Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Immigration ruling: Glee and concern

The nation's newspapers weighed in today on the U.S. Supreme Court's decision to strike down most of Arizona's immigration law while leaving one controversial provision intact but toothless.

Our editorial applauded the justices' clear message - that immigration policy is the domain of the federal government, not state government - but we believe it's far past time Congress and President Barack Obama move the country toward substantial immigration reform.

A sampling of editorial board opinions from across the country:

Los Angeles Times


The Supreme Court made the right decision Monday when it struck down three of the central provisions in Arizona’s noxious immigration law as unconstitutional intrusions into the federal government’s exclusive authority to regulate the issue. The 5-3 ruling helps reaffirm what should have long been clear to Arizona policymakers: that immigration cannot be addressed through a patchwork of state laws, each with its own view of who should be detained and deported and how.

Supporters of SB 1070 have spent two years arguing that it doesn’t conflict with but rather complements federal law. Yet even the conservative-dominated Supreme Court begs to differ. Consider that one of the provisions struck down called for granting state police greater authority to conduct warrantless arrests than even federal immigration agents currently enjoy. “The result would be unnecessary harassment of some aliens” who were not deportable, wrote Justice Anthony M. Kennedy on behalf of the majority. “This is not the system Congress created.” Two other provisions made it a crime to fail to carry immigration papers or for an undocumented person to apply for a job, even though neither is a crime under federal immigration law.

It is troubling, however, that the court let stand a fourth controversial provision, the so-called show-your-papers rule, under which police are required to check the immigration status of anyone they stop, detain or arrest on a legitimate basis. Although the law includes language that supposedly prohibits police from stopping people based on race or national origin, the provision is problematic given Arizona’s history of harassing Latinos and given that the underlying goal of SB 1070 is “attrition through enforcement,” which effectively means making the day-to-day lives of undocumented immigrants so difficult that they flee the state.

That provision will now be sent back to a lower court, which will, we hope, strike it down, or at least set strict limits on how police may carry out such status checks. Clear guidelines are necessary to protect individuals against the kind of racial profiling already undertaken by Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio, who has often relied on flimsy traffic stops and anonymous tips to round up Latinos without regard to their immigration status or civil rights.

Monday’s ruling will surely allow Latinos in Arizona to breathe a bit easier, but it by no means ends the legal debate. Civil rights groups and advocates of immigrants’ rights have vowed to press forward in Arizona as well as other states with copycat laws on the books. Ultimately, the only certain way to halt such misguided efforts is for Congress to negotiate a rational, comprehensive approach to reforming the nation’s unworkable immigration system.


Chicago Tribune


Mitt Romney once promised that on “day one” of his presidency, he’d drop the federal lawsuit seeking to overturn Arizona’s go-it-alone immigration law. On Monday, the U.S. Supreme Court pre-empted that pledge, striking down most of that law just as Romney prepared to attend a GOP fundraiser in Scottsdale, Ariz.

The timing was awkward, but the truth is that Romney would rather not talk about immigration now, period.

During the Republican primary debates, Romney positioned himself to the right of his rivals. He endorsed the attrition-through-enforcement strategy behind Arizona’s law, which essentially seeks to make life so difficult for undocumented immigrants that they will “self-deport.”

Romney also said he’d veto the DREAM Act, a proposed law that would provide a path to citizenship for the children of undocumented immigrants if they went to college or served in the military.

With the nomination in hand, Romney has largely steered clear of the immigration debate, aware of the growing political clout of Latino voters – who as of Monday favored President Barack Obama over Romney, 66 percent to 25 percent, according to a Gallup poll.

Romney would rather campaign on the economy, the topic of greatest concern to voters, including Hispanics.

But the Obama campaign has taken pains to remind voters that Romney “paraded around the country with the nation’s leading anti-immigration voices” – including Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer, who signed SB 1070 into law, and Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach, who largely wrote it.

Last week, Obama scored big points with Latinos by announcing an administrative order that allows young undocumented immigrants to stay and apply for renewable two-year work permits if they finish school or join the military. It doesn’t provide a path to citizenship – only Congress can do that – but it was as close as the president could come to enacting the DREAM Act without help from Republicans.

Romney’s mumbled response to that action illustrated the corner he’d painted himself into: He called Obama’s plan a short-term fix but didn’t spell out a long-term solution of his own.

His earlier suggestion that states might handle immigration matters themselves was all but torpedoed by the Supreme Court. Half a dozen states had enacted laws patterned after Arizona’s, but the court said setting and enforcing immigration policy is the job of the federal government.

The justices said Arizona could require its police officers to question and briefly detain anyone they suspect of being in the country illegally. But it can’t hold suspects on immigration charges without federal approval, and it can’t make it a state crime for immigrants to seek work or to fail to carry documentation.

Even before the ruling, some states were having second thoughts about those laws. The Arizona approach might drive out illegal immigrants, but it also scares away tourists and businesses.

Thousands of immigrants have, in fact, self-deported, largely because of a lack of jobs. But many will be back when the economy picks up, and many American employers will welcome them, just as they did before. That underscores the biggest failure of our immigration system: It doesn’t provide enough legal workers to meet the needs of employers.

Romney’s glancing response to Monday’s ruling was that the lack of progress on immigration reform “represents yet another broken promise by this president.”

“As Candidate Obama, he promised to present an immigration plan during his first year in office,” said a one-paragraph statement from the Romney campaign. “But four years later, we are still waiting.”

