Lots of people have been feeling down lately. Maybe their team lost a big game in a stunning upset, or the news coming out of DC has got them down. Instead of the regular blog post, this week I offer you a short video that I hope will make you smile and forget your troubles for a moment. I invite you to take a walk in the woods with my dog, Banjo. In his world, there is nothing better than a walk in the forest on a sunny day.
We’re in jeopardy of losing our democracy. This past week the Democracy Index, an international ranking of the health of democracy in world’s nations, downgraded the United States from a “Democracy” to a “Flawed Democracy”. University researchers recently concluded in a study that the United States is an oligarchy, that is we’re dominated by the rich and the average person lacks meaningful political power. Despite all of our pledges, flag waving, verbal accolades regarding the wonders of democracy, and declarations of defending freedom to the death, American democracy is on the ropes. No, Donald Trump is not the cause. He may be a symptom, but there is plenty of reason to be concerned about American democracy apart from Donald Trump’s authoritarian fascism.
Our government is a system of checks and balances between the three branches: the judiciary, the legislative, and the executive. In theory, no branch is greater than the other and each operates to keep the other in check. Only the legislative branch is subject to direct election on the federal level, although on a state level both the judiciary and the executive may also be directly elected. The federal judiciary is insulated from the electoral process by virtue of lifetime appointment of federal judges by the Executive and confirmation by the legislative branches.
However, recent years have witnessed an accelerating decline of this system of checks and balances. Instead, we are witnessing the rise of what I call the “super legislature”. Certainly, there has been a lot of scrutiny paid to the use of Executive Orders by the President in the face of congressional gridlock, but if you pay attention to what’s happening at the state level, and then look back at the federal level, you’ll see that it’s not the presidency with which we need to be concerned. It’s the legislative branch, which have become increasingly single party nationally and whose members dominated by big money, where we see the most blatant attempts to overturn our system of checks and balances.
For example, according to the Florida Bar News, there is currently a bill in the Florida legislature, introduced by Republican Julio Gonzalez, to amend the Florida Constitution to allow the Florida legislature to overturn any Florida Supreme Court decision that rules any law to be unconstitutional. This bill, should it become law, would remove the Florida Supreme Court from its traditional role of having the final say regarding the Constitutionality of our laws. In other words, the legislature, not the Courts, would get to review the constitutionality of the laws it passes.
In North Carolina, the Republican dominated legislature recently passed laws severely restricting the power of the Governor following the election of a Democrat to that office. Fortunately, this law was struck down by the Courts. However, I suspect that the North Carolina legislature will engage in a war of obstruction, similar to what President Obama experienced, designed to thwart the will of the voters by making it impossible for the Governor to effectively govern.
On the Federal level we have witnessed years of obstruction culminating in the absolute refusal of Republican Senators to hold a hearing on President Obama’s nominee to the United States Supreme Court. This refusal was not based upon an objection to the nominee, but as a mechanism to prevent the President from performing his duties.
I see this happening in other areas too. For example, through binding consumer arbitration clauses, the legislature has removed jurisdiction from our courts for the majority of claims arising from consumer transactions with banks, credit card companies, car dealerships, employment contracts, etc. The profound impact of this was recently seen when the lawsuits of consumers who were defrauded by fake accounts created by Wells Fargo found themselves unable to sue due to arbitration clauses in their account contracts and a federal statute called the Federal Arbitration Act.
I suspect that underlying all of this is a fundamental nationwide deficit of civics education. According to a study by the Annenberg Public Policy Center, only 36% of Americans can name all three branches of our government. This lack of even the most basic civics education and understanding leaves voters vulnerable to misinformation during elections and campaigns such as when an ad claims that a presidential candidate is going to raise or lower taxes. (Taxing and spending is controlled by Congress). Indeed, it often appears to me that most voters ignore candidates for all offices except president, whom they seem to believe is some sort of temporary all-powerful king.
I don’t know how to solve this problem. It’s always seemed to me that patriotism should demand more than flag waving. It should demand that we educate ourselves and our children regarding the structure of our government, the people we elect, and the work in which our politicians and bureaucrats are engaged. True patriotism should demand more than claim that all politicians are crooks, because they’re not. I ran for office a few years ago and it was an eye-opening experience. While I did not agree with the ideas of some of the candidates, I found the majority to be decent people who were interested in the issues and improving the lives of citizens. Money in politics is certainly a problem, but voter ignorance and apathy is an even bigger problem. Additionally, partisan voters, who have given over their minds in exchange for allegiance to a political party that they follow like lemmings, make campaigning based upon ideas extremely difficult, because so many minds are absolutely closed and people vote blindly according to party.
