Sunday, September 28, 2008

Violating Federal Tax Law from the Pulpit

Earlier this morning, over thirty pastors planned to violate federal tax law by endorsing a presidential candidate while from the pulpit. As The Christian Science Monitor’s Jane Lampman reported last week, the pastors’ actions occurred on behalf of the Alliance Defense Fund (ADF), who proclaimed today as “Pulpit Freedom Sunday.” The ADF—a legal organization associated with the Religious Right—argues that pastors have the right to endorse political candidates within church as part of religious free speech. This stance goes against IRS tax codes, which prohibit churches from becoming involved in partisan political activity. Violations can result in churches losing their tax-exempt status.

So what might be the ultimate significance of what the involved pastors and ADF are doing? Writing for Church Law and Tax Report a few years ago, Richard R. Hammar noted that despite what the codes say, many “flagrant violations” occur during election years that the IRS fails to punish. Moreover, Jeff Sharlet elaborates on a related source of confusion:

“Outraged? You probably should be—we're talking about the money machine of the Christian Right—but I'm guessing you aren't, because I barely understand what I've just written myself. Most people don't know that churches aren't allowed to talk politics. So news of a bid to stop a bid to overturn the ban requires the journalistic equivalent of explaining why a joke is funny. It's hard to get outraged over defiance of a law you didn't know existed.”

So while the story has picked up some steam in the last several days, it’s still difficult to tell if what’s happened—and the oppositional stance from mainstream media and religious leaders—will ultimately amount to much in the long-term.

Two things are clear, though. The first is that despite what the pastors and ADF may claim, they do not have the Constitution on their side. Lampman mentions that in three separate cases since 1954, courts have ruled that the IRS prohibition “does not violate the Constitution’s free speech clause.” Mark Silk also contends that Pulpit Freedom Sunday does not pose a constitutional issue, since the free exercise clause “has never been interpreted to include a right not to be taxed. The remedy for the grievance here is simply for ADF to try to get the law changed.”

Secondly, ADF intends for the title “Pulpit Freedom Sunday” to signify a courageous spiritual stance against government (read: secular, evil) forces of oppression. Yet as a Duluth pastor commented, the event is, in reality, “kind of foolish.”

Saturday, September 27, 2008

Redesigned Global Legal Monitor Launched

From The Law Library of Congress:

The Global Legal Monitor has transformed from a monthly published PDF to a dynamic continuously updated website. The new Global Legal Monitor has the ability to view legal developments by topic (more than 100 so far) and by jurisdiction (over 150). The content of the Global Legal Monitor can also be searched through its advanced search interface.

Each legal development has its own permanent link for easy access, sharing, and bookmarking. To keep up-to-date on new legal developments in the Global Legal Monitor subscribe to its RSS feed.

The Global Legal Monitor is an online publication from the Law Library of Congress covering legal news and developments worldwide. It draws on information from the Global Legal Information Network, official national legal publications, and reliable press sources.

Thursday, September 25, 2008

West Memphis Three Seeking New Trial

One of the members of the famed West Memphis Three, Jason Baldwin was in court yesterday seeking a new hearing. Baldwin, along with Jessie Misskelley and Damien Echols, was convicted of murdering three young boys in 1993; since that time, new evidence has come to light which these convicted individuals hope to exonerate them of these crimes. Additionally, Baldwin claims he had ineffective counsel during the first trial. Earlier this month, all three members were denied new trials as the judge ruled the new DNA evidence failed to prove they were not at the scene of the crime; as such, Baldwin’s request for a new trial at this time focuses solely on his lack of effective counsel.

In 1993, three young boys were found bound and murdered in what police thought was an occult ritualistic murder. Baldwin, Misskelley and Echols were then arrested and put on trial, with the trial focusing on satanic rituals and heavy metal music. At the time, no forensic evidence could be found tying any of these individuals to the murder, but more recently DNA evidence was extracted from the knife used which match two unrelated individuals.

Due to the nature of the crime, some suggest that there was an attempt to appease the community as quickly as possible. Since the trial, allegations have come about regarding the confession of Misskelley, a “borderline retarded” individual. The reliability of his testimony has been challenged by many, even his own father.

In reexamining evidence, forensic specialists have also concluded that this was not any type of occult ritualistic murder. These specialists found no evidence of sexual abuse, and determined that the mutilation to the boys was caused by animals. Both the alleged sexual abuse and mutilation were the key facts giving rise to the idea of a satanic ritual.

