Monthly Archives: January 2022

The Crisis over Ukraine Continues

As we’ve been hearing for weeks, Russia has approximately 100,000 soldiers amassed close to the border with Ukraine, appearing ready to invade.  President Biden, while he has explicitly said that U.S. troops won’t be sent to Ukraine, has threatened Russian President Vladimir Putin with severely punitive economic sanctions if the invasion takes place.  He has also ordered about 5,000 U.S. troops to be ready for possible deployment, not to Ukraine, but to neighboring Eastern European countries–countries that are members of NATO (see below)–to make sure Russia knows better than to invade those countries and, perhaps, as a symbolic show of support for Ukraine.  The U.S. is also providing arms to Ukraine.  Great Britain is totally supporting the U.S. in all this; Germany and France are supporting the U.S. somewhat.

To make sense out of any of this, it’s important to identify exactly what NATO is and where it fits in.  The North Atlantic Treaty Organization was created in 1949 when the Cold War was heating up.  At that time, Russia was the Soviet Union and had installed Communist satellite dictatorships in most Eastern European countries in the aftermath of World War II.  (World War II started in 1939; the U.S. entered it at the end of 1941.  The U.S., Britain, and the Soviet Union were fighting on the same side against Hitler’s Nazi regime in Germany.)  NATO, at the time of its founding, consisted of the U.S. and its mostly Western European allies, with the mutual pledge that an attack on one was an attack on all, designed to inhibit the Soviet Union from attempting to extend its control into Western Europe.  The Communist countries of Eastern Europe had their own alliance with Soviet Russia, known as the Warsaw Pact.

It also needs to be noted that in the years of the Soviet Union, Ukraine was part of the Soviet Union.  When the Soviet regime collapsed in 1991, Ukraine (like several other countries including Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Georgia) became an independent nation-state.  In 2014, Russia invaded Ukraine and took control of a region called Crimea, which had previously been part of Russia and had a fair proportion of Russian sympathizers in its population.

Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, a number of Eastern European countries, though not including Ukraine, have joined NATO.  (Here’s NATO’s website with the full list.  Note, by the way, that in the years of the Cold War Germany was divided between the Communist East and the anti-Communist West, and it was West Germany that joined NATO in 1955.)  Putin doesn’t like that, nor does he like having a country moving toward being a Western-style liberal democracy right on Russia’s borders.  (Putin has no intention of letting Russia be any sort of democracy.)  Putin is demanding a promise that Ukraine will never join NATO; he also wants NATO to pull back its involvement in Eastern Europe.

And now a note on the punitive economic sanctions being threatened.  France and Germany get a lot of their fuel from Russia.  Biden would like to see France and Germany punish Russia by cutting back on their purchases, but actually, Russia is in at last as good a position to punish France and Germany by cutting off sales completely.

Whatever Putin plans to do, it’s going to wait a few weeks, because there’s apparently an understanding between Russia and China that Russia isn’t going to do anything that will upstage the Winter Olympics that are about to be held in Beijing.

The news feeds attached to this OpenLab site have constant updates on this crisis as well as other political news; interested persons should check those out.  Here’s a report on NPR, January 31, 2022, and here’s an article about the British role on the Politico site, January 31, 2022.

Newsflash: Justice Breyer Will Retire

Liberal Supreme Court justice Stephen Breyer has announced that this will be his last season.  The Democrats in the Senate intend to lose no time confirming his successor, and it is fully expected that Biden will keep his campaign promise to nominate an African American woman.  The Senate Democrats are earnestly hoping that Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema won’t give them a hard time, and also that the Republicans won’t pull any delaying tactics.

Article in Politico, January 26, 2022

Back at the Court: Affirmative Action in Higher Education

Years ago, the elite colleges routinely discriminated against African Americans in their admissions practices.  When psychologist Kenneth Clark applied to the doctoral program at Cornell University, he received a letter telling him that, although he met all the requirements, they were denying him entrance because, as they put it, “you wouldn’t be happy here.”  (Clark wrote them back to tell them that he was perfectly capable of tending to his own happiness, then proceeded to get his PhD from Columbia.)  Now, elite colleges want racially diverse student bodies, and thus they want  to engage in some degree of race-based Affirmative Action to ensure diversity.

