Thursday, January 28, 2010

The best judges money can buy -- Jan. 28, 2010 column


Imagine the scene: The chief justice of Iraq is visiting Washington and stops by the Supreme Court for tea with Justice Stephen Breyer and others. As they sip, Breyer and his guests chat about efforts to clean up money in state and local judicial elections in the United States.

The Iraqi listens and finally says, “You know, I don’t think (U.S. administrator L. Paul) Bremer would ever have allowed us to accept corporate money to become a judge in Iraq.” And, he adds, “I think this is what they call anti-corruption.”

They do indeed call it that -- most places around the world.

The story illustrates the awkward position the United States finds itself as the only country in the world that popularly elects judges -- especially after the Supreme Court’s landmark campaign finance decision.

Mary McQueen, president of the National Center for State Courts, recounted the tea conversation from last November at a conference this week on judicial selection. While the world views the United States as the pinnacle of judicial independence, she said, it’s difficult to explain how we maintain impartiality when money is involved in the election of state judges.

Many Americans are worried how, with the ever-escalating cost of electing judges, we can preserve trust in a judiciary that assigns top-dollar punitive awards and sets sensitive social policy on gay marriage, abortion and other issues.

Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, who retired from the nation’s highest court in 2006, helped write the 2003 campaign finance decision the Supreme Court gutted Jan. 21. She has long advocated scrapping judicial elections in favor of a merit-based system of selecting judges.

In Citizens United vs. Federal Election Commission, the Supreme Court struck down barriers to corporations and unions directly contributing money from their own treasuries in elections. The 5 to 4 decision could lead to a troubling infusion of corporate cash in elections.

“The problem of campaign contributions in judicial elections might get considerably worse and quite soon,” O’Connor said at the judicial selection conference at Georgetown University Law Center.

The Constitution ensures an independent federal judiciary by giving judges tenure and a salary that can’t be reduced. The judiciary in the states is another story. Almost all states require some state and local judges to win election either to gain the office or to stay there.

The majority of Americans want to elect judges because people think it keeps judges accountable. Interestingly, though, voters who elect judges are more likely to think judges legislate from the bench, O’Connor said.

And, if you think judges legislate from the bench, you’re willing to invest a lot of money to get the judges you want, she said.

Judicial election costs have skyrocketed. Not until 1980 did the first state judicial election exceed $1 million. In 2004, candidates for an Illinois Supreme Court seat and their supports spent over $9 million, the national record. Last year, a single Supreme Court race in Alabama cost more than $5 million.

President Barack Obama took the unusual step in his State of the Union address Wednesday of scolding the Supreme Court for the Citizens United decision. He said he believes the ruling “will open the floodgates for special interests – including foreign corporations” to spend limitless amounts in campaigns. Justice Samuel Alito, sitting on the second row, shook his head and seemed to mouth the words, “Not true.” Obama urged Congress to pass a bill to correct some of the problems.

Even before the recent ruling, states and legal groups already were scrambling to deal with the flow of campaign cash into judicial elections. North Carolina is exploring public funding of judicial races. Some states want to tighten rules on disclosure requirements. Others want campaign oversight panels and judicial voter pamphlets. Some say that longer terms for judges could help ensure their independence.

O’Connor said the Citizens United decision makes it more important for states to reconsider electing judges at all.

“We can anticipate that labor unions and trial lawyers, for instance, might have the financial means to win one particular state judicial election,” she said. “And maybe tobacco firms and energy companies have enough to win the next one.

“And if both sides unleash their campaign spending monies without restrictions, then I think mutually-assured destruction is the most likely outcome.”

That’s one problem they don’t have in Iraq.

© 2009 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Time for the bully pulpit -- Jan. 21, 2010 column


After the political earthquake in Massachusetts, President Barack Obama conceded he’d lost something larger than Ted Kennedy’s seat in the Senate. He’d lost touch with the people.

“We were so busy just getting stuff done and dealing with the immediate crises...that I think we lost some of that sense of speaking directly to the American people about what their core values are and why we have to make sure those institutions are matching up with those values,” Obama told ABC’s George Stephanopoulos Wednesday.

The president acknowledged that many people feel remote and detached from Washington. He regrets it and plans to use his State of the Union address Wednesday night to “reset the tone.”

It’s surprising that someone with a gift for speech making hasn’t used the bully pulpit more effectively, but Obama said he made the mistake of thinking sound policy would speak for itself.

"I think the assumption was if I just focus on policy, if I just focus on this provision or that law or if we're making a good rational decision here, then people will get it," he said.

His critics say people get it all right; it’s Obama’s policies they don’t like. The challenge for Obama as he begins in his second year in office is to restart the conversation.

As midterm elections loom, Obama has had only modest legislative success. The economy is still worrisome, and the lack of health care reform is a major disappointment.

