Tuesday, June 26, 2012

The Right to Free Speech: Citizens United

One of the worst decisions ever made by the Supreme Court of the United States was the case of Citizens United decided by a 5/4 vote, mainly among partisan lines. Republican members of the Supreme Court--appointed by Republicans who have decried for years activist judges who choose to legislate from the bench--are responsible not only for this bad decision, but also for the decision taking away the electoral process from the State of Florida and installing George W. Bush as president.

Citizens United, in case you live under a rock somewhere and never watch the evening news, is the case which declared that laws prohibiting rich corporations from spending corporate money on elections were an unreasonable restraint on freedom of speech. Advocates of this horrible decision, such as former Governor Romney, declare that corporations are ''people'' and as such should enjoy the same right of free speech as any American citizen.

Corporations can’t be sentenced to jail. They cannot be drafted into military service. And yet they can be citizens concurrently of multiple countries. Corporations are not democratic organizations having the benefit of one-man-one-vote but are controlled by the vote of shareholders whose voting strength is strictly determined by the amount of money put into the corporation by the would-be voters. Instead, corporate decisions are made by a board of directors. And now, because of the Citizens United ruling, these boards can spend other people’s money for political candidates without the vote of the persons who furnished the money.

Interestingly, there has been a prohibition for years and years applied to unions disallowing unions from doing that very thing. It was felt unions should not be able to spend the dues of their members to elect candidates that some of the dues-paying members did not necessarily favor. Citizens United has stood this concept on its head.

Thus, we are seeing the results of allowing unlimited corporate investment in political elections, most recently in the Republican primary. Super-pacs furnished over $300 million alone in the intramural fight between Republican candidates for presidents. The $300 million spent in the primary election, in my opinion, is only a small preview of the spending orgy to come in the general election for the leader of this nation.

Americans value the right of free speech so much that America generally has bought into the concept promoted by the news media that the people have a right to know and that this right should be exercised without restraint. Court decisions regularly allow the slander of persons having any public notoriety whatsoever on the theory that to do otherwise would have a chilling effect on the media’s efforts to keep the public informed.

I have long taken a somewhat different view in that I have trouble finding anywhere in the Constitution of the United States or of the state of Texas that declares the people have the right to know anything. I firmly believe that the people have a need to know. Certainly, people need to know essential facts about what’s going on in government. I also believe we should be zealous in protecting free speech, but I strongly disagree that any great effort should be made to constitutionally protect lies.

What Citizens United has done is grant to the very rich, such as the Koch brothers, the ability to promote millions of dollars of slander almost, if not completely, anonymously. Recently, over $59-million spent on elections has been traced to a remote post office box in Arizona. It is highly suspected that it is funded by the Koch brothers who are estimated to be worth $50-billion. There are countless documented instances of phony 501-C3's--so-called non-profit organizations--which are mysteriously funded, and those participating in these so-called non-profits deny knowledge of where the money comes from.

If you believe elections cannot be bought, you obviously did not follow the recent election between James White and Tuffy Hamilton in the Southeast Texas area. Tuffy Hamilton was a longtime member of the Legislature--a committee chair with a record of achievement to point to. James White was a freshman whose record was virtually devoid of any major accomplishments as a member of the Texas House of Representatives. Tuffy was swamped with TV ads to the extent they were almost nauseating. TV ads are expensive, and yet James White’s campaign would run sometimes 3 expensive TV ads back to back, one after the other, in prime time in the evenings. The results were devastating for the voters of Southeast Texas as well as for Tuffy Hamilton.

Texas has a fairly decent system of accountability in funding elections–at least for the candidates themselves. A candidate is obligated to register campaign contributions, both received and spent, with the Ethics Commission. Citizens, as a result, have the opportunity, as well as the right, to check and see from whence the money came to promote a particular candidate. Unfortunately, with Citizens United, it is no longer possible to hold a candidate accountable for massive amounts of money pumped in from even outside one’s district in an election.

While I would prefer adoption of a constitutional amendment which would put us back to square one and prohibit unlimited corporate or union contributions, it would be a great improvement in the meantime if we would simply require that corporations give money to the candidate. Then require the candidate to report it so the voting public could have a better idea of who owns each candidate or to whom each candidate indebted for the price of his or her campaign.

As it is, it is difficult, if not impossible, for discerning voters to make an intelligent choice between candidates not knowing which candidate might have received a couple of million dollars from a special interest whose interest is contrary to the average voter.

