Sunday, July 14, 2013

Bringing It All Back Home

I return from visiting Europe and find the Homeland close to the breaking point, socially. 

Trayvon v. Zimmerman: My Side of the Story
I don't feel the case everyone has been watching is really all that compelling, or important--at best, it's significant, as representative of a common problem--but everyone in the news business does seem to have been watching it, like all the time.  It's basically a case of "his word against mine" except that he's dead, and the other didn't testify.

So, here's my take. The wannabe policeman neighborhood warrior, on his self-appointed, self-armed rounds, sees a suspicious case of someone Walking While Black--in his neighborhood, no less! He follows, approaches said young black man, asks, "Let me see some ID", and Mr. Martin instead shows him his fist in Mr. Zimmerman's face, following up with a grapple. Fight ensues, the person of self-appointed authority not feeling so authoritative, reaches for his gun.  End of story.

The case came down to two things: comparative sophistication of jury selection methods (the better-funded side usually wins, which means a well-funded defense, as with the O.J. Simpson case), and the question of whether Florida's "Stand Your Ground" law, which allows someone to use deadly force when threatened, was applicable in this case and, upon a possible appeal, constitutionally sound.

What's to learn from this highly unfortunate episode? Clearly, "Stand Your Ground" is bad public law--if carried to its extreme, in an insecure world, everyone would be packing and shooting others the first time they felt threatened. The verdict doesn't really establish the viability of the law properly--it was more like the jury felt there was sufficient reason to credit a claim of self-defense--so I think it is appropriate for a civil case--one that I think the Martin family might well win--to test that defense. I don't think there will be a case for a Federal hate crime case and don't think that will happen.

We all know that young black men (or large young black boys) are objects of suspicion in white culture, and to some extent among law enforcement types, as well.  Zimmerman is somewhat in that milieu and seemed to feel empowered to approach and demand obedience to a stranger who wasn't doing anything too unusual. I have seen the kind of hostile response I described above to this kind of self-righteous demand for credentials from unofficial self-empowered types (and not just from black folks).

We know that there is a presumption of innocence in our courts.  I'd like to suggest that there be such a presumption in civil society, particularly when there is no knowledge of any crime having been committed. On the other foot, I have to suggest a couple of other things:  don't dress like a thug, or you'll be seen as one; don't dress like a prostitute, or expect to be propositioned by johns; don't dress like a hippie, or expect to be searched for drugs.  Don't dress like a swell, or expect thieves to think you've got money.

Nuke 'em, Harry!?
Echoing the hypothetical advisers to former President Truman, various partisan groups have been advising Senator Reid to select "the nuclear option" to break the filibustered nominations of several Obama appointees subject to Senate confirmation.  The parliamentary stratagem would propose the rules be changed to allow those nominations' debate to be closed by a simple majority, rather than the 60-vote supermajority.  The presumed majority supporting the motion (more than 50, less than 60 votes) would then be upheld by the presiding officer of the Senate (presumably Vice President Biden).

Majority Leader Reid is threatening the maneuver to force the Republicans to allow a vote on the nominees, which no one disputes would actually be approved if they were allowed to come to a vote. With one or two exceptions among these, the Republicans' objections are not to the nominees themselves but to the agencies they would head up, so their filibuster has an illegitimate aspect, the obstruction of the executive branch and its administration of law.  Nevertheless, Minority Leader McConnell is threatening all sorts of dire consequences if the Democrats and Reid choose to pick the fight over Senate rules.

In particular, there is a real danger that the Republicans could gain control of the Senate, as soon as the next Congress, and turn this precedent against the Democrats' (minority) interest.  I would point out that this debate has been going on, and commented on in this blog, for several years under control of both parties. It's become a perennial problem.

The probable outcome is that the Republicans would agree to let some of those nominees be voted upon immediately, and others within a limited period of time.  The Democrats will be tempted to take that offer and avoid the constitutional crisis. Though I think the Republicans will be permanently marginalized as a potential majority party within ten years at the rate they are going, I would suggest a little bit of patience with the Senators, who are at least attempting to keep their body from degenerating to the level of the infamous House of Representatives.

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