In closing, I want to say that whatever the problems we have in our system of government, we need to be careful and to stay true to democratic principles above all else. If we’re not careful, we can lose this democracy, and I believe that what comes next will be most unpleasant.
It was too late when I realized that the suit I’d chosen to wear had a hole in the bottom of the left pocket rendering the pocket useless. I only own 3 suits and they’re all several years old and coordinated with the pair of brown wing-tip dress shoes that constitute my only pair of dress shoes. I’d already discarded one dress shirt as being too threadbare which cost me time and I’d spent a lot of time trying to find the new tie I wanted to wear that suddenly went missing after being in my hand. I eventually located the new tie hiding out in my sock drawer with no idea how it got there. My wife was handing me a collection of things she wanted me to carry since she had no pockets at all. Her cell phone, a lipstick, her ID in a little plastic case, her keys,… it turned out to be a lot of stuff. I struggled to find places for all the items. My working pocket bulged and I feared that I would soon have no working pockets at all. I also wondered when my wife decided that my role in life was to be a pack mule?
We were headed to the Florida Supreme Court for a ceremony in which I was one of couple dozen lawyers who were being honored for our pro bono work. Thanks to a nomination by Legal Services of North Florida, I was to receive the Florida Bar President’s Pro Bono Award for the Second Judicial Circuit. The entire Florida Supreme Court, less one Justice who was recovering from surgery, would be there along with the president of the Florida Bar. This was my first time inside the Florida Supreme Court and one of the biggest honors I’ve ever received. My close friend, James Cook, who is one of the best lawyers I’ve ever known, won the award last year, and the list of previous recipients included the names of several other friends and noted lawyers for whom I have great respect and admiration.
The award ceremony was very nice. It was dignified without being stale. The presentation of awards to deserving recipients was punctuated by heartfelt sincere speeches on the importance of pro bono work that held my attention without going on too long or becoming too preachy. I sat with the other award recipients on cushioned benches inside the well, the area between the railing that separates the spectators’ gallery and the bench where the Judges sit. When the time came for me to receive my award, they called my name and I walked to the podium where I was presented with a large certificate by the Florida Bar president. He said some nice words to me, and then shook my hand while a photographer took our photo. As I posed for the photographer I could see my wife, Barbara, camera in hand, directly behind him. As previously instructed by the organizers, I went and stood in front of the bench where the Supreme Court Justices were sitting and waited while they presented the other awards. I breathed a sigh of relief that I managed to get through the process without stumbling or forgetting to zip up my pants.
After the ceremony, there was a photo session with all the award recipients that made me feel a bit like a rock star. There were big complex looking cameras wielded by serious looking photographers. There was Barbara too, with my little Olympus, making sure she documented the experience for me. When everyone was done taking pictures, I joined the crowd of guests in the rotunda area where an incredible reception awaited. I was especially delighted to see that had those little spanakopita bites that are a favorite of mine. Barbara was waiting for me there and proudly introduced me to a gentleman from St. Petersburg, Florida as her award-winning husband.
Later that night, when the festivities were finished and the routine quiet of our lives had once again returned, I thought about the experience of winning this award. It occurred me that the pro bono cases for which I was honored weren’t only my sacrifice. In every single one of those cases, my wife Barbara, was by my side every single step of the way. She proofread pleadings, helped me strategize, attended Court hearings with me, encouraged me when I was discouraged. It’s important to note that although they give you awards for the cases you win, there were other pro bono cases we’ve done that we didn’t win, yet she was always there right by my side. Losing for me is devastating, but she helps me pick myself up every time. She could have objected to my pro bono work since it takes me away from the money-making cases that we depend upon and there have been many times when we’ve had to pinch pennies to get through. Contrary to what the insurance companies and their paid-for politicians tell you, the vast majority of trial lawyers are not millionaires. Most of us live precarious lives, investing our own money while taking on other people’s causes as our own, hoping for a fair judge or jury and the skill to navigate the procedural hurtles required to be allowed to tell our clients’ stories. Such a life wouldn’t be possible for me without the unwavering support of my wife, Barbara, who remains confident in me even when I start to doubt myself.
