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Justice for All…

March 19, 2012 Leave a comment

I’m a liar.

Not something easy for a History Nerd to admit, given my vocational and avocational dedication to history, to finding the truth, as much as it can be known, and as much as it’s ever “the” truth.

But the reality is, in some of the words I have penned over the years I’ve said things I believed to be untrue, knew objectively were false, in the name of spreading civic values. Two book reviews in yesterday’s NYT showed me the error of my ways.

I’ve written and we are taught that our great republican nation is a country of laws, not men. (Of course, of late certain Republicans, Supreme Court justices, and Catholic bishops have preferred to stress the specific prerogatives of men, and give women less of a say in certain arenas, such as public health, but that’s another story…) That noble concept means, in a nutshell, that we govern our society and administer its courts by written principles that everyone can turn to, and can feel secure knowing they are applied equally to all, high and low, rich and poor.

All right, all right, stop laughing now. No, the book reviews didn’t just make me realize that the concept of laws, not men, is sometimes hokum. But the books in question take a look back at two recent legal battles that too clearly show how the system is too often stacked against the powerless, the marginalized, the detested.

Review #1 was of Flagrant Conduct by Dale Carpenter. The author looks at the details of the case Lawrence v. Texas, which overturned sodomy laws in the United States. The NYT review introduces us to the biracial gay couple at the heart of the legal dispute, and to the deputy who arrested them, a law officer notorious for inflating minor offenses into something major. Of the four officers at the scene of the “crime,” only he saw anal sex taking place. Factor in that one of the accused men was drunk and belligerent, and the couple was biracial, and you have a scenario in which the deputy chose to take the most extreme action—arrest the men.

Turns out no one really believed the deputy’s claim that he saw the men having sex, and the prosecutor wasn’t eager to touch the case. But political pressures kept it alive, all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. Seventeen years before, SCOTUS had affirmed a Georgia law making sodomy a crime. One of the justices in that 5-4 majority, Lewis Powell, later admitted he had made a mistake. Surely, if straight couples have an expectation of privacy in their homes, gay couples should  too? This time the court agreed.

The second review was of Anatomy of Injustice by Raymond Bonner. He looks at the case of a young South Carolina man who was sentenced to death for murdering an elderly, well-off, white woman. The accused murder was poor, black, and had an IQ of 61. Guess how this case turned out. Edward Lee Elmore was sentenced to die after the jury deliberated for under three hours, following severely underwhelming work by his public defenders. And it wasn’t like Elmore was equipped to provide much help in his own case. As reviewer Kevin Boyle notes, the accused’s mental capacity left him unable to tell time, “much less able to follow the intricacies of the case.”

Thankfully, Elmore had a savior, in the form of law student Diana Holt. She studied the details of his case and uncovered the prosecution’s many omissions and deceptions. The state’s attorneys were not looking to conduct a fair trial; they simply wanted a conviction. She also faced the harsh reality of the SCOTUS decision in Herrera v. Collins (1993), that said a person duly convicted of murder and given a death sentence could not claim a right to another trial if new evidence appeared proving his innocence. (In a dissent, Justice Harry Blackmun wrote, “Nothing could be more contrary to contemporary standards of decency…or more shocking to the conscience…than to execute a person who is actually innocent.”)

But through her tireless work, Holt was able to convince a South Carolina judge to change Elmore’s sentence to life in prison. Next she won a new trial for him, based on his original attorneys’ incompetence. Elmore is today free, though first he had to go into court and confess to a murder he still says he never committed.

These two stories, along with other recent ones (here’s a doozy from Virginia, involving the grossly unrepentent county attorney Gary Close), plus the number of wrongly convicted Death Row inmates later freed, often through the work of the Innocence Project, belie so vividly those platitudes I and others have spewed:  A nation of laws, not men. Justice is blind. Innocent until proven guilty.

And the two cases featured in the book reviews also led me to this thought: Antonin Scalia is a blight on whatever good name the SCOTUS still has. Put aside his putative legal brilliance: the man is a bully, and as his comments on Blackmun’s dissent cited above show, his supposed wit rests too often on belittlement. I’m amazed at how many of the prominent “moral” Catholics in this country use their faith as a cudgel against the people they don’t like. In the Texas sodomy case, reviewer David Oshinky writes, Scalia “stunned” his audience with a facile comparison between imaginary laws on flag-pole sitting (!) and the rights of gay Americans. And in 2009, he seemed to gleefully restate the findings in Herrera, though in a losing cause. Troy Davis of Georgia was seeking another trial after many witnesses who first testified against him recanted and fingered another man for murdering a cop. There seems little question that Davis was a bad guy, but less proof he was a cop killer. The Court agreed to give Davis another trial. Scalia wrote, “This court has never held that the Constitution forbids the execution of a convicted defendant who had a full and fair trial but is later able to convince a habeas court that he is ‘actually’ innocent.”

Read that again, and then let it sink in. You can be “actually innocent,” and it’s still ok for the government to kill you, as long as you received a fair trial. Though as the Elmore case showed, that’s a big if. For Davis, the new appeal did not lead to a happy ending. A judge rejected all but one of the recantations, and he was executed in September 2011.

