Clemency Denied and a Pardon Granted: Equal Justice in America?

Florida Sends More Children To Adult Prison Than All Other States Combined

When I was a law student I worked on a clemency petition for a child who was sent to an adult prison in Florida for 9 years for her first offense.  At 12 years old, she entered prison as the youngest inmate in the Florida Department of Corrections. It is worth noting that Florida sends more children to adult prison than all other states in the country combined.  As I worked on her clemency petition I learned that in the weeks leading up to her committing the crime, robbery of her grandmother’s home, she had been examined by two psychologists who both recommended that she be given immediate in-patient care.  I also found out that the source of her distress was that she was being abandoned by her mother who had run off with a man she had met, dumping the young girl on a grandmother who didn’t want her and who communicated this to her by getting rid of the twin bed the child was sleeping on, forcing the child to sleep on the floor.  The state of Florida wasn’t there to help this child.  A prosecutor later told me there was no money for the mental health treatment she needed. Instead, the state provided her with a much more expensive 9-year prison sentence as an adult.

I argued the clemency petition before Governor Jeb Bush at the Florida State Capitol

I argued her clemency petition at the state capitol before then Governor Jeb Bush and his cabinet.  I told Jeb Bush about her history of abuse and abandonment.  How her Mother had left the country and had never once visited her in prison.  I told him about how she had earned a GED in prison and showed him her nearly flawless behavior record.  I shared with him her statement of regret.  I asked him to let her out of the prison where she had been for the past 5 years and showed him the plan for treatment and recovery that we had put in place.  As I spoke, Governor  Jeb Bush played with the pencils on his desk and rocked back and forth in his giant power chair. He didn’t seem to take much interest.  I don’t remember him asking me any questions.  When I had finished he politely thanked me for my presentation and nearly a year later sent a notice that he denied her request for clemency.

“Truthfully, I’d be happy to see many more pardons and acts of clemency coming from the President and our Governors.”

One tyrant taking care of another

As I read the newspaper reports of Donald Trump’s granting a pardon to an unrepentant former Sheriff Joe Arpaio, I think back to asking for clemency for that young woman.  Truthfully, I’d be happy to see many more pardons and acts of clemency coming from the President and our Governors.  A shift towards a more compassionate criminal justice system in our nation is long-overdue, but that’s not what this is.  Instead, it’s a move away from a more compassionate system. It’s nothing more than one tyrant protecting another.  Trump didn’t pardon Arpaio  because Arpaio made a regretted mistake or because Arpaio has shown himself to be a man deserving of mercy.  Arpaio, a man who swore an oath to uphold the law, willfully defied that law and elevated himself to the role of judge, jury, and executioner when he defied an order from a federal Judge.  Trump pardoned Arpaio as a way of weakening Judicial authority and letting everyone know that, for those who are on Trump’s team, the Courts and the laws of our nation are not a factor.

“It’s nothing more than one tyrant protecting another.”

I wish that I could say that this is an anomaly in our legal system, but it’s not.  Too many times I’ve seen the well-connected and privileged protected by the system while people like the young girl whose clemency was denied by Jeb Bush are eaten alive by the system.  It really depresses me sometimes to work in a system that so often seems unfair.  I recall the words of a cynical law professor who said that the legal system exists to maintain the class structure in all but the most extreme cases.  I fear that soon, even extreme cases of injustice will no longer find a remedy in our legal system.

Anger on the Road to Fascism in America

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

Giant Taxpayer Funded Boondoggle – Wall with Mexico

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

President Donald Trump….A Tempest Released?

On election night I posted a statement on facebook that said “I now know what January 30, 1933 was like.” This was a reference to the date when Adolf Hitler first came to power in Germany.  Some people questioned my reasons for making the statement.  This blog post gives more of the reasoning behind my concerns and feelings.  

For Many The Campaign Watch Party Turned Into a Frightening Upset, but is there really a need for concern?
For Many The Campaign Watch Party Turned Into a Frightening Upset, but is there really a need for concern?

Are the implications of the recent election as bad as many are saying?  I think the answer is that the implications are worse than most Americans have ever imagined.  We are facing a social, political, and economic perfect storm that I truly believe has the potential to bring genocide to the United States.

While Donald Trump has certainly fanned and exploited the flames of discontent among rural white voters, he is hardly the cause of their distress.  For more than a generation the American middle class, especially those who worked in manufacturing and are not college educated, have been losing ground and in the process losing hope and purpose. Meanwhile, there has also arisen a fetishistic gun culture that no longer sees firearms as hunting tools, but as symbols of power and security with a special focus on near military grade weaponry.  This gun fetish has been reinforced and made more dangerous by those who claim a nonexistent constitutional right to resist governmental authority through armed rebellion shrouded in claims of patriotism.

Over 1,000 anti-government militia groups are operating in the United States today
Over 1,000 anti-government militia groups are operating in the United States today

This false idea of a right to armed resistance against our own government has permeated conservative culture and given rise to militia groups who are actively training for war against their fellow Americans.  According to the Southern Poverty Law Center, Since 2008 antigovernment militias have grown rapidly in the United States and now number nearly 1,000 different groups that are armed, actively training, and just waiting for an excuse to start shooting people. It is only a matter of time until these groups find their cause for violence.  Just days before the election we saw the jury trial and acquittal of armed members of the Bundy miliita who occupied federal lands at gun-point, and who had previously engaged in an armed show-down with federal agents who were trying to execute a judicial order.  Thus, it appears that armed resistance to the rule of law in the United States has become acceptable.

