Friday, April 29, 2011

Ahead To The Past

We are living through what I have described as the third stage of ownership in American politics, as I've written a time or two before.

At the start of the American experiment, the instruments of social control and the way the ruling class kept political power in the hands of a very few were slavery and disenfranchisement. You had to be a white, male property owner to have a vote and thus a voice. At the time that whittled the electorate down to about 10% of the nation's population. That was the first stage of ownership.

It took a civil war, but eventually the abolitionists won and slavery was ended. The suffragettes won too after decades of struggle, and the right to vote was extended to nearly all of the adult population. That did not mean the ruling class was about to surrender control and relinquish power. In slavery's place they put Jim Crow. When women and former slaves got the vote, they moved on to voter suppression. Poll taxes. Literacy tests. The second stage of ownership.

The women's rights, voting rights and civil rights movements brought to an end legal segregation and the second-stage voter suppression tactics. Prompting the ruling class to embark on the design and construction of a third stage of ownership. One of the first telltale signs of what was emerging was the U.S. Supreme Court's 1976 ruling in Buckley v. Valeo radically reinterpreting the First Amendment (which was 185 years old at the time) to equate money and speech. Goodbye "free speech," hello "fee speech." What has been designed and built is a political marketplace where meaningful participation is prohibitively expensive for all but a very few in our society. This is the new instrument of social and political control. The wicked genius of this design is that the primary weapon of the third stage is called a donation. A gift. Makes social and political control sound downright philanthropic.

This is not to say there are not remnants of the earlier stages that remain with us. The current push to require a photo ID in order to vote is a throwback to the second stage. Requiring voters to show photo identification to cast a ballot would be a very modest inconvenience for most of us. It creates another hoop to jump through on election day and might make some lines at polling places a bit longer. But it will make voting much more difficult for three classes of people – the poor, the elderly and students.

More than a few poor people can't afford a car and don't drive, and as a result many haven't bothered to get a driver's license. Poor people also tend to be more mobile than the general population. This is particularly true of course for the homeless. Even if they do drive, the chances are far greater that their current address is not on their driver's license. Having a driver's license would do them no good when it comes to voting.

A photo ID law for voting would have a similarly discriminatory impact on many seniors. As their eyesight and reflexes have deteriorated, they've given up driving and stopped renewing their driver's permits.

Same story for students, another highly mobile population. I was speaking in a class on the UW-Platteville campus and asked how many students have a driver's license with their current address on it. Fewer than half raised their hands.

If the current version of the Wisconsin photo ID bill passes, those without a valid photo ID with their current address on it would have a problem when it comes to voting. They would have to go to a Division of Motor Vehicles office and get an updated driver's license or go to some other government agency to get a different state-issued ID card.

It should be noted that not every county in Wisconsin has a DMV office. So for some, securing a right to vote will mean paying to travel to another county. And if you need your birth certificate to prove you are who you say you are for the purposes of getting that state-issued ID and don't happen to have a copy handy, you'll have to go to yet another government office and pay for one. These are poll taxes, folks.

It should be further noted that the way the bill is written, students wouldn't be able to use their student IDs. Never mind these are photo IDs issued by a state government agency. Nope, if they don't have a driver's license with their current address on it, they'll have to go to the trouble to get yet another form of photo identification.

The political motivations behind the discriminatory treatment of poor people, seniors and students are obvious. So is the fact that this bill effectively calls for poll taxation, one of the second stage of ownership's crudest and most vile instruments of political control.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

The Real Debate Over How To Pick Judges

Less than a week ago, the Wisconsin State Journal published the latest in a three-year-long string of editorials calling for Wisconsin to stop electing judges. This came just over a week after the newspaper ran an editorial headlined "Wisconsin Supreme Court elections must go."

The State Journal started its editorial crusade in support of "merit selection" of judges in January 2008 and has been devoting copious amounts of ink to the topic ever since. A Google search for "Wisconsin State Journal and merit selection" a few moments ago produced 57,400 results. There has been a steady stream of editorials with headlines like "Judicial elections are a ruse" and "Let merit replace mud in Wisconsin Supreme Court selection process" and "Keep partisan politics off the court" and "Restore public's trust in court."

The real ruse is the idea that merit selection will remove politics from judicial selection. Under a merit selection system, a nominating commission is established. The commission reviews applicants and the commission's selection is appointed, usually by the governor. Then after the appointee has served in office for a period of time, a "retention election" is held to allow voters to decide whether the appointed judge should remain on the bench.

Where merit selection has been put in place, it has been far from free of politics. Missouri's nominating commission has come under attack for being too partisan, too easily manipulated by legal insiders, as well as insufficiently diverse and consequently unfair to minority applicants. And retention elections look conspicuously like plain old every day judicial elections. You need look no further than Iowa for evidence of that.