[One more Scalia tidbit, from 2011. As a devout originalist—we must rule based on what the Founders intended—he says the 14th Amendment does not provide equal protection to women, since it was only intended to protect black males. Boy, think of all that undeserved protection against sexual discrimination those broads have been able to finagle over the years…it must make his blood boil.]

I don’t think we should stop aspiring to be a country of laws, But let’s hold the humans calling the shots on so many parts of the judicial system—the cops, the prosecutors, the judges, and the pols who use high-profile cases in self-serving ways—to a higher standard. And let’s hope to god we have Democratic presidents for a while, so we don’t get any more Scalias.

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Welcome to the 1940s

March 16, 2012 Leave a comment

Fifty-two years ago this week, the History Nerd came into the world, kicking and screaming, I imagine, as much as any infant does. I bring up this historical tidbit only because my birthday got me thinking: What if my parents had used birth control nine months earlier? Why, I wouldn’t be penning this, that’s for sure. Or maybe I would have come along at a later point, but not become a history-loving nerd so obsessed with the past I have to blog about it in my idle moments.

Another great thing to come out of CT--the end of laws against birth control. Thank you, Estelle Griswold!

Of course, if my parents had been using birth control, they would have been criminals, since another five years had to pass for the Supreme Court to overturn a Connecticut law that made birth control illegal. Unless, of course, it was natural birth control, like the rhythm method, the form championed by my parents’ Roman Catholic faith. For all I know—and I don’t really want to think about it too deeply—they were practicing the method, it failed, and there I came.

Jeez, who thought this women's suffrage thing was a good idea?

Thoughts about contraception, of course, were fueled by the ongoing ridiculousness spouted by certain Republican males this political season (with the most recent coming the other day, courtesy of Pennsylvania governor Tom Corbett). Why are these guys so obsessed about sex and women’s bodies—in such a demeaning, patriarchial way (not in the normal, red-blooded, straight-guy way that millions of other American men obsess about those topics)? A female friend said what I had been thinking: These recent attempts to limit contraception and invade the privacy of pregnant women make it feel like we’re stepping back into another era. You just keep waiting for some conservatives to start with, “And that voting thing, maybe that wasn’t such a smart idea either.” (Certainly not for the candidates who keep spewing all the crazy talk…)

I’ve come to believe that the men leading the attack on women, whether fueled by religious conviction, misogyny, or both, aren’t conservatives at all. They’re reactionaries. Instead of trying to conserve something fairly long established and widely believed—women should have equal rights—they want to turn back the clock. They certainly aren’t being good Republicans. It was, after all, Richard Nixon who championed Title X of the 1970 Public Health Service Act. Yes, Tricky Dick had plenty of faults, but he supported some key government actions that served the public weal. Title X made good on Nixon’s pledge the year before: “No American woman should be denied access to family planning.” The government would provide assistance to women who could not afford birth control. Funds went to Planned Parenthood and independent clinics for this purpose.

Title X—so hard to believe in this climate—had bipartisan support in Congress. Here are the words of one Republican representative from Texas: “We need to take sensationalism out of this topic. If family planning is anything, it is a public health matter.” That was George H.W. Bush, who later, as president, reiterated his support for contraception, even boasting about his efforts to support family planning. By then, though, he had jumped onto the anti-abortion bandwagon, and–based on several public comments he made as a presidential candidate and once in office–he seemed hung-up on the idea that people were using abortion as birth control. The man had obviously never talked to a woman who had an abortion. None I know who have gone through that experience ever equated it to popping a pill or inserting an IUD.

From now on, we should call 'em "bushies."

Bush, of course, came from a family that long championed “family planning.” Before going to Washington to serve as a Connecticut senator, Prescott Bush helped raise money for (cue the evil-sounding music) Planned Parenthood! Bush and his family later claimed the senator never had any affiliation with PP (read more about it here and here), but George H.W. was so gung-ho about family planning that in some circles he was known as “Rubbers.”

Of course, I can hear some of today’s Republican say that Nixon and the older generations of Bushes were not conservatives. If you want to see the roots of today’s Republicans, go back to the revered Ronald Reagan. All right, and as a quick search of the public record of his eight years in office reveals, he almost never mentioned contraception or birth control. When he did, it was usually in reference to a change to Title X his administration tried to ram down the throats of federally funded clinics that dispensed birth control. Under the so-called “squeal rule,” the clinics were supposed to tell parents if teens under 18 received birth control. Reagan said in February 1983, “I don’t think government has a right to stick its nose into the family and tell parents what they can or cannot know about their children.” So, he tried to paint it as an “anti-big government” position rather than an anti-contraception one. Still, there was no doubt that the measure was a sop to the social conservatives Reagan turned to for support. The courts, though, struck down the change. Despite those efforts, Reagan said very clearly early during his presidency that he was not against contraception. And he told a group of evangelicals he did not fault the intent of Planned Parenthood and other clinics to prevent unwanted pregnancies and abortion.

