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A New Version of THE DREAM: Martin Luther King and the Public Employees’ Unions April 5, 2011

Posted by legalethicsemporium in Education, Labor Issues, Law, Ethics & Society, Racial Discrimination, U.S. Constitution.
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Irony, progress or backward motion?  Perhaps a bit of all three…Labor unions and civil rights groups organized sit-ins and teach-ins all across the country yesterday to protest the assault on the rights of public employees’ unions to engage in meaningful collective bargaining in Wisconsin and Ohio. The sponsors of the “We Are One” rallies noted Dr. King’s tie to the rights of public employees and his plans to march with striking sanitation workers–his plans were foiled by his tragic death.

“What we are witnessing is nothing but an ideological assault on Dr. King’s vision for a more economically just nation,” said Wade Henderson, president of the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights.

Yes, irony, progress and backward motion….

Irony– Because some of the same folks against whom he marched no doubt have descendants that are now employing Dr. King’s philosophy and methodology to fight for their rights.

Progress– Because  although Dr. King would no doubt be troubled by the states’ strategy to solve  their financial crisis by denying public employees’ unions the right to meaningful bargaining, he probably would be gratified to see that this new rally and call for equality is composed of individuals reflecting a rainbow of ethnicity, race and gender.

Backward motion–Because although we have become a nation in which there is greater opportunity for minorities, arguably the gap between the haves and have-nots has grown even larger.

Regardless of ones view on the rights of public employees, it is a testament to our democracy that Dr. Martin Luther King lives on not only in our memories, but  as a contemporary guide to employ the First Amendment to voice our opinions, to assemble and to petition the government with our grievances.

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March Madness: Facebook & Virtual vs Actual Democracy March 25, 2011

Posted by legalethicsemporium in Abortion, Immigration, Law, Ethics & Society, Mindfulness, U.S. Constitution.
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Middle Eastern uprisings sparked by  Facebook connections, public employees protesting in Wisconsin, Arizona’s reaction to protests over its immigration laws, and South Dakota’s new abortion law….March is a compelling month for the study of natural rights and the democratic process.

According to John Locke and our Founding Fathers we are all born with inalienable rights….or more simply stated…We are free and should only be constrained by  a democratic government in which we give up certain rights in exchange for the protection of our fundamental rights–a social contract.  Somehow, a number of dictators around the world didn’t get that memo…Despite that fact, the human spirit remains strong and with the advent of technology, we have seen a new version of democracy in action–the use of Facebook, Twitter, and texting as a means of revolution.

Groundbreaking, history in the making, and certainly worth noting and contrasting with our open society.  Why?  Because democracy is sometimes messy, often adversarial and down right unpleasant. However, underneath the unpleasantness remains the fact that we have a system that is to be cherished as the best method that human beings have been able to create to support fundamental freedoms.

The people of Egypt and other Middle Eastern countries have been able to use technology to accomplish uprisings against governments under which our brand of democracy does not exist.  By contrast the Wisconsin public employees “simply”exercised their constitutional rights to protest government imposed limits on public employees’ labor rights. The ongoing dispute with the state legislators is now headed for the state’s supreme court.

Arizona has developed a reputation as having some of the harshest immigration laws on its books and a governor who openly supports a tough stance.  There have been protests, media coverage and social media discussion criticizing Arizona’s recent laws , including on this blog.  It appears that all the criticism is not good for business as Arizona has lost tourist and other revenue, so recently five newly proposed restrictive immigration laws failed to muster the necessary votes  in the Arizona state legislature.

Finally, South Dakota, a state without a high incidence of abortion, but with a high percentage of republican legislators, has passed legislation that requires “women who are seeking abortions to first attend a consultation at such ‘pregnancy help centers,’ to learn what assistance is available ‘to help the mother keep and care for her child.'” It is probably unnecessary to explain the furor that this has caused in this controversial area….Planned Parenthood has indicated that it will move the debate from the legislature to a courtroom where the interpretation of  a woman’s constitutional rights in this area will be argued and decided upon once again.

Emotionally charged disputes in fundamental areas of society–employment, immigration, pregnancy–controversy abounds. However, regardless of how one feels about public employees’ union rights, immigration rights, or abortion, we can embrace the fact that we live in a country in which we have a right to publicly dispute these issues and a government that has a process by which to revisit and resolve our disagreements.  It might sound like a huge piece of American pie, but given what is transpiring in the Middle East, it seems worth taking a moment to pause and savour the sweet taste of democracy.

Comedians, Satire and the Law: 2010 “Cultural First Responders” December 29, 2010

Posted by legalethicsemporium in Gay Marriage, Gays in the Military, Immigration, Law, Ethics & Society.
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The idea of our republic is that we elect representatives to effect change.  Seems lately that perhaps we are having greater success when our favorite comedians speak on our behalf   Satire has always played a role in addressing hypocrisy and highlighting the issues of the day. However,  Jon Stewart’s impact on the recent passage of the bill to provide 9/11 first responders with health care benefits transforms the role of the comedian from social commentator to catalyst for change.