Whether one supports the West Memphis Three or believes they are guilty, it seems very apparent that the judicial system did not work properly in this instance. While proper forensic tools may not have been available in 1993 to examine DNA, the fact that there was no physical evidence tying the accused to the murders and the reliance on a unreliable witness as the primary support for conviction would seem to give cause for a new trial.

It is understandable that the thought of ritualistic occult killings would give rise to fear in a community. Anybody hearing about such killings in their neighborhood would most likely react in fear the same way the residents of West Memphis did. However, a community’s fears do not override the right of Due Process that these individuals seem to have been denied. Whether they are innocent or guilty nobody will really know until all the evidence is properly presented.

For more on the West Memphis Three, many of the court documents and other updates can be found here. (Note: this site is pro-West Memphis Three and their opinions do not necessarily reflect my view; however, the site does provide much case information directly from the Courts, the police and other media outlets.)

Also, information on the case and additional evidence found since their conviction can be found here.

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Afghanistan Opens First Full-Service Law Library

As a Kent State University graduate myself, I was thrilled to hear about the wonderful work that a fellow MLIS graduate was doing in Afghanistan. Andrea Muto just established a new law library on the campus of Kabul University in Afghanistan. Her endeavor in establishing a library in Afghanistan is unprecedented. The country has suffered for 30 years from war and establishment of a law library was difficult.

Andrea had been working for a USAID-funded project in Kabul for about a year and a half. Among other projects, she created a new law library basically from the ground-up (space was provided) and hired a new law library staff (in a country where no tradition of librarianship exists). To read the full article, click here.

Take note of the searchable full-text database of laws Andrea worked with her staff. This database includes all laws from Afghanistan's Official Gazette from 1964 to present - and is the first of its kind in Afghanistan!

Thursday, September 18, 2008

Elections Problems Expected (Already)

It’s September 18, 2008, and people are already, and once again, concerned with polling place procedures and issues that are expected for the November 4 election. According to a Washington Post article this morning, the large increase in voter registration requests, new procedures and new technology leads one only to expect further problems with our nation’s Presidential election.

The goal of these new procedures and new equipment was to avoid problems as experienced in 2000 (Florida) and 2004 (Ohio). However, as the article explains, and many people have already experienced, such measures have done little except to discourage voters and cause new problems. In many places, such as Ohio, there has been much discussion of the touch-screen systems that had been put in place and the additional problems they have caused. Such states are now turning to paper ballots, to be read by an optical scan machine; even with the addition of this “paper trail” though, there are concerns about adequate reading of the ballots and the procedure for how and where these ballots are to be read.

Also, this upcoming election will be the first Presidential election where federally mandated state databases for matching voters to their information will be implemented. Any small error in this database and the voter may be wrongfully denied their vote. With the matching requirements being so strict, in addition to the higher expected turnout, it is very likely that there will be several such issues.

Some local primaries have already evidenced the problems that can be expected in November. In some cases, the vote count was artificially inflated while in others some votes went missing. Results have been delayed due to technical issues, and the manufacturer of many of the voting machines in use has admitted to issues with the machines and the opportunity for lost votes.

Many of these issues have been discussed here and elsewhere many times before. However, with this being the first Presidential election since many of these procedures and new equipment have been mandated, this may very well be the true test, and perhaps downfall, of these measures. Jurisdictions are already receiving a huge influx of voter registration requests, and it is likely that the turnout for the Presidential election will be higher than that for local elections. With the larger amount of people present, the expected problems will only be exacerbated.

One apparent saving grace, assuming people are aware of it, is the ability in many states, including Ohio, to vote absentee without requiring any reason. In fact, Montgomery County has been sending absentee voter applications to houses in order to make voters aware of this option. However, to vote absentee, one must have faith that their ballot will be received and must still maintain the faith that the voting equipment will actually read their ballot correctly.

It is hoped that the election goes off without any problems, however that seems very unlikely. If the expected problems occur to the extent expected, it will be interesting to see what the states and federal government attempt next to solve these issues. If we keep changing the procedures and equipment though, it seems unlikely that anything will ever finally “stick” and we will be reading articles such as this for a long time to come.

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Michigan Voter Challenges

An article published in the Michigan Messenger yesterday discusses the plans of the Republican Party in Macomb County to challenge voters’ eligibility based on matching their names and addresses to those published on a list of foreclosed homes. Macomb County is reported to be “a key swing county in a key swing state”.

