Law

How Big Data Could Undo Our Civil-Rights Laws

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iStockPhoto B ig Data will eradicate extreme world poverty by 2028, according to Bono , front man for the band U2. But it also allows unscrupulous marketers and financial institutions to prey on the poor . Big Data, collected from the neonatal monitors of premature babies , can detect subtle warning signs of infection, allowing doctors to intervene earlier and save lives. But it can also help a big-box store identify a pregnant teenager —and carelessly inform her parents by sending coupons for baby items to her home. News-mining algorithms might have been able to predict the Arab Spring . But Big Data was certainly used to spy on American Muslims when the New York City Police Department collected license plate numbers of cars parked near mosques, and aimed surveillance cameras at Arab-American community and religious institutions. Until recently, debate about the role of metadata and algorithms in American politics focused narrowly on consumer privacy protections and Edward Snowden’s...

Race-Blind Admissions Are Affirmative Action for Whites

L-R: Brooke Kimbrough, Coach Sharon Hopkins and Rayvon Dean of the University Prep Debate team.
B rooke Kimbrough always dreamed of becoming a University of Michigan Wolverine. Her score on the ACT—a college-readiness test—dwarfs the scores of most of her classmates. Earlier this month, she was part of a winning team at the National Urban League Debate Championship in Washington, D.C. Last week, she became a powerful symbol for exactly how Michigan's race-blind college admissions policies have failed. In December, the University of Michigan informed Kimbrough that her application for admission had been wait-listed. Two months later, she received the letter that she had not been accepted. But instead of conceding defeat, Kimbrough decided to fight. Today she hopes that her story will highlight how Michigan's current approach to race in admissions fails exceptional students of color. Black students comprise just 4.6 percent of the 2012 freshman class; in 2008, the number was 6.8 percent. Over the course of this year, I had the honor of working with University Preparatory Academy...

Where the Death Penalty Stands

Yesterday, the New Hampshire state Senate deadlocked on a bill that would have eliminated the state's death penalty, killing the bill for the moment and leaving New Hampshire as the only state in New England that still has a law providing for executions. The bill had already passed in the state House of Representatives and has the support of the governor, so one more vote would have passed it. I thought this was a nice opportunity to look at the state of the death penalty in America and around the world. On to the charts and graphs! As of now, 32 states still have the death penalty, and 18 (plus the District of Columbia) have eliminated it. Six of those 18—Connecticut, Illinois, Maryland, New Jersey, New Mexico, and New York—eliminated their death penalties just since 2007. Even in some states that have death penalty laws on the books, capital punishment has all but disappeared. Kentucky, for instance, has executed only three prisoners since the Supreme Court reinstated the death...

The Abortion Restriction That’s Too Extreme for Most Pro-Lifers

AP Images/The Columbus Dispatch/Brooke LaValley
E arlier this month, lawmakers in Kansas ended this session’s debate over abortion on a surprisingly low-key note. The Republican leadership shepherded two minor tweaks to existing abortion policies through the legislature, while staving off a far more contentious measure: a bill that would criminalize abortion after a fetal heartbeat can be detected, as early as six weeks into a pregnancy. The bill’s advocates say they are confident it would have passed, had it reached the floor; Kansas has strong anti-abortion majorities in both houses of the legislature and pro-life crusader Sam Brownback in the governor’s mansion. But the Republican leadership, prompted by the state’s most powerful pro-life group, Kansans for Life, used a legislative loophole to keep their more radical colleagues from attaching the fetal heartbeat proposal. Why, in a state where nearly every strain of anti-abortion restriction has taken root with ease, are advocates of the fetal heartbeat ban facing such stiff...

Don't Let the Bush Administration Off the Hook For Torture

There's a new report out today from McClatchey on the CIA's torture program based on that Intelligence Committee report. They got a closer look at it than journalists have before, so there are some more details. But there's a danger in how this could be interpreted that will serve to let people who were complicit in the torture program off the hook, so we need to be careful about how we deal with this information. But first, here are their bullets: The CIA used interrogation methods that weren’t approved by the Justice Department or CIA headquarters. The agency impeded effective White House oversight and decision-making regarding the program. The CIA actively evaded or impeded congressional oversight of the program. The agency hindered oversight of the program by its own Inspector General's Office. And now to put this in context: The Justice Department's Office of Legal Counsel found that the methods wouldn't breach the law because those applying them didn't have the specific intent...