Another real ruse is that merit selection is remotely doable in our state. More than three years worth of editorials has moved the public policy debate in Wisconsin over judicial selection not one inch. Amending the state constitution is necessary to move to the system the State Journal favors. That is a years-long process requiring the approval of state lawmakers in two successive sessions of the Legislature, and then voter approval in a statewide referendum. There have been no votes in either house of the Legislature on a proposed constitutional amendment establishing merit selection for judges in the three years since the State Journal started campaigning for it. That's because not a single legislator in either party has been willing to even introduce such an amendment.

One former member of the Assembly, Mark Gottlieb of Port Washington, did introduce a proposed constitutional amendment calling for appointment of Supreme Court justices. But Gottlieb didn't propose merit selection, he called for members of the state's highest court to be directly appointed by the governor. The proposal went nowhere and Gottlieb is no longer in the Legislature.

There is a reason why neither Republican nor Democratic legislators are calling for a constitutional amendment ending judicial elections. They know voters of every stripe oppose it. Even if lawmakers did approve such an amendment and then return two years later and approve it again, the voters would not ratify it. The politicians know the path to merit selection leads nowhere.

In a very thoughtful New York Times commentary published this week two law professors, one at Hofstra and the other at the University of California in Irvine, state the obvious: judicial elections are here to stay.

Thirty-nine states elect at least some of their judges. For more than a quarter of a century, voters in state after state have rejected switching from electing judges to appointing them. Just last year, despite a campaign led by retired U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, Nevada voters became the latest to reject such a change.

Look, judicial selection is inherently political. Appointing judges does not take politics out of the process, it only removes the voters. The highest appointed court in the land, the U.S. Supreme Court, also easily qualifies as one of the nation's most politicized.

Instead of spinning our wheels arguing over whether it's better to appoint or elect judges, we should accept that we've been electing judges in Wisconsin for over 150 years and we will be electing them 150 years from now. The real question is whether future elections will look like they did for the better part of a century and a half in Wisconsin or instead resemble the auctions we've had for state Supreme Court since 2007.

The sooner we can get down to the business of answering that question, the better off we'll be.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Who Pays The Fare Rides The Train

Talk about bad timing. On Monday Governor Scott Walker announced $25.5 million in state grants for freight rail upgrades in Wisconsin. That same day Wisconsin & Southern Railroad's CEO William Gardner was criminally charged with making illegal campaign donations, many of them to Walker's campaign. Over half of the state grants go to – you guessed it – Wisconsin & Southern Railroad.

Walker has been all over the board on rail issues. As a member of the Assembly he voted for Tommy Thompson's 1993 state budget proposal to commit $50 million to kickstart the development of passenger rail from Madison to Milwaukee or Milwaukee to Green Bay. He also supported Thompson’s 1997 state budget plan exempting passenger train projects from the normal state bidding process.

That was before he got religion. And the financial backing of the road builders.

Upon becoming governor he rejects $810 million in federal funds earmarked for a Milwaukee-to-Madison passenger rail project, insisting the money be used for road improvements instead. Then he applies for some of the federal funds he just turned down to make upgrades to Amtrak's Chicago-Milwaukee Hiawatha line. Sheesh, this train ride is making all of us dizzy.

Now Walker is doling out more than $25 million in new state subsidies for railroad companies, nearly $14 million of which is being steered to the company run by the wealthy donor who is pleading guilty to felony campaign money laundering charges.

Now this train ride is making us sick.

Wednesday, April 06, 2011

Wisconsin's No-Win Scenario

After all hell broke loose in Wisconsin in mid-February I wrote that of all the paths our state government could take, the one chosen was the most polarizing and divisive imaginable, a path that leads to "ripping Wisconsin in two."

As it turns out, almost exactly in two.

I also wrote back in February that it was easy to see how Scott Walker wins in all this, but harder to see how Wisconsin could emerge victorious. As of this morning it has become infinitely more difficult for even Walker's most ardent supporters to find plausible grounds to declare him a winner, regardless of the eventual outcome of the inevitable ballot recount.

Seven weeks ago, hardly anyone knew who JoAnne Kloppenburg was. David Prosser was coming off a resounding primary election win, outpolling Kloppenburg by a whopping 30-point margin. Kloppenburg had never held public office. Had never even run for one before. Prosser was a 13-year Supreme Court incumbent with a political career spanning more than three decades. Yet the general election turned out to be a photo finish.

Yes, some of Prosser's wounds were self inflicted. Even those who endorsed him did so in some of the most heavily caveated terms ever seen. But his biggest wound was opened by Scott Walker.

What's known for sure at the moment is that much remains unknown, including which of the candidates will end up sitting on the state Supreme Court for the next 10 years. What's certain is that a lot of lawyers will be very busy and will be getting a lot richer in the weeks to come, that conspiracy theories about ballot box stuffing and voting irregularities will abound, and that partisans on both sides will be more or less perpetually overheated.

Against this backdrop, we all are left to puzzle over how anything resembling a consensus on how to move Wisconsin ahead can possibly be reached in this totally polarized and completely divided state. For the time being anyway, any attempt to quench the citizenry's thirst for a way forward will involve dipping from a thoroughly poisoned well.