Which brings us to today. When Mitt Romney wants to do away with Planned Parenthood (what would Prescott say?), and Sick Rick Santorum offers us these sentiments:

“One of the things I will talk about, that no president has talked about before, is I think the dangers of contraception in this country…. Many of the Christian faith have said, well, that’s okay, contraception is okay. It’s not okay. It’s a license to do things in a sexual realm that is counter to how things are supposed to be.”

Is that conservative? Or a desire to return to a Dark-Ages past, fueled by religious tenets, that is so out of step with what most Americans believe? And, of course, a slap at the rights of women, to control their sex lives and their bodies.

I keep hoping Santorum and the Catholic bishops and evangelicals who spout such things would just go away. Or that Republicans with some sense of decency would call them on the carpet. Since Nixon and Prescott Bush aren’t around, I guess it’s up to George H.W. Bush. Are you listening, Rubbers?

Still Ridin’ the Rails

March 8, 2012 Leave a comment

Come with me on a ride back through time, when iron horses chugged across the Wild West, outlaws terrorized the trains riding the rails, and the coming of the railway meant life or death for many Southwest towns.

Or, take a slow, short jaunt into the outskirts of Santa Fe. Like the one I took this weekend on the Santa Fe Southern Railway.

On the railroad again...

To kick off a new season of train-based tourist traps—uh, trips—the SFSR offered half-priced rides on its routes into Lamy and the Galisteo Basin. (The railway also still brings some freight into the city.) Being a cheapskate as well as a History Nerd, I jumped all over this deal, taking the ride into the basin. I am also something of a train aficionado (though not to say expert, not by a long shot), and I’ve written about some of my past railway experiences here and here. This ride promised to be a short trek back into time as well as physical trip into the Santa Fe environs.

The railway came to Santa Fe in 1880, though just barely. The main route of the Atchinson, Topeka, and Santa Fe passed some 15 miles to the south of the capital on its way from Las Vegas (our Las Vegas, not the other one) to Albuquerque. Concerned Santa Feans, worried about being shut off from civilization and commerce (there is, of course, a huge difference) begged for and got a spur line that ran from Galisteo Junction (now Lamy, named for the French bishop of some renown/infamy in these parts) to their city. Today, Lamy’s stucco train station is an Amtrak stop, and Santa Fe’s station is…basically non-existent.

Inside, quite the festive atmosphere.

On its tourist runs, the SFSR uses a modern diesel pulling several coaches from the 1920s—though they were used back east, in New Jersey, rather than out here. Our tour guide said that he’s also in charge of reupholstering the seats when they wear out, and he’s counted 17 layers of fabric on some. He offered some historical tidbits along the way, and of course no telling of Santa Fe history in the days of the first railroads would be complete without mentioning Billy the Kid and Governor Lew Wallace. I don’t think either man had a direct connection to the trains; perhaps they rode on the line at some point. But the tourists sure do like hearing about Billy the Kid! And the New York accent of the folks behind  me was just one sign that many of the day’s riders were tourists. I doubt many locals would take this trip, certainly not at full price, as the scenery is, in all honesty, not very compelling for these parts. And the history, too, is a little thin.

I learned the most when we reached our destination, the Galisteo Basin. Another tour guide joined us on the one open, flatbed car and talked a little about the ancient history of the region. Archaeological artifacts about 7,000 years old have been found there. So have parrot beaks, a sign that the Native American of the region once traded with peoples much farther to the south, exchanging  turquoise and other minerals mined in the nearby Cerrillos Hills. And it’s thought that some Anasazi Indians left their grand city of Chaco Canyon and settled in the basin some 800 years ago. They and later inhabitants built several thriving pueblos in the region, though few traces of them remain today. (More on all this can be found here).

No trip back into New Mexico history would be complete without mentioning the state’s role in the movie biz. Tour guide #1 recounted some of the films shot nearby, including Young Guns 1 and 2 and the remake of 3:10 to Yuma. The railway’s wooden trestle, which gave me pause when we passed over it  (will this thing hold?), was featured in the latter–I think; I was spacing out a bit at that point.

And some art along the way.

Or not spacing, exactly, but ruminating on the role trains have played in our history. They were once the largest employers of Americans. They gave us our system of time zones. And they created the wealth of some of the robber barons of the past—with government help, of course. Yes, when some people like to champion our rugged-individualism brand of capitalism, they overlook that it was the granting of government land to the railways that helped create that wealth—and then help timber interests, mine owners, and ranchers make money, too. At times, capitalism needs a dose of government intervention to thrive, and the railroads are a prime example of it. Though some would argue that not all the land grants were good for the country as whole, an idea explored in great detail at Landgrant.org.

Today, of course, we have the perennial attempt by conservatives to shut down Amtrak. And some New Mexicans grumble about the cost of our commuter line, the Rail Runner, which I love. The fact is, some people still need the trains to get from point A to point B, or to move their goods efficiently. Riding the rails is not just a pleasant Sunday excursion. Forget nostalgia—we need trains, modernized trains, to be a part our transportation network. If the SFSR’s trips can convince folks of that, then I’m all for them.