Thursday, June 26, 2008

Supreme Court Issues Ruling on 2nd Amendment

The United States Supreme Court has just issued their opinion in the case of District of Columbia v. Heller. In the case, the District of Columbia’s prohibition against the possession of firearms and requiring that shotguns and rifles be kept disassembled under trigger lock was challenged. Writing the majority opinion, Justice Scalia found that the 2nd Amendment does protect an individual’s rights to possess arms.

For many, the 2nd Amendment’s application to individuals, rather than militia, has been a subject of debate over the intentions of the language. However, with today’s decision, the Supreme Court explicitly held that the right extends to all, not just soldiers. Quoting from the Court’s Syllabus:

“The Second Amendment protects an individual right to possess a firearm unconnected with service in a militia, and to use that arm for traditionally lawful purposes, such as self-defense within the home.”

In analyzing the history of the 2nd Amendment, the majority concludes that the intent of the Amendment was to codify pre-existing rights. The majority uses history and the inclusion of the language “shall not be infringed” as evidence of the understanding of this pre-existing right and how this right was intended to be affected. Finally, the majority sets forth that the debate over whether to keep and bear arms was not over the right’s desirability, but over whether such language even needed to be codified.

In his dissent, Justice Stevens (joined by Justices Souter, Ginsburg and Breyer) does not argue that the 2nd Amendment confers an individual right; his concern is more focused on what the scope of this right is. He contends that the right to keep and bear arms by individuals is unquestioned, but this right does not necessarily confer a right to possession of firearms for uses such as hunting. Justice Stevens argues that the government has the power to limit the scope of the 2nd Amendment’s applicability, an issue which the majority opinion failed to address in reducing this power. Finally, he argues for respecting precedent, quoting Justice Cardozo:

“[The] labor of judges would be increased almost to the breaking point if every past decision could be reopened in every case, and one could not lay one’s own course of bricks on the secure foundation of the courses laid by others who had gone before him.”

In Justice Breyer’s dissent (joined by Justices Stevens, Souter and Ginsburg), he argues that the scope of the 2nd Amendment was intended to be for militia-related, not self-defense related, purposes. Also, Justice Breyer seems to set forth a similar argument as Justice Stevens in stating that the government has the power to regulate in the interests of the citizens, as long as any limitation of the Amendment is reasonable and appropriate.

Even with the Court dividing 5-4 on the decision, the effect of the ruling seems rather clear – the 2nd Amendment provides the right to possess firearms to individuals. By stating this explicitly, and not including any types of exceptions or qualifications to the holding, it would seem that states now have guidance as to their regulations of the ownership of guns.

Even with the explicitness however, it is almost certain that the debate will continue. It will not be surprising to see other jurisdictions attempt to enact legislation in an effort to challenge the ruling, perhaps by further tailoring their laws to be more narrow. However, as long as the current composition of the Court remains as it is, it appears as if this will remain the interpretation of the Amendment.

For more analysis from ScotusBlog, click here.

Wednesday, June 25, 2008

In Brief: Revisiting Digital Archiving and Lebanese Food Resistance

--Last August, I wrote about D.T. Max’s New Yorker article on Tom Staley and the University of Texas’ Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center. As I indicated, Staley’s perspective on digital archiving remains one of the most notable aspects of the profile. By refusing to offer any material online, as well as referring to the Center’s materials as future “bastions,” he’s taking a firmly traditional position with regards to access and audience.

That’s all well and good—there’s a legitimate argument for having scholars and patrons experience valuable literary collections in person. But the more I think about library technology issues, the question that Ayanna Prevatt-Goldstein asks here seems more relevant: “…what will Staley’s successors collect when no one writes on manual typewriters…any more?” In other words, what happens to the Center’s collections when its collections material will consist of e-mails, Microsoft Word documents, and Web pages? Even if Staley’s successors will follow his course in concentrating upon the modernist period, one would think that collections from younger authors would eventually make the question more urgent.