For decades, the conservative call has been that America cannot reach it’s true potential due to liberals, democrats, immigrants and those who refuse to work, but want to rely upon government handouts.  This message has morphed into an increasingly intolerant message of bigotry, racism, homophobia, and xenophobia that captures all but the conservative white Christian community.

It was these emotions, insecurities, and prejudices that Donald Trump tapped into during a campaign that resembled more of a reality television show than a competition of ideas envisioned by the founding fathers.  By insulting and humiliating the established politicians, by ignoring truth for the sake of maintaining a narrative, he mobilized the forgotten and angry in our nation.

The Republican Party Now Holds Overwhelming Influence on All 3 Branches of Government
The Republican Party Now Holds Overwhelming Influence on All 3 Branches of Government

To understand the full implications of this election, it is important to look beyond the presidency (Executive branch) and it impact upon the legislative and judicial branches.  It is my impression that people often view the president as all powerful, while ignoring the greater power and authority given to the legislative branch. After all, it is the legislative branch that passes laws, determines the budget, raises and lowers taxes.  The current election has delivered a government where the Presidency and the legislative branch (House and Senate) are Republican controlled.   There is no Democratic majority anywhere in government to force compromise. Furthermore, with one vacant Supreme Court seat, and more expected, there is an expectation that the Supreme Court will be packed with young highly conservative Judges who will impact American jurisprudence for decades to come.

This is where the danger lies.  No political party can deliver nirvana no matter how unrestrained it can operate.  This is one reason dictatorships so easily slide into genocide, they need a scapegoat.   Additionally, Donald Trump cannot possibly remedy the distress of the disappearing middle class and make good on his promise to return jobs to America.  Granted, he might persuade some manufacturing operations to return to the United States, especially if he removes environmental protections and gives them a free tax ride, but that’s not going to create jobs because manufacturing, which is increasingly robotized, no longer creates many jobs.

This gets to the actual crisis that we’re facing and why things can go so badly.  The threat to the American middle class is not foreign labor, it’s technology which is automating jobs out of existence at an ever-accelerating rate.  We can see this in just about every industry: the website airline check-in that displaces the airline counter employee; the self-checkout at the store that

Loss of working-class opportunities leaves many angry and disillusioned.
Loss of working-class opportunities leaves many angry and disillusioned.

displaces the cashier; the device on the restaurant table that lets you order food that displaces wait staff; intelligent farm equipment that displaces agricultural workers; the ATM and bank websites that displace bank employees; and e-readers that displace printers and bookstores. The future for employment looks even more bleak as we watch the development of self-driving vehicles which will displace truck and taxi drivers.  Technology is even being developed that will eventually lead to robotic surgery.

Understand, when jobs go the impact is much greater than loss of a paycheck.  For working-class Americans jobs are identity, they give meaning and purpose to our lives.  Employment provides opportunities for social engagement and create a sense of being valued.  We often hear the phrase that we should be “a contributing member of society”, which means, securing employment.  The identity of middle class American is that of a worker.

So, what happens when Trump is unable to deliver the nirvana that he has repeatedly promised in his campaign rhetoric?  What happens when not only doesn’t he deliver, but things continue to get worse for the middle class? What then?

I think we saw the answer in the campaign, Trump will find a scapegoat to vilify.  There will be a group, or number of groups who will be blamed for the unsolved problems.  There will be no “the buck stops here”, instead it will be tried and true conservative refrain of “Everything will be great except for those people”, and the vilification will begin. We saw Trump go to this time and time again during the campaign as he vilified groups such as calling Mexicans rapists, denouncing a respected Federal Judge of Mexican heritage, he spoke of banning Muslim immigration, he mocked the disabled,  he bragged about sexually assaulting women, and he ended his campaign with a profoundly antisemitic advertisement.  Short of a Willie Horton ad, he left no stone of bigotry unturned. I have no reason to believe that he won’t repeat his xenophobic scapegoating when the going gets tough during his presidency, which will inevitably happen.

Domestic ViolenceThe increasing economic inequality, along with the vilification of whatever group is chosen by Trump and other Republican leaders, the proliferation of militias and military style weaponry, and the decline in the rule of law are setting the stage for a genocide that could be both massive in size and scope while also destroying the fabric and integrity of the nation for generations to come.  It is only a matter of time before hateful rhetoric, anger, ineffective government, and access to weapons designed for killing people results in mass violence and social chaos. Moreover, there will be little government incentive to stop it because the excess population of displaced workers will have no economic value to the nation and the victims are likely to be political opponents of the oligarchy power structure.

I’m sure there are those who read this who will write me off as simply a disgruntled liberal.  Maybe history will prove them right.  I hope so.  However, I would remind you that so many who died during the Holocaust did so believing such a thing was impossible in Germany, a nation with a strong history of rule of law, education, and philosophy.  Like the United States today, Germany was faced with massive economic disruption and an ineffective government that was defined by strife rather than action.  The German middle class was disappearing and the people chose a political outsider who appealed to prejudice and nationalistic patriotism.   In the United States today, the stage has been set for a repeat of history and we can only hope it takes a different course.  Of course, the future remains unwritten, but there are storm clouds brewing in our nation and the problem is, if we follow the path of history, there may not be time and opportunity to find a safe haven.