How John Paul Stevens Would Amend the Constitution

AP Images/Manuel Balce Ceneta
What made John Paul Stevens's contributions in his 35 years on the Supreme Court so invaluable was not just the votes he cast but his fiercely intelligent idiosyncrasies. On issues ranging from the fundamental incoherence of trying to use different categories of scrutiny to apply the equal protection clause to the Establishment Clause, to problems presented by the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, to racial discrimination in the War on Drugs, Stevens carved out unique positions that have generally aged much better than the alternatives. So it's gratifying that Stevens has not retired in silence, instead providing valuable commentary on constitutional controversies including the right to vote and the American criminal justice system . Stevens's new book , Six Amendments: How and Why We Should Change the Constitution , represents another valuable and accessible contribution to the country's constitutional discourse. The premise of the book is accurately captured by the title, which...

Yes, Being a Woman Makes You Poorer

AP Images/Susan Walsh
S enate Republicans blocked the Paycheck Fairness Act yesterday, a bill that would make it illegal for employers to punish workers for discussing wages and would require them to share pay information with the Employment Opportunity Commission. President Barack Obama has already signed an executive order prohibiting federal contractors from punishing employees who talk about their pay. These two actions were pegged to the somewhat made up holiday called “Equal Pay Day” celebrated Tuesday, and were discussed by many in Washington in merely political terms : evidence of attempts by Democrats to woo women voters and a continuing sign of Republicans' “difficulties” with them. Elsewhere, pundits and writers wanted to discuss whether the pay gap really existed. A few years ago, some conservatives and a few liberals began to attack the much-talked-about fact that women make 77 cents to every man’s dollar as untrue, based largely on the idea that the gap itself was mostly accounted for by...

Fetal Abnormalities: The Next Minefield in the Abortion Wars?

AP Images/Steve Helber
I n January, two legislators in Virginia’s House of Delegates introduced a bill that should have been uncontroversial. The bulk of HB 612 created new rules for genetic counselors practicing in the state, who had been unregulated and unlicensed. The roughly 95 genetic counselors already working in the state, screening pregnant women and adults for serious inheritable conditions, favored the law, which they saw as an extra layer of patient protection. The bill was so innocuous that by the time it passed in the House in late February, no one seemed to have noticed that it contained a conscience clause so sweeping that could allow counselors to refuse to provide fetal test results for conditions like Down Syndrome or Tay-Sachs Disease—the information patients came to them for in the first place—if they believed it could cause a woman to terminate her pregnancy. Originally, the bill had only created a loophole for genetic counselors who want to refrain from offering information about...

Beyond Corruption

AP Images/Mark Lennihan
T here was a time in our history, thankfully long past now, when bribery was common and money's slithery movement through the passages of American government was all but invisible, save for the occasional scandal that would burst forth into public consciousness. Today, we know much more about who's getting what from whom. Members of Congress have to declare their assets, lobbyists have to register and disclose their activities, and contributions are reported and tracked. Whatever you think about the current campaign finance system, it's much more transparent than it once was. But if outright bribery is rare, should we say that the system is good enough? It's a question we have to answer as we move into a new phase of the debate over money in politics. In the wake of last week's Supreme Court decision in McCutcheon v. F.E.C. , many liberals are nervous that the Court's conservative majority is poised to remove all limits on how much can be donated to candidates and parties. For their...

It’s Andrew Cuomo’s Fault!

AP Images/Evan Agostini
T his year was supposed to be different in New York. After failing to pass a comprehensive public financing system during the last legislative session, advocates for the measure believed this year, they would get the deed done, and New York state would match small-dollar donations with public funds, allowing campaigns with low-level donors to compete with those whose supporters can write big checks. But on Tuesday, the effort to get public financing in New York had been dealt a major (if not a fatal) blow. Highlighting the stakes of such legislation, Wednesday morning the United States Supreme Court removed one of the last vestiges of the nation’s campaign finance system, banning caps on the total amount individuals can give to candidates in the McCutcheon v. FEC decision. Now, the progressives who formed the Fair Elections Campaign have begun a new set of strategies to pass their public financing plan, largely by going to war with the most powerful Democrat in the state—Governor...

