Thursday, January 27, 2022

It's time for a Black woman Supreme Court justice -- Jan. 27, 2022 column


When I wrote last October about liberal activists’ campaign urging Justice Stephen Breyer to retire, I mentioned President Joe Biden likely would nominate the nation’s first Black woman justice.

Some readers criticized the idea of making race and gender a factor.

A reader in Henrico, Va., wrote me: “Will people ever truly understand that it is better and more important to appoint the best possible justice, irrespective of race and sex?”

His question is a familiar one, but it implies “the best possible justice” can’t possibly be both Black and a woman. Even if unintentional, the implication is wrong.

Judges and justices who bring diverse experiences of more parts of society have a wider perspective that can enhance their fair and independent decisions. Their presence on the bench also helps inspire public confidence in the judiciary.

Ronald Reagan proved the wisdom of judicial diversity when he made a presidential campaign promise in 1980 to name the first woman justice to the Supreme Court. He nominated Sandra Day O’Connor the following year and she served for a quarter century before retiring.

Biden has made a concerted effort to name more women and people of color to the federal bench, and the Senate has confirmed 40 of his district and circuit court picks. That’s more than have been confirmed in a president’s first year since Reagan, the White House says. Among those confirmed last year, 80% are women and 53% are people of color.

In contrast, 85% of former President Donald Trump’s judicial nominees were white and 76% were men, according to the Alliance for Justice, a progressive advocacy association.  

With Breyer’s retirement, Biden is poised to make history while, like Reagan, delivering on a campaign pledge.

“I’m looking forward to making sure there’s a Black woman on the Supreme Court to make sure we in fact get everyone represented,” candidate Biden said at a debate days before the South Carolina Democratic primary in February 2020.

Breyer’s retirement comes as Democrats need to revive their base of support before the midterm elections.  Even if Biden hadn’t promised to nominate a Black woman justice, he probably would. It’s not only popular politically but the right thing to do.

It’s time a Black woman joined the nation’s highest court.

She will be only the third Black justice in history and the second, with Clarence Thomas, on the current court, and the fourth sitting woman justice, with Sonia Sotomayor, Elena Kagan and Amy Coney Barrett. 

Critics say Breyer, a pragmatic liberal, likely will be replaced by a liberal activist. Even if that is so, the liberal wing of the court will remain a three-justice minority. The six-justice conservative majority, including the three justices Trump nominated, will stand.

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer promises a speedy confirmation process, and the Senate can move fast. Then-Majority Leader Mitch McConnell rushed Trump-nominated Barrett through last fall in one month.

The 50-50 Senate can confirm Biden’s nominee if all 50 Democratic senators stick together and are present that day, and Vice President Kamala Harris casts the tie-breaking vote.

It’s a stretch to think any Republicans will vote for Biden’s nominee – though three Republicans did vote last year to confirm Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia. They were Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, Susan Collins of Maine and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska.

Jackson is on the likely shortlist of candidates for the high court. She also had bipartisan support when she was nominated for the federal district court in 2012. None other than Rep. Paul Ryan, Republican of Wisconsin, introduced her, saying:

“Our politics may differ, but my praise for Ketanji’s intellect, for her character, for her integrity is unequivocal. She’s an amazing person, and I favorably recommend her consideration.”

Ryan, who later became House speaker before retiring in 2018, is related by marriage to the judge.

Also on the shortlist: California Supreme Court Justice Leondra Kruger and federal District Court Judge J. Michelle Childs of South Carolina.

Any of them would make an honorable and qualified addition to the Supreme Court.

©2022 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

Thursday, January 20, 2022

Biden needs a reboot for second year -- Jan. 20, 2022 column


It wasn’t supposed to be like this.

Joe Biden won more than 81 million popular votes, the most of any presidential candidate in American history. He won 306 electoral votes, well more than the 270 needed for presidential victory.

And yet, one year into his presidency, only 43% of Americans approve of the way he’s handling his job and 56% disapprove, the latest Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research poll reported Thursday.

It was one of many recent polls that show Biden underwater. There are many reasons for his fall from grace: the chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan, inflation and lasting COVID-19 misery, to name three.

But no other president has had to deal with the headwinds of a predecessor who refuses to accept defeat, goaded his followers to storm the Capitol in hopes of overturning the will of the people, and continues to cling to his delusions that he won.

This should scare everybody who cares about democracy. To this day, many Republicans stubbornly believe the Big Lie, although the former president and his supporters have failed to prove any of their allegations.

Candidate Biden promised to restore integrity, dignity and competence to the White House. People were grateful for his steadiness and calm after four years of unrelenting craziness.

In his inaugural address last year, Biden cautioned that overcoming the many challenges facing the country would require “that most elusive of things in a democracy: Unity. Unity.” And he asked every American to join him in the cause.