There has been much written about Jon Stewart’s role in securing healthcare for 9/11 first responders. While he has declined to comment on the passage of the bill, those who were struggling against what began as overwhelming odds credit the Daily Show’s coverage for “shaming” Congress into action.

“…[S]ome of those who stand to benefit from the bill have no doubt about what — and who — turned the momentum around. “I don’t even know if there was a deal, to be honest with you, before his show,” said Kenny Specht, the founder of the New York City Firefighter Brotherhood Foundation, who was interviewed by Mr. Stewart on Dec. 16.”

New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg added, “Success always has a thousand fathers,” …“But Jon shining such a big, bright spotlight on Washington’s potentially tragic failure to put aside differences and get this done for America was, without a doubt, one of the biggest factors that led to the final agreement.”

While Jon Stewart often insists that his is just a comedy, fake news show, Jon Stewart and his colleague, Steven Colbert, of the Colbert Report, have taken on the cable news networks and highlighted many of the cultural/legal issues being debated in our country.  (In addition to their nightly pieces, this year brought us the Rally to Restore Sanity/Fear, and other dramatic examples, such as Steven Colbert’s show on which he spent the day along side migrant workers and his controversial trip to Capital Hill to testify about their working conditions.)

Jon Stewart and Steven Colbert are certainly not lone social commentators.  As the momentum builds to legalize gay marriage in view of the repeal of Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell, Jay Leno quips, “What does that say about us as a nation when we believe gay men can now handle armed combat, but aren’t yet ready for the fighting that happens in marriage?”

Whether  the comedic world will have a measurable impact on changing the law remains to be seen; however, clearly the comedians are voicing the views of a significant cross-section of the country regardless of the action or inaction of Congress. In fact, the flurry of Congressional activity in the waning days of the December session during which Don’t Ask Don’t Tell was repealed, The Dream Act failed to pass, and 9/11 first responders were provided with health care benefits evokes the following query.

Is the law a reflection of society’s current values or does the law serve to motivate behavioral change that eventually changes overall societal values?  Like many aspects of law and society, inevitably, the general answer is: it depends upon the circumstances and one’s perspective.

More specifically, it also appears to depend upon who is interested in calling attention to the various cultural issues and values at play. Perhaps instead of continued lobbying on Capital Hill, the students marching in support of the Dream Act should “elect” their local comedians in hopes of making the dream of an education become a reality.

Dream or Nightmare? Glenn Beck Standing in Martin Luther King’s “Spot” at the Lincoln Memorial August 29, 2010

Posted by legalethicsemporium in Law, Ethics & Society, Religion.
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Martin Luther King uttered his famous “I had a dream” speech 47 years ago at the Lincoln Memorial.  ‘Wonder what he would have thought of Glenn Beck’s religious revival as an anniversary celebration….? Glenn Beck says the timing is just a coincidence or divine providence.  He started planning a political rally about a year ago, but at some point realized that there was a need for a religious taking back of America.

Wow, the First Amendment’s promise of free speech is in full force–-that’s a good thing–-But what about the part of the same Amendment that assures not only freedom of religion, but separation of church and state?  It’s a little frightening to see a call to reclaim America as a religious state.  Especially when the folks funding the Tea Party are extraordinarily wealthy big business types who have their own agendas.  (See Frank Rich’s column on the Billionaires Bankrolling the Tea Party here)

So, is Glenn Beck’s rally, America at its finest or democracy at its scariest?  Democracy is still the best system that we have devised to allow for individual freedom and liberty, but sometimes one person’s dream is another person’s nightmare.

Embryonic Stem Cell Research—A Democratic Hot Potato August 28, 2010

Posted by legalethicsemporium in Law, Ethics & Society, Stem Cell Research.
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A game of hot potato among the three branches of government describes the ongoing struggle to use embryonic stem cell research to attempt to find a cure for paralysis and  diseases such as Parkinson’s, ALS, and juvenile diabetes.

Judge Royce Lamberth’s order enjoining the use of embryonic stem cells in federally financed research stunned the scientific community this week. “Dr. Francis Collins, director of the National Health Institutes, told reporters Tuesday in a telephone briefing that he was “shocked” by the ruling and that “this decision has the potential to do serious damage to one of the most promising areas of biomedical research. It comes just at the time when we were really gaining momentum.”

The ongoing research is being conducted in accordance with both the Bush administration’s executive order and the Obama administration’s expansion of that order which is reflected in the current National Institute of Health (NIH) regulations.  Essentially, the regulations permit embryonic stem cell research as long as the embryos were created with private funding and the donors consent to the use of the embryos for research.

Embryos are generally available from the surplus at fertility clinics.   Individuals who are attempting in vitro fertilization often have lab-cultivated embryos remaining if the in vitro fertilization is successful in an early attempt.  If not used for research, the embryos will be discarded.

Anti-abortion groups oppose the use of these embryos as the destruction of life.  However, these embryos will be destroyed regardless, so proponents of the research point to the myriad of diseases and suffering that may be alleviated if the research is permitted.  Interestingly, the opponents in this debate are somewhat fluid as evidenced by various conservatives recognizing the distinction between embryonic stem cell research and abortion when one of the targeted diseases strikes a loved one.

