A Good Sign for Criminal Justice Reform and Progressive Policy

One of the things we sometimes lose sight of during the “we need change now” and “but it’s politically difficult” discussion at the Presidential level is that a lot of real change happens at the local level. I’m convinced, for example, that the rising number of Commonwealth’s Attorney candidates in Virginia who ran on decriminalizing cannabis and criminal justice reform in general allowed the General Assembly to take action. They could see voters from both sides of the political spectrum support these campaigns, and this gave them “permission” in a way.

These local elections also matter in the sense that they help the Progressive coalition build a bench of candidates and elected officials with the experience and chops to run for higher office. Today’s Henrico County Commonwealth’s Attorney is tomorrow’s Virginia Attorney General.

This played out in Oregon last night, when Mike Schmidt won a District Attorney race in Multomah County (Portland area) by a landslide on a very progressive platform.

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Trained and Trusted: Militias and the Second Amendment

This is the second in the Lincoln-Douglas Debates II series – the Sanders-Scott Debates. The first entries, on abortion policy, are here and here. You can read Sandy’s entry on this issue at Virginia Right. Crossposted at Virginia Right.

Military service taught me a lot about weapons.  No Army officer would issue a sidearm, rifle, or tank to anyone who had not demonstrated training proficiency and trustworthiness.  We didn’t let just anyone walk around armed.  

I learned to use weapons when necessary but to secure them at all times.  No shame fell more heavily on a soldier than when he or she lost, misused, or simply could not control an assigned weapon. I simply don’t understand how people can so cavalierly support the idea that more firearms, in the hands of just anyone who wants to have one, could possibly make society safer – or that people who misuse or fail to secure those weapons should not face punishment.

Arming random citizens does not make us safer. To be sure, a firearm owner will, from time to time, use a firearm in self-defense. When this happens, it can stop crime and even save lives. More often someone uses the weapon to inflict harm on others or themselves. Someone steals a rifle and uses it to kill several people and then commit suicide. Every year, 23K Americans use their own weapon and skip the first step. Or the owner leaves it on a coffee table where a toddler finds it and plays a bit of tragic shoot-out with another child. Or drops it and accidently shoots someone in a grocery store. These are all failures we can minimize with more training, just as we did in the Army, but simply putting more guns into circulation will not stop this. Guns don’t save lives any more than they kill people. People save lives, with or without a gun, by knowing what they’re doing.

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“I Carry a Gun for Self-defense, but I Ain’t Wearing No Mask.”

The Virginian-Pilot reports that almost one in five workers in Eastern Shore poultry plants have tested positive for COVID-19. This result tracks with a study suggesting that spending more than a short time in enclosed spaces drastically increases risk of contracting the virus.

Another study shows that COVID-19 infections would plummet if 80% of Americans wore masks.

The answer to both our pandemic and economic problems is very simple. Avoid spending more than a few minutes in closed spaces with other people. If you must do this, wear a mask. Indeed, wear a mask pretty much all the time when near other people. Testing and tracking would also help, but these two simple things can get us more quickly back to watching sports over a plate of wings and a glass of beer in a bar. We don’t need government assistance or private donations. Find something to cover up your face before you go out and limit your time indoors with people you haven’t quarantined with (“quaranteam,” as a friend of mind called it) whether it’s a retail store, salon, or bar.

Demanding a right not to do this in the name of liberty makes no sense of any kind. It’s curious to me that the same people who arm themselves so they’re prepared to stop a mass shooting in a McDonald’s won’t wear a mask to stop the spread of a disease. Your mask protects me more than you, and I’m willing to do my part to make sure I don’t give you my bug. In any event, it’s the fastest way out of this economic mess and the best way to protect as many lives as possible.

Governor Northam should require that everyone wear a mask in public as we reopen Virginia. Even if he doesn’t, get a mask. Wear it a lot. Things will get better.

