Thursday, January 29, 2009

Same-Sex Rights in Washington State

Add Washington to the list of states working to expand the rights of same-sex couples. On Wednesday, the state announced plans to give the same rights given to heterosexual married couples to same-sex domestic partners.

The proposed Bill would amend the current state law to include same-sex domestic partners in sections where currently only married couples are addressed. All state statutes dealing with married couples would be amended; such sections range from “labor and employment to pensions and other public employee benefits.” Previously, lawmakers had been successful in adding protections for same-sex domestic couples to areas of law including probate, trust, community property, guardianships and power of attorney.

As expected, those opposing this latest measure claim that this Bill will only further the move towards same-sex marriage. These opponents claim that sanctioning same-sex marriage will dilute traditional marriages. A separate measure to legalize same-sex marriage in the state has in fact been introduced, “but is unlikely to go anywhere this year.”

When it comes to this type of legislation, one thing always seems to strike me: the opponents’ claim that same-sex marriage will dilute their own heterosexual marriage. Even mentioning same-sex marriage or providing similar protections to same-sex domestic partners, as Washington is attempting to do, brings out those who claim that any such expansion of rights makes traditional marriage less “pure”. The granting of such rights should not affect the quality of another’s relationship; whether it’s an interracial marriage, a marriage of two people with a wide age gap (granted there is no other illegality such as undue influence) or a same-sex marriage, the overall quality will remain the same.

Additionally, the main crux of this Washington Bill is to provide similar rights to same-sex domestic couples. While it may lead to the legalization of same-sex marriage, it will not necessarily do so. This will merely entitle same-sex domestic partners to enjoy employment benefits that heterosexual couples already receive. It will allow same-sex couples to exercise these rights with the force of the law supporting them, instead of having to fight to receive these benefits. If a state is to recognize a same-sex domestic partnership or marriage, it is only right that they are provided applicable rights under the state law.

For the complete article, click here.

Thursday, January 22, 2009

President Obama and Guantanamo

In one of his first official act as President, Barack Obama is expected to sign an executive order today that will close the detention camp at Guantanamo as well a number of C.I.A. “secret” prisons. Along with closing these prisons, the executive order would set in place new procedures for the handling of suspected terrorists.

The over two-hundred terrorism suspects currently being held at Guantanamo would be reviewed immediately to determine their status and whether to release, transfer or prosecute them. The executive order will also reduce the amount of time terrorism suspects are held in custody; currently, many of these suspects are secretly being held for months and sometimes years. Finally, the order would require the C.I.A. to follow interrogation rules similar to those used by the military, disallowing any coercive interrogation techniques.

While this order is being lauded by some as a solution to current human rights violations, there are some unresolved issues in President Obama’s plan. With the closing of Guantanamo, the immediate review required will be a challenge; questions still remain as to how many prisoners will be transferred and/or prosecuted, as well as where they will be transferred to. The executive order also leaves room for President Obama, or another future President, to reopen the C.I.A. prisons that are being closed by this order, “as some have argued would be appropriate if Osama bin Laden or another top-level leader of Al Qaeda were captured.” Also, there appear to be worries within the C.I.A. that the restriction of interrogation techniques will prevent them from acquiring vital information from those high up in suspected terrorist groups.

From a human rights standpoint, it is easy to support President Obama’s plan. With the reports of torture and coercive interrogation techniques from the past year, the President is making a strong move to avoid further transgressions. Many of the suspects affected are not even necessarily officially within the government’s custody; many of these suspects have been held for longer than what many would consider a reasonable time. With the signing of this order, such prolonged and secret custody will be eliminated.

While the human rights standpoint is strong and convincing, there is still the practical matter of how to effectively and efficiently review the currently held suspects, and how and where to handle those that are determined to be transferred and/or prosecuted. As for the C.I.A.’s claim that the restriction on the interrogation techniques they can use limits their effectiveness, that is a claim that perhaps cannot be substantiated until the new standards are in effect. Once these practical issues are resolved, it appears that President Obama’s plan will prevent the continuance of such wrongdoing related to terrorism suspects.