The nation has been waiting much longer than that for immigration reform. President George W. Bush made immigration reform a priority in his second term, but partisan gridlock ensued. In 2007, 55 percent of Americans listed illegal immigration among the most pressing problems facing Congress, according to the Pew Research Center. That figure has fallen to 39 percent.

What’s Obama done? He’s deported more immigrants than any president in history, alienating a lot of Latino voters in the process. But he also went to bat for them when the states started passing laws meant to harass immigrants into leaving. And then there’s the DREAM Act Lite.

Meanwhile, we’ve heard precious little about what a President Romney would do to fix the immigration system. More from his Monday statement: “Today’s decision underscores the need for a president who will lead on this critical issue and work in a bipartisan fashion to pursue a national immigration strategy.”

Yes, it does. So far, Romney hasn’t given voters any reason to believe he would be that president.


Fort Worth Star-Telegram


Here is the message members of Congress need to take from the latest developments on immigration: It’s their job to fix the problems. If they don’t do it, the states largely can’t, but the executive branch can and will.

The Supreme Court’s Monday ruling that invalidated three key parts of an Arizona law that attempted to get tougher on illegal immigrants emphasized that the state was intruding into areas where Congress’ authority takes precedence.

But even the majority opinion by Justice Anthony Kennedy made reference to the “hundreds of thousands of deportable aliens” apprehended in Arizona each year and highway signs south of Phoenix warning the traveling public about possible speeding smugglers carrying weapons.

He wrote that Arizona’s problems “must not be underestimated.” But the court concluded that state lawmakers reached too far in trying to address them.

“The National Government has significant power to regulate immigration,” Kennedy wrote. “With power comes responsibility, and the sound exercise of national power over immigration depends on the Nation’s meeting its responsibility to base its laws on a political will informed by searching, thoughtful, rational civic discourse. Arizona may have understandable frustrations with the problems caused by illegal immigration while that process continues, but the State may not pursue policies that undermine federal law.”

That sounds distinctly like a challenge to Congress, which for years has let partisanship and pandering substitute for leadership, instead of devising comprehensive, essential reforms based on “thoughtful, rational civil discourse.”

Arizona undertook the most aggressive effort to fill the void, and other states were watching to see whether it was a lead to follow.

The Obama administration had won lower-court rulings blocking four parts of Arizona’s 2010 law, known as S.B. 1070, from taking effect.

The justices upheld the lower courts on three sections: Arizona can’t have police make warrantless arrests of people they think might be deportable; can’t punish people for not carrying federal immigration registration papers; and can’t make it a state crime for illegal immigrants to get jobs.

The court said a provision requiring police to check the immigration status of everyone arrested or detained, even for minor transgressions, isn’t invalid on its face, but the justices left open the door for future challenges if individual rights are violated once the law gets enforced.

Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer and Sonia Sotomayor joined the majority. Justice Samuel Alito supported upholding the status check provision and striking down the criminalization of failure to carry documents. (Justice Elena Kagan didn’t participate.)

But Justice Antonin Scalia vehemently disagreed that any parts of the law should be tossed. States, he wrote, “have the right to protect their borders against foreign nationals, just as they have the right to execute foreign nationals for murder.”

Justice Clarence Thomas also said none of the Arizona provisions were pre-empted by federal law.

It’s telling that Kennedy and Scalia used their opposing opinions to reflect contrasting views of the discretion federal officials have to decide how to deploy limited resources and whom to deport.

Noting that the federal government removes hundreds of thousands of illegal immigrants annually, Kennedy referred to the “immediate human concerns” that get taken into account, such as family situations, whether individuals pose a public safety threat and the depth of their ties to the community.

Scalia accused the majority of focusing on “dry legalities” instead of the “very human realities” that Arizonans “feel themselves under siege” by illegal immigrants amid the administration’s “refusal to enforce” the law.

Scalia plainly disagreed with President Barack Obama’s policy of deferring action against young people who were brought to the U.S. illegally as children but have led productive lives. But what solutions have critics offered for a long-standing problem?

As the court pointed out, Congress has power and responsibility in this area. What’s lacking is political will to do what’s in the nation’s best interest.


Kansas City Star


The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday correctly rejected the notion proposed by Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach and others that states can supersede the federal government and impose harsh crackdowns on immigrants.

The decision may help put the brakes on growing concerns that the Roberts Court is as likely to heed conservative talking points as legal precedents. The seminal test is the ruling on the Affordable Care Act, which is expected on Thursday.

The court’s long-awaited decision on Arizona’s immigration law vindicates a challenge by the Obama administration in three important areas.

Arizona cannot make it a crime for immigrants to be without identification papers showing they are in the country legally, the high court said. The state also can’t make it a crime for undocumented immigrants to apply for a job. And officials can’t arrest someone only because they suspect the person is in the state illegally.

The court let stand the law’s noxious “show me your papers” provision, which requires law enforcement officers to try to verify a person’s immigration status during a stop or arrest. This edict understandably has given rise to fears that whole groups of people will face a greater chance of being stopped on flimsy pretenses.

Justice Anthony Kennedy said more scrutiny from state and federal courts was needed to determine whether the provision is being enforced in a constitutional way.

Monday’s ruling should serve as an incentive for Congress to get serious about a realistic immigration policy. And it should help to convince states that they are wasting time, money and good will by listening to Kobach, a lawyer who continually wins the confidence of elected officials, despite a near consistent record of being slapped down by courts.


Orlando Sentinel


The U.S. Supreme Court ruled Monday on the Arizona immigration law, and life as we know it continued. Both sides claimed victory in what amounts to a ruling that changes parts of the controversial law but leaves the nation no closer to an effective strategy to address immigration.

