Thursday, November 29, 2018

Endangered frog still in hot water -- Nov. 29, 2018 column


The dusky gopher frog hopped into these pages in early October after its appearance, figuratively, before the Supreme Court.

The first oral argument of the term involved the endangered frog’s critical habitat, specifically the federal government’s responsibility under the Endangered Species Act to protect critical habitat versus landowners’ rights.

On Tuesday, the court issued a unanimous opinion in Weyerhaeuser Co. v. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service -- but did not settle the matter.

The justices sent the dispute, with instructions on two questions, back to the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans, which had sided with the wildlife service in 2016.

So the frog is still in hot water.

To recap, the dusky gopher frog (Rana sevosa) historically lived in Louisiana but hasn’t been seen there since about 1965. The frog is named for the gopher tortoise holes where the mature frog lives.

Now found in only three places in Mississippi, the frog was declared endangered in 2001, and the wildlife service designated 1,544 acres in St. Tammany Parish as critical habitat in 2012.

The landowners want to develop the property, and the government and environmentalists want to preserve the land in case it’s needed to save the species.

The case became a cause celebre for property rights advocates who accuse the government of a land grab. The landowners claimed a Supreme Court win.

“In a word: elated. It’s a great victory for our side,” Edward Poitevent whose family has owned the land for generations, told the Associated Press. Weyerhaeuser Co. also owns a part and grows commercial timber there.

Environmentalists were disappointed, but “the ruling doesn’t weaken the mandate to protect habitat for endangered wildlife,” said Collette Adkins of the Center for Biological Diversity.

The case is important because it may signal courts are willing to slow Trump Administration efforts to weaken the Endangered Species Act. Separate efforts by House Republicans to rewrite the species law seem doomed now that Democrats have regained control of the House, but that doesn’t stop the administration’s action.

In oral arguments, three of the four conservative justices seemed sympathetic to the landowners, and Justice Clarence Thomas asked no questions. The four liberal justices seemed sympathetic to saving the frog’s habitat.

Perhaps they agreed to disagree. The vote was 8 to 0 to send back the case. Justice Brett Kavanaugh, who was not yet on the court when the justices heard the arguments, did not participate in the case.

In the opinion, Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr., seemed to appreciate the quirky critter.

“Warts dot its back, and dark spots cover its entire body. It is noted for covering its eyes with its front legs when it feels threatened, peeking out periodically until danger passes. Less endearingly, it also secretes a bitter, milky substance to deter would-be diners,” Roberts wrote.

The chief also provided a grammar lesson: “Our analysis starts with the phrase ‘critical habitat.’ According to the ordinary understanding of how adjectives work, ‘critical habitat’ must also be ‘habitat.’ Adjectives modify nouns – they pick out a subset of a category that possesses a certain quality.”

Yes, but. The law also says unoccupied land can be habitat, as Roberts noted in this parenthetical sentence: “(Habitat can, of course, include areas where the species does not currently live, given that the statute defines critical habitat to include unoccupied areas.)”

The Supreme Court batted back to the lower court the warty issues of what constitutes habitat and the economic ramifications of designating the property as critical habitat. 

An economic impact report found the designation potentially could cost the landowners $33.9 million in lost development, but the government concluded the cost was not disproportionate considering the conservation benefits.

“The dusky gopher frog’s habitat protections remain in place for now, and we’re hopeful the 5th Circuit will recognize the importance of protecting and restoring habitats for endangered wildlife to live,” said Adkins at the Center for Biological Diversity said.

At this point, the frog is in the 5th Circuit, but the prolonged legal battle means it could yet hop back to the Supreme Court.

©2018 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

Tuesday, November 20, 2018

Be your own Bloomberg: Start small -- Nov. 22, 2018 column


The year after he graduated, Michael Bloomberg donated the princely sum of $5 to Johns Hopkins University. It was all he could afford.

Donating became a habit. Over the years, the 1964 graduate contributed $1.5 billion to the school for research, teaching and financial aid.

That was the warmup for his latest eye-popping gift.

Bloomberg, billionaire business tycoon and philanthropist, former mayor of New York and possible 2020 presidential candidate, just gave his alma mater an additional $1.8 billion – with a B – solely for student financial aid. It’s believed to be the largest donation to an educational institution in American history.


“No qualified high school student should ever be barred entrance to a college based on his or her family’s bank account. Yet it happens all the time,” Bloomberg wrote in an op-ed Nov. 18 in The New York Times.

“Denying students entry to college based on their ability to pay undermines equal opportunity. It perpetuates poverty. And it strikes at the heart of the American dream: the idea that every person, from every community, has the chance to rise based on merit,” he wrote.