So what are the rules of hot potato in this emotionally charged democratic game?

Let’s break it down.  Voters elect their representatives to Congress.  Congress then passes legislation, in this case the Dickey-Wicker Amendment mandating that federal funding not be used for research involving the destruction of embryos.  The President is charged with executing the law.  In executing the law, the President often delegates the details to an administrative agency, in this case NIH, to draft regulations consistent with Congressional legislation.   During the creation of these regulations, the public is offered the opportunity to comment.  (NIH received over 12,000 comments on these regulations.)  The agency is required to consider the comments and publish final regulations.

An agency’s final regulations may be challenged in court if there is a viable argument that the agency exceeded its authority.   In this case, Christian groups and researchers using adult stem cells, and vying for the same federal funding dollars as the embryonic cell research groups, filed suit.  The complaint alleges that the NIH regulations exceed the agency’s authority because Congress has clearly spoken on the issue of embryonic stem cell research–no federal funding for any research that destroys or discards an embryo.  When Congress unambiguously declares its intent, then the agency may not interpret, but only execute that intent. Judge Lamberth concluded that Congress has spoken without ambiguity and therefore the regulations go beyond the intent of the law. The case will continue to wind its way through the judicial system or Congress has the prerogative to change the law.

“Scientists said the ruling, which came as a surprise to many in the field, highlights the danger of having medical research policy that is subject to the whims of the judicial system.

Michael West, CEO of Embryonic Sciences, Inc. and adjunct professor of bioengineering at the University of California, Berkeley likens this kind of ruling to playing “political football” with medical research and says he is “ashamed of our government.”

“These roadblocks and delays could well mean the unnecessary suffering or death of a fellow human being some day in the future. We should not allow political differences to encroach on our moral duty to alleviate human suffering when it is in our power to do so,” he adds.” (See ABC report here)

Runaway Bride? Gay Marriage On Hold (Again) in California August 16, 2010

Posted by legalethicsemporium in Gay Marriage, Law, Ethics & Society, Religion.
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Just a quick update to the “Wedding Bells” post of August 12th  ….

Judge  Vaughn Walker lifted the stay on gay marriage, but allowed six days for the Proposition 8 team to appeal his ruling to the Ninth Circuit’s Federal Court of Appeals.  A three judge panel at that Court again imposed a stay which prevents gay marriage in California pending a review of the merits of Judge Walker’s decision.  The decision to impose the stay does not necessarily reflect what the Court  will decide about Judge Walker’s determination that Proposition 8 is unconstitutional.   The stay maintains the status quo–-no gay marriage–-until there is a final decision on the case.

One other interesting note is that the main defendants, Governor Schwarzenegger and Attorney General Jerry Brown, are not interested in pursuing an appeal.  In fact, they have voiced opposition to Proposition 8. So, the Court also needs to decide whether the parties that intervened in the case, primarily ballot sponsors such as the group Protectmarriage.com, may proceed with the appeal even though they do not enforce the laws of the state.

A bit unusual….In other words, the majority of Californians (52%) voted to ban gay marriage.  Some of its citizens, the minority in this case, objected claiming that the majority had violated the minority’s Constitutional rights. The Court agreed with the minority and the Executive Branch does not care to appeal the case because it doesn’t like the law.  A group of citizens who support Proposition 8, the majority, were allowed status in the case to argue for the majority and that group is the only one “left standing.”  Regardless of your position on gay marriage, we all should embrace the vision of democracy in motion as it “walks down the aisle.”

Mirror, Mirror on the Wall, Who is the Most Conservative Supreme Court of Them All? The Roberts Court Analysis July 25, 2010

Posted by legalethicsemporium in Law, Ethics & Society.
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Beyond the talk of judicial activism, there is actually a coding system and analytical tools employed by political scientists to characterize the nature of the Supreme Court at a given point in time.  Having applied these codes to the past five years of Chief Justice Roberts’ tenure, the conclusion is that this Supreme Court is the most conservative one in “living memory.” ( Click here to read the New York Times article that explains this analytical coding in more detail.)

While scholars disagree about the methodology of analysis of the Court, the article mentioned two points of particular interest.  First, it appears that although it is deemed The Roberts Court after the Chief Justice, the most significant variable in the equation is the appointment of the conservative leaning Justice Alito to replace the more liberal Justice O’Connor.  One substitution of ideology seems to have swung the balance to a 5-4, historically significant, right of center perspective.

What is more interesting; however, is that this coding system does not factor public attitude as a variable.   Public opinion reflected in other polls, reported in the same article, appears to indicate that over 30% of Americans believe that the Court is too liberal and just under 50% think that the court is “just  about right.”  On specific issues, polls have shown that the majority of the public is aligned with the Court’s decisions.   Even so there is no shortage of criticism and accusations of (conservative) judicial activism pertaining to the Roberts Court.

So, all of this analysis begs the question: do our laws  mirror society’s values at given point in time? And, who comprises “society” if that is true?  Does “society” equal the majority rule of a democracy?  And if so, how do we protect  the rights of the minority?  Mirror, Mirror on the Wall…..calls for reflection from us all.

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