It occurred to me again on Saturday as I marched through the streets of Tallahassee for Women’s Rights in the rain, one person among a crowd of 14,000, how much I owe in my life to the women who have been part of it. My wife, mother, mother-in-law, step-mother, sister-in-law, nieces, aunts, sisters, cousins, friends, teachers, nurses, doctors, classmates, clients who trust me to be their lawyer,…the list is endless. So much of my passion for justice on behalf of working-class families comes from growing up in a female-led single parent home. I’ve witnessed the struggles of the women in my life for equality and justice, and I know that while education and economic well-being provide some protection for women, the inequality never completely goes away. I also know that I wouldn’t be who I am today, or able to do the things I’m able to do today, without the many women who have given me their love and support throughout my life.
I didn’t get to give a speech at the award ceremony, which was probably a good thing. I don’t think that I could compete with the great words that were offered. However, I do want to say something, and that’s thank you to my wife and all the other women who have supported me, trusted me, and helped me to pursue my dreams. Words simply cannot express my respect and adoration for you all.
I have a problem that’s pulling my focus away from work and decreasing my enjoyment of life. It has led me into non-productive arguments on Facebook and is causing me to avoid people. This problem has me rethinking whether or not I want continue to live in the United States, whether or I want to continue to practice law, whether I want to leave the State of Florida, and whether or not I want to disown some of my relatives.
My problem is a growing sense of anger and disgust with Donald Trump, the people who support him, and our current political situation. This is contrary to how I want to live my life. I believe in tolerance, civil discourse, giving people a chance, forgiveness, and diversity in the broadest sense of the word, but I’m failing to live up to my ideals as the anger and disgust I feel grows each time I see a news article about Donald Trump’s latest tweet or press conference. I feel like I’m living through a dystopian nightmare. I am constantly reminding myself that it’s not my job to judge other people, it’s not my job to tell anyone how to think, and that the only person in this world over whom I have any control over is me.
Donald Trump is merely the symbol of a democracy that I’m rapidly losing respect for and faith in. I understand that some people don’t care for Hillary Clinton, but there were several ethical and qualified Republican and Democratic candidates from whom we could have chosen. That a human being as ill-equipped, divisive, and offensive as Donald Trump would win the contest for the presidency, while losing the popular vote by millions, is appalling to me. As the evidence mounts of Russian interference, Trump’s possible collaboration with the
Putin government makes this seem even less like an election and more like a military coup orchestrated by a foreign government designed to destabilize my country. That Trump continues to refuse to disclose or divest himself from his business conflicts of interest while denouncing our own intelligence agencies and cozying up to Putin makes me even more suspicious that Trump is far less than loyal to our nation. Trump will likely ask our young men and women to sacrifice their lives in defense of our country, and yet he is completely unwilling to undertake any personal sacrifice for the good of our nation. It’s simply appalling.
Under normal circumstances, Mr. Trump would be counter-balanced by the other branches of government, but that seems less likely these days. Statesmanship is lost in our current partisan system where the well-being of the nation is secondary to party loyalty. Gerrymandering to ensure party control and to remove the accountability of elected representatives to the voters has given us State and Federal governments that are increasingly Republican dominated. As voters, we ignore this and never question why, for instance, Florida has more registered Democrats than Republicans, yet our government is so Republican dominated that there is virtually no Democratic voice in our state government. We now see this happening at the Federal level as well.
I’m disgusted by the Republican refusal to honor the will of the voters on those increasingly rare occasions when a Democrat can win an election. Republicans in Congress did all they could to prevent President Obama from being able to make progress on the issues voters twice elected him to address. Republicans stood by and tacitly condoned and exploited what were too often racist and bigoted attacks on President Obama, even calling into question his birth and religion. Most egregiously, they refused to even consider his nominee for Supreme Court Justice, a moderate who was well qualified for the appointment.
Refusal to allow elected Democrats to govern is not limited to our Federal government. Compromise is gone. Obstructionism at all costs is now part of the Republican play book. The North Carolina legislature, a Republican dominated body, passed laws, signed by the outgoing defeated Republican governor, restricting the powers of the governor’s office upon the election of Roy Cooper, a Democrat. Fortunately, this effort was blocked by the Courts on constitutional grounds, but I doubt that the North Carolina legislature will slow down one bit in their efforts to make him as ineffective as possible. I don’t think we’re even close to seeing the end of this. The Republican mantra of the day seems to be “the will of the voters be dammed, party above all else”.
