Thursday, October 29, 2009

. . . So Help Us God

The Associated Press summed it all up:

"The Wisconsin Supreme Court adopted rules Wednesday allowing judges to hear
cases involving their biggest campaign contributors, siding with business interests and rejecting calls for changes.

Voting 4-3, the court approved rules saying donations by groups and individuals to judges and independent spending to help them get elected do not by themselves require judges to step aside from cases.

The additions to the judicial code of conduct were proposed by two powerful Wisconsin business groups, the Wisconsin Realtors Association and Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce, and adopted without a single change

No one who was in the chamber yesterday could have been surprised by the outcome, as the majority of justices wore their preconceived notions on their sleeves.

I certainly expected a good grilling about the Democracy Campaign's view that there should mandatory disqualification of judges in cases involving their biggest campaign supporters. But after watching the League of Women Voters and two national fair courts advocates endure something right out of Salem, Massachusetts circa 1692, I suppose I should be grateful that I got questions like these. . . .

Quoting Justice David Prosser:

"Haven't you called me a thief?"

"It seems to me that there probably is some concern about the Wisconsin Supreme Court, and a lot of it is tied directly to you."

"Did you kind of suggest humorously that people might consider poisoning Justice Ziegler?"

OK, that's two questions and a declaration that the messenger should be shot, but not before I am assigned far more influence than I actually have.

On the last question, if Justice Prosser had been willing to read the offending passage in its entirety, it would have been clear that I did not suggest, jokingly or otherwise, that Justice Ziegler be poisoned. I was commenting on a remark made by state Appeals Court Judge Ralph Adam Fine.

As for the thief question, here is the item Prosser evidently was referring to. And here is more on the subject. If Prosser had allowed an airing of the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, so help us God, and not just the fragment of truth that reinforces his already-made-up mind, this would have been known to all in the room: First, it was Scott Jensen's lawyers who filed a brief asserting that Justice Prosser agreed to testify that when he was Assembly speaker he had engaged in the same conduct that yielded felony charges against top legislative leaders including Jensen. Second, it was the state's attorneys who called the conduct "theft from the public" (go here and see page six) and a trial judge who called it "secretive but highly organized theft" as well as "common thievery elevated to a higher plane."

For the record, I stand by everything I have written concerning Justice Prosser and I rest easy in the knowledge that anyone who reads what I've written will judge for themselves whether I have shown the "reckless disregard for the truth" that Prosser claims I have exhibited.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Is Stealing Brett Favre Not Enough?

Minnesota. So close and yet so far. Both Wisconsin and Minnesota have sitting governors who are not running for reelection. Amazingly few here are pondering a bid for the opening and even fewer have actually jumped in the race, while just across the border dozens in both parties as well as a couple of independents are jockeying for a shot at the state's top office, and nearly 20 candidates already have thrown their hats into the ring.

What's Minnesota got that we ain't got?

Well, for starters, Minnesota has enforceable spending limits that come along with a functioning system of publicly financed state elections. Candidates there who qualify for public financing have to limit their campaign spending to just over $2 million and get nearly half of that in public funds.

In Wisconsin, on the other hand, we endured a $32 million race the last time around. The winning candidate spent over $10 million. Because we do not have a working public financing system, all of that money had to be raised privately. Creating a field day for special interests. And a huge deterrent to any prospective candidates who are not independently wealthy or willing to take out a second mortgage on their soul.

Aside from Brett Favre, what's Minnesota got that we ain't got? A race for governor that does not have a multi-million dollar entry fee.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Throwing In The Towel On Civics

I got to be a fly on the wall at a discussion of Supreme Court elections last night. Two groups of about 10 or 12. One men, the other women.

In a scene right out of one of Leno's "Jaywalking" segments, none of the men could name a single member of the Wisconsin Supreme Court. One spoke of "that short lady" (presumably Shirley Abrahamson) in an unsuccessful attempt to jog the memories of his fellows. Another mentioned "the woman who works for the banks." (Ouch.) Nobody came up with Annette Ziegler's name either.

The women were better, but not much. Several talked about how horrible the last Supreme Court election was. When asked what was bad about it, one mentioned the "Loophole Louie" ad but couldn't remember much more. Another mentioned "that ad Gableman did." No one pointed out that the election in question was held in 2008. No one seemed to have a clue that there was a more recent election for Supreme Court held earlier this year.

In a speech I gave at this year's Fighting Bob Fest that was later turned into a newspaper commentary, I listed 12 essential nutrients every democracy needs. On my list, #7 is citizenship and #8 is civic education. Judging from what I saw last night, #7 is on thin ice. And judging from a recent column written by a journalist-turned-schoolteacher, so is #8. Among her observations is this:

"For a while, we skipped social studies every Monday while students took standardized tests. It got cut when school let out early for teachers' professional development. Then one day, after a school assembly ran long and I had to administer a math skills assessment, our social studies class was whittled down to just 15 minutes. I threw in the towel."

As I said a month ago on stage and in print, there can be a ruling class or there can be democracy, but there cannot be both. If we are partial to democracy, then preparing our nation's youth to be citizens needs to be as front and center as preparing them to be economically productive.

Any thoughts on the subject Tony Evers?