For the full article from the New York Times, click here.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

The Uneasy State of Book Publishing

A brief food-for-thought entry: As I mentioned last week, e-books were a definitive highlight for book publishers over the past twelve months. E-book sales in the U.S. have shot upward; the Amazon Kindle has become a hit consumer item, even with limited availability; interest in the Sony Reader remains high; and one publisher's recent comments reveal the potential for e-books on the iPhone. Dana Goodyear's essay on Japanese "cell-phone novels" also indicates how digital technology can influence what--and who--is professionally published.

The unfortunate flip side is that the traditional, bread-and-butter wing of of book publishing--hardcover and paperback books--is in serious trouble. (Goodyear notes that Japanese publishers have "embraced cell-phone novels" in part because the industry has "shrunk by more than twenty percent in the last eleven years.") Jason Boog summarizes just how bleak the near future will be for the industry. In mentioning Boog's essay, Anika at WriteBlack is blunt in her assessment: "Somebody’s got to reinvent publishing, and it has to happen faster than it’s happening now."

So what's the future path? Anika elaborates in a comment to the above post:

"I think part of the problem for the book publishing industry is the same problem as in newspapers: It’s obvious that the way of the future is digital, but even as dead-tree profits are falling, dead trees still make way more money than digital editions. If companies drop paper versions right now, they’ll have to fire 90 percent of their staffs and get rid of 90 percent of their editors, because the new business model right now just won’t sustain the overhead that actually keeps the industry running."

In other words, there are no easy answers.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Obama sworn in with Lincoln's Bible

Interesting tidbit of the day:

President-elect Barack Obama will be sworn in as the 44th president of the United States on January 20, 2009. He will be taking the oath of office with his hand on the same bible Abraham Lincoln used at his 1861 inauguration.

Why is this interesting? Well, use of this particular Bible by the first black man to be elected president is considered significant because it was used by the president credited with ending slavery in this country more than a century ago.

Thursday, January 15, 2009

New Supreme Court Ruling to Affect Exclusionary Rule

Yesterday, the United States Supreme Court issued a ruling allowing for the admissibility of evidence, even if said evidence was improperly seized. Under this ruling, the Court found that as long as the improper seizure was the “result of isolated negligence”, the arrest is not necessarily invalidated.

The ruling stems from a case of a man from Alabama who was arrested due to an improper notification that an arrest warrant had been issued. Upon acting upon this non-existent warrant, police discovered guns and drugs in possession of the individual, which led to his challenged conviction.

Justice Roberts, writing for the majority which also included Justices Scalia, Kennedy, Thomas and Alito, stated that, “We conclude that when police mistakes are the result of negligence such as that described here, rather than systemic error or reckless disregard of constitutional requirements," the evidence may still be admissible in court. Justice Roberts concluded that this was more of a “bookkeeping” error, and not a deliberate attempt to violate an individual’s Fourth Amendment rights.

Writing for the dissent, Justice Ginsburg, joined by Justices Stevens, Souter and Breyer, stated that, “The most 'serious impact' of the court's holding will be on innocent persons 'wrongfully arrested based on erroneous information [carelessly maintained] in a computer data base'". Instead of having motivation to ensure records are maintained correctly, the dissent argues that this ruling allows too great a leeway to encourage any need to correct any defects or problems.

The Court seems to leave the decision of the severity of the error, “bookkeeping” v. disregard of Fourth Amendment rights, up to the trial court. By allowing the trial court to determine the severity of the error, the trial court seems to have final discretion as to what can and cannot be admitted in these cases. With such discretion, it is uncertain how far this exception will go.

As an illustration of the uncertainty this ruling may cause, also reported today is the recent announcement that 945 cases in Los Angeles are being reviewed due to improper fingerprint analysis. So far, only two wrongful arrests have been found, but there is still much work to be performed. Still, the question becomes, in relation to this recent Supreme Court decision – would this fall under a “bookkeeping” error and any incriminating evidence found due to this improper fingerprinting be admissible in court? If fingerprints at a scene of a crime lead to an arrest, albeit an arrest of a different individual for an unassociated crime due to the mislabeling or misreading of fingerprints, have the rights of this unassociated individual been violated? Prior to this ruling, the answer would most certainly seem to be “yes”; however, with this ruling the answer is not so certain.

