Category Archives: Rule of Law

Is there a war on transparency in South Carolina?

There was an unmistakable theme running through different items in The State this morning — a tale of government transparency on retreat.

South Carolina has never been on what you’d call the cutting edge of openness in government. After having worked for years under Tennessee’s wide-open Sunshine Law, I was deeply shocked when I got here and learned how easily public bodies could meet behind closed doors.

Based on three items in the paper today, the cause of transparency seems to be retreating on multiple fronts:

  • Ethics chief limits who can talk to media – Under some circumstances, I can have some sympathy for public officials trying to make sure a spokesman actually speaks for the institution, rather than confusing the public. But it’s particularly disturbing to see that it’s Nikki Haley’s appointee as chairman who’s trying to narrow and control the information pipeline — given our governor’s own history on the ethics front.
  • SC high court: Autopsy reports not public records — Says press mouthpiece Jay Bender: “With this decision, I fear that the only version of events that will reach the public will be the one that exonerates government personnel from any claims of misconduct.” I also like what an editor at the Sumter paper said in response to the courts concern that releasing an autopsy could reveal sensitive health information: “There has never been an autopsy that has ever been performed that improved someone’s health.”
  • Cindi Scoppe’s column on “Sealed records, closed doors” — Cindi writes about a series of weird instances of judges in the Lowcountry not only sealing documents that should be public, but closing the courtrooms’ doors. This is based on a report from Fitz McAden, executive editor of The Beaufort Gazette and Hilton Head’s Island Packet, so maybe it’s limited to courts in that part of the state. But Cindi worries that it isn’t.

And as Cindi notes in that column, we have yet to see what mischief may be caused by the Supreme Court’s footnote about certain aspects bearing on the Bobby Harrell ethics case also being heard in camera. Cindi promises, with a warning tone, to keep an eye on that:

If the high court indeed was sending a signal to close the courtroom, that would constitute a dramatic departure from its longstanding policy, and if that turns out to be the case, we will have ample opportunity to discuss that. At length.

The trendline at the moment doesn’t look good…

The court’s unanimous ruling in the Harrell/Wilson matter

Dave Crockett points out that we haven’t discussed the SC Supreme Court’s unanimous smackdown of Judge Manning’s bizarre ruling in the matter of Bobby Harrell, and Alan Wilson’s power to investigate him.

Maybe I’ve just been avoiding it, subconsciously, out of petulance over being scooped by that upstart Bryan Caskey:

Bryan didn’t just scoop ME. I happened to read that Tweet while attending the awards ceremony at The State Wednesday afternoon. I followed his link, and passed my phone first to Cindi Scoppe, then to John Monk — two people who have done more than anyone to keep us informed on this case — to give them the heads-up. (To John’s credit, he had told me before we sat down that the ruling was sort of expected, “Even as we stand here.” Fortunately, another reporter from the paper was covering that base while he was occupied.)

What to make of the ruling?

Well, to start with, it affirms what remaining faith we have in the rule of law. The justices unanimously rejected the absurd argument that the trial judge had constructed of whole cloth.

On the other hand, Manning could still rule unfavorably on Wilson’s ability to continue to handle the investigation, as the judge was instructed by the court to consider Harrell’s original motion seeking to remove the attorney general from the case.

So justice is still not out of the woods.

And I’m still a bit worried by that footnote to the ruling: “Due to the secrecy afforded state grand jury proceedings, future arguments regarding jurisdiction, or any other ancillary matter, should be held in camera.” I’m not sure what that means, in terms of what will be cloaked in secrecy and what will not. You’ll recall that our awareness of this power struggle began with John’s story about how the attempt by Harrell to have the court consider whether to toss Wilson off the case secretly.

On that point, I await further elucidation.

There seems little doubt, though, that the justices have been distressed from the start by the splash this case has made on the front pages.

But how could it be otherwise — a struggle between the highest levels of two branches of our government, with the third branch caught uncomfortably between?

France isn’t anti-Muslim, just anti-religion. Feel better?

Oh, I miss my Economist subscription, which the newspaper used to pay for.

