Category: Civil Rights


Review of Apex Hides the Hurt

Apex.jpgIn this latest novel from Colson Whitehead, the (ironically) unnamed protagonist is a “nomenclature consultant” who takes delight in helping corporate American find the best names for particular products. He names a social anxiety drug “Loquacia,” and he names a multicultural band-aid (it is sold in numerous skin tones) “Apex.”

The novel loosely centers around a legal dispute (of sorts), with a city council deadlocked on the rightful name of a growing Midwestern town. Founded by Black settlers leaving slavery behind and striking out for a better life on the plains, the town was originally named “Freedom.” Only a few years later, a wealthy white industrialist brought his factory along with a new name for the town, “Winthrop.” Today the Winthrops are a family in decline, and a new economy entrepreneur wants to rename the town “New Prospera.”

With the city council split three ways, our narrator must arbitrate the dispute. I will not give any spoilers, but the end somehow leaves a number of questions unanswered. And, although filled with clever language, puns, and plays on words – the major strength of this book – the major plot lines fail to grab the reader’s attention, and the characters seem underdeveloped.

It could have been a great book about an unusual legal dispute, or about race in America, but somehow fell short on both accounts. (Points for clever puns though).


Nothing Ordinary About Sexual Orientation Discrimination

ford-logo.jpgOn Monday, the Securities and Exchange Commission ruled that Ford Motor Company must allow a shareholder vote on a resolution altering the company’s anti-discrimination policy. The resolution eliminates sexual orientation from the policy, implicitly suggesting that discrimination against gay people is OK. This is yet another volley in the ongoing culture wars playing out at Ford. A few months back, social conservatives pressed the company to withdraw ads from magazines targeted at gay people. The company decided to pull ads from gay-oriented publicatioins, explaining that the decision was purely financial. The American Family Association withdrew its threat to boycott the company. Then, after meeting with members of the gay community, the company backed off and re-committed to advertise in these publications. Now, a shareholder named Robert Hurley of Alton, Illinois, is taking a new approach: turning Ford “gay-unfriendly” from the inside.

Ford sought to have the resolution excluded from a vote under SEC Rule 14a-8(i)(7), which provides that a company need not submit an issue to shareholders if it involves “ordinary business operations.” The question, then, is whether anti-discrimination policies are part of ordinary business operations. Let me say, first, that I have not dealt with SEC matters since I was a young associate in New York. But I would have guessed that an anti-discrimination employment provision would be part of ordinary business operations. Some might contend that mundane employment policies cease to be “ordinary” when they touch on hot-button social issues – and sexual orientation anti-discrimination policies, arguably, fit this category. But from my cursory research of SEC no-action letters, it appears that the SEC often allows companies to kill shareholder votes on employment polciies and does so even when the issues involve socially controversial matters.

On one hand, I tend to agree with those who believe in shareholder democracy. I am suspicious when a company seeks to shelter its policies from shareholder scrutiny and input. But I would be troubled if the SEC’s new decision reflects a changed attitude about sexual orientation discrimination, rather than corporate governance. That is, is the SEC now forcing companies to put all manner of employment policy resolutions to a vote? Or did it only choose to do so when sexual orientation was at issue? I simply don’t have the expertise to know.

Whatever the motives of the SEC, I’m not sure that the result is bad. Many progressives have come to believe that civil rights won through debate and democratic choice are more stable than those obtained through the decisions of small groups of elites. When change happens by majority choice, the remaining objectors can’t play the “anti-majoritarian” card. There is no denying that, sometimes, elites – Presidents, judges, or corporate boards – spur positive change through anti-democratic actions. But on the issue of gay rights, I think that the public has already become pretty well engaged.

As for Ford, I say let Mr. Hurley have his vote. There are good business and social reasons for Ford to take a stand against discrimination. I agree with KipEsquire: those who seek to discriminate and diminish will be forced to the margins. And if they lose by acclamation, rather than declaration, perhaps they will find other things to be grumpy about.

UPDATE: I have not been able to find a free copy of this SEC letter, which was released on March 6, 2006. It is available on Westlaw at 2006 WL 739897.

FURTHER UPDATE: Thanks to Marty Lederman, a PDF copy of the letter is now available gratis.

