2016 Election, Baseball, Climate Change, Human Rights, Medicare, Politics, Supreme Court

A Tipping Point

Law Firms, Gay Marriage and Civil Rights

I once heard Sherman Alexie, a gifted writer who also happens to be Native American, have some fun at the expense of those who maintain that there is something inherently evil about homosexuality. To drive home his point that homosexuality is as old as humankind, that gays live and work with us everywhere and that the creative class – writers, composers, actors, etc. – are disproportionately represented in the gay community, Alexie challenged his audience to go home and look at the titles in their bookcase.

Chances are you’ll  find on that book shelf, Alexie good naturedly said, writers who are “gay, gay, gay, Hemingway, gay, gay…”

I thought about Alexie’s humor recently as I read accounts about the big, white shoe law firm of King and Spalding dropping out as legal counsel for the U.S. House of Representatives, which intends to defend, now that the Obama Administration won’t, the so called Defense of Marriage Act (DOMA).

King and Spalding’s then-partner Paul Clement, a former Solicitor General in the Bush Administration, had signed on to handle the DOMA case for the House of Representatives for a fee of $500,000. But apparently Clement either hadn’t vetted the representation carefully enough or the leaders of the big firm decided the high-profile gay rights case represented too much controversy. For whatever reason, the firm backed out. Gay rights groups immediately claimed creditfor getting the firm to abandon the controvesial case, editorials and politicians blasted the firm for caving in to such pressure and the firm has refused to say much beyond a terse statement from the managing partner to the effect that the representation hadn’t been adequately reviewed by the firm. Meanwhile, Clement resigned in protest and took the DOMA case with him to another firm.

At least two things are going on here. One potentially involves a fundamental principle of legal representation, the other may signal a tipping point in the long-running public debate over same sex marriage. First, the legal issue.

If King and Spalding, a 125-year old, international law firm with 800 lawyers, that represents, according to its website, clients as diverse as Coca Cola and Goldman Sachs, withdrew from the DOMA case under pressure then it deserves all the flack it’s taking. If, as seems more likely for a firm that has had partners like Sam Nunn and Griffin Bell, the firm had a breakdown in assessing a potential client (and assessing how, for example, the law firm’s commitment to diversity might be impacted by taking the case) then they get a black eye for process and public relations rather than for displaying questionable legal ethics. It’s worth noting, just to make this a bit more complicated, that two of King and Spalding’s partners are representing Guantanamo detaineeson a pro bono basis.

Everyone, it is said, from the suspected murderer to the white collar criminal, deserves legal representation. However – since I’m not a lawyer I can say this – not every lawyer has an obligation to every potential client. In fact, I’ve heard lawyer friends say it, and I’ve said it in the public affairs business, “everyone is entitled to good representation, but not everyone is entitled to my representation.”

In a New York Times op-ed piece last Friday, a Minnesota law professor made a compelling case that law firms have led society’s way in creating equal opportunities for gays and minorities. Dale Carpenter wrote, “Gay-rights supporters have transformed the law and the legal profession, opening the doors of law firms, law schools and courts to people who were once casually and cruelly shut out because of their sexual orientation.” This process has been slow, but steady not unlike the larger civil rights movement that since the 1960’s has transformed the attitudes in the professions – the law particularly – regarding opportunity and equality.

This controversy also may represent a larger societial tipping point. As Supreme Court reporter Adam Liptak writes in the Times, we may be near a point where the nation’s thought-leading “elites” – including big-time law firms, the corporate community and the media – are “racing ahead of popular opinion and shutting down” what many still believe to be a worthwhile debate.” When firms like King and Spalding spend real time, money and effort on diversity in hiring and promoting, its hard not to conclude that broad public opinion is going to follow – and pretty quickly. And that is exactly what seems to be happening.

The Pew Center for the People and Press recently reported that its surveys indicate that public support for same sex marriage continues to grow with virtually the same percentage of Americans now supporting as opposing. This trend of growing support has been evident for some time, Pew notes, while the partisan divide over the issue remains deep.

