th, having apparently suffered injuries while being arrested.
Yet the difference between 1968 and today is that Baltimore is no longer a place where blacks are...Continue reading
WHAT is happening tonight in Baltimore is perhaps best described not as a riot but as anarchy. Though there are police lines, there are few protesters or people fighting the police or hurling stones. Indeed, where the police are lined up, the people standing around are mostly taking photos on their phones. Drive a few blocks in any direction, though, and suddenly it feels lawless. Groups of young men, boys really, wearing bandanas and hoodies, stand on street corners next to derelict buildings, staring at anyone passing, and occasionally throwing projectiles at cars. Young women hurry home carrying bags of stolen loot: food, clothes, and bottles of beer and liquor. On the occasional street here and there cars burn freely. Shops, of which there are not many in this abandoned corner of the inner city, are ravaged, their windows smashed, their shelves picked over. Cars hurtle through red lights at high speed, music blaring, boys leaning out of the windows. And everywhere the intense smell of smoke and the buzz of helicopters overhead.
FEW doubt that there is something seriously wrong with policing in America. Far too many people, chiefly young black men, are dying at the hands of police. Every new police scandal invites more hand-wringing over a law-enforcement system that often seems racist and unjust. In Baltimore over the weekend protests over the mysterious death of Freddie Gray, a 25-year old man who died while in police custody in Baltimore on April 19th, turned violent.
Yet few also doubt that most police officers are decent people who “risk their own safety for ours every single day,” as President Barack Obama put it recently. According to one poll, three quarters of people, including a majority of African Americans, say that they approve of the job being done by their local police department. Police officers in general seem to be thought of as decent people doing good work—and yet policing, as a practice, is widely distrusted. What explains this contradiction?
EVERY borough of New York City is growing. The city’s population has risen 4% to 8.5m since 2010, and is expected to reach 9m by 2030. Housing and accommodating all of these people is not easy. To meet this challenge, Michael Bloomberg introduced in 2007 PlaNYC, a 25-year blueprint for sustainably enlarging the city, which proved to be his crowning achievement as mayor. Before this plan, long-term visions for the Big Apple had been in short supply. Mr Bloomberg’s scheme called for new spending on infrastructure, more development along the waterfront and changes to zoning laws in around 40% of the city. The city expanded its recycling programme, cut its greenhouse-gas emissions by 16% and planted 1m trees across the five boroughs.
The plan became a model for other cities around the world. Even Bill de Blasio, Mr Bloomberg’s successor in City Hall, called it “groundbreaking”. But the current mayor seems to think PlaNYC doesn’t go far enough. On April 22nd he unveiled his own grand design for “a strong and just city”,...Continue reading
VERA CHEEKS failed to halt at a ‘Stop’ sign in Georgia last year. Too poor to pay the ticket’s $135 fine, she was put on probation until she earned enough to cover the charge. But this came at a cost: her case was handled by a private firm, called Red Hills Community Probation, which charged an extra $132 for the privilege. The firm also told Ms Cheeks that she had to pay $50 immediately in order to avoid being sent to jail. Her fiancé ultimately rescued her with money from pawning her engagement ring and his gardening equipment.
Red Hills is now the target of two separate class-action lawsuits—one federal, one state—filed this month on behalf of Ms Cheeks and others. Both suits allege that Red Hills, acting on behalf of the government, wrongfully detained and jailed people who were too poor to afford court and probation fees. By some estimates, extra fees and surcharges on traffic fines add an extra 40% to the original ticket price. The ‘interest’ paid by a probationer comes to about 14% a month, and over 160% a year. “We’ve seen a pattern of private probation officers essentially holding people for ransom over...Continue reading
TO PLACATE shareholders and shoppers, American companies are promising to use more recycled materials in their products. It’s a nice idea, but surprisingly hard to achieve. Coca-Cola committed to using at least 25% recycled plastic in its containers by 2015, but revised this downwards owing to scarce supply and high costs. Walmart is struggling to find the material to meet its goal to use 3 billion pounds of recycled plastic in its packaging and products by 2020. “The problem is supply,” explains Rob Kaplan of Walmart.
Most recycled materials should be cheaper than virgin commodities, but America throws too much stuff away. Low landfill fees and a fragmented waste-management system have kept the country’s recycling rate at around 34% for two decades—far lower than most rich countries. This waste comes at a cost. Making cans from recycled aluminium, the most valuable container material, requires 95% less energy and creates 90% less greenhouse-gas emissions than virgin stock, yet more than 40 billion aluminium cans hit America's landfills every year. The country chucks away $11.4 billion worth of recyclable containers and packaging...Continue reading
ON HOT battlefields and in coolly targeted killings, America has regularly used armed drones in Afghanistan, Iraq, Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, Libya and elsewhere for a decade and a half. In discussing drone strikes, it is easy to fall into abstraction. Take a speech by Harold Koh to the Oxford Union in 2013, after he'd left his position as the State Department's top lawyer: “Because drone technology is highly precise, if properly controlled, it could be more lawful and more consistent with human rights and humanitarian law than the alternatives.”