The Obscure Heroes Behind Congress’s Great Moment

AP Images
O n Tuesday July 2, 1963, Assistant Attorney General Burke Marshall caught an early morning flight to Dayton, Ohio. Six days before, Marshall’s boss, Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, had appeared before a House Judiciary Subcommittee to present the newly introduced civil-rights bill that his brother, President John F. Kennedy, had committed himself to enacting during a powerful nationwide television address on June 11. The Kennedy brothers’ outspoken attachment to advancing racial equality was entirely newfound. For the first two years of the Kennedy administration, civil-rights activists had been repeatedly disappointed by the brothers’ unwillingness to live up to the promises John Kennedy had voiced during the 1960 presidential campaign. Only the horrific violence visited upon interracial groups of “Freedom Riders” in May 1961, as they sought desegregation of interstate bus stations, and white racists’ attacks upon federal officers during the October 1962 desegregation of the...

Will Disclosure Save Us From the Corrupting Influence of Big Money?

You'll have to do a lot better than that. (stockmonkeys.com)
There is going to be a lot of speculation about how the Supreme Court's decision in McCutcheon v. FEC to eliminate the aggregate limits on campaign contributions will affect the influence of big money in politics. That's because it serves to make an already complex system a little more complex, and there are multiple ways the decision could matter; on the other hand, it might make no difference at all. For the moment, I want to consider the role of disclosure, because I think it's going to become increasingly important in the near future, particularly if the Court goes all the way and eliminates all contribution limits. It should be said that in this case, they could have done that, but decided not to (only Clarence Thomas, in a concurring opinion, advocated eliminating all limits). But there is some reason to believe that the conservatives on the Court will go there eventually. And if they do, disclosure is going to be their justification: that as long as we know who's giving money...

Roberts Court: Government Must Be By, and For, the Wealthy

AP Images/Dana Verkouteren
Everyone who thinks that the rich don't have enough influence on American politics can rest easier. In an expected but still depressing decision today, the Supreme Court struck down aggregate limits on how much an individual can donate to politicians and political parties within a 2-year window as a violation of the First Amendment. Having already made it impossible for Congress to place significant restrictions on campaign spending, a bare majority of the Court is now chipping away at the ability of Congress to place limits on donations as well. It must be said that Chief Justice Roberts's plurality opinion in McCutcheon v. FEC has a certain logic if one accepts the key underlying premise. Relying on the Court's 1976 opinion Buckley v. Valeo , Roberts argues that the only legitimate reason for limiting campaign donations or spending is to address corruption. (Under this logic, Buckley gave Congress and state governments very little leeway to restrict campaign spending, but left them...

Federal Court Upholds Texas's War On Roe v. Wade

AP Images/RON T. ENNIS/Fort Worth Star-Telegram
Last year, as much of the nation is aware thanks to Wendy Davis , Texas passed a particularly draconian abortion law. Predictably, the law has already caused abortion clinics to close, and by the end of the year there are expected to be only 6 clinics remaining to serve the nation's second-largest state. Despite the huge burdens that the statute will undeniably place on the women of Texas and despite the fact that the laws aren't designed to accomplish anything but to make abortion less accessible, a 3-judge panel of the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals has upheld the law . And, depressingly, the court's decision could well survive review by a Supreme Court that is almost as hostile to the reproductive rights of women. Under the Supreme Court's 1992 decision Planned Parenthood v. Casey , which at least formally upheld Roe v. Wade , pre-viability regulations of abortion are constitutional if they do not impose an "undue burden" on a woman's right to choose. One might think it obvious that...

More Than Corruption Threatens the Integrity of Our Democracy

AP Images/Pablo Martinez Monsivais
W hat does it mean to corrupt an elected official? A coal executive walks into a member of Congress’s office with a $100,000 check in hand and says, “I will hand you this check if, and only if, you vote against any fracking permits on federal land—it’s bad for the local water supply, and besides I don’t need the competition.” The Representative accepts the check and then votes “nay” when the time comes. Is that corrupt? Most people would say yes—it’s a paradigm case. After all, there is a quid pro quo exchange—you do this, I give you that. Does it make a difference if that check goes into the Congressman’s personal pocket, his campaign account, or to an allied Super PAC? Probably not to most people. The Congressman wants to be re-elected, probably more than he wants a Porsche, so either of the latter scenarios certainly provides a thing of value. Now what if an environmental group walks into the same Congressman’s office and says “We’re here to talk to you about the upcoming vote on...

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