While the high court ruling primarily centered on the role of the federal government versus the responsibilities of the states, the justices left the law open to further court challenges and legal interpretation. So the heat over immigration reform rages on.

Opponents of the Arizona law say the bill promotes racial profiling of Hispanics. The statute’s supporters argue it gives local and state police powers they need to help enforce federal immigration laws, since the federal government has failed to control the flow of illegal immigrants.

Both sides have a point, but there should be no doubt that it is Washington’s responsibility to come up with a clear yet comprehensive set of immigration laws and policies. No state should have to take on a role that clearly falls within the federal government’s purview.

Unfortunately, neither the Obama administration nor congressional Republicans have shown real commitment and leadership on this issue. Both sides seem content to slug it out rhetorically rather than compromise to address the plight of the millions of undocumented immigrants in this country.

The Supreme Court did its job and provided some clarity on the Arizona law, but the need for a federal response to reforming the nation’s immigration policies remains apparent.


Milwaukee Journal Sentinel


The Supreme Court on Monday critically wounded Arizona’s immigration law, striking down three key provisions and sending the message that federal law trumps state law on immigration. The court should have gone one step further and killed the law altogether by striking down the noxious “show me your papers” requirement, but even there it left the measure pretty much toothless and left open the door for further litigation.

The ruling is generally a victory for reasonable immigration policy, the Obama administration and many in the immigrant community. It also should mean that immigration policy and immigration reform need to be settled in the halls of Congress, not in the halls of state capitols. Congress and the Obama administration need to get to work on that.

Arizona’s law was the result of understandable frustration with lack of change at the federal level; a frustration that’s felt in a number of states, including Wisconsin. Arizona’s answer was to try to impose a harsh crackdown on illegal immigrants and impose a law that superseded federal law. But the Constitution is clear, states do not have the authority to supersede or undermine federal law.

The high court recognized that Monday by gutting the Arizona law. It struck down provisions requiring all immigrants to obtain or carry immigration registration papers, making it a state criminal offense for an illegal immigrant to seek work or hold a job and allowing police to arrest suspected illegal immigrants without warrants.

Those provisions went beyond cooperating with federal authorities; they were an attempt to take over federal policy. And they put too much onus on the undocumented worker, not on employers who hire the worker.

The court did leave intact the provision requiring police to check the immigration status of someone they suspect is in the United States illegally. But since the police can’t arrest a person simply for not having papers, it substantially weakened the provision. The court also said that provision could see further litigation, which suggests that it, too, eventually could be struck down.

Still, by leaving the provision intact for now, the court leaves a wedge between law enforcement and the illegal immigrant community. If they believe they can be asked for papers any time, illegal immigrants are much less likely to report crimes or be willing to work with police.

Justice Anthony Kennedy, writing for the majority, said the law should be read to avoid concerns that immigration status checks could lead to prolonged detention or racial profiling. And it’s true that the law expressly forbids racial profiling.

But it’s still likely that racial profiling will rear its ugly head when law enforcement attempts to meet the requirements of the law. How many citizens carry with them proof of their citizenship? Even if it’s been reduced to a simple question, “Show me your papers” smacks too much of authoritarian regimes that like to keep their thumbs on their citizens.

Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer tried to put the best face on the ruling in a written statement by saying that the ruling marks a victory for people who believe in the responsibility of states to defend their residents. “The case for SB1070 has always been about our support for the rule of law. That means every law, including those against both illegal immigration and racial profiling,” Brewer said. “Law enforcement will be held accountable should this statute be misused in a fashion that violates an individual’s civil rights.”

We hope so, but we’d prefer another ruling that ensures no racial profiling by striking down the provision.

In the meantime, Arizona and other states should pay attention to the gist of the ruling as spelled out by Kennedy: “Arizona may have understandable frustrations with the problems caused by illegal immigration while that process continues, but the state may not pursue policies that undermine federal law.”

So if you don’t like immigration policy, and there’s a lot not to like, tell Congress – not your state legislator.


San Jose Mercury News


The Supreme Court’s decision Monday striking down most of Arizona’s draconian immigration law was a relief, even if one of the most unnerving aspects of the law survived this round in court.

The justices ruled that most of the law infringed on the federal government’s jurisdiction over immigration enforcement, even if the feds have fumbled their role badly. But the court upheld the most controversial provision, which allows officers to demand immigration papers from anyone they’ve detained for other reasons and suspect is undocumented. That revives the specter of driving while Hispanic and being taken into custody as an excuse to check immigration status.

The ruling could embolden more states to adopt similar policies, as Alabama, Georgia and others did after Arizona’s law was passed in 2010. But the court’s decision to allow the “papers, please” provision does not appear to be an endorsement of it. In their 5-3 ruling, the justices made clear that they’ll be monitoring enforcement of the law, which has yet to take effect, to ensure it doesn’t lead to racial profiling or other constitutional violations.

Writing for the majority, Justice Anthony Kennedy said it wouldn’t be appropriate for the court to rule on that part of the law “before the state courts had an opportunity to construe it and without some showing that enforcement of the provision in fact conflicts with federal immigration law and its objectives.”

He added, “This opinion does not foreclose other preemption and constitutional challenges to the law as interpreted and applied after it goes into effect.”

It’s hard to imagine how this law could be enforced without racial profiling, which is why immigration advocates have been so worried about it – and why they were angered by Monday’s ruling. What characteristics, after all, would lead a police officer to suspect that a person had entered the country illegally? We doubt many Canadians or Swedes will be asked to prove they’re here legally. We suspect that’s why the court left the door open to further challenges.