High precision sounds nice—and drone strikes are indeed more precise than the bombing technologies they have displaced. But they can still miss their target. An attack near the village of Datta Khel in North Wazirstan in 2010, for example, accidentally killed 42 people. "Body parts were scattered for...Continue reading
EVERYONE seems to think the Supreme Court will declare a constitutional right to same-sex marriage this June. And so it may. But all the predictions, registered before the justices have even heard oral arguments on April 28th in four challenges to state gay marriage bans, are a bit premature. The case for finding a right to gay nuptials in the 14th amendment, which we outlined last week, is indeed strong. But the defences of bans in Michigan, Ohio, Kentucky and Tennessee merit close consideration and will no doubt earn such a reading from the expected swing vote, Justice Anthony...Continue reading
SUNDAY worshippers at the Cathedral of the Holy Name, the seat of the Roman Catholic archdiocese of Chicago, entered the church below a white and purple funeral bunting. Under the church’s splendid wooden ceiling, near the massive granite altar, was a big photograph of Cardinal Francis George, a former Archbishop of Chicago. Many had come to pay their respects to a man who had been one of the most influential Catholics in the country. The cardinal died on April 17th, aged 78.
As the head of one of America’s biggest and most important archdioceses for 17 years, until 2014, Cardinal George was universally respected, even by those who disagreed with his conservative views. “He was an academic, a philosopher and an intellectual,” says Father Kenneth Simpson at St Clement, a vibrant parish in Lincoln Park, a posh part of Chicago.
Cardinal George served as president of the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops from 2007 to 2010. Under his leadership the bishops adopted a “zero tolerance” policy to sexual abuse within the church, barring priests from the ministry who had been credibly accused of misdeeds. This...Continue reading
IN AMERICAN politics, candidates often write books as a way to sell themselves to voters. Mike Huckabee, a former governor of Arkansas, is no exception. His latest, “Gods, Guns, Grits and Gravy”, was released in January, just as Mr Huckabee suspended his show on Fox News to prepare his bid for the Republican nomination for presidency. This evening he appeared on Fox News to declare that he will formally announce on May 6th his intention to run. But Mr Huckabee’s chances of winning are so remote that a cynic might presume his real intention is to sell more books.
Mr Huckabee’s pitch is for the religious vote. A southern Baptist minister, he is fiercely—indeed occasionally absurdly—socially conservative. He once compared the idea that Christians should accept gay marriage to being “like asking someone who's Jewish to start serving bacon-wrapped shrimp in their deli”. Last year he argued that legal abortion is worse than the Holocaust. In his book, he complains that Jay Z, a rapper, has moved from being a “husband to pimp by exploiting his wife [Beyoncé, a pop star] as a sex object”.
In the past, that made him...Continue reading
PRESIDENTIAL campaigns are more costly and choreographed than ever before. They are grueling for both candidates and voters
RIKERS Island, New York City’s largest jail, is a tough place. Its notoriously grim conditions have inspired investigative reports, hand-wringing and rap songs. “This ain't a place that's crowded but there's room for you/Whether you're white or you're black, you'll be black and blue,” sang Kool G Rap, a hip-hop artist, in 1990. Rikers's reputation was never good, but lately it is getting worse.
The jail is facing countless charges of abuse and neglect. Its population has fallen by nearly half to 11,400 over the past two decades, thanks largely to the city’s fall in crime, but incidents of violence are on the rise. Corrections officers beat a mentally-ill inmate unconscious in September. Another inmate, a mentally-ill military veteran, died in an overheated cell in February 2014. In 2013 staff reportedly used force against adolescents 565 times, resulting in 1,057 injuries. Preet Bharara, a federal attorney, claims there is a “culture of violence” against young inmates at the jail. In December the Justice Department filed suit against the city over the mistreatment of juvenile prisoners on Rikers Island. Another suit is...Continue reading
AS A general rule, if you read one election forecaster for American politics, you’ve read them all. Contrary to the desires of most journalists, who need drama to lure readers, most races aren’t close. And since quantitative models tend to rely on similar inputs—a generous helping of polls spiced with a dollop of “fundamental” factors such as the economy and fundraising—if one system misfires, others will probably err in the same way. On the eve of the 2012 presidential vote, the three best-known predictors got at least 49 of the 50 states right; two years later newcomers to this newly crowded field duly joined the chorus in forecasting a Republican takeover of the Senate. It’s hard to stick your neck out while staying true to the data.
So it is striking that two of the...Continue reading