“As has been the case since 1996, there is a wide partisan division on the question of same-sex marriage. Currently 57% of Democrats favor making it legal, while only 23% of Republicans agree. Independents (at 51% in favor) are more similar to Democrats than to Republicans, in part because 46% of Republican-leaning independents are supportive of same-sex marriage, along with 58% of independents who lean Democratic.”

Ten countries, including Canada and Argentina, now recognize same sex marriage and 15 other countries, including many nations that form our military coalitions in the Middle East, recognize civil unions. It’s hard not to conclude that the course on this issue is set and, whether intended or not, that King and Spalding’s decision not to represent the Congress in the Defense of Marriage Act case could further move the debate in the direction it is already clearly heading.

There seems to be a certain historical pattern to such issues. Opponents of same sex marriage, politicians and religious leaders, invoke spiritual teachings and cultural norms as the basis of their opposition. You often hear that same sex marriage will “weaken the institution of marriage.”

In a fascinating piece in the Times Magazine recently, the author of a new book on Ann Durham, President Obama’s Kansas-born white mother, notes that when Ann married Obama’s Kenyan father she did so at a time when “nearly two dozen states still had laws against interracial marriage.” It wasn’t all that long ago – 1967  in the case Loving v. Virginia – that the U.S. Supreme Court outlawed state prohibitions against interracial marriage. Incidentally, many of the same arguments advanced today against same sex marriage were used then to oppose interracial marriage.

Not surprisingly, Obama – like more and more Americans – admits that his views on same sex marriage “are evolving.” If you talk to younger Americans you’ll find little toleration for discrimination based on race or gender. They’re way beyond such things and generally can’t understand what all the controversy is about.

In his unanimous opinion in the 1967 Loving case, Chief Justice Earl Warren, the former Republican governor of California and 1948 running mate of Thomas Dewey, concluded with these words: “Under our Constitution, the freedom to marry, or not marry, a person of another race resides with the individual, and cannot be infringed by the State.”

Warren repeatedly referred in his short opinion to “basic civil rights,” guaranteed under the Constitution. The Court, Warren said, has “consistently denied the constitutionality of measures which restrict the rights of citizens on account of race. There can be no doubt that restricting the freedom to marry solely because of racial classifications violates the central meaning of the Equal Protection Clause.”

It is undoubtedly some distance in the future, but it’s not difficult to imagine a Supreme Court justice writing the same sentence Earl Warren wrote in 1967  substituting the word “sex” for “race” and “gender” for “racial.” 

The simplest of all explanations – the logical principle of Occam’s Razor– is almost always correct. Perhaps the big, prestigious law firm of King and Spalding simply didn’t want to be on the wrong side of history.

But let’s give Sherman Alexie the last word on this subject. To those who say that gay marriage is a threat to the heterosexual, one-man, one-woman institution of marriage, Alexie says, not true. “Gay marriage does not threaten my marriage.  Beautiful, easy women with no boundaries threaten my marriage.  I don’t need anyone else’s help.”

 

Afghanistan, Climate Change, Human Rights, Journalism

Whatever Happened To…

fischerBryan Fischer…

I confess that I hadn’t been following all that closely the controversy in New York City over the proposed construction of a Muslim cultural center not far from the site of the September 11 attack. Until, that is, I saw an item featuring the former Idaho fire brand, Bryan Fischer, suggesting that the country ought not allow the construction of another Mosque, ever, anywhere, at anytime.

Fischer, who used to run the Idaho Values Alliance (and is still listed on the group’s website) and served as the Idaho Senate chaplain, is cutting a wide swath these days. Fischer writes an on-line column, hosts a radio show and regularly offers up even more incendiary rhetoric that he did when he was defending a display of the Ten Commandments in a Boise park or objecting to books in the Nampa public library.