Monday, June 18, 2012

Sex Offenders Registry

Perhaps second only to mass murderers, the most repugnant criminals in our society are offenders who have victimized children. All too often, we must read in the paper about a small child being kidnapped, abused and even murdered by a person with a long history of pedophilia. This type criminal is not only abhorred by people in polite society, but is even shunned and isolated among his fellow inmates of murderers, robbers, con-artists and just thieves. Sexual offenders are generally severely punished, and should be. 

Unfortunately, in our lawmakers zeal to be the toughest on crime and to assure that our youngsters in Texas are not victimized by sexual predators, we have taken a shortsighted approach to dealing with sexual offenders.

I, and those dear to me, certainly care about the welfare of our families and take the trouble to review the registry. While keeping track of sexual offenders in most respects is a good idea, the problem with the registry in Texas is that it contains 70,000 registrants. The Texas definition of sexual offenses is so broad one cannot review the registry and determine whether the person so registered is a raving pedophile maniac who is subject to attacking small children found alone on the street, or whether the person could have been a 19-year-old who had a love affair with his 16-year-old girlfriend and was convicted of what most of us know as the offense of statutory rape.  

I submit it is important for those of us who care about protecting our children and grandchildren to know the difference. It is also in the interest of justice that the latter category above described is not lumped with the former.

Tales of injustice of such a system which paints all with a broad brush, effectively sentencing them to a life sentence, recalls ancient times when part of the punishment of certain criminals was to be branded on the forehead, sometimes for minor violations.

A recent edition of The Texas Observer chronicled the plight of a young man sentenced as a sexual offender at the age of 12 basically for engaging in curiosity--acting out--with a sibling. The article pointed out that there are hundreds, if not thousands, of so-called sexual offenders on the registry who were basically sentenced as children. And there are hundreds of other registrants branded as lifetime sexual offenders who are now married to the alleged victim. The 19-year-old who had the love affair with his 16-year-old girlfriend--and who is now married to his longtime sweetheart and raising a family--has no business on the sexual registry. 

Sociological studies have clearly established the vast majority of children branded as sexual offenders, and those described herein as those slightly over the edge--having had affairs with their teenage sweethearts, are imminently unlikely to be repeat offenders. Some system should be devised either to remove this type offender from the registry or to create a categorized system of registration so that those concerned about protection of our loved ones could review the registry and determine the type of person who might be residing within the geographical area of our concern.

I would suggest two possible solutions to the overuse of sexual offense registration. The preferable method would be for the Legislature to simply comb through the categories currently designated as sexual offenses and provide that, if convicted of the lesser type offenses, the registration be shortened to a reasonable term of years after whatever sentence they receive for the offense. This would allow parole officers or probation officers to determine whether or not the person has exhibited any propensity to continue or repeat as sex offenders.   

The other solution would be to create a subsection of the Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles--staffed by professionals such as counselors, psychologists and psychiatrists--and allow persons required to register to apply to be freed from the onus of registration and be evaluated by a team of experts to determine the likelihood of their being repeat offenders and the degree of risk that each person might be to his or her community in which they reside. 

Until such reforms are adopted by the Legislature, those of use who care will continue to be unable to tell the bad guys from the really bad guys.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012


One of the things Ive learned over many years as a candidate for office and an observer of politics is that sometimes people choose how to vote for the weirdest reasons. I recall one of my colleagues in the House of Representative once telling me he was amazed at some of the reasons people gave him for their support. One, he said, voted for him because he had been her paperboy when he was 12 years old. Sounds a little weak, but Ive found that its maybe a better reason than many people have given over the years. 
It is my belief there are at least four critical factors to be considered when choosing to bestow your vote on a candidate for public office. 
The four reasons, in my opinion, are:
1. The history of the candidate or the party to whose philosophy he/she ascribes.  
2. What are the things that are important to you as major issues of concern that affect your personal life? Do you and the candidate share goals or other things in common?
3. If the candidate has a history of voting, or belongs to a group publicly announcing goals in an area of interest, what things appear to be the most important to the candidate or the candidates party?
4. The basic honesty of the candidate and the candidates public pronouncements, or those statements contained in the candidates promotional material.

Keeping in mind the above criteria, it boggles my mind to see everyday working folks, folks who live payday to payday, supporting Republicans at any level. People living on less than $200,000 a year should find it easy to see that the Republican philosophy, political history and honesty in campaign statements fail all four tests.

The Republican Party has little, if any, of their own political history which they put forward in campaigns. On the contrary, about the only name Republicans dare to mention of their past presidents is Ronald Reagan. He is about all they have. Ive yet to see a Republican run for office wanting to associate themselves with Herbert Hoover, author of the Great Depression; Richard Nixon, or his vice-president, Spiro Agnew; or even George W. Bush.  Republicans even ignore Dwight Eisenhower who warned America to be wary of the military-industrial complex.

