The announcement this week by U.S. District Judge John S. Martin of the Southern District of New York that he would leave the bench because he was fed up with Congressional meddling in federal sentencing decisions highlights growing judicial resentment at the blurring of the separation of powers.
The founders of these United States established an independent federal judiciary with the intent that it would temper the excesses of the executive and legislative branches of government. In recent years, however, Congress has sought to restrict the ability of federal judges to make decisions based on law and reason.
Federal laws set mandatory minimum sentences for drug crimes, for using a gun in relation to various drug or violent crimes, and for numerous other offenses. Judges have for a number of years argued that adhering to sentencing mandates limits their ability to employ legal knowledge and discretion in determining appropriate punishments for men and women who have been convicted of crimes.
Earlier this month, The Nation and The Economist held a debate in New York City. Billed as "America's Role in the World: Protector or Predator," it was a wide-ranging discussion about US foreign policy, the Bush Administration, American intentions and neo-liberalism.
WNYC's Brian Lehrer was an artful moderator and Economist editor Bill Emmott a civil and informed adversary. While he and I disagreed on many issues, we did agree on the importance of independent media in this era of consolidation. CSPAN, which broadcast the debate on June 21, plans subsequent airings and is selling copies of the videotape on its website. (You can also listen and watch on your computer.) Below is an adapted version of my opening remarks:
These are perilous times, ones that raise large and fateful questions: What kind of country does the US want to be in the 21st century? Empire or Democracy? Global Leader or Global Cop? I believe that in pursuit of global dominance, the Bush Administration is endangering the world order abroad and the republic at home.
President Bush's support for Iranian student protesters reminds me of something a Russian friend said to me many years ago, during the Soviet era: "You Americans are an odd people. You love our dissidents, but you don't like your own dissidents. You should support your local dissidents, too."
Don't get me wrong. I think Americans should support Iran's student movement--while understanding that fundamental reform must come about peacefully, indigenously and without US interference. But I'd like to see a little respect for our own dissidents too.
On February 15th, when more than two million Americans protested the Administration's rush to war in Iraq, Bush contemptuously dismissed them as a "focus group." White House spokesman Ari Fleischer added that "Often the message of the protesters is contradicted by history." Millions of Americans who have opposed corporate globalization have been treated with even more derision.
Deploying his smashmouth style of personal diplomacy, Newt Gingrich is again assailing the State Department as a "broken institution," for its failures in implementing President Bush's foreign policy. This isn't Gingrich's first broadside.
In a speech last April at the American Enterprise Institute, the citadel of neoconism, he called for a purge of State, causing Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage to retort: "It's clear that Mr. Gingrich is off his meds and out of therapy." It would be an amusing sideshow if this discredited politician didn't reflect the thinking of so many in the Bush Administration.
A close associate of Donald Rumsfeld and a member of the multi-conflicted Pentagon Defense Policy Board, Gingrich is a stalking horse for Administration forces who scorn diplomacy and international treaties in favor of unilateralism, pre-emption and overwhelming military supremacy. Like the men he fronts for, Gingrich is a threat to world order, national security and American interests abroad.
An appointee to the United States Court of Appeals for the 11th circuit, Pryor has called Roe v. Wade "the worst abomination of constitutional law in our history." He's compared homosexuality to necrophilia and incest. He's fought aggressively to prevent the disabled from enforcing their rights under the Americans with Disabilities Act. He's urged Congress to gut a key provision of the Voting Rights Act, which protects the right to vote for African-Americans. He's argued that the First Amendment doesn't mandate "the strict separation of church and state," and that "the challenge of the next millennium will be to preserve the American experiment by restoring its Christian perspective."
Heard enough? If not, IndependentJudiciary.Com, an invaluable site run by the non-profit Alliance for Justice, has collected a dossier of good reasons why Pryor's appointment should be rejected. (There's also info about other nominees.)
When the Federal Communications Commission voted June 2 to remove key restrictions on media consolidation, dissident Commissioner Michael Copps warned, "This Commission's drive to loosen the rules and its reluctance to share its proposals with the people before we voted awoke a sleeping giant. American citizens are standing up in never-before-seen numbers to reclaim their airwaves and to call on those who are entrusted to use them to serve the public interest. In these times when many issues divide us, groups from right to left, Republicans and Democrats, concerned parents and creative artists, religious leaders, civil rights activists, and labor organizations have united to fight together on this issue. Senators and Congressmen from both parties and from all parts of the Country have called on the Commission to reconsider. The media concentration debate will never be the same."
Barely two weeks after Copps uttered those words, he was proven right, as the Senate Commerce Committee responded with rare haste to the public outcry that followed the FCC decision. In a sweeping rejection of the agency's decision to provide already large media conglomerates with opportunities to extend their dominance of the nation's political and cultural discourse, the committee on Thursday endorsed a legislative package that reverses the worst of the rule changes. The legislation also orders the FCC to open up the closed and corrupted process by which it considers rule changes.
While the Commerce Committee action is just the first step toward reversing the FCC decision, Gene Kimmelman, Consumers Union's Director of Advocacy and Public Policy, says, "Today's vote creates enormous momentum to block further mergers among media giants. It represents a victory for those who support more competition and diversity from local and national media. But the fight is not over. Now we are going to carry this momentum to the full Senate and House."
Robert Kaplan is a hugely well-informed, indefatigable journalist who
combines firsthand reporting, mostly from poor, badly governed or
ungoverned countries, with wide reading on the political,