The costs of this partisan anger hardly seem to matter to anyone. We’re now seeing both Trump and Congress rushing full-speed into a repeal of the Affordable Care Act regardless of the consequences on vulnerable Americans or the healthcare institutions that serve our communities. We hear nothing substantive about what comes after the repeal other than one of Trump’s bullshit promises that it’ll be great and we’ll love it. Do I even need
to mention that mother-of-all government boondoggles, Trump’s promised wall between the U.S. and Mexico, which we are now being told we have to pay for out of our tax dollars that are too limited to pay for good schools, good infrastructure, or health care.
This is not to say that I give the Democrats a pass on our current situation. For too long Democrats have been nothing more than “Republican-light”. The DNC has ignored the strong populist support for candidates such as Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, while backing establishment candidates who offer little in the way of meaningful change. Hillary Clinton might have been a historic candidate by virtue of her gender, but her policy ideas rarely drifted far from the safe mainline script of business-as-usual. Locally, I would point to Bill Montford and Michelle Rehwinkel Vasilinda, who were both elected as Democrats. Vasalinda, who left office in November, left the Democratic party and declared her support of Trump in the recent election. Perhaps her move is more honest than Montford, who promotes a good-ole-boy persona while accepting massive campaign donations from corporate special interest groups and is more of a closet Republican than a progressive Democrat. Montford has remained almost silent about the economic well-being of people in Florida while voting in support of anti-consumer measures such as legislation that carved out exemptions for dishonest car dealers and restricted the ability of injured individuals and families to sue dishonest dealerships under Florida’s Unfair and Deceptive Trade Practices Act.
This partisanship and vile political discourse are paralyzing our government and creating very hostile divisions among us. I recently had dinner with a relative whose eyes burned with fury as she parroted fake news stories to denigrate all Democrats, including me and friends of hers. Her anger seemed to obliterate all the good memories and acts of kindness in those relationships. Many of us seem to be falling prey to this anger and hostility. Several people on different ends of the political spectrum have told me that they are withdrawing from social groups to avoid dealing with the growing political anger. For the first time in 16 years, I’m contemplating not going to Sun-n-Fun because I simply don’t want to hear the political discussions and opinions that sometimes get shared there. I should be better than this, but it’s difficult. Facebook has become a loathsome place to visit due to the never-ending feed of people sharing angry political posts and fake news stories that do nothing other than feed the growing anger. I’m tired and worn out by all this, but I don’t see it ending. I see us going down the very dark road of fascism and it’s a journey that I really don’t want to take.
Last week my wife came in from a walk around the neighborhood. She was all excited and wanted me to come with her to look at a giant hole the city people had dug in the middle of the road in our development. Being the kind and thoughtful spouse that I am, while I also knowing that resistance is futile, I put on my coat and went with her.
Now I must admit, what she showed me wasn’t exactly your ordinary run-of-the-mill hole in the road. This thing was pretty darn impressive. It was as wide as the two-lane road, and twice as long. However, its most impressive characteristic was its depth. I’ll bet it went down 25 feet. Let me tell you, looking down into a 25 foot deep muddy hole is pretty neat.
My wife then explained to me that the hole was dug in order to repair the broken sewer line. Apparently, she had interrogated one of the workers who was standing around looking into the hole. I concluded that the interrogation had been rather thorough since she knew when the hole was dug, who dug it, why they dug it, that they had severed the power line while digging the hole, who was down in the hole, and that they would have the hole filled in by morning.
As we were walking back to the house, discussing some of the big holes we’ve encountered in our lives, my wife commented that she’d like to see what I would write in my blog about the hole. I told her that I would think about it, but wasn’t sure what one can write about big temporary sewer holes.
Actually, as I thought about the issue I came to realize there’s a lot to say about sewer holes. Consider that, of all the issues of importance to society, sewage is quite possibly one of the least controversial. I mean, you never hear the conservatives complain about those darn liberals and their public sewer systems. Sewage crosses political boundaries and sewers are used equally by both Republicans, Democrats, Independents, and even Libertarians. You never hear of a government bureaucrat pledging to remove the fiscal waste of waste removal. Yes, we all like sewers, and my guess is that most of us would immediately petition the government if our sewers were to stop working.
When I was working as a nurse I got to see some really impressive technological advances in healthcare, but no modern invention has probably prevented more death and disease than the modern sewage system. Indeed, I would imagine the typical American city would be inhabitable without the big stinky pipes running under our streets. Yes, sewers are quite possible the strongest connectors we have in our modern society, they provide a hidden but indispensable connection between us all. So when it seems like it’s impossible to find common ground with someone, just remember, they probably share your interest in modern sewer system, so don’t hesitate to find a big hole to share with him or her.