Of course, digital storage presents its own problems, now least of which is how to provide secure storage for valuable virtual communication and documents that can disappear quite easily (as the White House has aptly demonstrated). But if we believe that digital methods provide “another powerful weapon to the armory of solutions,” then Staley and the Center are working with an incomplete arsenal. And it’s quite legitimate to wonder when that approach will ultimately be costly.

--Also from last year: in this post, I discussed how the Slow Food movement in Lebanon constituted a positive form of “public resistance in the war-torn region.” Another possible form of resistance is Buns and Guns restaurant in Beirut, which has caught the attention of the BBC. In offering dishes named after military weapons, owner Yousef Ibrahim argues that the theme “attracts customers in an unconventional way,” providing them with some humor.

Katie Hunter writes that “recent events in Lebanon are no laughing matter” in light of six deaths earlier in the week. She notes (as does the BBC) that Ibrahim is a Hezbollah supporter, and operates his restaurant in a neighborhood with strong Hezbollah sentiment. From an ideological standpoint, is there more to Buns and Guns than just humor? It’s hard to say, but perhaps offering “RPG” sandwiches is a small way of using food to reconcile the violence that Beirut has witnessed over the past couple of years.

Tuesday, June 24, 2008

Zimbabwe election troubles continue

Zimbabwe’s main opposition party, the Movement for Democratic Change (MDC), has formally withdrawn presidential candidate, Morgan Tsvangirai, from Friday’s run-off election. A hand delivered letter signed by Tsvangirai was taken to the Zimbabwe Electoral Commission.

"The situation ... now is very different from what has been experienced in this country since independence," Tsvangirai wrote. "The violence, intimidation, death, destruction of property is just too much for anyone to dream of a free and fair election, let alone expect our people to be able to freely and independently express to free themselves. For this reason, my party and I have resolved that we cannot be party to this flawed process."

Mugabe's spokesman, George Charamba, has said that Friday's vote will happen, even without Tsvangirai.

President Mugabe, 84, made it clear at a rally today that there is "only one thing for us to accomplish... it's the legal process on the 27th of June."

Tsvangirai got more votes than Mugabe in the March 29 election, but failed to gather enough to avoid a runoff.

His decision to abandon his presidential campaign gives an apparent victory to Mugabe, who has been Zimbabwe's only leader since it gained independence from Britain in 1980.

Observers are worried that the violence will continue to spiral out of control. One ominous sign is the withdrawal of independent monitors who would be able to observe and protect voters at the polls. There have been reports that people in the Musana Communal Lands, in the Bindura / Shamva area (Mashonaland Central), have had their hands cut off.

On Monday, the U.N. Security Council unanimously condemned the Zimbabwean government because of the violence that has continued in advance of the election runoff. To read Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon made the following remarks on Zimbabwe, click here.

It is disappointing to learn the Tsvangirai was forced to withdraw from the election; however, can anyone blame him? When Mugabe claims that “only God” will end his reign, it is pointless for Tsvangirai to think that he would live to serve even if he won on Friday. The elections are not fair and free, and that’s a tragedy for Zimbabwe, for Africa, and for the world.

For more on the Zimbabwe Election . . .

Zimbabwe Election turmoil continues

ANC 'dismayed' by Zimbabwe crisis

Thursday, June 19, 2008

Doctors' Religion and Their Refusal to Perform Medical Procedures

The Washington Post has an article this morning regarding yet another interesting issue before judges in California. The court is being asked to determine whether doctors can refuse medical treatment to patients based on the doctors’ religious beliefs.

The issue apparently arose when a gay woman sought fertility treatment from two doctors. The Plaintiff in the case stated that she had her civil rights violated and is alleging that the doctors refused treatment as “it was against their religion to perform insemination on a lesbian.” The doctors replied by stating that the fact Plaintiff was gay played no part in their decision, as the insemination of a single woman, no matter their sexual orientation, contravenes their religion.

Defendants’ lawyer claims that, “Freedom of religion absolutely protects all of their conduct in this case. There are two areas in medical care where freedom of religion is invoked most clearly: in the creation of life and the termination of life." He believes that doctors should have the right to exercise their religious beliefs in procedures involving either life or death. The Plaintiff’s lawyer does not necessarily disagree with this; she claims, however, that if a doctor is to refuse to perform such procedures based on their religious beliefs, this refusal must be applied to all patients and not just a specific group.