The bulk of the decision affirmed the widely held view that it’s the federal government’s responsibility to craft and enforce immigration law. The court said Arizona can’t make it a crime for undocumented immigrants to apply for a job or to fail to carry immigration papers, and that it can’t arrest people solely on suspicion that they are in the country illegally.

All along, Arizona lawmakers argued that they passed this law because the feds had failed in their responsibility. They’re right about that; the U.S. government has failed. But that’s not a good enough reason for states to step in, as the high court affirmed.

The ruling should be another jolt to Congress and President Barack Obama to get serious about long-range immigration reform. Courts can’t fix everything. Humane, practical and fair solutions to the mess we have today can only come from the Capitol.


St. Louis Post-Dispatch


The most important sentence in Monday’s ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court to declare unconstitutional most parts of a draconian illegal immigration law in Arizona offers a history lesson about what the word “illegal” actually means on an issue that has divided America.

“Removal is a civil matter,” the court held, “and one of its principal features is the broad discretion exercised by immigration officials, who must decide whether to pursue removal at all.”

In other words, being an undocumented worker–or being the child of parents who crossed the border between Mexico and America without proper authorization, or being a Canadian or Bosnian who overstayed the parameters of a work visa – isn’t necessarily a crime.

Put it this way: If you have received a parking ticket but never have been arrested for any other crime, can you answer “no” when asked on a job application whether you have an arrest record?

Of course you can. So can most so-called illegal immigrants.

The court, in saying that Arizona – and many other states – had gone too far in trying to give local police broad immigration enforcement powers, put the debate back squarely where it should be: on the federal government’s shoulders.

And while Justice Anthony Kennedy might not have been thinking about President Barack Obama’s recent executive order that delayed the deportation proceedings for hundreds of thousands of young immigrants who haven’t otherwise broken the law, his opinion, joined by four other justices, supports it in theory as part of the federal government’s “broad discretion.”

At issue in Arizona were four sections of the state law. The most onerous provision allowed police to detain any person suspected of being in the country illegally. That raised the very real specter of rogue law enforcement agents harassing Hispanic immigrants, no matter their legal status.

That provision, combined with ones that would have created a new state misdemeanor for an undocumented immigrant failing to register with the federal government or attempting to seek employment, would have served notice to immigrants all over the world: Don’t come to Arizona.

The court ruled that all three of those provisions were in conflict with federal law, making them null and void. The court allowed one provision to stand; it permits police officers to check the immigration status of people arrested on other offenses. But the court made it clear that even that provision was ripe for a constitutional challenge in the state courts should it be applied unfairly.

Missouri law has a similar provision, enacted in 2008, that requires arresting agencies to check the immigration status of those who have been “charged and confined.”

Key to Missouri’s law, and Arizona’s, is that the provision doesn’t give local authorities the right to detain individuals based on immigration status alone. Authorities merely are obliged to report them to federal authorities.

The court’s ruling, which probably would have been 6-3 had Justice Elena Kagan not recused herself, sends about as clear a message as the divided court has issued this year: State legislatures dabbling mostly for political purposes in extreme anti-immigration policies should cease and desist.

Arizona acted – and overreacted – because Congress couldn’t summon the courage for immigration reform. Now Congress must do its job by passing a new blueprint for welcoming the next generation of huddled masses yearning to breathe free.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Budget confusion: Schools get millions less than first thought

The state budget that legislators passed today is not quite as rosy as people thought when highlights were rolled out Wednesday. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools, for example, will get $8 million to $10 million less than its leaders initially thought.

House Speaker Thom Tillis and Senate leader Phil Berger, both Republicans, held a press conference Wednesday morning to share budget highlights. But they didn't make the budget itself public until many hours later, Wednesday evening. When that budget was finally released, the numbers didn't match what many people - both in the press and in CMS and perhaps other school systems - had understood.

The announcement issued Wednesday morning by Berger and Tillis gave bulleted highlights. The first: $251 million restored to K-12 school districts statewide. A separate bullet: A 1.2 percent pay raise for teachers and other state employees. Tillis talked about how the $251 million restoration gave local school districts a lot of flexibility.

As it turns out, the $85 million for the teacher pay raise comes out of the $251 million, not in addition to it. That came as a surprise to CMS Interim Superintendent Hugh Hattabaugh, who on Wednesday thought the pay raise and the funding restoration were two separate items. When I talked to him Wednesday, he was under the impression that above and beyond the teacher pay raises, CMS would be keeping about $23 million or so that had once been slated to go back to the state.

Today, he learned that local school districts were actually getting to keep about $143 million, not $251 million. (The larger figure included not only $85 million for teacher raises but also $27 million for elementary literacy programs, another separate bullet in Wednesday's presentation.) That means the bump for CMS will be about $13 million, not $23 million.

"When they first came out with that press release, they did not pull out the 1.2 percent from the $251 million," Hattabaugh told me today. "It almost came that that was in addition, and that is not the case."

Hattabaugh said he is still "very upbeat." The state budget will still allow CMS employees to get a 3 percent raise, their first raise in four years. "I'd be hard-pressed to see someone veto a 1.2 percent raise when they thought they wouldn't get anything," he said.

Gov. Bev Perdue is considering whether to veto the budget bill. An override vote in the House, it appears, would be close. We said in an editorial in Thursday's Observer that the budget was good enough, and Perdue should let it become law. We still think she should.

It's not clear if Republicans were trying to spin media coverage of the budget by not making clear that the teacher raises were part of the $251 million, or if people across the state just misinterpreted the facts. Sneaky or not, Republicans clearly could have been more explicit, or, better yet, made the full budget available at the same time they unveiled the highlights.