The Fourth Amendment protects individuals against unreasonable, unwarranted searches and seizures. Any evidence gained in violation of this right is excluded from being used at trial. To now say that a court has the discretion to admit evidence gained in violation of this right, due to a “bookkeeping” error, seems to be nothing more than an improper circumvention of an individual’s Constitutional rights.

For the Washington Post article discussing the Supreme Court’s decision, click here.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

Reconsidering Digital Readers, Thanks to the Amazon Kindle

Back in October, I criticized Library Journal editor John Berry's "Escape from Reading" for, among other things, oversimplifying new media as a form of "liberation" from reading books. Berry's personal dislike of reading is what seems to fuel his flawed argument, and it's fair to criticize him for letting his own bias obscure what could have been a thoughtful column. Yet after writing my entry, I realized that when it comes to the subject of digital books, I've been guilty of the same problem. With an occasional exception, my attitude towards e-books and e-book devices (hello, Sony Reader!) has been consistently negative, even though I had never actually used an e-book reader, or even done that much with Google Books. My problem is the opposite of Berry's--reading books is one of my favorite forms of mass media consumption, and I love buying books and managing my book collection at home. The experience of reading and buying physical books has left me disinclined to explore e-books, and that personal preference has colored my opinion of e-books as a viable option for the general public.

Hopefully, that's now beginning to change a bit. On New Year's Eve, a friend let me try out the Amazon Kindle that he had received as a Christmas present. And though I only used the Kindle for a few minutes, my impressions were generally positive. At just over 10 ounces, it weighs less than an average $14-16 retail paperback, and I found that it was fairly comfortable to hold aloft. The menu interface wasn't spectacular, but navigating to and from different books was simple after some trial and error. Most significant, in my opinion, was the screen. Amazon boasts about its "electronic-paper display," and that's understandable, because it really is quite sharp and paper-like. When I held it up close to a floor lamp, there was virtually no glare. Combined with adjustable font sizes, the Kindle's display is extremely readable.

Does that make it (or the Sony Reader) an adequate replacement for physical books? For some people, the answer may be yes; the Kindle has gained popularity (and remains sold-out), and e-books were a definite bright spot in what was otherwise a pretty glum 2008 for book publishers. My friend mentioned that the Kindle would be a supplement to his reading habits. He's going to read physical books regardless of technology, but having the option to buy relatively cheap e-books might entice him to make purchases that he wouldn't normally consider. This, I think, is a healthy approach. The Kindle still has significant limitations, including its price and how it renders periodical and web content. It's disappointing that its e-books are in a proprietary format (in other words, work only with the Kindle). Additionally, as my friend noted, it and other e-book readers still can't provide the same type of spontaneous reading experience where one can, say, peek ahead to the end of a chapter or flip back and forth between pages rapidly. It is possible to do those things on an e-book reader, but not in the same way.

Nevertheless, reading from and using a Kindle was enjoyable, and it was silly for me to have envisioned a soul-draining experience. It still is far from perfect, and the digital rights questions about e-books in general--such as the lack of resellability--remain valid. But there is a lot to like, and considering that the device is still in its 1.0 version, there are certainly possibilites for reaching heretofore untapped markets (consumers with disabilities and college students being two examples). For me, it's offered a personal reminder to try to not let preconceived notions and opinions overdetermine my thinking on the subject.

Thursday, January 8, 2009

New Jersey's Flu Vaccination Requirement

This week, a New Jersey court is set to hear challenges to a newly implemented policy requiring children between the ages of six (6) months and five (5) to obtain a flu vaccination before being allowed to return to their licensed pre-school and child care centers. Citing health concerns, New Jersey is the first state to institute such a requirement.