But fortunately, the magazine did allow me today to read the piece promoted by this Tweet:


And here, basically, is the answer to the question:

France adheres to a strict form of secularism, known as laïcité, which is designed to keep religion out of public life. This principle was entrenched by law in 1905, after fierce anti-clerical struggles with the Roman Catholic church. Today, the lines are in some ways blurred. The French maintain, for instance, certain Catholic public holidays, such as Ascension. But secular rules on the whole prevail. It would be unthinkable in France, for example, to hold a nativity play in a state primary school, or for a president to be sworn in on a Bible.

Over the past 30 years, in response to a growing assertiveness among the country’s 5m-6m Muslims, the focus of this effort to balance religious and secular needs has shifted to Islam. After a decade of legal uncertainty over the wearing of the headscarf in state schools, the French government in 2004 banned all “conspicuous” religious symbols, including the Muslim headscarf, from public institutions such as state schools or town halls. This was followed in 2010 by what the French call the “burqa ban”, outlawing the full face covering in public. Critics accuse France of illiberalism, of curbing freedom of religious expression, and of imposing a Western interpretation of female oppression. Amnesty International, for example, called the recent European court ruling “a profound retreat for the right to freedom of expression and religion”. For the French, however, it is part of an unapologetic effort to keep religious expression private, and to uphold the country’s republican secular identity. Interestingly, many moderate Muslim leaders also back the ban as a bulwark against hard-line Islam….

So now you see. The French aren’t anti-Muslim. Just anti-religion. Sorta.

That will make some of you feel better, and some worse…

Good news you may have missed: SCOTUS decisions mostly unanimous this term

We fixate on the titanic ideological battles that yield painful 5-4 decisions, but there is strong evidence that with this Supreme Court, the law is usually not a matter of debate. I had missed this story in the NYT the other day:

WASHINGTON — FOR years, particularly after the 2000 election, talk about the Supreme Court has centered on its bitter 5-to-4 divisions. Yet it is worth reflecting on a remarkable achievement: The court has agreed unanimously in more than 66 percent of its cases this term (and that figure holds even if Monday’s remaining two cases, on the Affordable Care Act’s contraceptive coverage and on public-sector unions, are not unanimous). The last year this happened was 1940.

The justices’ ability to cross partisan divides and find common ground in their bottom-line judgment in roughly two-thirds of their cases — including the two decisions handed down Thursday, restricting the president’s ability to issuerecess appointments during brief breaks in the Senate’s work, and striking down a Massachusetts ban on protests near abortion clinics — should remind us that even in this hyperpartisan age, there is a difference between law and politics….

Sixty-six percent. That’s a figure that should be reassuring to those of us who believe in the importance of the rule of law.

Toal was wrong about Wilson and the press release

Cindi Scoppe had another strong column today relating to the Harrell-Wilson case. Basically, it was about how creepily accurate the rumor mill has been about how judges would rule on the case thus far, starting with predictions that Casey Manning would come up with the bizarre notion that the attorney general lacked the authority to prosecute the speaker.

It ends with the current rumor, which is that the court will overturn Judge Manning’s ruling, but “direct the judge to decide whether Mr. Wilson should be replaced with another prosecutor and strongly suggest that he should be.”

Let’s hope the rumor mill is wrong on this one, because it would be bad for South Carolina to have the attorney general undermined in his effort to treat the speaker like any other citizen. It would mean victory for the speaker, whose goal all along has been to kick Wilson off the case.

Some of the speculation may arise from Chief Justice Jean Toal’s concern about the “unprecedented” press release that Wilson put out announcing that he was asking a grand jury to consider the Harrell case.

The thing is, the chief justice is wrong about the release being unprecedented, or even unusual:

We have heard for weeks that the chief justice was fixated on the news release that Mr. Wilson sent out in January announcing that he was referring the case to the Grand Jury. And on Tuesday Ms. Toal brought that up and returned to it multiple times, going so far as to call it “unprecedented” and say she had “never heard of having a news release to announce you’re going to submit something to the Grand Jury, ever.” So that rumor appears to have been correct as well.

That point merits a little more explanation, particularly because it plays into the final piece of speculation, which has not yet played out. Justice Toal might never have noticed such a thing, but it is by no means unprecedented. I still have the news release Mr. Wilson sent out in 2011 announcing he was asking the Grand Jury to investigate then-Lt. Gov. Ken Ard. When I asked the attorney general’s office on Wednesday about similar news releases, I was provided with three others, involving S.C. State University and two high-profile securities fraud investigations. I also was sent six news articles in which the attorney general’s office confirmed that other high-profile cases had been referred to the Grand Jury.

