Thursday, June 27, 2013

Gay marriage rulings not that far-reaching

Wednesday's widely hailed pair of decisions involving gay marriage might not be as far-reaching as some advocates are asserting. The court struck down a portion of the Defense of Marriage Act on the basis of unequal treatment of married couples by the federal government. The ruling prohibits the government from denying federal benefits to legally married couples because they are in a same-sex marriage. The ruling does not address the legality of same-sex marriage, only the federal government's treatment of it. State bans on same-sex marriage are left untouched by the ruling.

The California Proposition 8 ruling also does not address the legality of same-sex marriage. This case was narrowly decided not on its merits but on the eligibility of the persons bringing the appeal of an earlier court decision. The state of California declined to appeal the trial court ruling that threw out the results of a statewide referendum banning gay marriage. This was essentially a ruling on a technicality: The court found that the appellants did not have standing to appeal the case to the federal court; therefore, the trial court ruling stands. Left unanswered is whether the trial court judge had the authority to overturn a statewide referendum in a state that provides citizen access to the legislative process through direct referendums.

The Prop 8 ruling applies only the California. Gay marriage will again be legal in California, but the larger, national issues involving gay marriage remain unresolved. The tide may be turning on gay marriage, but Wednesday's rulings do not constitute a 180-degree turn, at least not yet.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Free Voting Rights Act from 1965 numbers

The reaction to today's Supreme Court ruling on Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act was more interesting and volatile than the ruling itself. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg declared that today's 5-4 majority ruling amounted to the "demolition" of the Voting Rights Act. She takes hyperbole to new heights.

What the Supreme Court ordered Congress to revise, while leaving untouched the remainder of the act, was Section 5 of the 1965 act. That section requires certain states and portions of states that had a history of voting rights violations in 1965, submit to the U.S. Justice Department any change to their voting laws. That means that the Election Board in Wilson, N.C. (one of the covered jurisdictions), cannot move a polling place around the corner without gaining pre-clearance from the Justice Department. Justice has 90 days to respond and can extend that deadline for another 90 days. That can be a serious impediment to timely decision-making, such as when a building housing a polling site burns or is demolished or is closed for renovation.

But that's not the biggest problem with Section 5. The law establishes one voting law for some states and another for other states, thereby limiting state sovereignty and denying "equal protection of the laws" for citizens of those states. Such unequal treatment might have been justified in 1965, when some citizens were being denied voting rights on the basis of their race. But America has changed in the past 48 years, and minority voting power has grown exponentially, even in those states that are still required to submit any change in voting place or method to the Justice Department in advance.

The most recent renewal of the Voting Rights Act did not alter the formula for determining what jurisdictions will be subject to the provisions of Section 5. That formula is still stuck in 1964, a time when few black citizens were registered to vote and black elected officials were unheard of in many locales. Even in cities with black mayors and counties with black county chairmen, the Voting Rights Act considers these jurisdictions racially biased to the degree that federal pre-clearance is necessary. Today's election officials and public officers in the covered jurisdictions, many of them African-American, are presumed guilty of voting discrimination based on actions that took place before many of them were born.

Today's court ruling requires Congress to update the application formula under Section 5 and base it on contemporary standards of voter turnout, voter registration, and acts of voter suppression or intimidation. Those who care about voting rights today, rather than in 1965, should welcome this opportunity to see that the Voting Rights Act enforcement is applied where it is most needed today.

Monday, June 24, 2013

Death makes another visit

Parents never expect — and should never experience — the loss of a child. The same is true, to a lesser degree, of younger siblings.

Two long drives in four days took me to visit the sickbed of my younger sister who went from oblivious assumptions of good health to a cancer diagnosis to a hospice bed in a matter of days. The shock still reverberates through my gut and awakens me at night. Plans and expectations of visits and conversations are washed away in a flood of painful reality that my incredulous mind cannot grasp.

This is not a new reality for me. I was 13 when my older sister died in a traffic accident. My older brother died following emergency heart surgery just seven months ago. The refusal to accept reality gripped me in similar ways when death struck too close 50 years apart.

At an age when my greatest anticipations revolve around the time when my wife and I will retire and will have the time that the workday world does not allow us, I face the reality that my sister, whose dreams of free time and of cuddling grandchildren into adolescence and adulthood are the same as mine, will be denied that joy and achievement we so yearn for. Life is filled with hoped-for outcomes and anticipation of good times, but the cruelty of death is not limited to the young and vibrant. We who have achieved our greatest goals — seeing our children educated and married and holding grandchildren shaped by our own genes — but still hope for new joys and time to savor life's goodness can face the cruelty of hopes shattered and happiness barely tasted suddenly denied. Death at any age denies us the sublime pleasures of this life. It's arbitrary, unfair and unstoppable.