It needs to be noted that admissions offices at competitive colleges employ all kinds of measures of diversity in the selection processes.  With or without race as a factor, they want students from different regions, different cultural backgrounds, different interests (they want some of their students to be athletes, some to be actors, singers, dancers, etc.), and different everything else.  It also needs to be noted that Harvard (one of the defendants in the cases the Court will soon be hearing) openly practices legacy admission, giving special preference to the sons and daughters of Harvard alumni.

The Supreme Court has made a number of things clear.  First, the Fourteenth Amendment does not require state universities to use race-based criteria to correct historic imbalances, and thus states are free to prohibit it.  Secondly, it is not all right to have quotas, that is, seats expressly reserved for nonwhites or members of other protected affinity groups (Regents of University of California v. Bakke, 1978).  Third, when a university does take race into account as part of a broader system of angling for diversity in its admissions, the system that it uses must be narrowly tailored to serve a compelling interest and must be able to withstand strict scrutiny (Grutter v. Bollinger, 2003).  A more recent attempt to drive a stake into the heart of race-based Affirmative Action failed; that was the Abigail Fisher case (Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin, 2016).

But there is a differently configured Supreme Court now.  Three of the currently sitting justices–Roberts, Alito, and Thomas–were on the side of prohibiting any consideration of race at all in college admissions, and they have been joined by three Trump appointees–Gorsuch, Kavanaugh, and Barrett–who are likely to agree.  And the Court has just agreed to hear two Affirmative Action cases in the coming year, one involving Harvard (for which the relevant law is the Civil Rights Act of 1964, because Harvard is a private university), the other involving the University of North Carolina (for which the Fourteenth Amendment applies, because UNC is a state school).  In the suit against Harvard, the claim is that Harvard’s policy discriminates against Asian students, in spite of the fact that Asian numbers at Harvard are actually greater than the numbers of African American students.

Like the Abigail Fisher case, these two cases are being orchestrated by an organized interest group, Students For Fair Admissions (SFFA).  In fact, this interest group is run by the same individual who was behind Abigail Fisher’s suit, Leon Blum.

If Blum’s group wins, it may still be possible for colleges to ensure racial diversity in more subtle ways.  What effect it will have on racial diversity at elite colleges if the suits win remains to be seen, but given the current makeup of the Court, that is a very real possibility.

Article in Politico, January 24, 2022

Press Freedom, Libel, and Sarah Palin’s Suit against the Times

Sarah Palin is suing the New York Times for an opinion piece that ran on June 14, 2017.  In that opinion piece, the editorial board of the Times referred to a parking lot shooting that had occurred in 2011 in Tucson, Arizona, where six people were killed and Democratic representative Gabby Giffords was wounded.  The editorial, in its original form, implied that Sarah Palin’s Political Action Committee bore some responsibility for the shooting for having displayed a map with Rep. Giffords shown at the end of a gun sight as a target.  In corrected form, the editorial made clear that it was Rep. Giffords’ district that was displayed in that manner, and that no connection had been shown between that campaign ad and the shooting.  (Here is the corrected version.) Not long after, the editorial board member responsible for that careless wording left the staff of the Times.  For the initial suggestion that Palin had done something to encourage violence against Rep. Giffords and other elected officials, Palin is suing for libel.

When it comes to libel suits brought by public figures, there is a clear and well-known rule of law that applies.  It comes from a 1964 Supreme Court ruling, New York Times v. Sullivan.  That case involved a suit brought by the police commissioner of Montgomery, Alabama, over an ad that had been placed by civil rights activists describing his behavior in a bad light.  The ad had some factual errors, which formed the basis of his suit.

As we all know, the First Amendment assures that there will be “freedom of the press,” and as we also know, the press can still be sued for defamation.  How to reconcile those two necessities?  In the New York Times v. Sullivan ruling, the Court articulated the standard for a libel suit brought by a public figure, summed up in these words:

The constitutional guarantees require, we think, a federal rule that prohibits a public official from recovering damages for a defamatory falsehood relating to his official conduct unless he proves that the statement was made with ‘actual malice’—that is, with knowledge that it was false or with reckless disregard of whether it was false or not.

