Monday, October 30, 2006

It's Not A Church Thing, After All

Just when we thought the blog posted earlier today covered all the bases Bishop Robert Morlino has been running on behalf of the proposed constitutional amendment banning gay marriage and civil unions, the bishop added a peculiar new twist to this increasingly bizarre story.

The bishop today sent an open letter to "friends in the State of Wisconsin" defending his actions by seeking to distance the Catholic Church from his efforts to promote the marriage amendment. In the letter, Morlino says, "...these public positions are not 'Catholic' issues. These are not tenets of our 'faith' which we are defending. They are universal truths, based on reason alone."

When all past attempts to explain why the printing and distribution of 110,000 "Vote Yes" fliers does not amount to electioneering failed, Morlino now cites a higher law. "When we recognize the objective truth, we need to reconcile ourselves to that truth, never the other way around – this is the natural law," he wrote.

Morlino goes on to say, "This is a truth of reason; it is true for every human being. When I speak in this vein I know that some will call me arrogant for claiming to know the objective truth. This claim is actually an act of humble submission to the Creator – Whose truth this is, not mine, and Whose existence can be known by reason alone."

Which leaves us with just two questions for Bishop Morlino. The first is: Huh? The second: Now that you have that off your chest, will you respect the public's right to know and disclose how much the Madison Catholic Diocese has spent to influence the outcome of the state marriage referendum and where the money came from?

Democracy, By Order Of The Patriarch

When the Democracy Campaign recently shined light on the efforts of the Madison Catholic Diocese to influence the outcome of the statewide referendum on the proposed constitutional amendment banning gay marriage and civil unions, Bishop Robert Morlino's first reaction was to brandish the First Amendment in his defense.

Calling for public disclosure of the diocese's political activities was an attack on freedom of religion, Morlino asserted, going as far as to say our defense of the public's right to know is "persecution" and an attempt to "intimidate" the church.

When it later dawned on the bishop that the Democracy Campaign had not challenged the diocese's right to take a position on the marriage amendment or publicly advocate its position or incorporate its position into church teachings, but rather simply wanted the diocese to publicly disclose clear electioneering activities, Morlino quickly took a different tack.

In an interview with a Madison TV station, he acknowledged that printing and distributing 110,000 fliers urging people to vote yes had "political implications" but insisted that it did not amount to electioneering because the materials were merely being offered but not forced on people. "If I had some way of forcing people to do it that would be electioneering," he reasoned.

Now it's becoming obvious that Morlino not only has an other-worldly conception of political campaigning, but also a rather unconventional idea of what constitutes "forcing." In a front-page commentary in today's Wisconsin State Journal, columnist Bill Wineke reports Morlino sent all the priests in the Madison Diocese a "personal and confidential" letter last week ordering them to play a 14-minute recorded sermon detailing his positions on the marriage amendment, the death penalty referendum and the issue of embryonic stem-cell research at all services next weekend.

The bishop warned the priests that "any verbal or non-verbal expression of disagreement with this teaching on the part of the priest will have to be considered by myself as an act of disobedience, which could have serious consequences."

Thursday, October 12, 2006

TV Hates Democracy

Democracy isn't newsworthy. At least not on local TV news. That's the unavoidable conclusion of a new University of Wisconsin study showing that a typical 30-minute evening newscast featured 36 seconds of election coverage in the month after the traditional Labor Day kickoff of the 2006 election campaign season.

What the five-state study further illustrates is that local TV news really isn't all that much about the news. Well over half of a typical "newscast" is actually devoted to advertising, sports and weather.

The results of this study are staggering and downright depressing. National and regional research show that most Americans get most of their news from local television news broadcasts. Yet those newscasts offer precious little news and treat the democratic process as a non-story. The UW study shows that what little election coverage is aired focuses largely on who is likely to win, not on providing information voters can use to make up their own minds.

While substantive coverage of elections by television broadcasters is almost non-existent, the same TV stations are reaping millions of dollars from paid political advertising, which in turn drives up the cost of running for office. Voters are exposed to an exponentially larger number of political ads than substantive political news stories.

The airwaves over which stations broadcast their programming are owned by the American people, not by the broadcasters as is often mistakenly assumed. The results of the UW study show that most broadcasters are retreating from their obligation to serve the public interest, including their responsibility to inform citizens so they can participate in the political process.

Thursday, October 05, 2006

Selective Enforcement And Selective Outrage

The state Elections Board decided yesterday to stick by its August 30 ruling ordering Republican candidate for governor Mark Green to get rid of nearly $468,000 in illegal donations, but punted the question of whether another $775,000 that the state Justice Department and a circuit court judge contend runs afoul of federal law should also be dumped by the Green campaign.

It's pretty obvious that political calculations and public relations implications were behind the Board's reluctance to wade any deeper into the legality of Green's money. The Board's chairman said as much, telling reporters after yesterday's meeting that the controversy over the Board's previous ruling on August 30 "kind of put the kibosh" on efforts to consider any further action.

It's somehow fitting that this latest chapter in the Board's long history of selective enforcement of Wisconsin's campaign finance laws was brought on by the selective outrage expressed by the state's political bosses, radio talk show hosts and letter-to-the-editor writers. Democrats pounced on the rulings that the donations were illegal to make Green out to be a corrupt lawbreaker. Republicans focused instead on the politicking in advance of the Elections Board's August 30 decision to characterize Green as an innocent victim of a rigged process.

In truth, Green is neither a criminal nor a victim. There is no evidence that he willfully set out to break the law. The Elections Board had previously wrongly permitted then-Congressman Tom Barrett to transfer large sums of money he raised in Washington to his campaign for governor in 2002. The Board's legal counsel also evidently gave the Green campaign some very dubious advice that left Green with the impression that he was on the right side of the law.

But how Green responded to later evidence that his money dump was in fact illegal cost him any claim to victimhood. The Democracy Campaign pointed out how the donation from Green's federal campaign committee to his campaign for governor violates Wisconsin's campaign finance laws, and Green didn't dispute the laws we cited, but rather said his donation was really a "conversion" of funds and the law shouldn't apply. When the Elections Board disagreed with this creatively murky interpretation of crystal clear laws and ordered him to divest himself of nearly a half million dollars, Green effectively said "order, schmorder." When state Justice Department attorneys and then a circuit court judge said the Elections Board had actually let Green off easy considering that nearly all of the $1.3 million his federal campaign donated to his state campaign for governor is illegal under federal law, he continued to say in effect "screw the law."

Of course, Green has every legal right to challenge the Elections Board's order and the circuit court judge's decision. But he is not following the customary legal path in exercising that right. Green's legal team clearly has assessed the chances of getting the circuit court ruling reversed on appeal and decided against following the normal route of asking the state appeals court to review the lower court's ruling. Instead, he is doing what lawyers call "forum shopping" – looking for a court that will give him the ruling he wants. His lawyers obviously have decided his best shot is before the state Supreme Court. So he's asking the state's highest court to take "original jurisdiction" over the case; in other words, pretend that Green never went to circuit court to challenge the Elections Board's order and the judge never ruled against Green. He's asking for a do-over, starting fresh with the Supreme Court.

It's already been reported in the media that at least five of the seven state Supreme Court justices have potential conflicts of interest in this case that could be serious enough to require them to recuse themselves. It was not reported that a sixth member of the court – Justice Patience Roggensack – received a $500 donation from Green for Congress on December 12, 2002.