It was his latest column that grabbed my attention. Here’s the first graph:

“Permits should not be granted to build even one more mosque in the United States of America, let alone the monstrosity planned for Ground Zero. This is for one simple reason: each Islamic mosque is dedicated to the overthrow of the American government.”

Ok, then.

Other recent Fischer commentary has focused on his claim that new Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan is “a dangerous judicial activist.” He also questioned the new Justice’s sexual orientation. Fischer jumped on the bandwagon with Texas Rep. Joe Barton, who he said was right to call President Obama’s ability to secure a pledge of $20 billion in Gulf Coast clean-up dollars from BP “a shakedown.” And – this one got a lot of air in the blogosphere – Fischer made the charge that Hitler was a homosexual and that some how that “fact” leads to a connection between Nazism and gays in the American military.

Read it for yourself. You can’t make this stuff up, unless you’re Bryan Fischer.

Fischer summarized his Hitler/homosexual/gays in the military column with this:

“Homosexuality gave us Adolph Hitler, and homosexuals in the military gave us the Brown Shirts, the Nazi war machine and six million dead Jews. Gays in the military is an experiment that has been tried and found disastrously and tragically wanting. Maybe it’s time for Congress to learn a lesson from history.” Some history.

Fischer bases this view on a 2001 Hitler biography by a German historian Lothar Machtan. A New York Times reviewer, a former director of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, said of the book and its scholarship:

“Machtan employs innuendo and insinuation. He asks rhetorical questions designed to lead the reader to answer them in a manner that supports his argument, even when alternative explanations are at least as plausible. He introduces possibilities that are then assumed to be probabilities and, indeed, certitudes. By the use of quotation marks, he highlights what are probably innocuous comments so that they seem loaded with homoerotic meaning. In short, he has written a tendentious book that is more a brief for the prosecution than a work of balanced history.”

Sounds a lot like a Bryan Fischer column.

Just for the record, and leave it to Jon Stewart and The Daily Show to drive this point, no serious historian of Hitler and Nazis makes an absolute claim that Hitler was homosexual. One suspects it would be news to Eva Braun. Fischer and his “sources” also conveniently ignore the incontrovertible historical record that the Nazis rounded up and sent to the camps homosexuals, along with Jews, the disabled, gypsies and other “undesirables.”

And, even if the record was less clear, conflating the tragedy of Nazi German with homosexuality is the worst kind of, let’s say it, intolerance and hate speech.

Fischer’s latest contention involving the proposed New York Muslim center hangs on just as thin a thread. Fischer wrote on August 11:

“The imam who is heading this project, Feisel Abdul Rauf, has ties to terrorist organizations himself, and said in a ’60 Minutes’ interview shortly after 9/11 that ‘United States policies were an accessory to the crime that happened.'”

Truth be told, Rauf has long had a close relationship with the U.S. State Department and Bush-era State Department official Karen Hughes enlisted his help and shared the stage with him when that administration was attempting to enhance its public diplomacy activities in the Muslim world. For what its worth, on Wednesday the Times had a bit more nuanced take on the New York controversy.

Or, put another way, not only is Fischer guilty of demonizing another religion he hasn’t got his facts straight. Even his throw away statement that the Muslim center is planned “for Ground Zero” is wrong. As this map shows the two sites are at least two long city blocks apart. It is sort of like saying that Boise High School is on the Statehouse grounds. It just isn’t true.

Here is my historical point: America has always had its share of Bryan Fischers. They live now, as in the past, on the hot oxygen of hate masquerading as political speech or true religion and they thrive because the media let’s them get away with it.

In the 1930’s Father Charles Coughlin built a mass following with his radio program and newspaper. Coughlin preached a populist economic message, flavored with anti-Semitism. He raged against the Federal Reserve, Franklin Roosevelt, Communism and in favor of a return to what he considered the true meaning of the Constitution.