As classrooms tend to be ideal places for children to spread illness, which often times is later passed on to family members at home, requiring this vaccine is seen as a measure to ensure the “overall public health”. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), “[e]ach year, more than 200,000 people are hospitalized from flu complications and about 36,000 people die from the flu”; approximately 10% of those affected by the flu are children, and last year there were reports of 86 child deaths due to “flu-related complications”. Already in New Jersey, “[t]here have been about five cases of pediatric flu-related illnesses that required hospitalization this season.” Additionally, the CDC had previously recommended that all children between the ages of six (6) months and eighteen (18) years be immunized.

On the other side of the argument, parents are claiming that it should be their decision as to whether their child is immunized or not. Also, many parents claim they are hesitant to have their child(ren) vaccinated due to fears of health risks. In order to allow the parents a choice in this matter, the New Jersey Coalition for Vaccination Choice is attempting to obtain exemptions for any conscientious objectors.

The difficult issue in this scenario is the intrusion by the government into the lives of private citizens, but for purposes that will purportedly help the general public as much as the individual being intruded upon. Adding to the difficulty is that this requirement is only being levied upon those attending government approved facilities, which are arguably not required to be attended.

Parents in this case seem to have some options, albeit not very attractive options, such as: not use these facilities and keep their children at home, which is not very likely especially if both parents, or a single parent, are/is employed; find non-licensed daycares/preschools for their children, which raises obvious issues of its own; hire in-home care, which has several issues including cost; or, have their child vaccinated, which is problematic for many. Balancing the interests is not easy from a non-legal point of view, but it would seem that the government’s health interests will override those of the individuals. As evidenced by various challenges to smoking bans implemented by states in the past, courts have seemed to side with the overall health interests cited by the state over those of a select class. It would seem that this trend will continue in this case as well.

For the New York Times article, click here.

Sunday, January 4, 2009

Five Favorites from 2008

--Hanna Rosin's reporting for The Atlantic
GetReligion's Terry Mattingly: "Rosin is a liberal’s liberal, when it comes to issues of science, religion and culture, but she is a brutally candid reporter and writer." Rosin's 2007 book God's Harvard was a critical, nuanced account of student experience at the fundamentalist Patrick Henry University in Virginia. Her two stories for The Atlantic this year were November's "A Boy's Life," which Mattingly discusses in the link above, and "American Murder Mystery" from the July/August issue. Both are fantastic pieces, challenging the ideological assumptions and conventional wisdom of both conservatives and liberals while providing first-rate analysis.

--Mark Silk's blog Spiritual Politics
Spiritual Politics first appeared in October 2007 as an election blog that would seemingly have multiple contributors. But Trinity College professor of religion Mark Silk has provided virtually all of the blog's posts since its inception, and that's been a good thing; his takes on religion and politics during the recent election season were consistently sound and insightful. Even better is that Spiritual Politics will have a post-election presence, as Silk continues to write regular updates.

--Constantine's Sword (documentary)
I have yet to read James Carroll's book Constantine's Sword, and can only imagine how much cutting and editing was necessary to create a documentary based on the seven hundred and fifty-plus page bestseller. Still the documentary makes for compelling viewing, especially as Carroll works through his own Catholic experience in an effort to understand the presence of militarism and anti-Semitism in Christian history. It's far from perfect--the issues Carroll raises require a lot more than ninety minutes of film--but certainly thought-provoking.

--Rightward Bound (eds. Bruce J. Schulman and Julian E. Zelizer) and The Family (by Jeff Sharlet)
Most of the books I read in the past twelve months weren't from 2008, but these two are notable exceptions; I reviewed both for PopMatters (see here and here). Rightward Bound convincingly argues that several factors from the 1970s help explain how conservatism began dominating American politics (and also why it has begun to fail in recent years). In The Family, Sharlet urges readers to reconsider fundamentalism, how religion influences politics, and the basic nature of American political power--a tall order, but one that he acomplishes with strong evidence and prose.

--The Hold Steady's Separation Sunday
There plenty of music I could list here, but the Hold Steady's most recent album is as good of a choice as any, combining several different rock influences into something creative, catchy, and worthy of many, many repeat listens.