Taylor Batten

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

N.C. Republicans bail on bad jail bill

A bill that would weaken Pretrial Services programs in more than 30 counties, including Mecklenburg, has been withdrawn from the N.C. House calendar and shoved back to committee, where bills often go to die.

That's a deserving fate for SB756, which would prevent Pretrial Services from interviewing defendants and gathering critical information for 48 hours. Police chiefs spoke up against it. District attorneys did, too. But thanks to House Republicans' slavish deference to business interests - in this case, bail bondsmen - the bill had made it out of committee on a party-line vote.

SB756 would have been bad for communities, because judges would have been prevented from receiving the valuable assessments of Pretrial Services, which gave guidance not only on releasing or lowering bail for low-risk defendants, but raising it for dangerous defendants.

The bill also would have been bad for defendants in minor crimes, who would've had to sit in jail for 48 hours if they couldn't afford bail - or if bail bondsmen didn't want to take on their minor and not-very-profitable cases. That would've been bad for taxpayers, who would've had to pay for the cost of those unnecessary stints in jail.

The only group that benefited from the bill? The bail bondsmen who lobbied for it, because bail agents would've done more business when defendants and their families felt compelled to use their services.

That wasn't nearly enough reason to let this bill even reach the House floor. We're glad at least some Republicans abandoned the party line and did what was best for all of us.

Peter St. Onge

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

N.C. poll brings more bad news for Obama

A bad stretch of news just got a little worse for Barack Obama. A poll in one of 2012's critical battleground states, North Carolina, has Mitt Romney pulling ahead for the first time since October.

Raleigh's Public Policy Polling most recent survey, released Tuesday, has Romney leading Obama 48-46. That's a gain of seven points for the Republican since April, when the president led, 49-44.

Romney has made significant gains in his favorability ratings, while Obama has stayed flat. Another big factor, says PPP's Tom Jensen:

"Romney's erased what was a 51-38 lead for Obama with independents and taken a 42-41 lead with that voting group. He's also increased his share of the Democratic vote from 15% to 20%, suggesting he's convincing some more conservative voters within the party to cross over."
Your caveats: It's only June, the lead is a statistical dead heat, and PPP's poll also shows Obama with only 76 percent of the black vote. (Exit polls showed him with more than 90 percent of that vote in 2008.) Says Jensen of the latest poll: "That seems like an unrealistically low share of African American voters for Obama."

Still, this poll and others - along with an economy that many expect to struggle through summer and fall - has Republicans feeling increasingly confident about November.

PPP, which largely does polling for Democratic clients, released another survey today showing that not much has changed in the N.C. governor's race. Republican Pat McCrory leads Democrat Walter Dalton 47-40, about the same as his 46-40 lead in May's PPP poll.

Why McCrory should like this poll: He continues to do well with independents, leading Dalton 47-31. Also, he's doing much better with voters in his party (83 percent) than Dalton is in his (68 percent.)

Peter St. Onge

Thursday, June 7, 2012

How much does a justice cost?

Buying the election of a legislator or member of Congress is old hat. But a Supreme Court justice?

Special interest money in North Carolina's judicial races is not a new thing. But it may take a giant leap forward (backwards?) this year in a race for a seat on the state's Supreme Court. That raises an unsettling question: How independent can a judge truly be if he owes his election to hundreds of thousands of dollars from a small handful of donors?

We might soon find out. Supreme Court Justice Paul Newby is running for reelection against Court of Appeals Judge Sam "Jimmy" Ervin IV. The race is technically nonpartisan, but Newby is a Republican and Ervin a Democrat. It's the only high court race on the ballot, and so the outcome will dictate the balance of the court - 4-3 right-leaning or 4-3 left-leaning. A number of controversial laws passed by the Republican-led legislature could make their way to the court's docket before long.

All of which explains why a group of wealthy conservatives have created a super PAC to funnel unlimited amounts of money toward reelecting Newby. The N.C. Judicial Coalition is a tax-exempt group that can take advantage of new rules allowing it to spend unlimited amounts to support or oppose candidates. Bob Luddy, who made a fortune in the heating and air conditioning business, is its chairman. Tom Fetzer, a former chairman of the state Republican Party, is on the board. Fetzer says the super PAC will raise as much as it possibly can to help Newby.

Ervin and Newby had each raised about $82,000 as of last week and both have qualified for about $240,000 in public financing.

Until recently, the infusion of cash on Newby's behalf would have sparked more public money for Ervin to narrow the gap. But a federal district court in North Carolina last month struck down that law, citing a 2011 Supreme Court ruling. So Ervin's backers now may have to create their own super PAC funded by wealthy liberals to compete with Newby. Lets the arms race begin.

Regardless of who wins, the special interest money that funded their campaign could start to crack their impartiality on the bench - or at least create the impression that it has. A North Carolinian with a case before the state's highest court should be able to have faith that the justices are fair and independent. That is made considerably more difficult when they have won their seats thanks to large donations from wealthy backers with clear ideologies.

Money's stain on judicial independence has been evident in other states. Remember the West Virginia case in which a businessman with a case before the court spent millions getting a justice elected? That justice then refused to recuse himself and voted with the 3-2 majority to overturn a $50 million verdict that had been rendered against his campaign backer.

As the New York Times pointed out in an editorial this week, the Supreme Court's Citizens United decision of 2010 has opened the funding floodgates. And it's another reason to reconsider the way judges are selected.