Another preacher-turned-politician Gerald L.K. Smith started out as a Huey Long disciple, but after Long’s death he attempted to pick up the Kingfish’s mantle in Louisiana and beyond. He built a sizable following in the 1930’s and 1940’s. You can find YouTube videos of Smith that sound strikingly like contemporary cable television coverage of a Tea Party rally. In one 1936 speech, Smith frothed against “corrupt, thieving politicians” and predicted that “the baby havin’, stump grubbin’, sod bustin’, go to meetin’, God fearin'” Americans were finally going to take over the country.

Before long both Coughlin and Smith flamed out. Smith couldn’t get any candidate for president in 1948 to accept his endorsement and, in fact, he was widely repudiated. Coughlin’s own Bishop eventually silenced his radio demagoguery. Both men lived into the 1970’s, mostly forgotten and remembered only, as recounted in Alan Brinkley’s fine book, as Voices of Protest.

Bryan Fischer is of the same ilk and I suspect he will eventually secure the same fate. The pity is that such folks gain credibility at all and that it lasts for any length of time.

I reserve a spoonful of blame for the Idaho media who gave Fischer a launching pad for what is now a national megaphone and hardly ever held him accountable. While he was riling things up in Idaho there was precious little reporting on who financed him, where he really came from and whether his ideas and accusations could withstand serious review.

Guys like Coughlin and Smith rose the same way. They were media sensations in their day, always available to comment on anything and masters of gaining media attention with flamboyant rhetoric and flimsy facts.

This famous quote is attributed to, among others, Mark Twain: “A lie can run around the world six times while the truth is still trying to put on its pants.”

Google “Bryan Fischer” and see how slowly the truth is catching up with him. It’s time the former Idahoan to get some of the scrutiny he lavishes on others and should have gotten when he was dishing out his brand of demagoguery in Idaho.

To paraphrase Bryan Fischer, the monstrosities contained in this man’s hateful rhetoric are dedicated to overthrowing common sense and fundamental human decency. No one should take him seriously. Some obviously do and that, too, is a monstrosity.

 

Climate Change, Egan, Human Rights, Idaho Politics

Speaking Out For Human Rights

human rightsBipartisan Group – Business, Political, Religious Leaders – Urge Legislators to Sustain Idaho Commission

Dick Hackborn isn’t exactly a household name in his hometown of Boise, Idaho. Mention his name, however, in a room full of technology industry folks and most would quickly acknowledge that Hackborn has been one of the giants of the industry. He’s the guy who built – invented even – Hewlett Packard’s wildly successful printer business.

After nearly 50 years at H-P, while in his retirement, Hackborn served on the company’s board, including a short stint as Chairman. According to the informed financial press, Hackborn played a key role in ending Carly Fiorina’s less than spectacular tenure as H-P’s CEO.

The obvious point: Hackborn knows his way around business and, while he typically maintains a low profile in Idaho, he has always been an unflinching advocate for diversity in the work place and for human rights. When Hackborn was approached last week to sign on to an “open letter” to the Idaho Legislature urging continued funding of the state’s Human Rights Commission he immediately said yes.

The same can be said of Greg Carr, the Idaho Falls native, who made his fortune with Boston Technology and later served as chairman of Prodigy, an early global Internet provider. Carr has lived out his concern for human rights with the creation of the Carr Center for Human Rights at Harvard. His work in Africa has been featured on 60 Minutes. Carr supported creation of the Anne Frank Memorial in Boise and put up the bucks to purchase the former Aryan Nations compound near Hayden Lake, Idaho. That ground, once home to hate, the very antithesis of human rights, is now dedicated to human rights.

Carr’s name is on the “open letter” along with Dick Hackborn.

Savvy business people don’t need much prompting to make the connection between equality and diversity in the work place and business success in a global economy. Both Hackborn and Carr harbor deep commitments to human rights, but they also know that their support – Hewlett Packard has long been a leader in this area – puts out the welcome mat to a skilled, diverse work force.