And thus, Police Commissioner Sullivan lost that case, and it will now be the task of Sarah Palin to convince a federal district court in New York City that the New York Times acted with malice or with reckless disregard for the truth when it ran that editorial.

The trial was originally set for this week, but it has had to be delayed, because the plaintiff has COVID.  Palin is unvaccinated, and is quoted as having said such vaccinated would happen “over my dead body.”  (Side note:  Even Trump has gotten vaccinated; he’s been booed at rallies when encouraging his devotees to do same.)  Assuming that her dead body doesn’t become a reality, jury selection is set to start next week.

Full text of New York Times v. Sullivan

Article in Politico, January 23, 2022

Article in Politico, January 24, 2022

Biden’s First Year: His Successes Seem Weighted Down by His Failures

President Joe Biden has been in office for a whole year now.  He successfully got Congress to pass two major spending bills, one for COVID relief early in the year and one for infrastructure in the fall.  Unemployment is down.  Even so, his approval rating is around 42% now, and many are questioning his effectiveness as a leader.  This article in Politico by Jonathan Lemire discusses his current situation.

Article in Politico, January 19, 2022

January 6 Anniversary: Biden and Trump on This Occasion

On the first anniversary of the violent insurrection at the Capitol building that grew out of Trump’s “Stop the Steal” rally, Vice President Harris and President Biden spoke of the threat to democracy posed by the lie that the election was stolen.  Harris spoke of the importance of passing federal voting rights legislation (which is up against some serious obstacles), and Biden went on at great length about Trump’s actions that day, including the fact that he sat back and did nothing about it for at least a couple of hours while knowing it was going on.

My fellow Americans in life, there’s truth. And tragically, there are lies. Lies conceived and spread for profit and power. We must be absolutely clear about what is true and what is a lie. And here’s the truth: the former president of the United States of America has created and spread a web of lies about the 2020 election. He’s done so because he values power over principle.

Because he sees his own interest as more important than his country’s interest and America’s interest. And because his bruised ego matters more to him than our democracy or our constitution. He can’t accept he lost. Even though that’s what 93 United States senators, his own attorney general, his own vice president, governors and state officials in every battleground state have all said: he lost. (Video of Harris and Biden’s speeches at C-Span) (Transcript of Biden’s speech at NPR)

Trump was planning to hold a press conference today at Mar-a-lago, but he canceled it, giving this as an explanation:

In light of the total bias and dishonesty of the January 6th Unselect Committee of Democrats, two failed Republicans, and the Fake News Media, I am canceling the January 6th Press Conference at Mar-a-Lago on Thursday, and instead will discuss many of those important topics at my rally on Saturday, January 15th, in Arizona—It will be a big crowd!  (Story on CBS News, January 5, 2022)

Holding that press conference today would have been in shockingly bad taste even for Trump–again, even for Trump–but he is obviously going to continue insisting that the election was stolen from him and doing everything he can to punish Republicans who have not stood by him as he has made that false claim.  He’s holding a big gala fundraiser/forum at Mar-a-Lago in February, to help shore up the campaigns of the candidates he is endorsing in Republicans primaries around the country, candidates who are loyal to him and running against Republicans who are not. (New York Times article via Yahoo! News, January 5, 2022)  Meanwhile, a number of individuals from Trump’s own administration are getting together to see how they can stop him from getting back into the White House.  (Article on Politico.com, January 6, 2022)

Further commentary about Biden’s speech on Politico.com, January 6, 2022

NPR report on the timeline of the events of that day, January 3, 2022

Looking Ahead to This Year’s Congressional Elections

As we’re aware, the Democrats currently have a slim majority in the House of Representatives and a precarious majority in the Senate that is only made possible by Vice President Harris casting the tie-breaking vote where there are 50 Republicans and 50 Democrats (technically, 48 Democrats and two Independents who caucus with the Democrats).  This coming November, there is a midterm round of congressional elections.  Obviously, both parties are striving hard to have the majority in both chambers of Congress in these elections.  With that in mind, I want to make you aware of a website that is tracking the races in both chambers.