I’m told from previous administrations that the main goal of these news releases is to get reporters to stop hounding the office for information, by making it clear that no more comment can be made….

If any of the momentum toward removing Wilson arises from concern over the press release, I hope the justices will read, and consider, that section of Cindi’s column before ruling.

Divided Supremes rule for Hobby Lobby

This is this morning’s big news:

The Supreme Court struck a key part of President Obama’s health-care law Monday, ruling that some companies may refuse to offer insurance coverage of specific birth control methods if they conflict with the owner’s religious beliefs.

In a 5 to 4 ruling that pitted religious freedom against equal benefits for female workers, the court’s conservatives decided that the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) gave employers the right to withhold certain birth control methods from insurance coverage.

The contraceptive mandate “clearly imposes a substantial burden” on the owner’s beliefs, Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. wrote for the majority.

It was the first time that the court had decided that the federal law covers corporations, not just the “persons” referred to in its text….

Since Pew says I’m in the “Faith and Family Left,” I suppose this is a win for my “side.” So, yay us.

OK, that sounded facetious — but only because I find the notion of “sides” that always agree amongst themselves absurd. On the substance, I suppose I’m with the majority of the court. If I hadn’t been already, then one of the sillier Tweets I saw objecting to the decision would have pushed me in that direction:


Well, then, if that’s the case, then you don’t want your employer providing you with birth control. Since, you know, it’s not any of his or her business. (I probably should have just said “his” there, instead of “his or her,” since the sort of person who would post something like that Tweet probably pictures a male as the big, bad boss.) There are some self-described feminists who get into such a rhetorical rut (in this case, the “keep your laws off my body” rut) that they fail to recognize instances when their habitual rhetoric fails to serve their cause. In this case, the ACA mandates that employers take a paternalistic (sticking with the “employer as male” stereotype) interest in one’s “reproductive choices.”

If you’d like to read the whole decision by the court, here it is.

Rebekah Brooks: How could anyone with hair like that be guilty?

OK, so maybe someone with hair like that could be guilty. But the jury said she’s not, and it’s sort of good to know that that mane will continue to wave wild and free, whatever its owner did:

David Cameron’s former communications chief Andy Coulson is facing jail after being found guilty of conspiring to hack phones while he was editor of the News of the World.

Rebekah Brooks, his predecessor in the job, walked free from the Old Bailey after she was cleared of all four of the charges she faced in the eight-month trial….

I imagine Boadicea, the Celtic queen who led an uprising against Roman occupation, having hair like that. I don’t know why; maybe because of pictures such as this one

Corey Hutchins’ 4,500-word primer on Harrell saga

As we look forward to the state Supreme Court hearing oral arguments in the clash over Attorney General Alan Wilson’s power to investigate House Speaker Bobby Harrell, you may want to review how we got here.

If you have the time, you might peruse Corey Hutchin’s 4,500-word explainer for The Center for Public Integrity, headlined “An ethical mess in South Carolina.”

Corey sets the scene thusly:

On a recent Thursday, a light rain was washing against the office window of South Carolina’s first-term attorney general, Alan Wilson. On the floor near his desk, about a dozen thick black binders spilled out of the bottom shelf of a bookcase and onto the carpet. Inside each of them: supporting documentation from a 10-month state police investigation into the sitting House speaker, Bobby Harrell, a fellow Republican and arguably the state’s most powerful politician.

“And that’s just a preliminary investigation,” said Wilson, gesturing to the pile.

The attorney general will not say what’s inside the binders, and no one outside a handful of lawyers, prosecutors, law enforcement agents and grand jurors who are sworn to secrecy have seen what’s in the report. The speaker of the House himself hasn’t seen what’s in it either, although he’s called for Wilson to release the voluminous file to the public, maintaining he’s done nothing wrong and decrying the grand jury probe as political in nature.