From Gradgrind to Glaeser

Economic analysis is often illuminating, but sometimes it just seems to provide cover for new Gradgrinds to ply reductionist utilitarianism. Case in point: the NYT Magazine has a glowing profile of Edward Glaeser, an economist from Harvard. As a patrician, provocateur, and polymath, Glaeser is reported to have single handedly revived the field of urban economics. Here are some of his prescriptions (as reported by Jon Gertner):

1) Don’t rebuild much of New Orleans– just let hard-pressed residents move somewhere else (and expect our exceedingly eleemosynary Congress to cut checks to each resident for $200,000, since that’s what they were planning to spend on infrastructure!). And don’t try to revive struggling rust-belt cities like Detroit, either.

2) “Car-based cities” are great; they “enable residents to buy cheaper, bigger houses,” and “the average car commute is about 24 minutes; on public transportation, it is around 48 minutes.”

I have a few questions for Glaeser. First, does his model value stability at all? Let’s say that this process of dispersion in search of better jobs leaves very few nuclear families with extended families nearby to help with child and elder care. Is the resultant need to hire day care workers and visiting nurses a boon to the economy, because unpaid labor to that end wouldn’t count in the GDP? Just how parsimonious are his models?

I have some personal experience with the “exodus from the Rustbelt” that Glaeser finds so appealing…

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Reparations within the Rule of Law

At the upcoming reparations conference, I will speak on the topic of reparations within the rule of law. My paper is still (ahem) a work in progress. However, I know the structure of my remarks, and I just turned in my abstract (so that our publicity folks could get to work on the printed materials). The abstract of my presentation is as follows:

Kaimipono David Wenger

Reparations within the Rule of Law

The question of reparations for slavery raises a number of concerns. One important question is whether reparations can fit within the rule of law. This question relates to underlying concerns about who defines the rule of law and what the rule of law includes.

The rule of law is a broadly respected concept in legal discourse, and is viewed as an important element undergirding society’s interaction with the law. A strong rule of law creates several benefits for individuals and for society. The rule of law can serve as a safeguard against certain kinds of tyranny and oppression. In addition, a perception of a robust rule of law lends legitimacy to laws and legal regimes, and streamlines legal experience.

The rule of law as a concept is not always well defined. At its most basic, the concept requires that individual interactions with law be based on application of law rather than arbitrary exercise of power; that laws be equally applied to all individuals; and that laws be knowable and performable. Some influential formulations of the rule of law, such as that offered by A.V. Dicey, follow this basic structure and are almost entirely procedural in nature. Such exclusively procedural formulations are not universally accepted, however, and longstanding debates exist on whether the rule of law is capable of bearing substantive content.

Slavery reparations present special challenges to the rule of law. Reparations potentially involve the transfer of large amounts of money to a class of people – descendants of an original harmed group – who are seeking payment over a century after the initial harm. In addition, the cost of this transfer will necessarily fall on at least some parties who are not morally culpable for the original harm. These aspects of reparations raise complex concerns relating to the rule of law, which should be addressed before any restitution is possible. While these concerns are certainly reasonable, examination of the broader rule of law concerns shows that the greatest offense to the rule of law would arise from not paying reparations.

Reparations are an acknowledgment of the displacement of the rule of law under slavery, a displacement which in turn created a regime of lawlessness and repression. Slavery was only made possible through the removal of rule of law protections as applied to one segment of the population – Blacks. The denial of rule of law protection for Blacks did not end with slavery, but continued for a century or more after slavery’s end. Blacks were denied civil and political rights and meaningful participation in the political process until the civil rights era; even today, they struggle for equal rights.

Given this background, reparations serve as a form of atonement – a crucial signal to the Black community that society wishes to atone for its error and take concrete steps to repair the damaged community. Absent such a signal, the rule of law breach that began with slavery will continue, unhealed. The consequences of the breached rule of law – resentment, distrust of law, a perception that law is beholden only to power – will continue to negatively impact society and undermine faith in the rule of law.

Societal expression of remorse for rule of law breaches – coupled with concrete steps to ameliorate the harm – is a necessary step in repairing the damage done by slavery to the rule of law. Reparations show societal will to set things right following the removal of the rule of law protections for Blacks. They are also a way of affirming that such breach of the rule of law will not recur. Thus, payment of reparations allows society to move forward, and encourages disadvantaged groups to regain confidence in the rule of law. Not only are reparations consistent with the rule of law, they are in fact a product of the rule of law.