“Don’t you miss Christmas?” people often ask me when they find out that I grew up in a home that celebrated Christmas. I can see in their eyes that opting out of Santa Claus, decorative lights, gift giving, Christmas trees, and egg nog is an unimaginable hardship in their minds. To not love Christmas is to be heartless and greedy. If you’re like me and try to sit out the holiday, people will tell you “Don’t be a Scrooge, get with the Christmas spirit!”
Being Jewish gives me an easy out of Christmas that allows some degree of forgiveness, even if the understanding of this eludes many people. However, my Jewish beliefs do not give me a complete pass on the holiday either. After all, I have many close family members and friends who celebrate the Christmas holiday. Soon after I became Jewish, I spoke with a Rabbi about what is an appropriate level of participation in the holiday and he reminded me that we are to honor our parents. We discussed this and concluded that I should do what I can not to diminish others’ joy in the holiday, while also setting some appropriate boundaries for myself.
Over the years, I’ve given a lot of thought as to what those boundaries should be and why. Some boundaries are easy. For example, I don’t participate in the religious aspects of Christmas, no candle-light services or anything like that. My family is not really religious and few are church members, so this issue rarely arises.
The more difficult part of the Christmas holiday for me is the gift giving, which I find very burdensome and which I do my best to avoid. Trying to select an appropriate gift when facing all the holiday marketing and an endless repeat of Christmas tunes makes me want to crawl into a fetal ball underneath my bed. Understand, I love giving people gifts when I see something that I know will be valued. I give a lot of spontaneous gifts to people based upon inspiration i.e.: I saw this and thought you would really like it.
Christmas shopping though is nightmarish to me. I hate going shopping when the stores are crowded and it goes against my nature to buy items that I know are going to be severely discounted the day after Christmas. The blatant commercialism leaves me feeling very empty and uninspired.
This year I think I found a good solution. I knew my Mother needed new glasses, so I offered to purchase those for her. I think it was a win-win for both of us. She got the new glasses that she’s been needing, and I feel like I’ve done something that’s truly made her life better.
I really dislike the Santa Claus myth that good boys and girls are showered with presents. I see it as a cruel story for poor children who, like me, saw other more fortunate children, or the children of spend thrift parents, showered with presents. I wonder how many children who go without or with very little on Christmas and who are told the Santa Claus story wake up on Christmas morning and leave the tree wondering what sins they may have committed to make Santa pass them over and why the more affluent children are morally superior? As I got older I saw the pressure this put on parents to shower their children with gifts of toys and extravagances that would leave the family saddled with debts far longer than the momentary joy the child experienced when opening the gift. Even worse, was the guilt and loss of self-esteem I saw in the adults around me who couldn’t afford to shower their children, family members, and friends with gifts.
Beyond the financial hardship, Christmas gift giving so often seems to be equated to an expression of the love that exits between the giver and recipient. It seems to me that many gifts are given with great concern that the message of love will be lost if the gift is inexpensive or somehow falls short in the eyes of the recipient. Surely love that is real isn’t dependent upon trinkets or conspicuous consumption.
The world is what it is and I am who I am. Maybe I really am a modern derivation on the Scrooge character? I hope that, despite my own reluctance to participate in cultural rituals that don’t work for me, that in the past year I’ve been able to brighten your world a bit or inspire a thought or an idea that’s made your life better.
What could be the gravest political and constitutional crisis faced by the United States since the Civil War is emerging with the news that the Russian government tampered with the recent U.S. Presidential election for the purpose of aiding the Trump campaign.
The question in my mind is, what happens if evidence is discovered that strongly suggests that Donald Trump was the knowing beneficiary of Russian interference? What if that evidence shows a coordinated effort between Putin and Trump to engage in criminal activity of email hacking in order to rig or influence the election in favor of Trump? The outcome of such a revelation, and the ensuing conflict, is almost unimaginable to me. I am not certain that the United States as we know it today would survive such a scenario.
Sadly, Trump does not seem to be at all concerned about the appearance of impropriety in his ascendency to the presidency. He brushes that entire matter off as ridiculous and instead denigrates the intelligence community as being completely incompetent. His responses raise my level of suspicion and concern even higher.
It is interesting to note that the founding fathers were concerned about other nations meddling in the elections and the political life of the United States. This is one of the reasons the electoral college was created. Consider the writings of Alexander Hamilton in the Federalist Papers 68 where he discusses the need for the electoral college as a protection against a hostile entity orchestrating the election of an incompetent person to the presidency.