Most elite schools consider a student’s ability to pay during the admissions process and turn away qualified students from low- and middle-income families.

Bloomberg’s gift will ensure a “need-blind” admissions policy at Hopkins, where tuition and fees for undergraduates tops $53,000 a year. Students will receive scholarships instead of taking out student loans. The idea is to create a student body that is socioeconomically diverse.  

Bloomberg, founder of the financial data services firm Bloomberg L.P., credits his success to his undergraduate education. His father was a bookkeeper who never made more than $6,000 a year, but the son was able to go to Hopkins with the help of a National Defense Student loan and a job on campus.

“My Hopkins diploma opened doors that otherwise would have been closed and allowed me to live the American dream,” he wrote. He earned an MBA from Harvard in 1966.

Now a registered Democrat, Bloomberg, 76, served three terms as mayor of New York as a Republican and independent. After considering a presidential bid in 2016, he gave millions to help Democratic House candidates in the midterms and is weighing a presidential bid in 2020.

As massive as Bloomberg’s gift is, though, it will help lucky students at only one university. To change the shape of American higher education generally will take changes on the state and federal level, so don’t hold your breath.

But the rest of us can step up on Giving Tuesday. The Tuesday after Thanksgiving has become an antidote to the spending excesses of Black Friday, Small Business Saturday and Cyber Monday.

Now in its seventh year, it’s the day people around the world contribute to worthy causes. Last year, more than $274 million was raised from more than 2.5 million contributions, an increase of $97 million or 55 percent overall, from 2016.

Giving Tuesday isn’t political and doesn’t accept or distribute contributions. People donate on their favorite charity’s website or through a social media platform and publicize their choice with the hashtag #givingtuesday.

It was founded by the 92nd Street Y, a cultural and community center in New York, in partnership with the United National Foundation. Founder Henry Timms, president and CEO of the Y, is co-author of the best-selling book, “New Power,” and the son of one of my closest friends.

Bloomberg has done his part to help his college, and he hopes others will help theirs – “whether the check is for $5, $50, $50,000 or more,” he wrote.
Giving Tuesday invites us to reflect on what’s important to us. Maybe your cause is health, poverty, social justice, the arts, or the victims who’ve lost everything in the wildfires in California. Maybe you’d rather give your support to local groups.

Give carefully. When you send money, be aware of scammers. You can research organizations at, and to make sure your money is put to good use.

We can’t all give like Bloomberg, but we all can do something to make the country better – and make ourselves feel better. Happy Giving Tuesday.

©2018 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

Thursday, November 15, 2018

Runoff between two flawed candidates to cap midterms -- Nov. 15, 2018 column


If you thought the midterm elections were over except for those messy recounts in Florida, think again. A special election for Senate in Mississippi goes to a runoff Nov. 27.  

Until this week, few people outside Mississippi paid much attention, because history points to the Republican’s sailing to victory. No Democrat has occupied either Senate seat in Mississippi in 30 years.

But Republican Sen. Cindy Hyde-Smith’s loose lips may sink her ship.

A video posted on social media Sunday showed her making a racially insensitive remark Nov. 2. Standing with a local rancher at a gathering in Tupelo, Hyde-Smith joked: “If he invited me to a public hanging, I’d be in the front row.”

The comment and her ham-handed handling of the uproar that followed have breathed life into the campaign of her opponent Democrat Mike Espy, who has rebounded from a political corruption scandal in the 1990s.

How Mississippi votes won’t alter Republican control of the Senate, but the state will make history, regardless of its choice.

Hyde-Smith, a former state agriculture commissioner and state senator, was appointed by the governor in April to fill the seat of Sen. Thad Cochran who retired because of poor health. She could become the first woman elected to the Senate from Mississippi.

Or Espy, who was the state’s first black congressman since Reconstruction, serving  six years in the House before becoming President Bill Clinton’s agriculture secretary, could become the first black senator from the state since the Reconstruction era. 

Hyde-Smith hasn’t apologized for her remark. To the contrary, she issued a statement saying she had “used an exaggerated expression of regard, and an attempt to turn this into a negative connotation is ridiculous.”

Espy’s spokesman called Hyde-Smith’s comments “reprehensible.”

The controversy likely will motivate black voters, who make up nearly 40 percent of the vote.

“For many in Mississippi and beyond, the mention of public hangings stirs memories of Mississippi’s history of racist violence,” Mississippi Today reported.

The state carried out public hangings until 1940 as an official method of capital punishment, and also has a history of allowing white mobs to commit lynchings, the news outlet reported.