But the question of what’s in those binders is but one of many queries that have riveted the Palmetto State as it struggles to cope with a scandal unprecedented even by the standards of this often ethically challenged state. Whether Wilson, the state’s top prosecutor, will be able to continue an investigation he turned over to a state grand jury in January has itself now come into question. A state court judge who was elected by the legislators — South Carolina is one of just two states that allow that — issued a stunning ruling last month that said the AG lacks jurisdiction over the powerful speaker. The judge ordered Wilson to shut down his probe. Wilson has appealed to the state Supreme Court, calling the judge’s order “unprecedented in American law and unsupported by any known legal authority,” and has vowed to press on. The state’s highest court has set a June 24 date to hear oral arguments….

You will already know a lot of what he has to say after that, but you may learn some things, too. I haven’t had a chance to read the whole thing myself, although I intend to…

The Harrell investigation continues

Yesterday, the state Supreme Court gave Attorney General Alan Wilson the official OK to keep doing what he’s doing:

S.C. Attorney General Alan Wilson, SLED and the State Grand Jury can continue investigating alleged ethics and other possible criminal violations against S.C. House Speaker Bobby Harrell while Wilson’s appeal of a lower court order is pending, the Supreme Court said in an order issued Thursday.

In his May 12 ruling on the matter, Circuit Judge Casey Manning ordered Wilson and SLED to stop investigating Harrell and turn the matter over to the House Ethics Committee for its consideration.

Manning also ordered Wilson to disband the State Grand Jury that is investigating Harrell. But Wilson had continued to investigate even after Manning’s ruling, saying the ruling infringed on his role as the state’s top prosecutor.

The Supreme Court’s order Thursday keeps the grand jury intact and allows it to keep investigating Harrell pending a June 24 hearing on whether Wilson’s entire investigation should be turned over to the House Ethics Committee….

While not definitively affirming the rule of law (that will only happen when Manning’s ruling is overturned), this restores some semblance of good sense and order to the situation.

I found it ironic that Harrell put out a statement saying in part, “The attorney general’s conduct has made it clear that political motivations are driving his actions.” In a backhanded way, Bobby Harrell is doing all he can to get Alan Wilson re-elected, by acting so outrageously (the attempt to have the AG taken off the case secretly really takes the cake) and offering him these golden opportunities to look good.

That said, Mr. Wilson deserves full credit for rising to the occasion, doing the right thing at each step along the way.

On a related matter — what do y’all think about the question John Monk raised this morning, whether Jean Toal and Costa Pleicones should recuse themselves in the matter of Harrell, since the speaker backed the former for re-election, and opposed the latter?

I’m inclined to say no — that argument could conceivably be taken to the conclusion that no state judge should ever decide a matter regarding a legislator, since they elect the judges — but I’m open to a good argument…

Does it matter that Harrell’s PAC contributed to ethics panel members? Uh, yeah, I think so…

While I believe Kenny Bingham is saying what he truly believes when he says he would not be swayed by past contributions from a PAC associated with Speaker Bobby Harrell, I’m gonna have to come down on the side of those who would say that this means the House Ethics Committee should in no way be passing judgment on their boss:

The five Republican members of the 10-member House Ethics Committee — which House Speaker Bobby Harrell wants to decide allegations against him — have received some $13,000 in campaign contributions from a political action committee associated with the Charleston Republican.

Those committee members, who have received contributions from the Palmetto Leadership Council PAC, include Ethics Committee chairman Kenny Bingham, R-Lexington. In 2008, 2010 and 2012, Bingham received $1,000 contributions each election cycle from the Palmetto Leadership Council….

Actually… I would question the impartiality of the panel even if no one on it had received a dime from the PAC. But the money raises sufficient additional questions that the House ethics cops should leap to recuse themselves and let other competent authorities deal with this matter. Such as, you know, the attorney general

Oh, and on a related matter…

It looks like whoever did the coding on John Monk’s story had a bit of a Freudian slip. The story appears on the website under “Crime” instead of under “SC Politics.” Very interesting…

crime

Lawmakers, listen up! Here’s how you can fix ethics mess

You knew Cindi would have a good column reacting to the ruling by Judge Manning that she had foreshadowed with dread, and today she did. Read it here.

It’s all good, but on the chance that some of our lawmakers are reading today, I want to call attention to the part in which she explained what they could do to fix the situation. Noting that there’s no guarantee that the Supreme Court will reverse the circuit judge, she urged lawmakers to act today:

The best chance this year for making that fix could come Wednesday. That’s when the House could make final changes to an anemic ethics-reform bill, before it goes to a House-Senate conference committee. This stage is crucial, because it’s the last time legislators can insert new language into the bill by a simple majority; after this, any new language will require two-thirds approval in the House and the Senate.