“These most deadly adversaries of republican government might naturally have been expected to make their approaches from more than one quarter, but chiefly from the desire in foreign powers to gain an improper ascendant in our councils. How could they better gratify this, than by raising a creature of their own to the chief magistracy of the Union?”
Many states have neutered the independence of the electors by passing laws requiring that they vote in accordance with the outcome of the popular vote in the state. My cursory review of the limited case law on these statutes leaves me with the impression that the Supreme Court hasn’t seen this as cause for concern. After all, the electoral college in this day and time is regarded largely as a bizarre artifact whose design and purpose is a mystery to most of us. Never, in our 240-year history, have we needed the electors to examine the soundness of the voters’ choice. However, we are now facing a situation where it is possible that the electors may need to act to prevent the very harm that concerned Hamilton i.e.: a foreign power controlling the American President.
Of course, there is an incentive for many Republicans to wait until after the electors cast their ballots to deal with this crisis. Once Trump is in office the remedy changes to impeachment, such as what happened to Richard Nixon during Watergate (note the interesting parallels of criminal election activity in both the current crisis and the Watergate scandal). Impeachment would remove Trump, but would put Pence into the White House and continue Republican control of the presidency.
The problem is finding a solution that preserves the integrity and confidence in the American presidency. I believe that the electors should refuse to cast their votes until this matter is resolved, and if the evidence continues to show Russian interference with Trump being more than an innocent beneficiary, then they should refuse to cast their votes for him.
This crisis is bigger than political parties, it’s bigger than policy differences, bigger than the differences that have so recently caused a deep divide between so many Americans. All eyes are going to be on us as we try to sort out this mess, separating truth from fiction, and determining a pathway forward. Without great leadership and deep integrity, I fear that the loss of faith in our government will not be survivable for the nation. Let us all hope that I am incorrect in my analysis.
I’ve never forgotten one night, when I was 15 years old, and I crawled into bed. I put my feet under the covers, and then I felt a mouse run up the side of my body. It emerged from under the blankets and with lightning quickness it scampered onto the floor, and out of my room through a round hole in the floor. It left me with a massive dose of adrenaline preparing me to fight or flee, despite the fact that catching or fighting the mouse was hopeless and there was nowhere I could flee for safety.
At that moment, my sense of self changed. A new identity burned into me, one that’s never left and probably never will. I was poor. I came from a poor family, and any illusion to the contrary was forever shattered. I lived in a house in a bad neighborhood that lacked heating or air conditioning. A house where rodents roamed freely. What people today call “food insecurity” was a part of our daily lives, although I’d never heard the term and wouldn’t for nearly 20 years. For me, it meant eating a lot of spaghetti and when that was gone making due with popcorn for dinner, wondering if tomorrow there would even be popcorn.
My life hadn’t always been like that. Just a few years earlier I lived in a comfortable house in upstate New York that my great-grandfather had bought nearly 80 years earlier and balanced meals arrived on the table every night. Then, my grandfather died, and my grandmother began a five-year decline that led to her death, leaving behind massive hospital and medical bills. The house was sold and we left the small town where my family had lived for more than 150 years. We went south to Florida looking for a better future. The 1970’s hit upstate New York hard, factories closed, and my mother, burdened by taking care of her mother, missed a lot of days of work and became unemployed in a time and place where employment opportunities were close to nonexistent. Tired of cold weather, unable to find work, and desiring to flee the disappointments of her life, she packed my brother and me into her Ford Mustang, and like so many others, we left the rust belt for the sun belt.
Florida was not the promised land we hoped to find. The wages were low, we were completely on our own, and my mother became less functional as the burdens of raising two teenaged boys overwhelmed her coping skills. She used the remaining money we had from the sale of the New York house to buy a mobile home that was repossessed within a year. A friend she met in a bar offered to rent her the dilapidated home we lived in until I left school.
Growing up, I was taught that if you were honest and hardworking you would be rewarded with a comfortable life. This was the unquestioned promise of America that I had been hearing my entire life. To be poor was to be immoral and lazy, and with that realization came a profound sense of shame that left me wondering what had I done in my 15 years that had stripped me of my morality and industriousness?
It’s been 35 years since I’ve had a mouse in my bed. Once again, I live in a nice house, my diet is only limited by healthy eating, and I have all the trappings of at least a middle class, if not an upper middle class life. I’m one of the few who made it, and I do mean few. I was born intelligent and my early childhood gave me a stability and insight that, along with a lot of luck and assistance from others, would help me recover from my family’s misfortune.