The Electoral College Cases

This week the Supreme Court heard oral arguments in two cases (Chiafalo v. Washington and Baca v. Colorado) involving “faithless Electors,” members of the Electoral College who refuse to align their vote for President with the outcome of the popular vote in their state. Mark Joseph Stern, writing in Slate, and Scott Lemieux at Lawyers, Guns & Money, take the position that Lawrence Lessig took these cases in an attempt to undermine the legitimacy of the Electoral College itself. Stern:

“Lessig wants to make the Electoral College so wacky and unpredictable that the entire country turns against it, then adopts a constitutional amendment creating a nationwide popular vote for president. The justices appeared to be aware of this end goal on Wednesday. And they had no apparent interest in facilitating Lessig’s master plan.”

Lemieux agrees but points out that Americans don’t seem to mind Electoral College chaos with an invented Lessig quote:

“’If rogue electors throw a presidential election to the losing candidate, the people will rise up and surmount the massive obstacle posed by Article V’s supermajority requirements to institute a national popular vote. If history has taught us anything, it’s that if the Electoral College misfires and installs a massively unqualified president, the people simply will not stand for it.’”

Neither writer challenges the idea that the Constitution allows States to require Electors to vote a certain way, but I’m not so sure. It mandates that States “shall appoint, in such Manner as the Legislature thereof may direct, a number of Electors…” but the Constitution is silent on whether States may add conditions to this appointment. I suspect that even if the Founders didn’t expect Electors to vote their conscience they would have expected state legislators to appoint loyal Electors. It seems to me that Lessig correctly argued before SCOTUS that States lack the power to exercise control over voters or Electors. Stern argues that States are simply requiring Electors to respect the results of an election, but this ignores the fact that, Constitutionally, the actual election took place when the voters appointed the Electors.

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Saturday Morning Coffee

A few articles I read while having coffee this morning:

This is a very disturbing video of two white men, a father and son, basically running down a black man and shooting him in Georgia. Warning: very graphic and horrifying to some. Hard to know what, exactly, they were thinking, but this amounts to a lynching. And as with lynchings past, the Southern white prosecutor avoided bringing charges against a white men for killing a black man. Until, of course, this video went viral. Now they’ve been charged.

Adam Serwer helps explain how this kind of thing can happen in The Atlantic, and expands it to suggest that many Americans worried far more about the COVID-19 pandemic until they found out that it kills more people of color than it does white people.

There are a lot of reasons for this, but Serwer attaches a concept from Charles Mills called the “racial contract:” that racism is at the core of the “social contract” and that this Lockean idea was never intended to apply to everyone.

Serwer’s piece is long and protected by a metered paywall, but it’s worth the read. A powerful excerpt:

“The implied terms of the racial contract are visible everywhere for those willing to see them. A 12-year-old with a toy gun is a dangerous threat who must be met with lethal force; armed militias drawing beads on federal agents are heroes of liberty. Struggling white farmers in Iowa taking billions in federal assistance are hardworking Americans down on their luck; struggling single parents in cities using food stamps are welfare queens. Black Americans struggling in the cocaine epidemic are a “bio-underclass” created by a pathological culture; white Americans struggling with opioid addiction are a national tragedy. Poor European immigrants who flocked to an America with virtually no immigration restrictions came “the right way”; poor Central American immigrants evading a baroque and unforgiving system are gang members and terrorists.”

Please go read the whole thing. You’ll be glad you did if you care about racial issues.

Speaking of COVID-19, Governor Ralph Northam has suggested a willingness to begin easing stay-at-home and lockdown orders in Virginia starting on May 15. I get that he’s feeling political pressure, and as I mentioned to a friend yesterday I expect he’s concerned that armed protests could lead to violence if police attempt to enforce social distancing.

This looks like a measured step to hit the play button on the economy, with most restaurants and all fitness facilities remaining closed, and workers required to wear a mask. I personally think that the sensible policy would be to remain locked down until at least June 1. Opening and then closing again when the inevitable spike arrives won’t help the economy, and it’s not clear than anyone will go out anyway. Something like 65-70% of Americans think it’s too early. But if Northam, a doctor, really thinks it’s time he should add one requirement: everyone going out, workers and customers alike, should have to wear some kind of mask or face covering. Historical experience in other countries suggest this works.

When people attended in person church services on Easter Sunday and in subsequent weeks started protesting lockdown orders, they sort of created experiments in virus transmission. We should expect to see spikes in COVID-19 cases if it really is dangerous to gather in large groups.

