Wh-wh-wh-what?

I had to go back and read it again: did that story indicate that Republicans and Democrats in the U.S. Senate are in agreement on a bill designed to fight off some future “January 6” effort to steal the results of the election?  Why, yes; yes it did:

Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has endorsed a bipartisan electoral count reform bill in the Senate, giving the legislation a key boost over a similar bill the House passed last week. Both bills seek to prevent future presidents from trying to overturn election results through Congress, and were directly prompted by the Jan. 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol by a pro-Trump mob seeking to stop the certification of Joe Biden’s electoral win.

The Electoral Count Reform and Presidential Transition Improvement Act, sponsored by Sens. Susan Collins (R-Maine) and Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.), would amend the Electoral Count Act of 1887 and reaffirm that the vice president has only a ministerial role at the joint session of Congress to count electoral votes, as well as raise the threshold necessary for members of Congress to object to a state’s electors.

Speaking on the Senate floor Tuesday afternoon, McConnell said he would “strongly support” the legislation…

(snip)

The Senate and House bills differ chiefly in how much they would change the threshold necessary for members of both chambers to object to a state’s results. Currently only one member each from the House and Senate are required to object to a state’s electors. The House electoral reform bill would raise that threshold to at least one-third of the members of both the House and the Senate, while the Senate version would raise that threshold to at least one-fifth of the members of both the House and the Senate.

I’m not saying this would solve all our problems; I am saying it is heartening (if a little surprising) to see members of both parties taking action to benefit the country instead of pandering to their hard-line supporters.  I could get used to this…

Walking the talk

For starters, they did ask—many times, starting before his term was even over, so don’t give me that “all they had to do was ask” bull.

The federal government tried and failed repeatedly for more than a year and a half to retrieve classified and sensitive documents from former President Donald J. Trump before resorting to a search of his Mar-a-Lago property this month, according to government documents and statements by Mr. Trump’s lawyers. (emphasis added)

The documents, including an unsealed, redacted version of an affidavit from the Justice Department requesting a warrant to conduct the search, make clear the lengths to which the National Archives and the department went before officials pursued a law enforcement action to recover the material.

The FBI knew that Trump had documents at his home in Florida that he was not supposed to have: he had already given them 15 boxes of official material in January of this year, and the FBI and the National Archives suspected there were more documents in Florida that should be returned to the government and that Trump was obstructing their efforts to retrieve them.  Why they thought that is undoubtedly in the redacted parts of the affidavit, parts we haven’t seen but which the federal magistrate judge did read and consider before approving the search warrant.

the affidavit states that the National Archives spent six months in the latter half of 2021 trying to get more documents. And then the FBI got involved. The Post…reported that all this year, Trump resisted handing much of anything over, to the point where his allies feared he was “essentially daring” the FBI to come after them.

Trump was also warned before he even left the White House that taking any official documents with him, let alone national secrets, was illegal under the Presidential Records Act. And even Trump’s attorneys agreed that the former president needed to give the documents back…

(snip)

Included in the paperwork with the affidavit was a formal notice that the redacted memorandum was being released. In it, the Justice Department writes that the redactions are necessary to protect “a broad range of civilian witnesses.”

“This language suggests that people inside Trump’s former administration, or at Mar-a-Lago, are providing information to the FBI,” [former federal prosecutor Barbara] McQuade said.

The redacted affidavit itself suggests that the investigation includes detailed monitoring of Mar-a-Lago to find out how many boxes of official material were still there and where they were being stored.

To be clear: the classified status of some of these documents is only part of the issue.  The laws make clear that no former president is permitted to take control of these types of records—”mere possession of these documents is a crime under some of the statutes cited in the affidavit, whether or not they are classified.”

Trump filed a legal motion this week, arguing that, as president, he had the right to declassify any classified documents and that his continued possession of the material was based on “executive privilege.” A judge should have no problem dismissing both arguments. First, while a president can declassify documents, there is a process for doing so; at the conclusion of the process, the special classified tabs and markings would be removed. Yet the tabs and markings are still on the documents retrieved from Mar-a-Lago. Second, mere possession, much less declassification, of some documents, such as those marked OCORN, must first be approved by the originating agency. That doesn’t seem to have been done either. Third, a president—certainly an ex-president—has no executive privilege to hold documents that properly belong to the National Archives.

If you think about it, Trump’s argument that he had declassified the classified documents…doesn’t help.

