Entries from April 2005 ↓


What do you say when you have nothing to say? Stuff like this.

Life has been fairly normal lately. In other words busy and kind of boring. The 9-5, aka “40 hours a week I wish I had back” has kept me busy, gearing up for some big events to take place in June. This past week I was even sent to my hometown to give a presentation. That was strange. First time in my life I’ve been there on business, not to camp out under Mom’s dinner table. The place where I spoke was right up the street from my folks too. Mom stopped by to see her son wear his good suit and the other folks who came to hear me were impressed too.

I’ve been taking steps to put my face and throat back in a previous profession (hint, hint). Culinary school helped me realize how necessary it is to be in a creative environment and not stuck shuffling papers. We shall see.

Getting out to see a ballgame next week. First time in ages. Using the tickets I won back in February. Going with a good friend who is one of the few guys I know who gets sports, even though he is a Cubs fan.

I’ve had some time to get back to the gym after work and on weekends. I’m also trying to eat better. I need to burn off the winter weight.

It’s about time to overhaul and remodel this site. And do something about spam. I just spent the last two hours removing comment and trackback spam. Every morning I wake up to tons of new spam all over the site. And I guess I’m also getting tired of this design.

Not much else to report. I’ll hope to have something more substantial to post in the coming days.

The end of American democracy

by Bruce Ledewitz
From the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

Are we witnessing the beginning of the end of American democracy?

In the 1930s, democracy disappeared in a polarized Germany, bitterly divided between Communists and Nazis. People in Germany came to believe that political differences were too fundamental for compromise. In that atmosphere, where all political differences were considered matters of ultimate morality, each side grabbed as much power as it could until the rule of law, individual liberty and ultimately even elections were abolished.

Today in the United States, political contests are becoming this same sort of ultimate struggle, in which partisans on both sides label their opponents evil and untrustworthy. Political compromise is becoming more difficult as more Americans view their political commitments as ultimate truth and the views of others, ultimate wrong.

In this atmosphere, restraint vanishes and bad faith is presumed. One such restraint is the filibuster in the Senate that allows legislative action to be delayed or blocked. The Republican majority threatens to restrict the filibuster because, they say, the Democratic minority is violating the Constitution by preventing votes on some of President Bush’s judicial nominees. Bad faith is attributed to the federal judges who failed to reattach the feeding tube in the Terri Schiavo case. Some Americans believe that these judges purposely disobeyed the law. There is talk of judicial impeachment.

Both the controversy over the filibuster and that of the Schiavo case are founded on misunderstandings that threaten American democracy. The filibuster exists because Senate rules permit extended debate unless debate is cut off by 60 votes. The filibuster allows a minority of senators to prevent legislative action. Currently the Republican majority is short of the 60 votes it needs to curtail debate over judicial nominees. The filibuster allowed Senate Democrats in the last session of Congress to block action on 10 out of 215 judicial nominees.

The Republican leadership has been threatening to change the Senate rules to prohibit the use of the filibuster over a judicial nominee. That might sound innocuous — just tinkering with another set of internal rules. But it would represent such an earth-shattering change in the way the Senate functions that this tactic has been dubbed “the nuclear option” — it would essentially blow up the Senate.

The Republicans argue that preventing votes on judicial nominees violates the constitutional obligation of the Senate to provide advice and consent to the president’s judicial nominees.

This constitutional theory is a stretch. In 1968, Abe Fortas’ nomination for chief justice was blocked by filibuster, yet no one suggested that the move was unconstitutional and no senator or nominee has thought to challenge a filibuster in court since that time. The Constitution no more requires a vote on judges than it does on other nominees, or treaties or legislation, all of which can be blocked by Senate rules.

The filibuster is one of the many ways in which the American political system protects political minorities. The structure of the Senate itself, representing states rather than population, is another minority-protecting mechanism. Americans are usually sensitive to the rights of political minorities. The filibuster was not challenged even when it was used to delay historic civil rights legislation by a Southern bloc.

The difference today is the strong desire to overturn Roe v. Wade. There will be Supreme Court vacancies soon. Under the current rules, Democrats would be likely to prevent a vote on any nominee who openly opposes Roe. Once the filibuster is removed, the Republicans will be able to select a clearly anti-Roe nominee.

But this is precisely the point of compromise in a democracy. Previous Senate majorities have accepted the hindrance of the filibuster as healthy. They would have been satisfied with a nominee likely to vote against Roe, but perceived as a reasonable person. Such a candidate could be made more or less filibuster proof.

The current Republican majority does not wish to accept such restrictions. They view their opponents as fundamentally immoral — “against people of faith,” as Majority Leader Bill Frist puts it in the Family Research Council program, “Justice Sunday,” which will be simulcast in churches nationwide tonight.

The Republicans would do well to remember that today’s majority is tomorrow’s minority. Democracy loses when limits on majority rule are abolished in a mistaken quest for an immediate political goal.