My family, and many of our friends and neighbors, haven’t done as well. My mother is now retired, has no pension other than Social Security, and spends her days alone in her small apartment watching television and dreaming of her high school days. When I can coax her out for lunch or dinner, she often spends much of our time reminiscing about her childhood and talking to me about people whom she hasn’t seen in years and whom I’ve never met. My younger brother left my life several years ago, in a furious torrent of anger he’s carried for far too long, but that I don’t know how to help him with and that I fear will never leave him. As far as I know, my mother is the only relative with whom he has any contact.
To be poor in America is the live on the outside, to be judged as the cause of your own misery. The judgments are predictable and all are shaming: If only you didn’t: take so many sick days, waste your money, drink/smoke so much, have cable TV, drop out of school, have so many kids, eat so much sugar, etc. The problem is, all these behaviors that the poor get judged for are so often the product of being poor in America.
The consequences of being poor in America are life limiting if not outright deadly. Of my family of origin, I’m the only one who still has my own teeth. Dental care wasn’t something my relatives could afford. Have you ever wondered why inexpensive denture companies tend to be found in poorer neighborhoods? It’s often much cheaper to have your teeth pulled than to pay the cost of fixing long-neglected dental problems. One friend from High School, got lucky with his dental care. A woman hit him while he rode an old motorcycle to and from work and he used the insurance money to save his teeth, but most aren’t that fortunate. It’s not just dental care; my relatives struggle to obtain basic healthcare. Even when they have insurance, the costs of co-pays add up quickly when you must visit your primary just to get a referral to a specialist who then wants to run tests, all requiring co-pays. Continuity of care is often nonexistent as insurance panels change or my relatives change jobs or experience unemployment. This lack of continuity destroys the trust necessary for a good physician-patient relationship resulting in people simply ignoring medical advice. So many of the poor people I knew growing up have become morbidly obese, not because they’re lazy gluttons, but because the inexpensive food available in our grocery stores and fast food restaurants is profoundly unhealthy.
Even education, something that should be a pathway to freedom, is full of pitfalls for poor families. Public schools in poor neighborhoods fuel the school-to-for profit prison pipeline. Student loan debt incurred to pay for over-priced trade-schools or fly-by-night private college educations that don’t lead to higher paying jobs leaves many with a lifetime of government sponsored debt for having tried to improve themselves.
The worst thing though, is the shame carried by America’s poor. Father Greg Boyle in his book Tatoos on the Heart describes it well:
“The principle suffering of the poor is shame and disgrace. It is a toxic shame — a global sense of failure of the whole self. This shame can seep so deep down.”
I get this on so many levels because to some degree even all these years later I still live with elements of this shame and likely always will. When I see a poor person, I see my own image. I see the shame that wounds the spirit of my friends and family. What I can’t see is how to cure it. One reason why I practice consumer rights law is because it gives me opportunities to restore dignity to those who carry the shame of their poverty. The law doesn’t favor poor people and in so many ways I feel it’s rigged against them. However, sometimes I’m able to take up a cause that for a moment restores dignity to my clients and I hope gives them the strength to carry their burdens a little more lightly as they go forth in their lives. When that happens, both client and lawyer are restored.
I’m going to tell you the secret to a happy life. It’s not the secret to an easy life or a prosperous life, only a happy life. The secret isn’t going to make you better looking, it won’t cure disease, and it won’t make you younger. The only thing it will do is help you find happiness.
Maybe it’s not a secret at all, but something that a lot of people already know. Some people appear to be born knowing it. Others of us, probably a majority, take years to figure it out. I suspect that a significant number never figure it out, which is a shame. Life is a short one-way journey.
Happiness requires nothing more than a sheet of paper, a pencil, and willingness to commit five minutes per day. The secret to happiness is the product of the work of psychologist Shawn Achor, author of The Happiness Advantage. What he proposes is that every day you take a few minutes and write down three new things that you’re grateful for. Do this for 21 days, and he claims your happiness will increase.