As bad as it seems for Obama, though, it’s worse for Congress. A slight majority of people -- 56 percent -- like the way Obama is handling his job, according to a new AP-GfK Poll. But only 32 percent approve of the job Congress is doing.

Some presidents use the State of the Union address to drone on about policy initiatives. Obama needs to inspire. He needs poetry.

As corny as it sounds, he needs to remind us that this country’s greatness lies is its motto – “E Pluribus Unum,” out of many, one. And then he needs to govern that way.

To clear his head, Obama could re-read his own 2004 speech to the Democratic National Convention. That speech by an obscure candidate for the Senate from Illinois electrified the hall in Boston and propelled Obama on his meteoric rise to the White House just four years later.

He talked then about those who would slice and dice the nation. He declared that we are not liberals and conservatives, blacks and whites, red states and blue states but the United States.

What’s been missing in the Obama presidency is a sense that we’re in this together.

For the last year, the focus in Washington has been on meetings behind closed doors, deal making and winners and losers. We’ve seen the president and Congress dole out goodies for certain companies and industries and even states. Most people believe the country is on the wrong track.

It’s galling in a time of 10 percent unemployment and a housing crisis to see banks that accepted taxpayer bailouts reward executives with huge bonuses. It’s damning the health care reform package with faint praise when members of the president’s party require special treatment in return for their votes.

Congressional Republicans, jubilant about their 41st vote in the Senate, immediately started digging in their heels against health care reform, environmental legislation and another stimulus package.

Liberal Democrats are urging Obama to get tough and ram health care through Congress with only Democratic support. The president suggested in the ABC interview that he would accept a stripped-down version, one that Republicans could support. That would force Republicans to show their hand. Are they really willing to bring change or will they remain the “party of no”?

In Massachusetts, Scott Brown promised to vote against reform, even though he supports his state’s health care program that was a model for the national plan. Since Massachusetts already has health-care reform, he says, it’s not fair for its residents to have to pay for other states.

That’s not change. That’s business as usual.

In Boston in 2004, Obama said, “alongside our famous individualism, there's another ingredient in the American saga, a belief that we are all connected as one people.”

It’s time to hear again -- and live -- that quintessential American truth.

(c) 2010 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

Thursday, January 14, 2010

A little respect in politics? -- Jan. 14, 2010 column


As we head into the mid-term elections, nobody expects 2010 to be uplifting.

Sad to say, we face another cycle of the negative ads, attack e-mails and character assassination we call campaigning.

But what if politicians took Jim Leach’s advice?

During the 30 years that Republican Leach represented southeastern Iowa in Congress, candidates often sought his counsel – and his advice shocked them.

You’re entitled to one fib on the campaign trail, he’d say.

Oh, the candidates protested, I never fib.

No, this one fib is OK, Leach insisted. “You just say as strongly as you can, `I respect my opponent.’”

And how did the aspiring political leaders respond? “They’d laugh. It was considered a joke,” Leach told me. “But it wasn’t a joke to me.”

He followed his own advice and says he actually did respect almost all his opponents. Here’s the key: Saying “I respect my opponent” causes you to do other things differently, he said.

Doing things differently is as much a trademark for Leach, 67, as his sweater-under-a-sport-coat look. An iconoclast, he shunned mudslinging and worked across party lines. Leach is a type of political animal that, unfortunately, is nearly extinct. He’s a GOP moderate who believes it’s better for the country if Republicans and Democrats work together.

Defeated for re-election in 2006, he taught at Princeton and Harvard. He backed Democrat Barack Obama for president and spoke at the 2008 Democratic National Convention. The president then named Leach to head the National Endowment for the Humanities.

Leach is on a 50-state civility tour to draw attention to the idea that civilization requires civility.

“Words matter,” he said when he announced the tour. “Polarizing attitudes can jeopardize social cohesion and even public safety.” He visited Tallahassee, Fla., Columbia, S.C., and Charlotte, N.C. this week.

The thoughtful people who come to lectures on civility aren’t the ones who need to hear his message, but Leach finds many people anxious about the country’s direction. They want more from their national officials than political posturing.

“People aren’t identifying with the political system,” he said. Sinking approval ratings for Congress and both political parties are evidence people are fed up.

“My personal sense is the country wants to pull together. Government is pulling us apart,” he said.

The last two presidents promised to change the tone in Washington, and yet the capital is more bitterly divided than ever.

Other national figures also worry about this trend. Last Sunday, California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger made an impassioned plea for bipartisan cooperation.

“I think it’s extremely important, the action is, to bring both of the parties together and to look at what they can do together, rather than to just talk about what they want to fight over. Let’s do it together,” Schwarzenegger, a Republican, said on NBC’s “Meet the Press.”