So, what we need is for someone to propose an amendment to make it clear that ethics violations are crimes and that the attorney general is free to prosecute them. It needs to be a clean amendment — one that doesn’t also grant other forms of immunity, or raise the standard for prosecution, or make any other nefarious changes that reduce the chance that legislators who violate the law will be punished.

There are lots of other shortcomings of that bill, but frankly, no loophole in our ethics law even approaches the significance of the one that Judge Manning just discovered. If the Supreme Court doesn’t overturn his order or the Legislature doesn’t pass the fix, then I’m not sure anything else in the ethics law will really matter very much.

The only people who would vote against such an amendment are those who believe that legislators should remain above the law. No, not even that: It would be those legislators who are so arrogant in their power that they are willing to admit that they believe they are above the law.

Here’s hoping her words have a positive effect.

Undeterred, AG Wilson will continue Harrell probe

Good for Alan Wilson! He’s not going to let the judge’s ruling shut down his investigation:

 — The investigation into S.C. House Speaker Bobby Harrell will continue despite a circuit judge’s order that an ongoing SLED and State Grand Jury probe be shut down immediately, state Attorney General Alan Wilson says.

Continued work is allowed during an appeal of a judge’s order, Wilson said. As expected, he said he is appealing Circuit Judge Casey Manning’s order immediately to the state Supreme Court.

“The law allows us to do that,” Wilson told a State reporter in an interview. “The grand jury can continue to do its work unless the S.C. Supreme Court orders it to cease and desist.”…

This is encouraging. I was afraid the whole investigation was dead in the water, pending an appellate ruling.

Judge Manning’s ruling yesterday increases the urgency to get to the bottom of these allegations against the speaker, and it’s a good thing for South Carolina that Wilson is carrying on.

Judge Manning’s outrageous ruling protecting Harrell

Well, it happened. After having reached for an absurd justification that even the speaker’s own attorneys hadn’t dared to propose, Circuit Judge Casey Manning ordered Attorney General Alan Wilson and SLED to stop investigating Bobby Harrell, and declared any action taken by the grand jury in the case “null and void.”

To remind you, here is what former attorneys general Travis Medlock, Charlie Condon and Henry McMaster had to say about the notion underlying the judge’s ruling:

“Over the past thirty years, not one of us ever imagined the Attorney General needed authorization from a legislative committee or political body in order to investigate or prosecute alleged criminal behavior by an elected official. Such a restriction would undercut the core Constitutional authority of the Attorney General. And even more importantly, it would violate the fundamental basis of our system of government that all people should be treated equally under the law.”

I wrote previously that the three ex-AGs standing next to Wilson to defend the rule of law made me proud to be from South Carolina. Judge Manning’s ruling makes me want to hang my head.

Wilson was undaunted, fortunately:

We believe today’s order of Judge Manning is without any foundation or support in the law. This office will vigorously pursue all appellate remedies and will seek to continue this investigation.

Judge Manning himself indicated that he expected the matter to be decided by a higher court. Of course, that’s no excuse for an irresponsible ruling.

Until a higher court acts, this investigation is in limbo. And that’s outrageous.

Cindi Scoppe’s latest dead-on column about Harrell case

You may recall that Cindi Scoppe worried earlier that maybe Judge Manning himself came up with the outrageous idea that maybe there was some doubt about whether the attorney general had the authority to investigate crimes allegedly committed by legislators, without special permission.

She writes today that her fears were realized:

I respect the idea enunciated Friday by Circuit Judge Casey Manning that, before this case proceeds any further, he wants a thorough examination of subject-matter jurisdiction. That is, he wants to make sure that the State Grand Jury and Attorney General Alan Wilson actually have jurisdiction to investigate this case without the House Ethics Committee asking them to.

But honestly, the idea that they don’t … . Well, it remains too bizarre to even comprehend….

You want to know how out-there an idea it is that the state constitution prohibits the attorney general from investigating legislators without other legislators’ blessing? It’s so out there that even Mr. Harrell’s attorneys didn’t think of raising it.