Former Boise H-P executives Don Curtis and Rich Raimondi and their wives also signed the letter to the legislature.

For 40 years, the Idaho Human Rights Commission has been the focus – often thanks to the moral leadership of past directors Marilyn Shuler and Leslie Goddard and current director Pam Parks – for acting on the belief that human rights are a genuine priority in Idaho.

Unfortunately, Idaho isn’t all that far removed from the awful public image that haunted the state when the Rev. Richard Butler and his self-proclaimed Aryna Nations white supremacists gained international attention, while preaching a gospel of hate and camping out in northern Idaho.

The Twin Falls Times-News editorialized on all this yesterday. The paper noted that the white supremacists are “mostly gone now, but their stigma endures. We can see the headlines across the country now: “Idaho joins Alabama, Arkansas and Mississippi in nixing rights commission.”

Former Democratic Governors Cecil D. Andrus and John V. Evans remember those days battling the Aryan Nations, as does former GOP Lt. Governor David H. Leroy. They all signed the letter, as did more than 50 other religious, human rights, business and political leaders.

The Times-News editorial yesterday also made a point that Dick Hackborn or Greg Carr would likely embrace: “Why does [Idaho’s image] matter? It matters because the standard in the private sector nowadays is zero tolerance of anything that hints of racism. Companies make decisions about whether to invest, expand or relocate expecting their employees will be treated equally under the law.”

That, in a nutshell, is the massive job of the tiny Idaho Human Rights Commission.

The Commission’s total state support is less than $600,000 – .00025 percent of the total state budget, less than 50 cents per Idahoan. A pretty good value to continue to have a daily, statewide moral and legal focus on issues that really matter to our culture and our economy.

Climate Change, Egan, Federal Budget, Human Rights, Idaho Politics, Martin Luther King

A Day for Human Rights

kingRemembering From Whence We Came…

It hasn’t been all that many years ago that Idaho was one of the last states to embrace an official celebration of human rights in connection with Dr. Martin Luther King’s birthday. Repeated efforts to establish a state holiday failed in the Idaho Legislature before legislation was finally approved in 1990.

It is important to remember some of the context of those times. The white supremacist Aryan Nations still held court in northern Idaho and the state was regularly depicted in the national media as a haven for the group’s perverted notions of racial superiority. Their annual parades, even when dwarfed in size by those opposing their message of hate, received extensive media attention. Major employers struggled to recruit people of color to live and work in Idaho. Despite having one of the strongest malicious harassment laws in the nation, Idaho’s image was hurting.

I’m convinced the decision to create a Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Human Rights Day in Idaho was a major catalyst in changing the then-prevailing perception.

With the inspired leadership of then-Human Rights Commission Executive Director Marilyn Shuler, human rights activists in northern Idaho and then-Governor Cecil Andrus, the holiday honoring Dr. King came to be 20 years ago – long overdue, but finally in place.

Fast forward to 2010 where the Idaho Legislature now considers a proposal to eliminate state funding for the Idaho Human Rights Commission, an agency that has protected the rights of Idaho workers and employers for more than four decades by leveling the field for both. The Commission has been in many, many ways, the focus in Idaho for a common sense, practical approach to human rights and dignity for all. It is a tiny agency with a huge mission, a mission just as important now as it was in 1990, or when it was created more than 40 years ago.

We’ve all heard of the philosopher George Santayana’s famous observation that “those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” Yet, it seems a constant challenge for our public policymakers to remember from whence we came. As our attention spans grow shorter, our memories do as well.

Idaho’s human rights history has traveled a well-worn and rocky path that has steadily – at least since the mid-1980’s – lifted us higher and higher. Republicans like former Governor Phil Batt and current Supreme Court Justice Jim Jones took the issues very seriously back then, as did Democrats like Andrus and Governor John Evans. But it is not a given that we will keep on climbing. A new generation of leaders will need to step forward and keep pushing.