Any system will have its flaws because it needs to balance competing objectives - independence vs. accountability. One method that strikes that balance: Judges are appointed by the governor or a bipartisan commission to fill a vacancy, then face one open election a couple of years later, then face periodic retention elections.

It sure beats just selling it to the highest bidder. Taylor Batten

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Remembering D-Day: Soldiers return from war but war doesn't leave them

Just prior to the invasion of Normandy, D-Day, as it's known, General Dwight D. Eisenhower transmitted this message to all members of the Allied Expeditionary Force. It read, in part, "You are about to embark upon the great crusade..."
That great crusade was World War II, and on this day, June 6, 68 years ago, more than 160,000 soldiers stormed the beaches of Normandy, France - some coming by water, others by air - in an invasion that has been termed seminal to the success of WWII and the preservation of our democracy and freedoms in this country.

Too few people have paused today to remember D-Day, and the sacrifices many Americans made that day and throughout that war - and other wars that have followed. If you're one of those who haven't stopped to remember, take a moment now.

On this day, I always remember. It is because of a burly, exuberant, ruddy-faced man, with a robust, deep voice reminiscent of Charles Kuralt who I met nearly a decade ago. Bill McMahon was in that first wave to storm Normandy that day, parachuting in with I Company in the 501 Parachute Regiment of the 101st Airborne Division.

He lived in Concord when I met him, but I found out today he died in Baltimore in 2005 - the place where he had been born and raised.

McMahon's heartrending sadness as well as his backslapping cheerfulness is still present each time I think of him. McMahon made only two jumps during the war - one on D-Day, and it was scary, he recalled. The plane "ran into fog, but didn't slow down... Quite a lot of men got hurt, drowned." A third of his division was killed during the drop and battle.

The vagaries of war haunted McMahon, as they do a lot of veterans. He missed death by minutes when he left a foxhole when summoned by his commander. The foxhole was bombed, killing the two men he'd left there. A friend was killed on D-Day in one of the first battles. Another was shot that afternoon, shipped home and saw none of the rest of the war.

"People do terrible things in wars," he noted wistfully. "You learn a lot of lessons, most of them bad... Nobody wins a war," McMahon kept repeating to me. "Nobody wins a war."

And so it goes. Soldiers return from war, but war never leaves them. The least we can do is remember their sacrifice.

Posted by Fannie Flono

Will Wisconsin win embolden N.C. GOP?

Welcome to O-Pinion. I'm associate editor Fannie Flono, hosting the conversation today.

So, what does Republican Gov. Scott Walker's win in the recall election in Wisconsin say about the fate of public-sector unions and about the November presidential elections? That's what a lot pundits are pontificating about this morning. Some say not much to both. Others say quite a lot. And for those saying a lot - most of what they're saying is that public-sector unions are in trouble, with their political and negotiating clout taking a hit and not just in Wisconsin. They're also saying the vote may be a harbinger of bad news for President Barack Obama, who took the state in his last election. He could lose Wisconsin this fall, and if Mitt Romney takes it it would be the first time a Republican has done so since Ronald Reagan won in 1984.

Stephen Hayes of the conservative Weekly Standard writes: "Scott Walker won for a simple reason: He did what he promised to do as a candidate and it worked." He contends that his results in his 16 months as governor mattered more to more people than the anger he engendered by unilaterally taking away collective-bargaining rights for state worksrs and the deep cuts in services and wages he demanded. "Walker turned a $3.6 billion deficit into a $154 million surplus. Unemployment is down. So are property taxes... Results matter," he said.

From the National Journal, Reid Wilson writes: "It's difficult to draw national conclusions from a special election. The electorate is far from representative of general election voter turnout, the margin by which (Scott) Walker outspent (challenger Tom) Barrett won't be repeated over the next several months, and the issues in a gubernatorial race focused on collective bargaining are hardly the same as those that will drive the presidential contest... And yet several Democratic strategists said today that, in their darkest moments, they view the results in Wisconsin as troubling foreshadows for Obama's re-election bid. After all, labor unions -- a key pillar of the Democratic electorate -- turned out at higher percentages than they did in previous years, and Walker still won."

But he writes that money was a key factor. Reid quoted one Democratic strategist who pinpointed the edge: "Citizens United has fundamentally changed politics and campaigns. Scott Walker and his soft money Death Star spent over $40 million," said John Lapp, a Democratic operative involved in several House campaigns this year. "If they care about the future of this country and Democratic politics, it's time for progressives of means to wake up and join the fight." Reid said Republicans said what "they could learn from Tuesday's results is that coordination works. Several outside groups -- the Republican Governors Association, Americans for Prosperity and other super PACs -- went up with television ads when Walker went off the air in March. The RGA spent its time tearing down Democrat Barrett, while more local organizations spent their dollars bolstering Walker's reforms."

Dan Balz of the Washington Post takes up that thread: "Scott Walker provided a template for Republicans looking ahead to the presidential race with his victory in Tuesday’s recall election: big money, powerful organization and enormous enthusiasm among his base. Can Mitt Romney match that in November?"

Interesting stuff.

What's as interesting to me is whether Walker's success will embolden Republican legislatures like ours in North Carolina to move as aggressively on austerity measures and on trying to dilute the power of professional organizations? We don't have public-sector unions in our Right to Work state. But some Republican leaders view professional groups like the teachers association, who the N.C. legislature stripped of its ability to automatically collect dues from teachers' paychecks in an infamous late night override of Democratic Gov. Bev Perdue's veto of the move, in that light.
The teachers group has sued the legislature over that.

What do you think? Will there be fallout over Wisconsin's win beyond that state?