Friday, June 14, 2013

A father's wisdom and work

As Father's Day approaches, I offer these words of wisdom from my father:

• "Rise and shine, you're way behind."

• "Any job worth doing is worth doing well."

• "You don't know how? Well, it's time you learned!"

• "I'll give you something to cry about."

• "Time's wasting."

• "Up and at 'em."

• "Put it back where you found it."

• To a picky eater: "Boy, you don't know what's good."

As you might surmise from these quotes, he was a hard-working man for whom no job was too big or too difficult, whether it was putting in new kitchen cabinets or digging a septic tank line with just a shovel. He had a work ethic that he expected from others as well, and he laughed so hard he'd gasp for breath. He loved ice cream and would patiently crank the freezer's handle to get his dessert. He made friends with everyone he encountered, and his easy conversations with strangers embarrassed his shy, reticent wife. He left his children some words of wisdom, an appreciation for humor and a willingness to work at whatever task came along.

This year would have marked his 95th year.

Thursday, June 6, 2013

If Sirhan Sirhan had been stopped, what the world might have been

I dragged myself out of bed the morning of June 5, 1968, and turned on the television — something I wouldn't normally do — but I wanted to find out what happened in the California presidential primary. I was home from my first year of college and had not yet started a summer job. The newscast left me confused. Instead of reciting the primary results, the reporters were all gathered around a hospital, talking of wounds and prognosis and hopes. It took me a while to realize that they were talking about a shooting that had happened hours earlier in a back hallway at the Ambassador Hotel. Sen. Robert Kennedy lay gravely wounded with a bullet to the head. He would survive less than a day.

Forty-five years later, I wonder at how different the world might have been if someone had stopped Sirhan Sirhan in that hallway, taken away his pistol and stopped the nightmare. Could Kennedy have rested the Democratic nomination away from Vice President Hubert Humphrey? Late getting into the race, Kennedy had won a string of primaries and had instigated a wave of enthusiasm and hope — hope that the Kennedy legacy, cut short five years earlier in Dallas, might be revived.

But the odds were long. Party pols still controlled the nomination process, and they weren't lining up behind Bobby. The president, Lyndon Johnson, hated Bobby, and the feeling was mutual. Would the Chicago Democratic Convention have been as chaotic if Kennedy had been there to give an outlet to the many rank-and-file who felt left out and ignored? Could the Democrats have coalesced around Bobby and denied Richard Nixon his slim victory?

And if Bobby had become president, what might have transpired in Vietnam, in civil rights and in every other issue of the day? Would Bobby have launched a new investigation of the Nov. 22, 1963, assassination, an investigative panel not appointed by LBJ, whom Bobby, according to some reports, thought had a hand in the murder?

These are questions that cry out for an alternative history — a fictionalized account of what might have been, of what could have been, of what many people dreamed would happen.

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Loss of veterans in Senate debases politics

The death of Sen. Frank Lautenberg ends a 69-year record of having a World War II veteran serving in the Senate. Since 1944, at least one veteran of the war had served in the Senate. For many years, World War II veterans constituted a majority of the Senate.

From the 1940s through the 1960s, service in World War II was almost a prerequisite for election to Congress. From 1953, when former Supreme Commander Dwight Eisenhower moved into the White House, to 1993, when draft-evader Bill Clinton took up residence, each president had World War II service on his resume. Admittedly, some (Lyndon Johnson and Ronald Reagan come to mind) were not in the thick of the fight, but all had that transformative experience of serving in uniform during wartime. Voters expected this experience from their leaders, and the values, leadership and judgment of these men were unquestionably shaped by wartime experiences.

Today's Senate has only a small percentage of veterans — 16 percent. It's easy to surmise that the declining number of veterans on the Senate floor might have triggered the loss of camaraderie, compromise and self-sacrifice in Congress. Military service instills in young men and women these traits — the interests of the organization over personal goals, the need for organization and good order, the caring for your comrades, and obedience without hesitation to lawful orders. From these practices there develops a cohesive unit pride, friendliness and trust — all earmarks of legislative success.

These values and these experiences are not learned in colleges or in most job situations. They are unique to military experiences. The lack of these traits can result in the chaotic, divisive, self-serving atmosphere now infesting Capitol Hill.

The decline in veterans' numbers in Congress coincides with the shift to an all-volunteer military. While the Vietnam-era draft was a highly divisive topic reeking with unfairness, it at least provided large, diverse numbers of Americans the experience of working with others toward common goals, despite one's cultural, racial or political differences. Having fought three wars (counting Gulf War and Iraq War as separate) without a military draft, it seems likely that America will never again conscript its sons and daughters into military service, even if that service would, overall, be a positive influence on their lives and on politics.