Sadly, they didn’t. Biden has had to fight to keep progressive Democrats on his side. Meanwhile, Republicans solidly united against him.

“I did not anticipate that there’d be such a stalwart effort to make sure that the most important thing was that President Biden didn’t get anything done,” Biden said in his news conference Wednesday.

Only 28% of people think the country is on the right track, according to the most recent Real Clear Politics average of polls.

Biden says he doesn’t believe polls, but they show a disturbing trend in an election year. Both political independents and Democrats have turned away from him.

Gallup reports that Biden’s job approval rating -- 50% among independents during his first six months – has plunged to 33%. Early on, 90% of Democrats said Biden was doing a good job; that support has dropped to 80%.

Biden’s numbers are almost as bad as his predecessor’s after a year. Only 38.4% of Americans approved of President Donald Trump’s job performance then, Gallup reported.

Biden’s news conference lasted nearly two hours. Although nearly everyone agrees it went on too long, Biden showed a command of many topics, which should dispel criticism he’s not mentally up to the job. But he left unclear how the United States and NATO may respond to a Russian invasion of Ukraine.

Biden defended his record, citing 6 million new jobs created in the last year and a drop in the nation’s unemployment rate to 3.9% from 6.2%.

He also suggested he plans a reboot. Let’s hope so. A shift in approach and tone will be necessary to mend relations with voters and save his party from ignominy in November.

He will spend more time traveling, campaigning with congressional candidates, and raising campaign money, he said. He hopes looking voters in the eye and telling them where he stands will remind them why they voted for him and persuade them to back Democratic candidates.

He also will consult experts from academia, editorial writers and think tanks for “constructive criticism about what I should and shouldn’t be doing.”

That Biden is open to advice is an encouraging sign.

Hours after the news conference, the Senate jettisoned a massive voting rights bill, dealing the president another blow.

Biden vows not to give up on his stalled legislative agenda, though it will not be as grand as he hoped. He likely will break up the Build Back Better bill into digestible parts and press for passage of popular items, such as the climate section.

By focusing on the most important issues, he can challenge Republicans to put up or shut up.

Previewing a theme we’re likely to hear often, he said:

“Think about this: What are Republicans for? What are they for?”

© 2022 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

Thursday, January 13, 2022

`A day on, not a day off’ for MLK -- column of Jan. 13, 2022


The federal holiday honoring the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. blends celebration, reflection and action.

On the third Monday in January, typically there are parades, prayer breakfasts, church services, concerts, readings from the writings of the slain civil rights leader and, yes, sales. Shopping, though, is far less a focus than on other federal holidays.

The King holiday is our national day of service, when Americans are encouraged to volunteer to make their communities better.

King would have turned 93 on Jan. 15. He received the Nobel Peace Prize at 35 and was only 39 when he was tragically killed by a sniper in 1968.

Time dims memories, so it’s worth remembering the holiday honoring him was hard won. Black members of Congress had to fight for 15 years to get the holiday through Congress.

Sen. Jesse Helms, Republican of North Carolina, once filibustered the bill with 300 pages of documents accusing King of being a Marxist with communist leanings. Democratic Sens. Edward Kennedy or Massachusetts and Daniel Patrick Moynihan of New York declared the papers “filth.”

Congress finally passed and President Ronald Reagan signed the law creating the King holiday in 1983, with the first observance in 1986. But some states resisted. Arizona did not recognize the holiday until 1992 and New Hampshire in 1999.

Until last year, Virginia still honored Confederate Gens. Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson with a state holiday on the Friday before the King holiday.

Shortly after the first MLK federal holiday, The New York Times published a letter from a Princeton University sociology professor.

“I propose we declare the holiday a `day on,’ rather than a `day off,’” Marion J. Levy Jr. wrote. His idea was that everyone would work on the holiday and those above the poverty line would send their wages to a special MLK fund benefiting education, housing and other projects.

Persuading millions of Americans to work on a holiday and donate their pay was a bridge too far, but the idea of service caught on.

In 1994, President Bill Clinton signed the King Holiday and Service Act, officially designating the holiday as a day of national service.

Overshadowing the commemorations this year is the political battle over voting rights legislation.

President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris paid tribute to King and met with his family Tuesday in Atlanta before the president delivered a fiery speech evoking King’s memory to press for passage of voting rights legislation.   

Voting rights used to be a bipartisan issue but, like most things, it has become fiercely politicized. Partisans can’t even agree on facts.

Biden and many Democrats contend passing the two voting rights bills before Congress is so crucial to restoring equity in the election system that the Senate should set aside the filibuster rule, which requires 60 votes, if necessary.