That’s right. Mr. Harrell has some awfully audacious attorneys… But even they didn’t dream up this crazy theory. They quickly embraced it, of course; they’d be crazy not to. But the idea was not, as so many people had assumed, the brainchild of Bart Daniel and Gedney Howe.

It was, as Judge Manning acknowledged in court on Friday, Judge Manning’s idea.

How preposterous is the idea? Listen to former Attorneys General Henry McMaster, Charlie Condon and Travis Medlock, who served as South Carolina’s chief prosecutors for the past 30 years, showed up in the courtroom to make a point and issued this statement:

“Over the past thirty years, not one of us ever imagined the Attorney General needed authorization from a legislative committee or political body in order to investigate or prosecute alleged criminal behavior by an elected official. Such a restriction would undercut the core Constitutional authority of the Attorney General. And even more importantly, it would violate the fundamental basis of our system of government that all people should be treated equally under the law.”

Not one of us ever imagined such a thing.

This is not a close call….

So we all wait with bated breath, while the judge considers something that, given the law, should be beyond consideration. Or at least, it appears so to this layman.

Here’s hoping he reaches that same conclusion.

No decision in Harrell/Wilson case

QOfGr.AuSt.74

Three things to note from hearing this morning in Speaker Bobby Harrell’s effort to keep Attorney General Alan Wilson from prosecuting him:

  1. John Monk is making good use of Twitter today in covering this. For a blow-by-blow account, check his feed — including photos.
  2. As pictured above, the state’s last three AGs are standing behind Wilson in defense of his obvious constitutional authority in this matter. I hope The State doesn’t mind my showing this to you, seeing as how I’m urging you to go read their coverage and all. (And if they do, I’ll take it down immediately.)
  3. The judge put off a decision for a week. What Judge Manning is finding so tough about this bewilders me. Harrell hasn’t a leg to stand on.

Cindi Scoppe’s rather devastating column this morning on Bobby Harrell and the SC House

A few days ago, Kirkman Finlay, who is facing re-election to his House seat, started following me on Twitter.Finlay egg

I immediately saw that he could probably use some help with social media. His avatar is still, as Valentine Michael Smith would say, only an egg.

He could probably also use some help explaining to voters his bill, H.4453, which seems designed to help out Speaker Bobby Harrell by making the illegal things he’s been suspected of doing legal.

That bill suddenly started getting acted upon in the House as it became apparent that Harrell’s attempt to secretly toss Attorney General Alan Wilson off his case was doomed to fail.

But that’s just the beginning. You really need to read Cindi Scoppe’s remarkable column today, which tied together a web of House initiatives that seem reminiscent of the way Silvio Berlusconi’s legislative allies kept legislating him out of trouble, by making the illegal legal.

As I said, H.4453 is only the beginning:

Then, in the most audacious move to date, 85 House members last week filed H.5072, which would empower the House speaker and Senate president pro tempore to appoint a special prosecutor to conduct State Grand Jury investigations into the attorney general and other “constitutional officers.” One of the initial sponsors — Wilson campaign attorney and Democratic Rep. James Smith — said that term also covers legislators, which means it would allow the speaker and president pro tempore to stop any attorney general investigations of legislators.

Of course the bill wouldn’t actually accomplish that because our state constitution names the attorney general as “the chief prosecuting officer of the State with authority to supervise the prosecution of all criminal cases in courts of record.” So the sponsors — led by Kris Crawford, against whom Mr. Wilson’s predecessor, Henry McMaster, brought tax-evasion charges in 2010 — also filed H.5073 to remove that language from the constitution.

If that passed, not only would the speaker and president pro tempore be able to stop any attorney general investigations, or initiate investigations into the attorney general, but the Legislature would be free to strip attorneys general of all power. The House unanimously agreed to bypass the committee process for both measures and place them on the calendar for immediate debate, an extraordinary thing to do for anything other than congratulatory resolutions and local legislation.

Let’s recap: I count five attempts in a year by Mr. Harrell’s friends to intimidate the attorney general or else quash first a SLED investigation and now a Grand Jury investigation. Which seems like a lot for someone who insists he hasn’t committed any crimes — or even violated any non-criminal provisions of the ethics law….

Wow, huh? (The boldface emphasis is mine.)