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

Kay Hagan: Rejecting Fair Pay Act makes no sense

North Carolina's U.S. Senator Kay Hagan told the Observer editorial board it's not over for the Fair Pay Act that failed in a party-line Senate vote just hours ago. Republicans, who had called the bill an election-year ploy By Democrats and President Obama to appeal to women, blocked the bill with a 52-47 vote that came short of the required 60-vote threshold to move on.

Hagan was in Charlotte on Monday, stumping for the bill's passage. (It's a followup to the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act that Obama signed into law in 2009 that gave women the right to sue as long as their discriminatory pay, removing a reguirement that suit had to brought with 180 days of the initial discrimination.)

In a talk with the editorial board after the bill on Tuesday failed she said the failure of Republicans to vote for the measure aimed at ensuring equal pay for women in the workplace didn't make sense to her. The bill would prohibit employers from retaliating against employees who discuss and disclose their own salary information with co-workers, and strengthen remedies available to employees who have been wronged.

"When we look at the facts, we realize nationally that women make 77 cents for every dollar that men make, and they're doing the same job," Hagan said. "In North Carolina, we're doing a little bit better, it's 81 cents, and this is based on Census reports and good statistics. We're close to 50 years from passing the Equal Pay Act of 1963, and yet women are still not able to be equal participants in the work force."

When we asked her about the Republicans' contention that bill wouldn't be necessary if the economy was stabilized, she said: "Why penalize women based on the way the economy is today? The numbers that I've seen it looks like it would be in the year 2054 if you look at trends on economic opportunities. That's the year that women's pay would equal men's (without addressing these other issues that drive inequity). We've been waiting since 1963, I think it's high time we get this problem solved."

It might be noted that the pay disparity has persisted even when the economy was good. Ir is no "myth", as some conservative pundits contend.

Hagan also said the bill gives a boost to the punishment that employers face for paying women who do the same work less than men. Right now, if an employer is caught discriminating against women with pay, the women can only get back pay. That's hardly incentive to be proactive about paying women equitably. Businesses lose nothing by delaying, hoping never to get caught.

"This bill allows compensatory damages if someone is found in violation," she said. "For the same job, women should be paid the same thing. Obviously, there are going to be cases of different experiences, different education (studies show the gap is only partially explained by those factors). But different pay shouldn't be based on gender."

About this being an election-year ploy, Hagan said: "We tried to get this bill done in 2010. If not, when?" she asked.

She also noted that getting women equal pay could be a big boost to the economy. Here in North Carolina, women average $33,000 to men's $41,000 in income. Over a woman's lifetime, that $8,000 difference affects women's abilities to take care of their families and their retirement benefits. "It really handicaps women, who make up 41 percent of the workforce," she said.

Polls show overwhelming support for legislation giving women tools they need to be able to get equal pay for equal work, Hagan said, and that support is overwhelming among Republicans, Democrats, independents, women and men.

Too bad that commonsense support didn't show up in the Senate on Tuesday.

With Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid changing his vote to join the majority after the measure failed, Senate rules allow the bill to brought up again this legislative session. Hagan expects it will before the end of the year, but not before the November election.

Posted by Fannie Flono

Same-sex marriage headed to Supreme Court?

N.C. House Speaker Thom Tillis believes North Carolina's constitutional ban on same sex marriage will be overturned within two decades. That might turn out to be a very conservative estimate.

A U.S. Supreme Court decision on the constitutionality of gay marriage has perhaps become imminent, thanks to a federal appeals court's refusal today to reconsider striking down California's voter-approved ban on same sex marriage.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit had ruled in February that California’s ban on gay marriage, known as Proposition 8, was unconstitutional because it stripped gay couples of rights without acceptable justification. Today's affirmation of that decision means the case will likely head to the U.S. Supreme Court.

It's the second heartening ruling for gay marriage supporters in a week. Last week, a federal appeals court in Boston ruled that the federal Defense of Marriage Act discriminated against married same-sex couples by denying them the same benefits afforded to heterosexual couples. That case also could be headed to the Supreme Court, but its focus is narrower than the Proposition 8 case.

Should the Supreme Court take on the Prop 8 case, it likely would be heard early next year. Experts say the court is split on the issue, with Justice Anthony Kennedy the swing vote.

What would the court be deciding? Neither appeals court ruled on the constitutionality of same-sex marriage, choosing instead to focus on how Proposition 8 and DOMA violated the equal protection rights of homosexual couples. Said the the 9th appeals court: “The people may not employ the initiative power to single out a disfavored group for unequal treatment and strip them, without a legitimate justification, of a right as important as the right to marry.”

That language, however, opens the door for the Supreme Court justices to address whether states are constitutionally permitted to ban same sex marriage. The justices could decline to take that wide view, however, on the grounds that California, unlike states such as North Carolina, took away marriage rights previously available to its residents.

We think the justices should take this issue on now. If homosexuals in North Carolina are wrongly being denied the benefits that come with marriage or civil unions, they shouldn't have to wait 20 years for that to change.

Peter St. Onge

School board to commissioners: Just give us the money

This is an interesting negotiating tactic:

In a letter to the Mecklenburg Board of Commissioners this morning, Charlotte-Mecklenburg school board members offered a counterproposal to a county plan that would make CMS give teachers and other employees a 3 percent raise.

That plan, unanimously approved by commissioners in a straw vote last week, would place conditions on $18.55 million of the county's $335 million funding of the schools for the next fiscal year. The conditions: If CMS gives teachers a 3 percent raise, their first in four years, the district gets the $18.55 million. No raises? No $18.55 million. It's the first time commissioners have put restrictions on money already in the county manager's proposed budget.