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Old Glory Is So Yesterday

The U.S. Supreme Court will soon decide a case - Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission - that started as a narrow dispute over whether federal election laws should have applied to a pay-per-view cable TV documentary savaging Hillary Clinton that was to air during the 2008 presidential primary elections.

As previously noted, Chief Justice John Roberts expanded the court's review to include two earlier Supreme Court rulings upholding restrictions on corporate spending in elections. Many court observers believe five of the nine justices favor reversing those precedents.

So at a time of corporate excess and irresponsibility not seen in our land since the Gilded Age, the court appears poised to rule that corporations do not have enough political clout and should be allowed to spend even more freely in elections. And rule thusly in the name of the First Amendment.

Never mind the word "corporation" does not appear in the First Amendment. Nor does the word appear even once in the entire U.S. Constitution for that matter. These justices who call themselves "strict constructionists" and claim to be faithful to the original text of the Constitution are getting ready to sweep away century-old laws banning corporate election spending.

Roberts and his ideological soulmates will not be able to base such a decision on what the Constitution actually says. Nor will they be able to find any predecessor on the nation's highest court who wrote a decision proclaiming that corporations are people and possess the same rights as flesh-and-blood citizens, including those rights spelled out under the First Amendment. Instead, the Roberts court will have to take this guy's word for it.

Bancroft Davis. Former president of a railroad company. As the court reporter for the U.S. Supreme Court, he gave railroad companies a great gift in 1886 when he added a comment to the high court's ruling in a case involving the taxation of railroad properties. And in so doing, this one man gave all corporations a great gift by inventing the pseudolegal doctrine of corporate personhood. Out of thin air.
If the current Supreme Court rules in Citizens United the way many legal experts expect, the handiwork of Bancroft Davis will be affirmed and further cemented in place.
If the Roberts court does this, it will not just be naked judicial activism. It will not simply be the very thing they claim to abhor - legislating from the bench. These "strict constructionists" will be effectively rewriting the Constitution.
What next? Redesign the flag? To capture the essence of the Roberts court's mindset, it will need to look this one.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

What? There Are Two Parties?

As we continue to wait for the Democrats who control both Washington and Madison to actually do something about money's paralyzing grip on our politics, my thoughts stray to my father.

To dad, politics was simple. He never worked on a political campaign. He belonged to no civic groups. He was a dairy farmer, which occupied him from sunup to sundown seven days a week. He had an eighth-grade education. All he knew about politics came from religiously reading the newspaper. To his dying day, he never once so much as turned on a computer.

Republicans were for the rich, Democrats were for the poor. Republicans favored business. Democrats sided with labor. Democrats made war, Republicans brought on depression. Economically speaking, that is.

He never said so at the supper table, but for most of his life Dixie was home to the Democratic Party. After standing for slavery, Democrats were stalwarts for segregation. Republicans were abolitionists. The party of Lincoln.

Because dad didn't speak of it and because children were to be seen and not heard, no one in our family talked about the political realignment brought on by LBJ signing all the civil rights legislation. Nixon's southern strategy was never a topic of table talk.

Maybe such shifts in the tectonic plates of politics were unwelcome complexity. Republicans are for the rich, Democrats are for the poor. Republicans favor business. Democrats support labor. Democrats make war, Republicans depression. Republicans are tight with a buck. Democrats spend like drunken sailors.

It's hard to say what dad would make of politics today. Republicans are still for the rich, but so are the Democrats. Both are money parties and both now get most of their loot from business. Unions still prefer Democrats, but the Democrats get five times as much money from business and are reluctant as hell to ever cross the guys holding the capital.

No one talks much about the poor. The most Democrats are willing to say is they are for "working families," whatever that means. Wisconsin used to have usury laws. No lender could charge more than 18% interest. Today loan sharks charge the poor over 500%, and the Assembly's top Democrat says capping interest rates at 36% "goes too far." Especially because "there's a lot of jobs that are impacted if you just eliminate the industry." One of his lieutenants who chairs the financial institutions committee justified inaction by pointing out that loan sharks "did not create poverty. It was there before they got there." This from the party of the poor.

Both parties are fond of war. But the Democrats clearly have surrendered the mantle of war party. Prominent Democratic hawks, like Scoop Jackson and Sam Nunn, are long gone. If anything, it's the Republicans who are today's masters of the military-might-equals-national-security mantra.

Neither party is fiscally responsible. Any Republican claim of being better stewards of taxpayer money is demolished by the history of federal deficits since Eisenhower's day. Democrats haven't been bashful about running up debt, but Republicans have done it with even more reckless abandon. Obama is well on his way to evening the score, though.

The political calculus on race has been turned upside down. Today it's the Republicans who most overtly and zealously court the white vote. And it's the Democrats who are friendlier to racial minorities that are fast becoming majorities. Given this emerging demographic reality, it's hard to see how this is a sustainable posture for the GOP.

Circling back to money's influence in politics, it's long since been forgotten that great populist reformers like Teddy Roosevelt and Fighting Bob La Follette were Republicans. The Republican Party is now squarely in money's camp. But so, unquestionably, are the Democrats.

Which leads to the question: What would TR and Fighting Bob do today?

They'd probably do what they did then. Ruthlessly battle their partisan enemies. And fight those on their own side just as fiercely. And then maybe try starting a new party.