It is obvious in this case that these doctors are preventing a select class of individuals, namely single females, access to medical procedures. Depending on how the California State Supreme Court rules, there could be “far-reaching consequences for doctors and businesses, and for unwed women, particularly lesbians, trying to conceive.”

With California’s recent same sex marriage decision and the severity of the potential issues in this case, it would seem that the court would most likely side with the Plaintiff. If this turns out to be a refusal based on sexual orientation rather than marital status, it would seem that the state has already put in place measures to attempt to equalize the rights of gays living in the state, and allowing such selectivity in performing medical procedures would be a step backwards in such attempts. Even if this turns out to be an issue based on anything other than sexual orientation, to allow doctors to refuse patients treatment due to the doctors’ religious beliefs could lead to effects outside of abortion and fertilization treatments; some doctors may claim that their religion prevents them from treating a murderer or other criminal, causing delay in a life saving operation.

However, the issue becomes cloudy in a case like this as the fertilization treatment is obviously not a life saving procedure and not an emergency. Clients have the option to look for a doctor who will provide the treatments should they initially be refused based on the doctor’s religious beliefs. Clients in such cases have a conscious choice of where they are being treated and can select the doctor they feel comfortable with.

The trick for the court will be to ensure that their ruling does not have unintended effects such as those mentioned above and in the article. If they rule against Defendants and disallow selective treatment, it would seem that this would send a clear message to all doctors in all areas of the state on what the proper procedure is. If the court rules in favor of Defendants, again it would seem that a clear cut rule would be in place. However, if the court decides to delineate between elective and life-saving procedures, the ruling may become more ambiguous; in such a case, the court would most likely have to include language in their opinion limiting and/or specifying the applicability of religious based decisions in the medical profession.

Saturday, June 14, 2008

The Effects of Ohio's Payday Lending Reform

Now that Governor Ted Strickland has signed House Bill 545, Ohio’s landmark payday lending reform law, what happens to lenders within the state? It likely is quite simple: door-closing time. While Dayton Business Journal’s Matt Roth wrote last month that the future of payday loans in Ohio is “hazy,” his article headline—“Payday lenders prepare to close up shop”—is telling.

Roth does have a point about uncertainty; as he writes, the state’s Small Loan Act allows for “origination fees” that might be enough to keep larger lenders alive. Still, it’s helpful to consider the situation of Oregon’s payday lenders. Last year, Oregon legislators passed a bill that capped loan interest rates at 36 percent, while allowing for an origination fee of up to $30 for a 31-day minimum loan. This was enough for many lenders to start jumping ship almost immediately. Less than six weeks after the bill took effect, 60 of them were already out of business. By September, that number was above 100; in March, the chain Check into Cash announced that they were closing their remaining stores in the state.

In comparison, Ohio has more lending stores (over 1,600 as of last year) and more of a potential customer base. Yet Ohio’s reform law is also more stringent than Oregon’s, with a capped rate of 28 percent. Moreover, origination fee limits under the Small Loan Act are smaller than those of Oregon. This is why it’s unsurprising that the lenders quoted in Roth’s article paint a bleak picture of their future.

And—putting on my editorial hat—that’s a good thing. Payday lenders and their advocates protest that they provide a vital, beneficent community service, one that would otherwise leave those in need of short-term loans high and dry. This is a blatantly dishonest argument. There is nothing vital or beneficent about a predatory system that targets vulnerable clients whom quickly fall into “debt traps.” It’s also remarkably cynical to suggest that consumers have no other alternatives to such a system. Credit unions and counseling services are much better alternatives, both in terms of financial cost and general goodwill.

Ohio citizens have every right to celebrate the potential end of the payday loan era.

Thursday, June 12, 2008

Ohio Considers Constitutionality of Its Lethal Injection Method

After the United States Supreme Court upheld the constitutionality of lethal injection in April, a Lorain County Court of Common Pleas Court ruled Tuesday that Ohio must change its lethal injection formula. Judge James Burge held that the current formula does not meet Ohio’s requirement that “an inmate’s death be painless”.