But Republicans vociferously claim the voting rights bills are a massive power grab by Democrats, an attempt to rewrite the nation’s election laws to benefit Democratic candidates.

Biden hopes to make where legislators stand a key marker in this year’s midterm elections.

As senators wrestle with their role in history, the rest of us can find meaningful ways to observe the holiday.

You can Google local MLK service events. If wintry weather or the pandemic makes in-person volunteering problematic, the federal government has two service opportunities people can do at home.

Both the Library of Congress and the Smithsonian Institution are seeking volunteers to transcribe historical documents virtually. Digital volunteers are helping to make letters, field notes, diaries, manuscripts and other handwritten documents more widely available.

For example, the Smithsonian needs help transcribingrecords from the Freedmen’s Bureau, which was formed to improve the lives of formerly enslaved men and women during Reconstruction.

The Library of Congress needs help transcribing pages from George Washington’s farm reports that chronicle the lives and labor of enslaved people at Mount Vernon as well as other aspects of 18th century farm life.

The library also has projects transcribing Walt Whitman’s letters and Frederick Law Olmsted’s landscape architecture files. 

This MLK holiday is a chance to learn while we serve.

“Everybody can be great,” King said, “because anybody can serve.”

©2022 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.


Thursday, January 6, 2022

New Year -- 2022 off to a rocky start -- Jan. 6, 2022 column


 Hey, 2022, could we have a do-over?

 You may be hardly a week old, but this in-with-the-new thing isn’t working out. A new year promises a fresh start and a clean slate, but, honestly, you haven’t delivered.

 It’s bad enough that we’re entering our third year of coping with an invisible enemy, the coronavirus. The first case of COVID-19 in the United States was identified on Jan. 20, 2020. We didn’t know then it was called alpha to distinguish from later variants.  

 Vaccinations and boosters were supposed to set us free, but no. Even those who did the right thing, got their shots, wore masks and washed their hands got caught by the latest and most transmissible variant, omicron.

 People who want to be tested must stand in long lines, if they can find tests at all. The good news is the people who followed health guidelines are less likely to be hospitalized and to die than those who shun vaccinations and boosters.

 Still, omicron is disrupting society as it rampages the country and the world.

 Hospitals and the saints who take care of patients are slammed, mainly by those who haven’t gotten their jabs. Airlines canceled thousands of flights around Jan. 1 due to staff shortages caused by sick and quarantining employees. Then a snowstorm hit the East Coast.

 Those who abandoned air travel for cars and trains this week were also headed not for their destinations but for misery. We simply couldn’t get there – or anywhere – from here.

 The debacle on nearly 50 miles of I-95 in Virginia, coupled with gridlock on surrounding roads, created a logjam that affected hundreds of motorists trying to head north and south. Amtrak trains were also stuck under the weather, unable to handle even the most basic of passenger needs – food and toilets.

 Schools in Chicago and other places shut down or returned to remote learning as the pandemic again made in-person classes risky to teachers, staff and students. Businesses pulled back on bringing staff to their offices. Reports of the death of the Zoom culture were premature.

 It’s easy to make New Year’s resolutions for other people – and much more satisfying than making them for oneself – so here’s one for Virginia and federal transportation officials: Work together to focus on essential services.

 We need a country where the systems work. Competence may not be sexy, but it is necessary for peace and prosperity.

 We know Northern Virginia hadn’t had a good snow in a couple of years, and the bizarre change from balmy temperatures in the 60s over the weekend to rain and then heavy snowfall – up to 2 inches an hour – on Monday was discombobulating.

 Transportation officials said they couldn’t pretreat highways because the chemicals would have washed away in the rain. But other states routinely deal with heavy snowfalls without such disastrous consequences.

 And once nearly a foot of snow stopped traffic, surely authorities could have done something to help people stranded in their cars in the cold and dark for more than 24 hours.

 Gov. Ralph Northam wasn’t helpful when he stated the obvious, that people should have stayed off I-95. I’m sure they wish they had.

 But truckers, who are trying to alleviate supply chain shortages and have schedules to keep, as well as other seasoned motorists, know interstates are usually cleared of snow first and are safer than secondary roads in inclement weather.

 When people were finally able to get off I-95 near Fredericksburg, they faced more gridlock on secondary roads. Many travelers reported an absence of authorities to direct traffic or help in any way.

 As officials probe what went wrong, they need to avoid finger pointing, make solid recommendations and implement them.

Americans don’t want more politicking. We want to know we can go where we need to go, safely, and at reasonable speeds. We want our highways and trains to operate efficiently.

 So, while we might like a do-over for the first disastrous week of the new year, there are still 51 weeks left to inspire confidence in America’s ability to function – even if more snow falls. We’re counting on you to do better, 2022.

 ©2022 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.