Friday, July 13, 2018

Used to be

I had to look this one up. An administrative law judge (ALJ) presides over disputes of administrative law – the laws that govern how the various agencies within the government work. Got a dispute with the rules of the Social Security Administration? An ALJ will hear the case. They are members of the executive branch and many are assigned to particular agencies. To be appointed they have to go through a rigorous testing process. According to Wikipedia, “Federal ALJs are the only merit-based judicial corps in the United States.”

Alas, we must change the “are” to “used to be.” The nasty guy issued an executive order that eliminates the testing process. Which means the appointment of an ALJ is now as partisan as the rest of the nasty guy’s administration, ready to defend his bigotry.

Tyranny of the minority

In March of last year I wrote a post that discussed the problems with the Electoral College and how the rural states had more influence on the outcome than highly urban states. Wyoming gets three Electoral College votes and California gets 55. But that gives a Wyoming voter more influence over the outcome than a California voter.

Along with that post I linked to a map (with explanation) created by Neil Freeman at Mental Floss. This map redrew state boundaries so that each state has 6.1 million voters rather than the current state boundaries where Wyoming has a half-million and California has 40 million.

My friend and debate partner responded to that earlier post quite simply: “Gerrymandered!”

After doing presentations on gerrymandering I disagree with my friend. Even highly gerrymandered states follow the national law about districts having equal population.

Ian Millhiser of Think Progress says the same imbalance that affects the Electoral College also affects the Senate. And this imbalance is likely to create a legitimacy crisis for our upper chamber. Millhiser pulls out some statistics to make his point.

Because two-thirds of Latinos live in the five largest states, one white voter is equal to 1.7 Latinos. David Birdsell of Baruch College says by 2040 “About 70% of American are expected to live in 15 states.” Flip it around and 30% of the population lives in 35 states or, as Millhiser puts it, “That means that 30 percent of the population will elect 70 percent of the senators.” But we don’t have to wait until 2040 for the problem to appear.

The Senate imbalance will affect the approval of Brett Kavanaugh, the next Supreme Court nominee.
Currently, Republicans hold 51 votes in the Senate, while the Democratic caucus is only 49 senators. Yet the Democratic “minority” represents nearly 40 million more people than the Republican “majority.”

Indeed, this Republican advantage may already be a permanent feature of the Senate. In 2016, when Senate Republicans blocked Chief Judge Merrick Garland’s nomination to the Supreme Court, the 46 Senate Democrats represented 20 million more people than the 54 Republicans. In 2017, when Neil Gorsuch was confirmed to occupy the same Supreme Court seat, the 45 senators who opposed Gorsuch represented more than 25 million more people than the senators who supported him.
A president who [didn't get a majority of votes] is poised to fill a second seat on the Supreme Court, despite the fact that his party represents only a minority of the country in the Senate. One of those seats, moreover, was only available for him to fill because the party that represents only a minority of the nation stole it from a president who was elected twice.

And if Kavanaugh gets to the Supreme Court, he is likely to put an even bigger thumb on America’s electoral scales, making it even harder for a majority of voters to remove the GOP from power.

Thursday, July 12, 2018

Clothes make the character

I visited the Detroit Institute of Arts today for their special exhibit Star Wars, the Power of Costume. The exhibit shows many costumes from the George Lucas private collection (or maybe a Lucas museum somewhere). It also includes concept art, so we sometimes see the evolution of a costume. The audio guide also offered explanations. Overall, an enjoyable show, especially for someone who has enjoyed (most of) the movies.

The commentary talked about the job of a costume – help explain or identify character traits in three seconds. To do that the costume draws on cultural signals – Darth Vader dresses in black because he is evil. Princess Leia dresses in white because she is a good person. But one must be careful. For example, the people who reside in the desert must wear clothes that are appropriate for the desert – but how much is the costume to evoke Arab dress and is the cultural baggage appropriate for the character?

There were many costumes of ambassadors, court officials, and royalty. How to make a royal person look royal? Using a European style crown isn’t going to work. So the costume team looked at the dress of dignitaries from around the world. That headdress is Mongolian, this detail is Japanese, that dress is modeled on Queen Elizabeth I, etc. We get the sense of royalty even if we can’t place what detail came from which culture. That cultural mishmash wasn’t confined to the royals – Vader’s helmet has Samurai influences (sheesh, the thirteen steps to get Vader into his costume had to be written out).

We see Chewie’s costume and told about the 15 pounds of yak hair that went into it. After the first three movies a cooling system was added. In the display Han is standing beside him. Harrison Ford looked at what he was to wear in the first movie and demanded the costume department remove the Peter Pan collar (I had to look it up) and use something simpler. Lucas did not comment. The costume for C-3PO is also there. He was modeled on the malevolent female robot from the silent era movie Metropolis. The actor inside didn’t care much for the costume but loved the caracter.

One display shows characters about to leap into a light saber battle. The commentary talked about how the costumes needed to be constructed so the actor could move uninhibited. The fighting costume for Darth Maul was designed so when he spun about the tunic would flare into a circle. The Jedi costume was to evoke their simple lifestyle such as that of a Buddhist, though it took cues from the Japanese kimono. And Yoda’s costume is a miniature of what the humans wore.