The current procedure employed by the state requires three steps: (1) the inmate is rendered unconscious; (2) the convict is given a muscle-paralyzer; and, (3) the final injection is given which stops the heart. If any one of these steps is performed incorrectly or is not effective, it is argued that the inmate will suffer much pain prior to death.

In order to comply with state law, Judge Burge has suggested that the procedure be reduced to one injection – “a single massive dose of anesthesia” sufficient to kill the inmate. According to the Judge, "A single massive dose of sodium thiopental or another barbiturate or narcotic drug will cause certain death, reasonably quickly, and with no risk of abrogating the substantive right of the condemned person to expect and be afforded the painless death mandated by the law." The procedure would limit the number of painful injections, but would prolong the process.

With the ruling by Burge, it is now up to the Ohio Attorney General, the Department of Corrections and the Lorain County Prosecutor to determine the true effects of this ruling. Also to be determined is whether state law will need to be amended to remove the phrase “or combination of drugs" from Ohio’s law.

The Supreme Court ruling as to whether lethal injection constitutes cruel and unusual punishment “only directly applied to the southeastern state of Kentucky, where two convicts initially brought the case.” Ohio, unlike Kentucky and the remaining forty-eight states, requires that "death by lethal injection must be caused quickly and painlessly." Even so, some experts believe that the Ohio ruling may provide guidelines to other states in deciding their own lethal injection questions.

After the decision by the United States Supreme Court, it will be interesting to see how this ruling is applied and the actual ramifications it will have upon Ohio law and death penalty procedures. With the requirement in ORC 2949.22 that lethal injection is to cause death “quickly and painlessly”, it is still not certain if the current method (potential pain) or the method suggested by Judge Burge (quickness) actually follow this law. I am sure that many, in Ohio and outside the state, will be following this matter to see how it is ultimately resolved.

Monday, June 9, 2008

Review of Jeff Sharlet's The Family

A stuffy courthouse in Dayton, Tennessee was supposed to have been the burial ground of American fundamentalism in the public sphere. The Scopes “monkey” trial in July 1925 did result in a legal victory for William Jennings Bryan and his fellow believers. But Bryan died less than a week later, and media coverage of the trial characterized fundamentalism as rural belief that was out of touch with the American mainstream. Its adherents retreated in response, creating a subculture with its own colleges and church organizations.

Historians have affirmed the facts above for decades, to the point where they’ve become conventional wisdom. But what if they don’t reflect the whole story? What if there also have been fundamentalists that not only remained “in the world” (so to speak), but also established themselves within the upper echelons of governmental power? And what if their power and influence became such that they helped destabilize the New Deal, played key roles in anti-Communist foreign policy during the Cold War, and supported numerous bloodthirsty dictators?

This is Jeff Sharlet’s stunning claim in The Family, one of the most important books on American religion and politics to appear this year. Sharlet is a talented religion journalist, and he capably synthesizes much of his reporting from the last several years. Relying on a keen sense of history and literature, he also provides a cogent meditation on democracy, power, and myths of American nationalism.

The central subject of Sharlet’s study is a network called the Family (formerly the Fellowship), which he refers to as an “elite” or “avant-garde” branch of the fundamentalist movement. The Fellowship began taking shape in 1935 through the efforts of Seattle businessman Abraham (Abram) Vereide. Concerned about increasing labor unrest and the big-government politics of the New Deal, he formed “breakfast prayer meetings” for a select group of like-minded colleagues. Their organizing principle was “the Idea”: it wasn’t the “down and out” in need of God the most, but the “up and out,” the powerful leaders who could shape the world in God’s image.

It isn’t surprising, therefore, that as the Fellowship grew in power and influence, their skewed theology led to self-serving and unethical stances. After Abram recruited several members of Congress to join his Washington, D.C. “Breakfast Group” in the 1940s, he convinced them that anti-labor legislation was in line with God’s will. More egregious were his diplomatic efforts with and on behalf of German war criminals after World War II. Communism was a different story, as Abram’s views “ran parallel to and often infused American Cold War tactics,” with repentant Nazi key men joining his cause as allies.