The Schiavo case was an even more dramatic example of demonizing opponents. The religious right believed strongly that Terri Schiavo was not in a permanent vegetative state, had not consented to termination of hydration and nutrition and was not fairly represented by her husband. When a Florida judge ruled the other way on these three issues, Congress granted to her parents the right to bring their claims to federal court. These claims were to be considered “de novo,” notwithstanding any prior state court decision. But when the claims were presented in federal court, Judge James Whittemore rather summarily dismissed them, and both the 11th Circuit and the Supreme Court refused to intervene.

The Schiavo case further infuriated the religious right and probably is helping fuel the filibuster repeal effort. “Willful judges” were blamed for Terri Schiavo’s death. Without the filibuster, it is felt, judges more attuned to popular opinion will be confirmed.

But federal judges had little choice in the Schiavo case. The issues that the parents wanted to have addressed — Terri Schiavo’s actual condition, her intention and the good faith of her husband as guardian — were all matters of Florida law. The congressional statute limited the federal courts to considering issues of federal law, which were all pretty weak. To put it bluntly, it does not violate a patient’s federal rights to remove a feeding tube when the patient is in a vegetative state, has expressed her will that this be done and her guardian authorizes it. The problem was not legal but factual: Were these assertions about Terri Schiavo true? If true, there were no federal violations. And they were found to be true — correctly or incorrectly — under Florida law.

Congress could have granted the federal courts authority in the Schiavo statute to decide issues of Florida law, but Congress decided not to. Based on the federal issues before the courts, the federal judiciary did nothing wrong.

It is a sign of the breakdown of reasoned political discourse that this explanation of the Schiavo result has not been disseminated. We would rather believe that evil judges are frustrating the will of the majority. We would rather believe that radical action must be taken.

We are at the point where a small but determined majority is so convinced of its rightness that it is willing to change the rules to further its short-term goals.

And that is how democracy fails.

Bruce Ledewitz is a professor at the Duquesne University School of Law. (ledewitz@duq.edu)

Justice for Sakia

From the The Star-Ledger of Newark, NJ.

Shortly before a judge sentenced him to 20 years in prison yesterday for the stabbing death of a 15-year-old lesbian in downtown Newark, Richard McCullough felt the wrath of the victim’s family.

LaTona Gunn, the mother of Sakia Gunn, stood in the Newark courtroom and demanded that McCullough look at two photographs of her slain daughter — one taken in happier times and one of her lying on a hospital gurney.

“This is the way Sakia looked before you ran into her,” Gunn said as McCullough bowed his head. “And this is the way she looked the last time I saw her.”

Sakia Gunn’s cousin, Valencia Bailey, who was the same age and was with her the night of the killing, was even more pointed.

Wearing a black T-shirt emblazoned with her cousin’s picture and the words “R.I.P. Sakia,” Bailey said Sakia was like a twin sister to her and that she has had thoughts of suicide since her cousin’s death.

“I watched my cousin get killed in front of my eyes,” Bailey said, breaking down in sobs. “I watched her take her last breath and her eyes roll back in her head in my lap. He killed my cousin, and she is never coming back.”

A few moments later, Superior Court Judge Paul Vichness sentenced the 31-year-old McCullough for killing Gunn because she and her friends refused his advances and told him they were gay.

The Newark teenager was stabbed to death about 3:20 a.m. on May 11, 2003, as she and four friends were waiting for a bus at Broad and Market streets after coming home from a club in New York’s Greenwich Village.

McCullough, also of Newark, killed Gunn during a dispute that began when he and a friend, Allen Pierce, were driving by and asked the girls if they wanted to party. The girls responded that they were gay and not interested.

The case brought about one of the state’s first bias murder prosecutions because McCullough shouted anti-gay slurs as he argued with Gunn and her friends. It also brought attention to a large population of gay teenagers in Newark, which had been largely invisible before the crime.

Laquetta Nelson, who founded a gay rights organization called Newark Pride Alliance after Gunn was killed, said she hoped the case would send a message that hatred and violence are tearing the city apart.

“This case touched people all over the country,” she said. “We even heard from people in England and France. There are too many kids dying in this city. We have to all work to make that stop.”

McCullough pleaded guilty in March to aggravated manslaughter, aggravated assault, bias intimidation and other crimes. As part of a plea bargain, Assistant Essex County Prosecutor Thomas McTigue dropped the murder charge, which would have carried a penalty of 30 years in prison without parole if he were convicted.

Before Vichness imposed sentence, members of Gunn’s family criticized the plea bargain, which will allow McCullough to be eligible for parole in 17 years.

“He said he’s sorry for what happened. Why was he carrying around a knife?” said Anthony Hall, Gunn’s cousin. “He should get the max. We’re not getting justice today. We’re getting robbed.”

But McTigue said afterward that members of the Gunn family were consulted before the plea was accepted and that they were satisfied with it. McTigue said his office has to consider the evidence and the probable outcome of a trial when deciding on a plea.