Mississippi had 654 reported lynchings between 1877 and 1950, more than any other state, according to a study by the Equal Justice Initiative, based in Montgomery, Ala.    

The primary ballot Nov. 6 listed four candidates without party affiliations. President Donald Trump campaigned for Hyde-Smith, but she and Espy each won 41 percent of the vote. A runoff is required if no candidate reaches 50 percent.

Trump reportedly is now weighing whether to return to Mississippi on her behalf.

Espy’s rise shows there can be second acts in politics. When he stepped down as agriculture secretary in 1994, The New York Times opined that “Mr. Espy’s behavior gave, at the very least, the appearance of conflict of interest. It was also colossally stupid.”

He had allegedly accepted gifts, including Super Bowl tickets and free trips, from lobbyists and companies he regulated.

When Espy was indicted by an independent counsel three years later, The Times wrote:  “It is sad to see a young politician’s promising career go down the drain in a personal corruption scandal.”

Espy stood trial for seven months, charged with illegally soliciting and accepting gifts worth $35,000. Prosecutors showed he received the gifts but could not prove he did any official acts in return. He was acquitted of all 30 counts of corruption in 1998.

“I knew from Day One that I would stand before you completely exonerated,” Espy told reporters at the time.

He has practiced law in Jackson but this is his first campaign since the trial.

“I had to rebuild a life,” he told the Jackson Free Press.

“Mississippians are a forgiving lot,” Mac Gordon, a former Mississippi newsman wrote in the Jackson Clarion Ledger in August, long before Hyde-Smith’s “hanging” comments. Gordon was referring to his belief Espy should and would win.

Forgiveness is a word we rarely associate with politics.

But in a year of election surprises, the winner of Mississippi’s Senate runoff may be the candidate voters are most willing to forgive.    

© 2018 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

Thursday, November 8, 2018

More women make it to Congress -- and face gridlock -- Nov. 8, 2018 column

The day after Donald Trump’s inauguration in 2017, half a million women marched on Washington. The new president largely ignored them.
He bragged about the size of his own inauguration crowd but didn’t mention the hundreds of thousands of women in pink hats on the streets protesting him and his policies -- until the following day.
“Watched the protests yesterday but was under the impression that we just had an election! Why didn’t these people vote? Celebs hurt the cause badly,” he tweeted.
Be careful what you wish for, Mr. Trump.
Many of the protesters probably did vote – for Hillary Clinton. Then, they turned their disappointment and anger into action. Democratic women ran -- and won -- in record numbers for Congress.   
At least 118 women will serve in the House and Senate when the new Congress convenes in January, according to the Center for American Women and Politics. Currently 110 women serve in Congress.
In Virginia on Tuesday, three Democratic women candidates flipped reliably red House districts to blue.
Elaine Luria, a retired Navy commander, beat Rep. Scott Taylor in the Hampton Roads suburbs.
Abigail Spanberger, self-described as a former CIA operative and a Girl Scout leader, narrowly defeated Tea Party favorite Rep. Dave Brat in the Richmond suburbs.
And Jennifer Wexton, a state senator since 2014, rolled over longtime Republican Rep. Barbara Comstock in the Northern Virginia suburbs.
Precisely how many women will be in Congress depends on still-undecided races. One thing is clear, though: Trump can’t ignore women anymore.
Women voters helped drive the blue wave, such as it was, by generally choosing Democrats for Congress. Fifty-five percent of women voted for a Democratic congressional candidate, and only 41 percent for a Republican, the AP’s exit poll reported. Men’s votes were more evenly split.
In 2016, Trump won 53 percent of white women’s votes. In the midterms, 50 percent of white women voted for a Democrat for Congress and 46 percent for a Republican, according to exit polls.  
Republicans acknowledge the party is turning off white, college-educated, suburban women. Former House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, R-Virginia, who lost to Brat four years ago, blames “cultural signals” sent by the party.
It’s incumbent on GOP legislators to step up with an agenda both men and women can support, including help for child care and health care, Cantor told Bloomberg Radio Wednesday.
But with the House in Democratic hands for the first time since 2010, Trump will need to work with Democrats or watch his agenda grind to a halt. The GOP strengthened its control of the Senate Tuesday by two or three senators, but the House has the power of the purse.
The incoming freshman class of House Democrats is refreshingly diverse – with the first two Muslim women, first two Native American women, and the first black woman member from Massachusetts. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York is the youngest member of Congress at 29.
It’s tempting to feel exuberant about the new attitudes and policies the freshmen women will bring, but the reality is sobering. Stalemate is more likely than progress in divided government.
Before anything else, the new members must decide whether to support House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi, an effective party builder and a lightning rod for critics, for Speaker.
Spanberger is among the few newly elected representatives who promises not to support Pelosi “under any circumstances.” Luria and Wexton have said they’ll wait and see.  
Trump, of all people, says Pelosi deserves to be Speaker and he’ll even help her get elected to the post. He claims he’s sincere; others think he’s setting her up.
Pelosi expects to regain the Speaker’s gavel. She says subpoena power may become a negotiating tool as Democratic committee chairmen dig into Trump’s businesses and his administration.  
Trump threatens a “warlike posture” if Democrats investigate him, vowing to retaliate with investigations of Democrats.
“They can play that game, but we can play it better, because we have a thing called the United States Senate,” he said.
Such talk by both sides makes gridlock almost inevitable -- and nobody voted for that.
 © 2018 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