Nevertheless, the Fellowship’s means of growth after Doug Coe became its president in the 1960s is perhaps most damning of all. As Sharlet writes, Coe, unlike Abram, “never lied to himself about the virtues of lack thereof of the top men he was courting.” Accordingly, he was comfortable forming “prayer cells” with men such as Haiti’s brutal “Papa Doc” Duvalier, using the Idea as a means of gaining the power of their diplomatic aid. Even as Suharto of Indonesia ruthlessly killed his own citizens and conducted genocide against East Timor, Coe remained silent despite his personal ties to the regime. So also with regard to Somalia’s Siad Biarre, a recipient of Coe’s aid whose mass burning of arable land before his exile in 1991 led to the country’s horrific famine.

That Sharlet was able to uncover this much evidence is impressive considering the hidden nature of his subject. The Billy Graham Center Archives contains over six hundred boxes of Fellowship material up to the early 1970s. But the collection’s abrupt end also reflects Coe’s deliberate decision at that time to make the network “invisible.” Their members now commit nothing to paper, their lone current public event is the annual National Prayer Breakfast, and one can only become a member through a trusted recommendation.

Through both good contacts and good fortune, Sharlet was able to join Ivanwald—a “training” house in Washington that the Family runs for young men with leadership potential—for a time shortly after 9/11. The first section of The Family is a reprisal of his 2003 Harper’s essay “Jesus Plus Nothing”; he documents his gradual discovery of Ivanwald’s purpose, the Family’s influence, and Coe’s absolutist vision (all of about which he was unaware when joining). In short, this is a subject that demanded unconventional reporting (as he wasn’t on assignment while at Ivanwald) and historical legwork. To his credit, Sharlet ably accomplishes both, demonstrating both thorough research skills and elegant—at times, outright beautiful—prose.

Where, then, does “populist” fundamentalism sit in relation to the elite faith of the Family? Sharlet contends that the two branches actually merge at points, creating a “Popular Front” in America’s culture wars. One point of convergence concerns “cells,” or small groups oriented around a set of common interests. The Family’s network is comprised of private political cells, where its members formulate insights and policy that favor their own elite status. Yet leaders such as Ted Haggard made cells an integral part of “free-market theology” within fundamentalist churches, which now commonly offer an array of small groups as a form of consumer “choice.”

Perhaps needless to say, this particular argument (as well as the book in general) will upset a lot of evangelicals. Most of evangelicalism does not view itself as fundamentalist, and it attempts to make that distinction clear. Therefore, it often embraces a narrow definition of what being a fundamentalist means. Sharlet, on the other hand, is arguing for a definition that is more wide-ranging. He finds that its tendencies can exist among American evangelicals who would claim otherwise. But they also are present within the ideology and actions of the Family, which isn’t really an evangelical network at all.

As a result, evangelical critiques of The Family will likely center on the idea that Sharlet is overgeneralizing. If they do, then two charges will be fairly predictable. The first is that Sharlet is using “fundamentalist” as a means of attack, or at least promoting attacks, upon evangelical belief systems. A second (and slightly more elaborate) variation is that he is cooking up a conspiracy that belies his political and religious bias. As an example, Books and Culture columnist Alan Jacobs essentially made both charges during a heated exchange with Sharlet last year.

These particular responses, regardless of where they originate, are flatly wrong. Sharlet’s observations about religion have been polarizing for quite some time, and he doesn’t hide his personal perspective as a leftist and a Jewish secularist. But his work certainly isn’t—and never has been—about grinding axes against religious belief, as Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens recently have done. Nor is he concerned with uncovering any sort of conspiracy, especially since he states more than once in the book that the Family isn’t a conspiracy at all.

Perhaps worse than such criticisms being wrong are that they miss the forest for the trees. A close reading indicates how the Family uses a twisted fundamentalism to justify a lust for power and blind eye for violence. It’s this application of the Idea for undemocratic ends, and its influence upon popular religion, that should be of most concern. The same is true regarding Doug Coe’s decision to “submerge” the network into secrecy; readers should then wonder about the theological and political implications of Sam Brownback being a member and Hillary Clinton a “friend.”