Rick Perry gave us his take on what was important during the last legislative session. It wasnt improving education, or making higher education more accessible to young Texans. In fact, the items Perry listed as the most important issues of our time for Texas were voter identification, forced sonograms for women, and outlawing so-called sanctuary cities.

According to recent reports, billionaires such as the Koch brothers (net worth: $50 billion) have provided approximately $300 million to Republican candidates. Similarly, other millionaires and billionairesa home builder in Texas, the owner of a hospital chain, and several oil and gas billionaireshave contributed multiples of millions to support candidates of their choicealmost always Republicanseven down to the level of school board and state representative elections.  

Ask yourself how much you have in common with Harold Simmons of Dallas, who has spent over $10 million to elect candidates of his choice. He is a billionaire at least ten times over and makes a large part of his money by importing radioactive waste into Texas for storage.

The final factor is whether or not the promises or statements contained in election material are fair and honest.  Particularly at the national level, the Republican strategy and campaign rhetoric is replete with pure hypocrisy, if not out-and-out lies.  Republicans nationally accused our president of job killing strategies, yet these particular strategies happen to come primarily from the national effort to protect our environment for future generations. 

And Republicans like to point to the slow growth of the number of jobs since our president took office in the United States. Again, the fact of the matter is we lost jobs the last year of George W. Bushs administration at the rate of 7,000 per month. But, every month Obama has been president we have gained jobs, although not as many as George Bush was losing each month.  

Republicans insist on accusing Democrats of being job killers.  But nobody seems to dwell on the fact that, in Texas alone, the policies of the Republican Legislature that shortchanged our children $4 billion in public education have caused the layoff of over 100,000 peopleand that's just in the field of education! To me, that fact states very clearly who the real job killers are in todays economy, and where their priorities lie.

Today's Republicans appear to wring their hands over spiraling national debt, but they uttered not a word when George W. plunged us into two needless wars.  They issued no protest when the Iraq War was done off the books, on credit, and millions were wasted on Vice-President Cheneys company.  Where was the Republican outcry then?  Clearly, Republican administrations have a history of phoniness and hypocrisy.  

Consider the important factors of voting selection and vote based your own interestsnot based on the million-dollar TV ads produced by professional hucksters.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

My Way or the Highway

The Queen had only one way of settling all difficulties, great or small--'Off with their heads!'
Imagine for a moment that parties engaged to be married were discussing their future. One party issued an ultimatum to the other: During our marriage you will be required to do exactly as I say...without discussion or compromise. Given such a requirement for marriage, few couples would ever tie the knot.  

Unfortunately, this appears to be the attitude, at least at the congressional level of our government, which is engendered by members of the Tea Party. Such an attitude was clearly expressed by Mr. Murdock, the Tea Party candidate who recently defeated Republican Senator Luger in the primary election in their state.  When asked about his attitude about bi-partisanship approaches to legislation, Mr. Murdock said his position on bi-partisanship was that the Democrats should simply come and agree with everything the Republicans wanted.

Such a posture is very unlikely to change the deadlock which has paralyzed the U.S. Congress for far too long.  The rhetoric of campaign extremes, particularly on the conservative side, seems to attempt to make compromise or moderate a dirty word. Candidates in the Republican primary appeared to want to out-conservative one another, while unfortunately failing to advise the electorate of what they might or might not do about jobs, the economy, flagging education and increasing attacks on the environment.   

Unfortunately, too many right-wingers who carry little copies of the United States Constitution in their pockets have forgotten the lessons of our forefathers. These ideologues should revisit the book detailing how our constitution was born.  It is entitled The Miracle at Philadelphia. [Here is one helpful summary of historical findings in Catherine Drinker Bowen's book.] Had our forefathers carried forward the attitude of todays politicians, the wonderful instrument known as the United States Constitution would never have been given birth. The history of the writing of the basic instrument of our laws is a history of compromise among people with strongly held views. As Bowen states it: "...one sees here a group of reasonable men, strong enough to yield." They produced a foundation instrument for government which has endured longer than almost any other document known to man with the possible exception of the Ten Commandments.

The issue of the federal deficit is a good example of why an unyielding attitude and the mantra of no compromise does not work. Politicians often compare government to a family and rant about the fact that families must live within their means. Any family who found themselves deeply in debt but with the opportunity to both increase their income and reduce their expenditures would most certainly adopt an approach including both. Unfortunately, Republicans choose to follow their written pledges given to no-tax gurus without regard to what the future may hold or what may be the critical needs of this country. 

In my opinion, the future of America is certainly not just my way but certainly should be our way.