And the results are in: Cases in Reno spiked according to the Reno Gazette Journal. Same in El Centro, California. Cases in Kentucky spiked after protests, but no direct connection is clear. We also know that cases spiked drastically in Wisconsin after the election several weeks ago.

I actually expected to see a lot of stories like these, especially in the Texas town linked to above, and perhaps we will. Something to keep an eye on as some states open up – including Virginia.

Saturday Morning Coffee

A few articles I read this morning with my coffee:

I don’t fundamentally disagree that online retailers, especially Amazon, could afford to pay a bit more to shop packages through the US Postal Service. But delivering packages cheaply isn’t the reason USPS struggles fiscally. And the President using government agencies to go after political rivals is a problem. Worse, reducing the reach of the Post Office has implications for voting during a pandemic. Democrats in Congress need to make sure this gets fixed.

Trump took some heat for his suggestion that drinking or injecting bleach or bathing in ultraviolet light could cure COVID-19 infections. So did the New York Times for a tweet (since deleted) suggesting that only “some” experts might think this is dangerous lunacy. (H/t to LGM). If you’re wondering where he got these ideas, take a look this article in The Guardian. Seems some guy named Mark Grenon has been pushing the idea that drinking industrial bleach could cure a variety of ailments for years through his “Church of Health and Healing.” It seems he got Trump’s ear with a letter suggesting it would work to cure the novel coronavirus. Grifters gonna grift, I guess, but Trump could make more money and hurt fewer people if he stuck to the classics like funneling taxpayer money to his resorts and golf clubs. I’d love to see this letter though, just to find out if Grenon offered the Donald a cut.

Governor Northam has outlined plans for relaxing Virginia’s lockdown orders, including necessary preconditions (e.g. “a two-week decline in the percentage of positive cases and number of hospitalizations”). Meanwhile, my State Senator and opponent in last year’s Senate race, Ryan McDougle (R-Hanover), along with Senator Bill Stanley (R-Franklin County), has filed suit on behalf of the owners of Gold’s Gym franchises in Virginia seeking injunctions against enforcement of the Executive Order closing them. I’m not convinced that allowing businesses to reopen will really keep the economy from collapsing as long as two-thirds of Americans support continued social distancing and would probably stay home any way (just as many did before lockdown orders went into effect). This New York Times story about relaxing the order in Georgia suggests that some people still don’t get it. Had to have that tongue piercing? Really?

Please stay home and stay safe. The more careful we all are the sooner this will end.

Sunday Morning Coffee

A few of the articles I read this morning over coffee with short comments on each.

Protests against lockdowns and stay-at-home orders begin. Are these starting organically or driven by right-wing organizations?

Back in January when SARS-COVID-2 began to spread from China, a good friend of mine told me government would eventually have to shut down businesses and limit large gatherings of people in order to limit the contagion and protect the health care system. I responded that even if necessary, lockdowns like this would generate protest and backlash in the US if they lasted more than a week or two. Those protests have started.

This week a few dozen people gathered at Capitol Square in Richmond to demand an end to stay-at-home orders in Virginia by 1 May.

Both Capitol and Virginia State Police were on hand and had to remind the protesters to maintain social distancing guidelines since they said the groups encouraged participants to hug and share food during the event.

“The reason why I’m not wearing a mask is that I’m not going to have someone tell me I have to,” said protester Benjamin Wright, who lives in Richmond.

This kind of right-wing virtue signaling will spread across the US and could seriously limit the ability of US institutions to deal with this crisis. And make no mistake: it’s driven by right-wing organizations like the Proud Boys and part of Trump’s reelection campaign.

It can also lead to this kind of tragic outcome when people believe what they hear on propaganda networks instead of members of their own family.

In Pursuit of PPE

This story about an executive for a Massachusetts hospital system buying personal protective equipment for his staff demonstrates both the failure of markets to allocate resources to filling an urgent need and the failure of government to protect public health. Shortages will generate higher prices, but government should work to improve the situation by taking action to increase production, not throw up road blocks and threaten to redirect shipments on a whim.