Paper Discovers Trove Of Unseen Civil Rights Photos

Thurgood Marshall.JPG Today the Birmingham News published a treasure trove of photographs documenting the Civil Rights movement. These absolutely remarkable photos, featuring Martin Luther King, Thurgood Marshall (pictured at right in a group that included Constance Baker Motley), and other significant individuals and events from that era, can be accessed here. While some appeared at the time, many of these images have not been published previously. According to the account in today’s News, the photos were found accidentally:

[The discovery was] the result of research by Alexander Cohn, a 30-year-old former photo intern at The News. In November 2004, Cohn went through an equipment closet at the newspaper in search of a lens and saw a cardboard box full of negatives marked, “Keep. Do Not Sell.”

The accompanying article includes interesting interviews with News photographers and others discussing why many of these images never saw the light of day. One photographer recalled that “the editors thought if you didn’t publish it, much of this would go away.”

The News has changed over the years naturally. In 1988, it offered a tempered self-critique of its civil rights coverage saying: “The story of The Birmingham News’ coverage of race relations in the 1960s is once marked at times by mistakes and embarrassment but, in its larger outlines, by growing sensitivity and acceptance of change.” That remains a fair characterization of the broadsheet. The editorial board is iconoclastically conservative. It is anti-abortion and solidly Republican but unafraid to confront ideological inconsistency and social injustice. For example, the News recently reversed course on the death penalty, calling for its abolition. Why?

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The Meaning of “Well Settled Law”

Lawyers use the phrase liberally in their briefs; judges sprinkle their opinions with it. But hardly anyone agrees what it means. The phrase: “well settled law.” One of the most interesting exchanges occurred during the Alito hearings over this very phrase:

Ms. Feinstein asked whether Judge Alito did not agree that Roe “was well settled in court.”

He said, “It depends on what one means by the term ‘well settled.'”

This was followed by an extended back-and-forth and careful parsing of what the phrase may or may not mean to Alito.

It would be a mistake to see Alito’s equivocation as merely a product of confusion over terminology. Indeed, Alito’s hesitation to accord Roe the status of “well settled law”–he finally said only that it must be accorded “respect” as “very important precedent”–cannot be understood in an internally coherent way.

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Injustice in Michigan

Via Howard B., I read this report on a recent case before Michigan state trial court Judge Michael Martone. According the article, back in May ’05, high school teens were caught drinking at their prom. The school sanctioned them, but they were also sent to Judge Martone on charges of being a minor in possession of alcohol (a misdemeanor). Judge Martone apparently said from the bench (as the students were leaving, perhaps?): “There’s to be no alcohol [in the future.]”

Needless to say, the students went to college, drank, and classically, posted photos of themselves drunk on the web. The pictures were captioned, and some of the captions slurred Martone.

Judge Martone self-googled and found the page. I can’t seem to, which suggests something about our respective googling skills. “”They made a mockery of the legal system,” he said. “I had to do something.” He reported the students to their probation officers and the police, and had the students arrested for contempt of court. The charge: “disobeying [Martone’s] direct order not to consume alcohol.” The article tells us what happened next.

Martone began questioning [the student who created the internet page about it], why she created it, and what some of its symbols and profane words meant.

In an exchange of about 45 minutes, Martone reminded her to be honest, as [she] first evaded some questions [she was pro se], then admitted that her Web site did use profanity aimed at Martone, and that she had a drinking problem.

He sentenced her to 30 days in the Oakland County Jail. She was marched off in handcuffs, to spend Christmas and New Year’s Day behind bars.

Martone then sentenced [another student] to 15 days. The two become cellmates.

If this version of the facts is accurate, this story strikes me as deeply troubling on a number of levels.

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Is Smoking Child Abuse?

BBC (among others) reports that California will treat second hand smoke as a form of toxic air pollutant. I assume this will empower a new gang of regulators to join the “war on smoking.” I wonder about the effects of these sorts of decisions on smoking parents.

Courts have begun to confront the argument that smoking around children is a form of child abuse. This claim appears to have surfaced repeatedly in child custody battles, but I don’t think it has become a common basis for state intervention in families. With findings like those in California, I suspect that more states will seek to intervene when parents smoke at home. State involvement can sometimes take a positive form – counseling, for example – but it can also result in removing children into foster care. When the household problem is smoking, I’m not sure this is a good thing.

Second hand smoke is bad for kids. For children with special health problems, such as asthma, it can be devastating. So there is little question that when parents smoke at home, they are doing harm. This might suggest that smoking ought to be considered abuse per se. But should it?