First, let’s consider the Senate.  Please click this link.  It needs to be remembered that one-third of Senate seats come up for election every two years.  This year, there are 34 Senate elections.  Of those 34, as seen on this interactive map, there are 9 seats that are considered secure wins for the Democrats, 2 seats that are considered probable wins for the Democrats (one more so than the other), 14 seats that are considered secure wins for the Republicans, 3 seats that are considered probable wins for the Republicans (2 more so than the third), and–here’s the significant part now–6 seats that are considered highly competitive, seats that could swing either way.  Those seats are the ones in Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, North Carolina, Georgia, Arizona, and Nevada.  Of those six states, all except North Carolina went for Biden in 2020, but that does not mean anything definitive.  These are ALL states that went for Trump in 2016.

Now, the House.  Please click this link now. A key complicating factor is that as a result of the 2020 census, the districts are being redrawn, and in some states that process still hasn’t been completed, which means we still don’t know exactly what the House districts are going to be.  In the House, every district comes up for election every two years, and this website provides a list of 33 seats that are considered highly competitive.

In a number of these races, there are going to be primary election battles between the Trump loyalists and anti-Trump Republicans, and at present, it’s the Trump loyalists who are most likely to win Republican primaries, because the majority of Republican voters still favor Trump and think that a good Republican is one who is loyal to Trump.  How that will affect the general elections remains to be seen.  Republicans are still able to win votes on “culture wars” issues, like the belief that the Democrats want to teach so-called “critical race theory” in the public school classrooms.  Aside from that, it also needs to be remembered that the president’s party typically loses seats in Congress in midterm elections, and we currently have a Democratic president with an approval rating hovering at around 42%, pretty much were Trump was for much of his presidency.

Both parties are going to be treating these elections as vital, and we can definitely expect a lot of political drama this year surrounding them.  Be sure to follow closely, and feel free to post your thoughts on the OpenLab discussion board any time.

 

 

 

Update: Federal Vaccine Mandate for Workers Is Back On

Some weeks ago in my fall semester American Government classes, we took a close look at this ruling by the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals in Louisiana, in which that court blocked from taking effect OSHA’s new regulation requiring either vaccine or COVID tests in for workers whose employers had 100 or more employees.  In that ruling, the appeals court found that OSHA, a regulatory agency under the Department of Labor, had exceeded its power to issue emergency regulations and that the federal government as a whole had exceeded its power under the interstate commerce clause to regulate private business.  But on December 17, another appeals court–the Sixth Circuit, in Ohio–reversed that ruling, reinstating OSHA’s mandate.  (Here is that ruling.)

Before an issue gets to the Supreme Court, lower courts have a way of resembling two or more kids playing in a room where there’s more than one switch for the ceiling light:  one kid turns it on; another kid, at another switch, turns it right back off.  In this instance, because there were multiple cases in different districts and circuits challenging the OSHA regulation, a special panel that handles that kind of situation invoked the lottery system, where one circuit court would be chosen to handle the consolidation of all of those cases.  The Sixth Circuit won the lottery and thus got to make this ruling.  They’re still hearing the merits of the case, and it’s pretty clear that the Supreme Court will have the final word on the issue.

Meanwhile, a district court in Louisiana has ruled that Biden exceeded his authority when he ordered Head Start teachers vaccinated and ordered the Head Start pupils to be masked.  Head Start is a federally funded program providing preschool education to low-income children; it is a creation of Lyndon B. Johnson’s Great Society.  As with the other issue, this one involves a suit brought by multiple states.  Thus, the dynamics of federalism, that is, the relationship (often conflictual) between national and state levels of government, and of checks and balances, the ways that the three branches of the federal government limit each other’s power, are alive and well in this COVID crisis.

Reuters article about the Sixth Circuit ruling, December 17, 2021

Yahoo! article about the Head Start ruling, January 1, 2022