Awarding high-dollar contracts for the purchase of masks from bankrupt firms with no staff that have never made a mask does not seem like the best way out of the PPE shortage mess.

The New England Journal of Medicine is a good general resource on SARS-COVID-2, by the way.

Just so this isn’t All Coronavirus All the Time…

As the Bernie Sanders campaign ended and the Democratic Party continued coalescing support around Biden’s candidacy, I got into it a bit with some Our Revolution folks on Twitter. I tried to make the point that for now policy has to take a back seat to ending the Trump disaster (not to mention what looks like nascent fascism) with little success. But I also pointed out that politicians like Sanders and Warren, supported by activist groups like the Indivisibles and Resistance organizations, have moved American politics to the left. So the reason Sanders’ Our Revolution movement failed to achieve electoral success has more to do with the failure of their “unite the working class” strategy than with refusal by Democratic Party elites to back progressive policies. More to come on this in the coming days.

The Sanders-Scott Debates Episode 1: Abortion

My first post in the Lincoln-Douglas II: the Sanders-Scott Debates series. We’ll both be following up in the other’s comment sections. Cross posted at Virginia Right. You can read Sandy’s initial entry here.

I’ve written in the past about existential issues – policy questions that settle the political debate for many Americans. Some focus on Second Amendment rights, others on taxes or religion. Abortion – reproductive health care – is one of the big ones.  

Most activists frame the abortion discussion in terms of rights. The pro-life side privileges the right to life for the fetus. Others fight for a woman’s right to reproductive choice.  Advocacy coalitions on both sides privilege the freedom of the individuals they wish to protect.

Rights often conflict in a democracy, and the adjudication of these conflicts forms the core of politics. Madison expected factions to argue and fight and try to convince others they’re in the right and should form policy. Today we’re so polarized that these existential issues divide us in ways Madison didn’t expect. So even when one side or the other wins power and acts to implement policy, the other side rejects its legitimacy. Abortion is, after all, murder if you accept the personhood of a fetus. If you don’t, the pregnant woman’s health and personal freedom take precedence. She is, after all, the only human being involved.

Settling the abortion debate then depends in part on settling the question of when life begins. But even if one side won the argument, and its opponents accepted the legitimacy of the policy they seek to implement, this victory probably does not lead to optimal policy outcomes

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Announcing Lincoln-Douglas II: the Sanders-Scott Debates

I’m happy to announce the start of a regular series, in collaboration with my good friend Ellwood “Sandy” Sanders, a blogger at Virginia Right. Each week Sandy and I will post articles on a specific topic, and then hold a virtual “Lincoln-Douglas” style debate on the issue. This Friday, April 17th, we’ll open the series with a back-and-forth on abortion.

Sandy is a Hanover County attorney who earned his J.D. at the University of Alabama in 1983 and now works as an Appellate Procedure Consultant for a downtown legal firm. He has written or co-authored ten scholarly legal articles, including one on the “Effect of the USA Patriot Act on Money Laundering and Currency Transaction Laws.” His resume includes work as an Appellate Defender, adjunct professor of law at the T. C. Williams School of Law (University of Richmond), and service on the Appellate Practice Subcommittee of the Litigation Section of the Virginia State Bar.  Sandy is very active in his church and supports its missionary work. He also helped bring curling to Virginia!

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Captain Crozier Relieved of Command

A couple of days ago I posted about how COVID-19 sidelined the USS Theodore Roosevelt. In that post I wrote that I expected the Navy to take any action necessary to protect the crew and get the ship back in action as quickly as possible. Now it looks like this didn’t happen quickly enough to satisfy her Captain, and he was not shy about letting people know. This got him canned.

After evacuating more than a hundred COVID-positive sailors to quarantine on Guam, Captain Brett Crozier became concerned that the Navy would not act fast enough to protect the rest of the crew. On 30 March, Crozier sent a sharp letter to his superiors pointing out that while the ship could fight if necessary, failure to rapidly disembark sailors during peacetime risked their lives unnecessarily.

This caused Acting Navy Secretary Thomas Modly to relieve Crozier of his command, ostensibly for going around his chain of command.

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