John Monk did good work recently revealing the move to get Wilson secretly tossed off the case. But this masterful column paints a picture of a pattern far more sweeping, and more disturbing, than that. It’s the kind of thing that reminds us why we have a First Amendment.

Good job, Cindi.

Baby-Face Musa beats murder rap in Pakistan

I’ve looked at a couple of versions of this story, and have not yet found one that really explains why authorities were initially planning on charging a 9-month-old baby boy with attempted murder and obstructing a public official.

Police have now withdrawn the charges. But before you turn away from this story, be sure to check out the picture of little Musa being fingerprinted. He didn’t like it. He appears to be saying something like, “You flatfoots’ll never pin this on ME!”

You know, the news is full of crazy-sounding stuff happening in this country. But you see something like this, and it all looks a little saner by comparison…

John Monk’s scoop about Harrell, Wilson, and secrecy

Corey Hutchins has written a piece in Columbia Journalism Review about John Monk’s investigative scoop last week, revealing that Speaker Bobby Harrell has sought a secret court hearing on his proposal to remove Attorney General Alan Wilson from Harrell’s ethics case:

The people’s court?

Will a lone South Carolina judge make a secret decision this week in a closed court? The State leads the push for transparency

CHARLESTON, SC — An investigation of one of the most powerful politicians in this state has turned into a key test of how open the courts here are, with media organizations arguing in print and—they hope—in the courtroom that key legal decisions shouldn’t be made behind closed doors. For more than a year, the state’s Republican House Speaker, Bobby Harrell, has been under investigation for possible misuse of campaign funds and abuse of his public office, though Harrell maintains he has done nothing wrong. In January, South Carolina’s Republican Attorney General, Alan Wilson, sent the case to a state grand jury. Wilson’s office would prosecute the case should it end up at trial, and the situation has been prickly for the two Republicans, with Harrell accusing Wilson of trying to damage him politically. The political intrigue blew up into an open-government concern a week ago, when John Monk of The State newspaper in Columbia, citing unnamed sources, reported that Harrell’s attorneys were secretly seeking a closed-door hearing before a state judge to argue that Wilson should be removed as the prosecutor. The substantive argument for disqualifying Wilson was unclear, Monk reported…

Which reminds me that I meant to say last week, when John’s story appeared, that it’s nice to see the paper allow him the time to do what he’s best at. Instead of routine crime stories, and other general assignment-type stuff.

I say that not to be critical of the newspaper. When your staff has shrunk to the size The State‘s has, due to financial pressures beyond editors’ control, you need every hand you’ve got on the routine stuff. And John pulls his weight on the bread-and-butter stories that must get covered each day.

Which makes it particularly great that he was able to find the time to get this story, which reveals an attempt at secret dealing that John said would be “unprecedented.”

Corey quoted press association attorney Jay Bender as saying:

What happens to our democratic society if newspapers go away? Who’s going to be out there asking these crucial questions and trying to push people in public positions to conduct public business in public view?

What happens, indeed?

Florida sheriff wants to amend ‘Stand Your Ground’

Don’t know how I got on this sheriff’s mailing list, but I thought some of y’all would be interested in his perspective:

Sheriff Scott Israel is the most outspoken sheriff in Florida when it comes to changing the “Stand Your Ground” law.

Click to view a recent article about his stance in Huffington Post  

Now that Tallahassee legislatures are considering amendments to “Stand Your Ground,” Sheriff Israel is making sure his voice and his view is heard.

Below is an op-ed available for publication that clearly states the necessity for change in this law.

Contact me for interview opportunities or additional information.

Thanks!
Jen

Jen Hobbs
JenMHobbs@gmail.com
845-863-6448

Where I Stand On Stand Your Ground
Sheriff Scott Israel

I stand with the mothers of Trayvon Martin and Jordan Davis in their fight to amend Stand Your Ground – to grieving mothers who lost their children to senseless gun violence.  Last Monday, these two brave mothers-turned-activists led a peaceful march with hundreds of protesters on the Florida state Capitol in Tallahassee.  The women were joined by families of other victims of this law.

A bipartisan proposal by Florida State Senators David Simmons (R) and Chris Smith (D) passed the State Senate Judiciary Committee on October 15 by a 7-2 vote, and now heads to other committees for consideration before coming to the Senate floor for a full vote.  The original 2005 law was written by none other than Sen. Simmons.