Another display was of the military costumes. The uniforms of the Empire military intentionally mimicked Nazi uniforms (only 32 years before the first movie). The orange of the Tie Fighters were modeled on the orange jumpsuits early astronauts wore. As for the Storm Troopers, their armor looked plastic (because it was), which implied they were all identical, they didn’t think for themselves, and an endless supply could be easily manufactured.

A display towards the end of the tour was many of the outfits Padme Amidala wore in the prequel trilogy. She had the largest number of different costumes and the most sumptuous, suitable for royalty in a wide variety of situations, including a picnic and wedding. Some were amazingly elaborate requiring hours of handwork.

The exhibit will be at the DIA until the end of September.

Tuesday, July 10, 2018

Let them enforce it

A couple storys about the judicial branch of our government in the nasty guy era.

Melissa McEwan of Shakesville has been doing a daily list of what the nasty guy and his minions have been doing to undermine democracy. The list is always long. She has now started a daily list of what the nasty guy and his minions are doing in their war against immigrants. This second list is more than half the length of the first.

In yesterday’s list of actions against immigrants she linked to two articles about the court that ruled that children under 5 who were taken from their parents need to be reunited by today. There are reports of 100 such children. One of these articles say that Secretary Alex Azar of the Department of Health and Human Services assured us the goal of reuniting all these little kids would be met – only to immediately backtrack. He did so because someone in the gov’t (maybe not Azar) said they’ve lost track of 20% of the parents.

In the second article the ACLU says less than half of these children will be reunited by today. There has also been talk of the gov’t people whining about how hard the task is and that they need extra time.

McEwan’s commenters add to the story:

donnakh reminds us this family separation process is intended as punishment. “There was not any way to keep track of the families in place because they never wanted to.”

Zardeenah says the key phrase might be “now let them enforce it.” I’ll expand on that. The NPR program Radiolab did a series More Perfect about the Supreme Court. One struggle early in our nation’s history is what happens when the Supremes hand down a ruling. The courts don’t have any police force of their own, so can’t go after anyone who disregards what they say. The Supremes have power because the other two branches of government say they have power. The President and Congress have consistently done what the Supremes required.

That power was made clear in the modern era when in 2000 the Supremes ruled for G. W. Bush to take the presidency. Al Gore’s concession speech was described as the best of his candidacy. He said he disagreed with the Supremes, but respected and understood the value of the court in a democracy. He would not continue to battle their decision.

So now we have a federal court that has issued a demand to the nasty guy, a demand he has no intention to fulfill and has made sure it is very difficult to fulfill. This leaves two paths, neither is good.

The first path, of which we’ve already seen evidence, is for the gov’t officials to whine about how hard it is to comply and the court extending the deadline. More whining could extend it some more. This could go on indefinitely. The result is a court order that is not followed.

The second path is the court holds firm and starts saying the slow response is contempt of court. The reply from the nasty guy and his minions is essentially, yes, you get it – we have contempt for the court. Want us to return those kids? How are you going to enforce it? Congress certainly won’t.

Either path is a big step in rendering the courts meaningless.

On to the other big story about courts in the nasty guy era.

The news, of course, has lots of stories about Brett Kavanaugh being nominated for the Supreme Court. All the progressive news sites will tell you how horrible he will be to progressive ideas and causes.

McEwan discusses another aspect to this appointment, of which I’ve heard rumors. Reportedly the nasty guy convinced Justice Anthony Kennedy to retire by assuring Kennedy his legacy would be protected. This campaign reportedly began last November when Kavanaugh and four others (used as cover) were added to the list of potential nominees. Yeah, that means the nasty guy made his choice last November and the rest was just show. It also means the nasty guy actively influenced the court.

Though Kennedy has sided with progressives in key issues over the years, most important to us being the ruling legalizing same-sex marriage, he was not a progressive nor even a centrist. He was just the most moderate of the conservatives. I think it was Nina Totenburg of NPR who noted that in the 2017-2018 court season there were no 5-4 votes in favor of progressives with Kennedy as that swing voter.

Each of the nine justices has a few clerks who work for them for a year or two. It gives law school graduates a shiny star to put on their resumes. Of course, justices choose clerks who match their own progressive/conservative leanings. One of Kennedy’s former clerks is – Brett Kavanaugh. Reportedly Kavanaugh made such a personal impression on Kennedy that the mention of the former clerk as a replacement convinced the justice to retire.

I’ve also heard that all four of the finalists served as clerks for Kennedy.

So we look for one more thing that set Kavanaugh apart: Kavanaugh has written that the president should not be the subject of a criminal investigation while in office. Think the president did something criminal? Impeach him. But otherwise don’t investigate him.

Though it is obvious, I’ll spell it out anyway. While he is in office this president is being investigated for criminal offenses associated with his collusion with Russia. Of course, he would be delighted with a justice who believes it is wrong to investigate the president.

But that opinion is in conflict with what Kavanaugh thought twenty years ago. Then he was a part of Ken Starr’s special investigation into President Bill Clinton.

In one story the judiciary is made irrelevant. In the other the judiciary becomes an enabler of a despot. And democracy gets whacked upside the head.