“There is always frustration on sentence day,” he said. “What they truly wanted I couldn’t give them. I couldn’t give them Sakia back.”

McCullough, a strapping man with long braided hair whose only previous conviction was for marijuana possession, apologized to his family and Gunn’s mother before his sentencing.

“I wish that would have been me instead of your child,” he said.

McCullough’s lawyer, John McMahon, asked Vichness for leniency, pointing out that his client had been employed most of his adult life and had no arrests for a serious crime. He also said his client was not homophobic.

“There are people who go out and target people because of their religions, their race or their sexual orientation,” he said. “That didn’t happen here.”

The defendant’s mother, Benita McCullough, addressed the court and said her son was friendly to anyone he ever met and never showed any signs of violence. She said he also was a bright child.

“We all thought Rich was going to be a genius,” she said.

McTigue urged the judge to adhere to the terms of the plea bargain, saying that the anti-gay sentiments McCullough expressed during the killing “tear at the fabric of society.”

Vichness said he found some mitigating facts in the defendant’s favor — like his relatively clean record — but he could not ignore the seriousness of the crime. He said Gunn had overcome adversity in her background and had a promising future.

“This is a young lady who would have accomplished a lot in her life,” Vichness said.

Run Barbara, Run

Barbara Smith.gif

Noted feminist, teacher, activist and author Barbara Smith may be adding another entry to her long list of professional accomplishments, City Councilmember. Smith has announced her intention to run for a seat on the Common Council from the Fourth Ward in Albany, New York, where she has lived since 1987.

A long-time leader and commentator on national cultural and political issues involving race, class, sexuality and gender, she was editor of three major collections about Black women Conditions: Five, The Black Womenís Issue; All the Women are White, All the Blacks are Men, But Some of Us Are Brave: Black Womenís Studies; and Home Girls: A Black Feminist Anthology. Until 1995, she was co-founder and publisher of the first U.S. publisher for women of color, Kitchen Table: Women of Color Press. She is currently an instructor in African-American literature at the College of Saint Rose.

Smith has been equally involved on the local level, serving on numerous committees and boards to address public accountability, youth services and quality of life issues. A registered Democrat, she is making her first run for public office and will campaign on improving public safety and business development in the ward, which is home to some of the poorest sections in New York Stateís Capital city of 95, 658.

In Albany–a place I called home for 11 years–there are Democrats, and then there are Democrats. The city has one of the oldest and most firmly entrenched Democratic Machines in United States history. From the 1940ís to the 1980ís, Albany was run by Mayor Erastus Corning II the hand-picked candidate of the Machine, who served longer than any other elected official in the country. But in recent years the Machine has shown signs of rust. A dissatisfied, more progressive wing of the party has begun to flex its muscles, demanding a seat at the table and changes in the way business is done.

Last November, a coalition of progressives made up of the Working Families Party and Citizen Action, and comprised of people of color, women, the lesbian and gay community, working class and labor, beat the Machine candidate for Albany County District Attorney, electing a Black man, David Soares to the position. Smith was an active member of Soares campaign and may be the first of many candidates to come out of this camp.

All 16 council seats, as well as the mayorís, comptrollerís and treasurerís posts are up for election this year.

Albany is also where the nationís first Black, openly gay elected official took office. Keith St. John served on the Common Council in the early-to-mid 1990ís from the Second Ward. If elected, Smith would be the second openly gay, Black politician to serve.

In making her announcement to seek office, Smith talked about how Albany needs to rethink its priorities, such as whether development plans will be about ďbusiness or improving the quality of life in our neighborhoods.Ē She promises to talk with residents in the ward before crafting a specific platform.

As for her campaign finances, she said, ďItíll be grassroots, much like everything Iíve ever done.Ē

To contribute to her campaign, send a check along with your full contact information to:

Friends of Barbara Smith
P.O. Box 804
Albany, NY 12201


Basquiat Early Moses.jpgI made a trip out to the Brooklyn Museum Sunday to view the exhibit on Jean-Michel Basquiat, the graffiti artist turned darling of the downtown New York art community in the 1980ís. Itís an impressive display of his work spanning the entirety of his brief yet mercurial career.

The Brooklyn-born Basquiat made startling use of color, integrated text and poetry into his visuals, and incorporated themes reflective of the African Diaspora and his own Haitian-Puerto Rican heritage. I was personally fascinated by his use of different textures and materials. He created on canvas, wood, paper, even a football helmet.

More than 100 of his pieces will remain on display until June 5 and if you get over to see it (and I do recommend it), pick a day when you have ample time to take it all in slowly. There is great complexity to his work that requires reflection and understanding of context.

One minor flaw, which may necessitate a letter to the museum: The exhibit, which is spread out over two floors, concludes by flowing museum-goers into a gift shop, where there is wall-to-wall merchandise of every description adorned with Basquiat images and iconography. A crassly commercial end to an exemplary artistic presentation.