I applaud Sen. Simmons for recognizing that the law is not perfect, and for reaching above partisan politics on this tremendously important public safety issue.  The proposed Simmons-Smith amendment makes clear that the statute should prohibit people from later claiming self-defense if they started or unnecessarily escalated a conflict when safe withdrawal outside the home was an option.

Many people have made the case that the George Zimmerman trial, which spurred the interest in revising Stand Your Ground, had nothing to do with the self-defense law.

This opinion is misguided.

In February 2012, when Zimmerman shot 17-year-old Trayvon Martin in Sanford, Florida, the police who were called to the scene, unable to refute Zimmerman’s claim of self-defense.  By law, they were unable to file charges and follow through with normal procedures, thus compromising the investigation from the start.  Sanford city officials stated: “By Florida Statute, law enforcement was PROHIBITED from making an arrest based on the facts and circumstances they had at the time.”

The Stand Your Ground law effectively tied the hands of law enforcement in the fatal shooting of Trayvon Martin, and will continue to do so until this law is fixed.  In the case of Mr. Zimmerman, the threat was not immediate.  He should have been obligated to get in his vehicle, leave the area, and avoid that confrontation.  If the law had read differently, maybe he would have.

When Michael Dunn fired nine bullets into a Dodge Durango at four seemingly unarmed teenagers, killing 17-year-old Jordan Davis in Jacksonville, Florida, his actions were facilitated by this broken law.  Deadly force should never be a first choice; it should be a choice used only after all other reasonable options have been exhausted.

The law is not stagnant.  It is open to change, particularly when the change leads to less violent incidents and more accountability.

As one of only a small handful of sheriffs in Florida to support a change in the Stand Your Ground law, I feel the need to be active and vocal in this all-important discussion. Florida was the first of at least 22 other states that have enacted similar Stand Your Ground statutes, so it is also right that we lead in the effort to fix it.  More than 26 young people in Florida have already lost their lives in Stand Your Ground cases.  This law, here and elsewhere, must be fixed before more needlessly die.

For these reasons, I support these important first steps in amending this valuable law.

Claire Underwood’s proposal fails in real-life Senate

Sen. Gillibrand

Sen. Gillibrand

OK, technically, it wasn’t the fictional Mrs. Underwood’s plan. It was pushed instead by the real-life Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand — who, as tacky as it may be in the context of talking about sexual crimes (but it’s true), is also a rather striking blonde.

A more relevant coincidence is that her proposal was the very same one that caused the majority whip to stop the Underwood bill on “House of Cards.” To wit, according to The Washington Post:

The Senate rejected a controversial proposal Thursday to remove military commanders from decisions on whether to prosecute major crimes in the ranks as the concerns of Pentagon leaders trumped calls from veterans groups to dramatically overhaul how the Defense Department handles assault and rape cases.

Congress has already voted to revamp the military’s legal system by ending the statute of limitations on assault and rape cases, making it a crime to retaliate against victims who report assaults and requiring the dishonorable discharge or dismissal of anyone convicted of sexual assault or rape.

But on Thursday senators rejected a plan by Sen. Kirsten Gillibrand (D-N.Y.) that would go further by taking away from military commanders the power to refer serious crimes to courts-martial. The decision would shift instead to professional military trial lawyers operating outside the chain of command.

The proposal fell five votes short of the 60 votes necessary to clear a procedural hurdle and proceed to a final vote. In a reflection of the complexity of the issue, 10 Democrats voted against Gillibrand’s plan, while 11 Republicans — including Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (Ky.), Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) and Rand Paul (R-Ky.) — joined her in voting to proceed….

I think the Senate acted wisely. It moved to toughen the law without undermining the military system of justice. I realize the Underwood/Gillibrand approach has attracted growing support — witness how close it came today. But while I’d like to throw military rapists under the treads of an Abrams tank, I don’t think it’s right to take commanders out of the equation. In other words, I agree with the position taken by the fictional Jackie Sharp, and I really identified with her discomfort when she broke the news to Claire. Although it might have been easier for her, as a woman, to take that position than it would for a man.

I know I, for one, hesitate to voice it. But I thought it would be a copout to mention the issue without doing so….

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The fictional Claire Underwood.