Finally, it’s important to remember that The Family is a challenge to liberals as much as conservatives, and nonbelievers as much as the faithful. Nowhere is this more evident than the concluding paragraph, where Sharlet calls for “not simply a different answer, secular myths opposed to fundamentalism’s, but a question.” This call to let go of easy assumptions, to be willing to fight for an open democracy and fair religious practices, is a fitting ending to a book that is simply outstanding in its research, narrative, and conclusions.

Saturday, June 7, 2008

US splits from UN Human Rights Council

Human Rights Watch believes that a decision by the United States to disengage from the UN Human Rights Council amounts to an abandonment of human rights defenders and victims.

The United States has decided not to participate at the Council unless it is absolutely necessary and it feels compelled to do so by “matters of deep national interest.” Although not a member of the Human Rights Council, the United States had participated as an observer at the council since its inception in 2006.

Juliette de Rivero, Geneva advocacy director at Human Rights Watch said, “Whatever the council’s problems, this decision is a victory for abusive states and a betrayal of those fighting for their rights worldwide.”

I won’t claim to know if this was a good idea or not, but several of the other blogs that I’ve read today that are commenting on this story definitely believe that “it is about time.” However, even with all its faults, I have to wonder if leaving the UN Human Rights Council behind with a “never look back” attitude is going to end up as an abandonment of human rights defenders and victims. It is ironic that the United States never fully committed to aiding the Council, but used the substantial weaknesses of the Council as justification for us distancing ourselves from it.

Thursday, June 5, 2008

Civics Education Through Video Games

With recent attacks leveled at the United States court systems, Sandra Day O’Connor yesterday revealed a plan to counter accusations that “judges are ‘godless’ activists” – educational video games. By creating a video game on how the court system works, it is hoped that “public ignorance” will be curbed and such attacks will cease “on what should be an independent institution”.

In presenting the project, O’Connor stated that she has “become increasingly concerned about vitriolic attacks by some members of Congress, some members of state legislatures and various private interest groups ... on judges". Of these attacks, O’Connor stated concerns over Supreme Court nominees being questioned by Congress as to how they would rule on specific issues. With nominees being subjected to this type of questioning, there is pressure being placed on potential Justices that makes it “difficult to achieve fair and impartial judgments from the judges who are serving,"

The aim of this video game is to educate children on the three branches of government and how they interact. Through this education, O’Connor is hopeful that the independence of the Judicial Branch will be restored as the correct understanding of the court system will be instilled on the previously uneducated public.

Once finished, the game will be freely available at and will be broken down into two segments. The first segment is intended for those in Junior High (7th – 9th grade) to be used as a supplement to class materials. The other segment will be aimed at younger children and is intended to be used in the children’s free time.

According to the article, “studies showed children spend around 40 hours a week using media, including computers, television, videogames or music.” However, it seems unlikely that a large portion, if any, of this time is attributed to freely choosing to play educational games. To reach the intended market, especially in the second segment of the game where it is to be used in the children’s free time, the court system video game will have to overcome much competition. With the number of freely available options at their disposal, children most often will choose to do something entertaining rather than educational. If the court system game cannot be both, it is unlikely to succeed.

As to the first segment of the game, intended to supplement in-class materials, there appears to be less obstacles to overcome. By making the use of this game a requirement, it will obviously be used. However, many schools still do not have access to Internet ready computers, or have insufficient computers for an entire class; as such, these groups will not be able to benefit from the additional education opportunity. For those students who are able to use the game, they may be more interested in the “game” aspect rather than the “educational” aspect and see this more as a break from learning, not a reinforcement of what they are learning.

The goal of ensuring that people know the processes and workings of the United States court system is admirable and necessary. The independence and non-partisanship of the courts is a key element to their effective operation, and education can only help to ensure this. However, attempting to provide this education through educational games seems risky in the obstacles that need to be overcome to ensure its effectiveness. Until the site is actually up and running, the true value of the game remains to be seen.