The school board's counterproposal? We'll take the $335 million, but without the conditions.

The school board tried to disguise the insult with some creative writing, calling its proposal a "partnership" between CMS, the county and the state. (The state's contribution, according to the letter, would be a "$10 million decrease in the discretionary cut of our state funding," which in English means the state will give the schools $10 million more than they expect. School board member Eric Davis said earlier today that the school board has no indication that the state will do so. "But that's what we need to make this work," he said.)

Davis confirmed that the school board is asking for all the funding commissioners gave the nod to in last week's straw vote - except with no restrictions. He declined to speculate whether CMS would accept the $18.55 million with strings attached, but he said doing so would set a bad precedent. "It indicates that the county desires to get involved in school board policy," he said.

Gamesmanship aside, he's right. As we said in an editorial last week, CMS has given the county and the public too many reasons not to trust its leadership, but voters didn't elect county commissioners to line-item the CMS budget. That's the school board's job.

This morning's shell game proposal won't help the school board make that case, but we hope commissioners can look beyond that and take the conditions off the $18.55 million.

Peter St. Onge

Ranking Charlotte - We're No. 3 and No. 28

Stuck in traffic? You could be using public transit, and leaving the driving to someone else. You'd be jumping on the bandwagon that a near-record number of riders joined in the first three months of the year.

Charlotte was one of at least a dozen communities that set records for people riding buses, trains and light rail. It was No. 3 on a USA Today list of communities nationwide breaking transit records. Coming in at No. 1 was Indianapolis (helped by the Super Bowl being held there) with 2.5 million riders, up 20 percent. In 2nd place was Fort Myers, Fla., with 1 million riders, up 17 percent. Charlotte had 6.8 million riders, up 10 percent. In 4th place, Ann Arbor Michigan with 1.7 million riders, up 9 percent. And in 5th place was Boston, with a whopping 99.2 million riders, up 8 percent.

Ridership may go down with gas prices on the decline. But for those who pooh-poohed Charlotte's light rail, which is a big part of the ridership boost in Charlotte and across the nation, the stats are indicating the investment has been good.

Charlotte's ... No. 28
Speaking of rankings for Charlotte, here's another one: Charlotte ranks 28th out of the top 100 metropolitan areas nationwide in its share of residents with college degrees, and has seen a 22.4 percent increase since 1970. The Brookings Institute analysis highlighted Charlotte as a model for other areas looking to rebuild after manufacturing job losses, diversify their economies, and attract a more highly skilled workforce. On the same listing, Raleigh came in 7th, Charleston, S.C. came in 30th and Columbia, S.C., came in 43rd.

Of Charlotte, the report said: "Metro areas that enjoyed the most substantial jumps in their college degree attainment ranks included many, like Dayton, that lost a tremendous share of their manufacturing between 1970 and 2010. But because regions like Worcester, Baltimore, Charlotte, and Pittsburgh shed much of that base earlier than other manufacturing centers, they have had more time to build services-oriented economies in sectors like health, professional services, higher education, and finance, and to grow, attract, and retain highly educated populations to fill those jobs."

Umm. Sounds good. Is it true?

Posted by Fannie Flono

Monday, June 4, 2012

Erskine Bowles on deficit, McCrory, NC gov job

Former UNC System President Erskine Bowles dropped by to chat with us on the Observer editorial board this morning about the national debt and a few other things. Democrat Bowles, also former chief of staff to President Bill Clinton, is teamed up Republican Alan Simpson, a former U.S. senator from Wyoming as co-chairs of a bipartisan deficit reduction commission appointed by President Obama.

The panel came up with a framework for the reducing the debt, but it hasn't gotten very far in a Congress with a "huge partisan divide", as Bowles noted. Even President Obama didn't embrace it, for reasons Bowles noted later in our 90-minute interview, and that you'll read later in this blog post. Nevertheless, Bowles said he remains hopeful about Congress acting on the matter, that there are lawmakers on both sides of the aisle who understand that, and that he's optimistic the magic number needed to move on the issue will materialize. He said it will take continued pushing by the media and the public to make sure that happens. Here's what he said on a few specific things during our talk.

On his decision not to run for governor:
Bowles talked about how the career choices he made all his life have taken him away from his wife and kids. "My wife and I have been married for 41 years but we've been dating for 21 of them... I really cheated my family, that's just a fact. This is like a do-over for me."

On McCrory:
"I think Pat's a really sweet, nice person," Bowles said. He added that McCrory's experience as mayor will help him, but suggested that's not enough. "If he had other arrows in his quiver, he'd be better equipped to do it." ... "You need someone who will stand up to the legislature. Will Pat be strong enough to stand up and be that moderating influence on a Republican House and a Republican Senate?" Bowles asked. He worries McCrory won't.

On the debt commission work:
Bowles said he and Simpson are working to have the panel's approach put into legislation, and run it whenever it makes sense. "We call it the Cialis plan. When the time is right, we'll be ready."

On health care and the national debt.
Health care, not revenues, will be the stumbling block to getting a debt plan done, Bowles said.

On Obama's not taking up his debt commission's bipartisan plan:
"As president, you get a distorted view of where things are. President Obama told me what he thought: That if he embraced our plan, it would have less chance of success, not more." Obama thought it was better to try to negotiate with Boehner than to go public embracing the Bowles-Simpson plan. "I thought that was wrong and I said so, flat-out, loudly. ... I was disappointed. I thought he'd be much better off saying, 'There are things in here I don't like, but this is the framework we need.'"

Posted by Fannie Flono