First, I’m uncertain whether the health effects are serious enough to constitute abuse. Parents do lots of crappy things to, and around, their kids. Does smoking cross the line? Second, I don’t totally trust state intervention in families. When the household situation is dire, a state must step in to protect children. Perhaps I’m a cynic, but the repeated evidence of incompetence and neglect by some of these family agencies makes me nervous about their involvement except where truly necessary. Third, I’m not convinced that we want mandatory abuse reporters – doctors, psychologists, social workers and (in some states) lawyers – to report every parent who admits smoking around her child. Mandatory reporting damages relationships with clients, reducing trust and, ultimately, the effectiveness of professional services. This damage is justified only when it prevents truly serious harms.

Then there is the slippery slope problem. Once smoking is viewed as child abuse, prosecutions are likely to follow. And in some jurisdictions, convicted child abusers are subject to Megan’s Law notification.

I don’t have a problem with parents introducing evidence of smoking in disputes over custodial and visitation arrangements. In these cases, the child will typically end up in the custody of at least one parent. I think smoking around kids is a bad thing. Smoking around a child with respiratory problems seems clearly abusive. But should smoking around a healthy child be the basis for removing her from parental custody? I don’t have the answer, but I’m not happy with either result.


Teaching Away the Right to Privacy

I’ve never liked the Supreme Court’s Vernonia School District line of cases. These decisions authorize public schools to do random drug testing of students participating in extracurricular activities, without the slightest suspicion that the children ever used drugs. You don’t want to be tested for drugs? Don’t do extra-curriculars. Of course, extra-curricular activities are important in many ways, not least in terms of college applications. For many kids, then, there is little choice but to submit to these searches.

Schools seem to have taken up the Court’s offer. I haven’t found hard data on the number of schools using random drug tests but locally – in the Birmingham area – I know the “top three” school districts (judged by test scores and affluence) have such programs. (And two of the three test for tobacco use, in addition to drugs and booze.)

Why don’t I like these schemes? A few reasons. The first one is related to the right of privacy. I don’t think the government should be in the business of searching people in any fashion – let alone sorting through their urine – without suspicion of misconduct. Although I’m not fond of other suspicionless searches the Court has authorized – for example, railroad employess may be tested after a rail accident – at least these testing programs have a narrower scope. Any policy that samples every child in extra-curricular activities – that is, the vast majority of students in these high powered schools – comes awfully close to imposing universal testing.

There are other reasons I don’t like these policies. I think they reflect outsourcing of parental responsibility. You want to test your kid for drugs? Go ahead. But it’s inappropriate for a school to impose these intrusions on all children, including those whose parents don’t buy into a surveillance-as-parenting approach. (Parents can decline to have their kids tested, in most districts, but the children still don’t get to be on the debate team.) I’m also not confident that random testing works – though I’m less certain on this point.

Watching the privacy debates of the last few weeks – domestic spying, Google subpoenas, etc – I’ve come upon yet another reason to dislike Vernonia. I suspect that suspicionless testing programs train children to believe they don’t have a right to personal privacy.

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Playing the Illegal Alien Card

HalePicBio.jpgFor the past few weeks, I’ve been following a local Birmingham story on undocumented aliens. Mike Hale, the Jefferson County sheriff, has decided to join the battle against illegal immigration. He announced that his office will create a database of undocumented immigrants found in the county. According to the Birmingham News , “any illegal immigrant who comes in contact with deputies – whether as an offender, a county jail inmate or even a victim – is fair game for the database.” The data will be shared with the federal Bureau of Immigration and Customs Enforcement. (Local sheriffs apparently don’t have jurisdiction to arrest individuals for violation of immigration laws.)

Notwithstanding the need to maintain border control, this expansive policy strikes me as troubling.

First, I worry that it will stifle crime reporting by undocumented crime victims. This is bad all around. The victims cannot rest safe because the culprits are still loose. And since some offenders repeat their crimes, the policy will leave these folks free to target others – documented and undocumented alike. The sheriff’s office is apparently aware of this risk, but simply does not care. When asked about the danger of deterring crime reporting, a department spokesman said: “I hope that’s not a byproduct of this, and if it is, it’s unfortunate. However, we believe the greater good is having information on the people who are in our country illegally.”

Another problem: how will sheriffs know when they come into contact with an undocumented alien? The obvious approach would be to demand that anyone who is not fluent in English, or looks “foreign,” to prove her citizenship or produce a visa. This is pretty unappealing, but as far as I can tell, Hale hasn’t suggested a better idea. Sadly, policies that target minority populations fit too neatly into an Alabama political tradition. Birmingham Blues captures the views of some progressive Alabamians in this regard. I wonder if this sort of policy is common, or is simply a trial balloon.