Thursday, November 1, 2018

Even `Land of 100,000 Welcomes' has its limits -- Nov. 1, 2018 column


Scores of angry emails and letters bombarded Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar after the White House made a surprise announcement last August President Donald Trump would visit Ireland.

Trump planned to stop at his golf resort in Doonbeg and in Dublin on his way to Paris for the 100th anniversary of the armistice that ended World War I on Nov. 11.

Protesters began to mobilize, saying they’d use the 20-foot tall “Trump Baby” balloon that floated over London in July when Trump met with British Prime Minister Theresa May. More than 60 furious letter-writers urged Varadkar to withdraw Trump’s invitation.

The letters, released under a Freedom of Information Act request by the Irish Times and reported on Tuesday, provide a glimpse into Trump’s unpopularity in a country that traditionally has welcomed U.S. presidents.

“For all that is holy, please do not let Trump into Ireland,” one correspondent emailed, the Times reported.

“Seriously, every time you come out in support of Trump you experience a massive backlash,” another wrote Varadkar. “Why do you keep putting your hand back on the hot stove?” 

Noting Trump’s record on immigration, trade, climate change and human rights, he or she signed the letter “a thoroughly disgusted and disappointed citizen.”

Varadkar was sympathetic to the outcry but, like other leading Irish politicians, he called for respect.

“I know a lot of people dislike him,” he said Sept. 2 on Irish radio. “A lot of people object to him, a lot of people disagree with a lot of his policies -- just as I do, in fact -- but he is the president of America.”

After 11 days of turmoil, the Irish government said Trump wouldn’t visit after all. The White House cited “scheduling reasons.”

In the United States, about one in 10 people claimed Irish ancestry in 2016, the Census Bureau reports, and many presidents, most recently Barack Obama, play up their Irish roots.

Obama was an Illinois state senator in 2007 when discovered his great-great-great grandfather came from Ireland.

As president, Obama enjoyed a warm Irish welcome in 2011 when he and Michelle Obama visited the village of Moneygall and met several of his distant relatives. An eighth cousin named Henry instantly became known as Henry the Eighth.

In Dublin, Obama told a crowd described as “rapturous” by a British newspaper, “My name is Barack Obama, of the Moneygall Obamas, and I’ve come home to find the apostrophe we lost somewhere along the way.”

As a tourist in Ireland last month, I met many people eager to talk about Obama’s and even President John F. Kennedy’s visit. Galway honored JFK’s 1963 visit with a bust in Eyre Square, also sometimes called JFK Park, and a mosaic in Galway Cathedral.

No one brought up Trump – or another American president who got a cold shoulder.

Protesters marked President Ronald Reagan’s visit in 1984. A leader of demonstrations against Reagan and U.S. policy in El Salvador and Nicaragua was an Irish senator named Michael D. Higgins.

Higgins had an American connection, having earned a master’s degree in sociology from Indiana University. Decades later, the 77-year-old poet, writer, former minister of culture and socialist is still involved in politics.

Higgins was re-elected president of Ireland last week. He is head of state, a largely ceremonial post, but it does give him a platform. He has been an outspoken critic of Trump and this country’s direction.  

“Today we are witnessing a worrying surge of unapologetic sexism and the undermining of women’s rights in one of the world’s most advanced democracies,” Higgins said in April in New York.

Trump may own a fancy golf resort on the west coast of Ireland, but he has much to learn about the country. Last summer, he raised hackles when he said Ireland is in the United Kingdom.

Rep. Brendan Boyle, D-Pa., son of an immigrant from Donegal, Ireland, fired back: “Ireland is not a part of the UK. It’s been an independent country for about 100 years … Please stop embarrassing us on the international stage.”

That’s a tall order for this president, but at least he won’t embarrass us in Ireland this month.  

©2018 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.