Leach blames both parties for today’s incivility in Washington. It’s inconceivable that Republicans cannot find some Democratic proposals they can support, and vice versa. Abolish the weekly Democratic and Republican party caucuses on Capitol Hill and bring the members together instead, and that situation might change, he said. But, of course, there’s no chance of that.

While acrimonious politics are as old as the Republic, what’s new and troubling are the proliferation of news and social media outlets that glorify the most outrageous speech and the speed with which hateful messages race around the country and globe.

“It looks as if a minority that are angry can cause larger ripple effects than their numbers indicate, and that sets a tone for society that’s self defeating,” Leach said. “The danger is that we as a country will stop pulling together as a unified whole. If we don’t pull together as a country, we’re going to find our position in the world weaker.”

Leach candidly concedes he doesn’t know what his civility tour will accomplish. “But I feel on a personal level I have to attempt it.”

Nothing is likely to change unless people demand it. Perhaps it’s time for voters to tell elected officials and those who aspire to office that we want leadership and cooperation, not more political shenanigans. Candidates can start by saying they respect their opponents, even if it’s a fib.

© 2010 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

Thursday, January 7, 2010

Stopping the online venom -- Jan. 7, 2010 column


In May 2007, the ombudsman for The Washington Post wrote about a fairly new online feature that allowed readers to comment instantly on stories and columns.

Under the headline “Online Venom or Vibrant Speech?” Deborah Howell said that in the old days readers who wanted to complain had to write signed, civil letters to the editor. Online comments are immediate, allow the writers to be virtually anonymous “and can be raw, racist, sexist and revolting.” she wrote.

The harsh tone of the online feedback had surprised reporters and some readers, who wanted the Post to police the site and remove rude and incendiary remarks.

“Two important journalism values -- free, unfettered comment and civil, intelligent discourse -- are colliding. My two cents: Monitor the comments much more vigorously and use the old journalism rule: When in doubt, take it out,” Howell wrote.

In 2010, when every Web site encourages instant comment, these words resonate with sad irony. On Jan. 2, Deborah Howell, a trailblazer and inspiration to many reporters and editors, died in a tragic car accident while on vacation in New Zealand with her husband.

I knew and admired Deborah, who had led newsrooms in the Twin Cities to Pulitzer Prizes and had been Washington bureau chief of Newhouse News Service before becoming the Post’s reader representative. She was a journalist’s journalist – tough, fair, caring, funny, hard-charging. Retired, she was on a trip of a lifetime, and her sudden death was a shock.

I was astonished and sickened to learn that online stories and columns about her death had prompted a storm of reader comments so foul that various news sites, including the Post’s, had to shut down comments.

Melinda Henneberger, editor of Politics Daily, said that while some writers praised Howell, some typed comments of the “woo-hoo, you’re dead!” variety. Henneberger wrote on

“There was also a shocking number of comments to the effect that since Howell was in the news business, she must have been a lefty, so how fabulous she'd been killed. There was joshing speculation about whether she'd been driving a hybrid, a joke about how liberals walking in lockstep really ought to be more careful, and a couple of cracks about how Republicans were sure to be blamed. `One less of those anti-US types to deal with,’ said one of several celebratory rejoinders from readers who by their own account had five minutes earlier never even heard of Deborah Howell.”

It’s worth underlining that not everyone responded so cruelly.

Still, when deceased strangers become fodder for partisan vitriol, we’re all in trouble. Nor are such cheap shots limited to perceived liberals. A Politics Daily obit on Irving Kristol also brought out mean-spirited remarks, Henneberger wrote.

My own quick survey found that at least one news site did allow particularly offensive comments about Howell to stand, and other readers blasted the writers in no uncertain terms.

I support “vibrant speech” online as Deborah Howell did, and I recognize that a certain amount of venom may be inevitable. We’re still struggling with how much is too much.

All too often the Internet rewards the coarsest among us. We like to think the Web makes us all publishers. In reality, it empowers most people to whisper into the wind. When it comes to political discourse, the harshest and most strident voices succeed in gaining huge audiences, lucrative book contracts and TV appearances.

Being reasonable tends not to be a smart career move online. It’s smarter to be rude and razor-tongued. For those on the right, it’s expedient to accuse the president of being immoral, evil, socialist or fascist rather than to disagree with his policies and offer constructive alternatives. Those on the left win by accusing their Republican opponents of being heartless, uncaring tools of business.

In fact, little is absolute in politics. There’s almost always a “yes, but” factor. People have a right to health care, yes, but it’s wrong to saddle future generations with debt. It’s easier to demonize in black and white; compromise exists in shades of gray. Insults won’t resolve the differences or move us forward.

One wonders how Deborah Howell would have reacted to this week’s venomous online attacks. Friends say the comments would have hurt her, of course, but the fierce journalist would not have wanted them pulled. I’m sorry the question even arises.

© 2010 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.