We would do well to consider the message – both practical and symbolic – sent by Idaho if the state appears to be devaluing the work of the Idaho Human Rights Commission. Enforcement of federal anti-discrimination laws won’t go away. Rather the federal government will enforce the law in Idaho if the state is left with a less than adequate effort of its own.

All too obviously, much work remains to realize Dr. King’s dream and live out his courage even as his words speak to us as powerfully as ever:

“Many people fear nothing more terribly than to take a position which stands out sharply and clearly from prevailing opinion. The tendency of most is to adopt a view that is so ambiguous that it will include everything and so popular that it will include everybody. Not a few men who cherish lofty and noble ideals hide them under a bushel for fear of being called different.”

We are not condemned to repeat the past, we need only to remember it.

Climate Change, Human Rights

An Idaho Treasure

ShulerMarilyn Shuler – Great Citizen

The wonderful Marilyn Shuler will be honored this weekend with the Light of Philanthropy Award presented annually by St. Luke’s Hospital.

It is difficult to believe there could be a more worthy recipient.

For years, Marilyn Shuler was the face of human rights in Idaho as she led the state’s Human Rights Commission with a quiet grace and a steely commitment to dignity all enforced with the rule of law.

I had the rare pleasure of working closely with Marilyn during my time in Idaho state government. She was a role model, a powerful leader and a true moral force for good. One of my proudest moments was having a very small hand – Marilyn had a very big hand – in creating the holiday honoring Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. in Idaho.

Sadly, Idaho was one of the last states to recognize the remarkable accomplishments of Dr. King, but perhaps even more importantly to honor a society’s commitment to human rights. It would never have happened without Marilyn’s unflinching courage in overcoming the hidebound opposition to honoring Dr. King and then-Governor Cecil Andrus’ determination to not allow the state to suffer a black eye by failing to publicly embrace a just and overdue cause.

Beyond her singular successful career devoted to the human rights of others, Marilyn also served with distinction on the Boise School Board, helped manage public employees retirement dollars and guided the creation of the Anne Frank Memorial in Boise. That is a decidedly partial list of accomplishments. Along the way, she touched a million lives.

Every once in a while you see that someone is receiving the kind of public recognition they really deserve. This is such a moment.

Dr. King once said: “Life’s most persistent and urgent question is, ‘what are you doing for others?'”

Marilyn Shuler has answered that question with a lifetime of service to others. She is an Idaho treasure.

Andrus, Biomass, Blogging, Boise, Climate Change

Biomass and Climate Change

Cecil AndrusCece Andrus: Developing Region’s Biomass Will Take Time and Transparency

A couple of months ago, the former Idaho Governor and Interior Secretary offered his take on increasing utilization of biomass for energy.

The assessment came in a major speech to a conference of U.S. Forest Service managers in Boise. While not a pessimistic assessment of biomass as a greater source of energy, the speech was a typically Andrus-like accounting of opportunities and challenges.

Andrus was particularly pointed in warning the foresters that meeting policy objectives for the National Forests, including increased energy production and encouraging local economic development, while still protecting the environment, will require a lot of transparency and many trade-offs.

The former four-term governor also challenged the forest managers to be clear about whether and how they are managing the public’s land based on the reality of climate change.

You can find the full speech here. Here is a key section:

“We do not like making trade-offs and we do not like having to choose. For years the Forest Service has been caught in this struggle. We continue to debate what exactly the purposes of the national forests are, and how we approach an agreement around that question.

“One Idahoan would tell you the national forests exist to produce wood fiber. Another would tell you they exist to provide hunting and fishing opportunities. Another would tell you the forests help drive the economy of the state, particularly rural communities. This Idahoan would tell you that there is a measure of truth in each of those answers.

“So what you do, and what policy makers must do, is find the delicate balance that creates an equilibrium and gives the American public the opportunity to have it all; an increase of energy from biomass, a stronger economy and the hunting, fishing and outdoor recreation we so enjoy in Idaho and the West.”