In Michigan, parties are permitted to have representatives present to challenge voter qualifications. Such challenges can be made “provided they [the election challengers] ‘have a good reason to believe’ that the person is not eligible to vote.” The use of the foreclosure listings to challenge a voter’s qualifications is based on challenges being permitted to verify that the voter is a resident of the election district. The Republican Party’s logic in making these challenges based on the foreclosure list is that one a house is foreclosed upon, the person will no longer be living there and as such cannot use that address to meet residency requirements. However, what the Republican Party apparently is failing to recognize is that many people maintain residency of their property throughout the foreclosure process, often times negotiating with the mortgage company to settle their debt and still keep their property.

The primary issue with the use of these challenges is that minorities will be disparately impacted. Minorities comprise over half of all borrowers obtaining sub-prime loans – the type of loan that is most frequently defaulted upon. Not only are minorities, at least in Macomb County, a majority of the sub-prime mortgage holders, but they are also largely Democratic. As such, to disallow these votes, statistics would suggest that more Democratic votes will be disallowed than Republican votes.

In addition to disqualifying these voters, these challenges will cause delay in everybody’s voting process. While votes are being challenged, those in line will either wait patiently or most likely decide the wait is not worth their effort. Many are already disillusioned with the voting process since the installation of electronic voting equipment, and it is not unthinkable that added delays such as this will cause many potential voters to leave before casting their votes. Some people may be chased away from polling places by just hearing that such challenges may be occurring and that the process could be delayed.

It is understandable that counties have their own election procedures that must be followed and that the qualifications of voters must be determined. However, the way the Republican Party is handling such verification seems to have burdens that outweigh any of the benefits. A list of foreclosed properties does not seem like a very accurate account of these voters’ living conditions, and requiring voters to provide proof of their residency could disqualify many valid ballots. To add in the burden it has on all other voters, discouraging them from casting their ballots, really makes this plan troublesome.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Colgate slammed for Twittering

The Chronicle of Higher Education had an article online yesterday that discussed Twitter, a service for friends, family, and co–workers to communicate and stay connected through the exchange of quick, frequent answers to one simple question: What are you doing?

The article received mixed reviews from readers. I tend to agree more with the comments that are critical of the article . . . I too expect more from the Chronicle. I don’t twitter, but my husband and several of my friends do. I’m always slightly amused when I catch a quick glimpse of some of the things that are posted on Twitter, but for the most part, it just isn't my cup of tea.

I guess my biggest complaint with the article is that it is the writer is quite presumptuous and unprofessional. Mr. Carlson doesn’t even give Colgate credit for trying something new to reach its students. Undergraduate students are particularly fond of Twitter and it serves no purpose to criticize and mock Colgate’s efforts in trying something novel. I approve of Colgate’s attempt at twittering . . . keep posting young man, I’m sure that you will have more than 10 followers soon.

Sunday, September 7, 2008

Library 2.0 Programs/Sites and Their Possibilities (Part II)

Facebook: I was kind of critical about Facebook a few months ago for its marketing approaches and the silliness of most of their programs. And then cruel irony intervened, and I became hooked shortly thereafter, to the point where it’s now become a daily “must-visit” site. This consistent interaction has really helped me to clarify Facebook’s strengths as a networking tool. Its interface is miles ahead of MySpace; it offers users several forms of communication that, altogether, can conceivably serve as a replacement for e-mail; and it’s extremely simple to locate people with a minimum of information. It also is averaging well over 100 million unique visitors a month, and has surpassed MySpace in overall popularity.

All of the above factors offer more than enough justification for libraries to consider how to integrate Facebook as a means of patron outreach. Several public and university libraries now offer a Facebook application that links to their catalog; user response seems to be modest so far, but it’s a useful effort. Chad Boeninger mentioned how he offers reference services through his Facebook profile, which also has potential. Yes, the marketing factors and clutter present drawbacks, but they’re worthwhile risks; the site’s features and amount of users are too good for libraries to ignore.

Instant Messaging/Skype: Instant messaging (IM) and Skype basically offer two different ways for libraries to provide real-time reference services; Ohio University offers both at their “Ask a Librarian” page. The logistics of using IM as a reference tool is pretty straightforward, and OU makes it even easier by offering a Meebo “Ask Us Now” client that automatically connects patrons under a guest screen name. Assuming that librarians have a regularly available schedule to answer questions, it has a lot of upside.

Skype—an Internet calling program—is a bit more complicated, as it requires a video camera. Boeninger mentioned that OU decided to set up a dedicated video kiosk in Alden Library for students to call reference librarians through Skype. (He personally takes calls whenever he is available at his desk; I think it’s the same for some of his colleagues, but I’m not certain.) This might not be such a great option for smaller libraries, but works rather well for OU, and is viable for similarly-sized academic libraries.