A few years ago I saw a TED Talk with Shawn Achor on Youtube. I have a Bachelor’s degree in psychology and I thought what he proposed sound interesting, so I decided to try it. At the time, I was going through a lot of changes and my life seemed to have turned into a series of frustrating challenges that were getting less fun every day. I figured this couldn’t hurt, so I got a journal and every night before bed I wrote down three things that I was grateful for that happened during my day. The first couple days were challenging and I had a hard time coming up with things. After a few days, I started looking for and making note of good things that were happening so I could have something to write down when it came time to make my list for the day. This is really where the important change happened. I started paying attention to the good things and not just to the problems that demanded my attention. Nothing else in my life changed. I had as many problems and challenges as I did before, but they didn’t seem as all encompassing. The good things I was taking the time to notice were becoming bigger than the headaches and imperfections that are an inevitable part of our lives. My happiness increased.
I often think about this little experiment in my life and the lessons that I learned. First, gratitude is the foundation of happiness. No gratitude means no happiness. Also, we find what we expect in the world. If you expect misery, there is much to be found. On the other hand, if you seek good things, they’re there too, even in the most difficult of situations. It’s all about what we pay attention to and we can chose where we focus our attention.
The United States Supreme Court, once the most prestigious court in the world, has been reduced to a politically gerrymandered court by the Republican Senators’ refusal to even review President Obama’s nominee and Donald Trump’s pledge to pack the Court with political ideologues, guaranteeing rulings he sees as politically beneficial. Trump will have little difficulty keeping his promise given the Republican majority in the Senate. I do not expect the Court will recover from this harm within the remainder of my legal career or lifetime.
The framers of the Constitution envisioned a Court that would be as insulted as possible from the political process. The first and most famous case ever decided by the Court, Marbury vs. Madison, was rooted in the idea that the Court is immune from political restructuring. The Court rejected an expansion of its jurisdiction by Congress through the political process and held that jurisdiction of the United States Supreme Court is established by the Constitution. The Court’s authority, like the Court itself, is beyond the political process. Judges do not serve at the pleasure of the President or Congress; they have lifetime appointments. This principle of law has been incredibly important in American jurisprudence. Neither Congress nor the President can remove or expand the Court’s jurisdiction in response to the political winds of the time, nor can they retaliate against a Judge or the Court for rendering a politically unfavorable decision.
The role of the Court in protecting the freedoms of and ensuring justice for the American people cannot understated. Removing bigotry, prejudice, and injustice from American law has rarely been achievable through the ballot. Desegregation, repeal of miscegenation laws, removal of literacy tests for voting, privacy rights, the right of counsel for people accused of crimes, the right to be free from unlawful search and seizure, the right of married couples to use birth control, and the right for same sex marriage were all achieved at the Supreme Court and would have all failed if put to a vote. Strict textualists, such as former Justice Scalia and those whom I expect Trump will nominate, insist that rights which are not explicitly stated in the Constitution do not exist. They disagree with the perspective of Justice Douglas who wrote that the “specific guarantees in the Bill of Rights have penumbras, formed by emanations from those guarantees that help give them life and substance” Griswold v. Connecticut, 381 U.S. 479, 484 (June 7, 1965). In simpler language, there are rights that are not explicitly stated, but are implied in the text, such as the right for a parent to raise and educate a child, including sending a child to a religious school rather than a public secular school.
That the Constitution and the Supreme Court allow rights to develop in response to our collective experience rather than through the nearly impossible political process of Constitutional amendment is one of the great strengths in our legal system and has allowed our nation to remain a leader in human rights. As Alan Dershowitz postulates in his book “Rights from Wrongs: A Secular Theory of the Origins of Rights”, human rights do not come from G-d, or nature, or even from logic. Instead, they come “from human experience, particularly experience with injustice. We learn from the mistakes of history that a rights-based system and certain fundamental rights…are essential to avoid repetition of the grievous injustices of the past.” In other words, rights come from wrongs and are recognition of those wrongs. A great example of this is found in the Constitution itself where the framers included a right contained in the Third Amendment prohibiting the government from forcing people to quarter troops in their homes during peacetime. This is not a right most of us would consider putting into the Constitution if we were writing it today. Indeed, there has never been a Third Amendment case brought to the Supreme Court. This Amendment exists as a relic of the experience of the framers and their fears based upon that experience.
Sadly, I greatly fear that the era of the Court standing between the people and the government as a neutral arbiter of the rights secured by the Constitution is over. For the first time in our history we may see the United States Supreme Court moving in reverse where, rather than finding emerging rights, the Court will remove existing rights from the people. More importantly perhaps, I fear that, due to the political games that have been played by the Republicans in the appointment process, the United States Supreme Court has lost the moral authority and diversity of thought it once possessed. The Constitutional vision has been undermined and unfortunately the Court, and likely the American people, will suffer.