On top of which, the whole “I raised my magic hand and the documents were declassified” argument has a distinctly “what excuse do they have today” air about it.

These actions by the FBI and the Department of Justice are reassuring: federal law enforcement is walking the talk about no one being above the law.  And to those who’ve been clutching their pearls for almost three weeks now at the audacity of the government for having the nerve to search the home of a former president, I think the best and easiest response is to say, we’ve never had any reason to believe that any other former president had ever committed acts that would call for government action like this.  But this guy has.  And if you’re straining to keep up with all the other investigations involving the former guy, here’s some help.

Bubba

I found out this morning that a friend I’ve had since high school died yesterday.

Martin Cattoni was almost five months past his 65th birthday.  He retired about a year and a half ago after figuring out he had enough money to cover him the rest of his life, since the men in his family died relatively young.

He was in good health, it seemed: not fat like some of his friends, and he had discovered a new passion for bicycling…in fact, he had planned a biking trip to Paris later this year.

I’m told he went for a ride yesterday, did something like 40 miles before stopping to do his Pilates, then got back on the bike and rode home.  At home he felt chest pains, so he took himself to the hospital…where they could not save him.  Don’t know any more details yet.

We met in 19740400 Martin George Mike Pat Timhomeroom the day we showed up at high school, two 14-year-olds coming in from different junior highs.  We hit it off, the way some kids do.  Over the years we became better friends as we shared more classes in school and discovered common interests.

(Martin, George, Mike, Pat, Tim)

In music.

In sports.  (Both playing and watching)

In girls.  (Same)

Martin knew lots of girls, and he wasn’t afraid of them like001-stornant-1969-dodge-charger-driving-alt-2.JPG some of the rest of us were.  He introduced me to some really great girls.  We’d become good enough friends that we double-dated to the Senior Prom in his red 1969 Dodge Charger just a couple of months after we’d agreed to be roommates at college.

The day we packed our cars to drive off to Austin and whatever fortune awaited us, my father chauffeured our mothers as they each sent their first child off to college; Martin’s father had died, at age 58, during a family vacation to Paraguay when Martincito was 16.  It seems to me now that it took only a few minutes for us to carry all of our stuff from our cars on the street up to the second floor of the dorm and drop it on the floor; our moms wanted to help us unpack and put things away, an operation that they might have stretched out for hours.  But my dad stepped in: he suggested to them that we didn’t look like we needed any help…and after final hugs and kisses the three parents headed back to Houston and the two of us went looking for trouble.  (Yes we did, and yes, we did.)

We lived together those first three semesters of college: next door to two other friends from high school (Mike and Tim), directly across the hall from the communal bathroom, up the hill from Memorial Stadium and next door to the Texas Tavern, down the street from the dorm where we took meals and the gym where we played intramurals, three blocks from Scholz Garten and not much further than that to The Drag on the other side of campus.  I thought we couldn’t have had a sweeter setup.

My parents wanted me to concentrate on school during freshman year so I didthumbnail_IMG_2215n’t get a job right away, but Martin parlayed his substantial grocery store experience into a gig at a nearby Safeway within a week of us arriving.  He brought home two large plastic glasses that he thought we’d find useful, one in orange and the other in light green.  I still have mine.

Nothing lasts forever: in the middle of sophomore year Martin decided to transfer to school back in Houston.  We kept in touch, but it wasn’t the same.  He carved a new life with new interests and new friends.  We were together for his going away party when he left Houston in 1989 to work for a gas company in the East, on what turned out to be the day I quit my dream job in radio in Houston—we were, each of us, off on truly new, and separate, paths.

I still saw him occasionally when he’d come to Houston to visit his brother and sister.  The last time was this 20130300 Cattoni Ryan Piazzapast January, for a short midday lunch with another couple of our friends.  That’s where he told us about his biking, and told the story about having figured out he’d be OK to retire early, that he wouldn’t outlive his money.  He was right.  Dammit.

(Pascal, Tom, Martin, Pat)

It was a pleasant visit, and when we left we said goodbye in the way we had for years.  Handshake, pulling into a quick hug, and waving goodbye using the names we’d been given by our dormmates more than 45 years ago.

See you later, Bubba…

Fundamental dishonesty

It wasn’t a “driveway moment” because I wasn’t in my driveway, I wasn’t sitting in the car listening to the radio to hear the end of a story that had sucked me in.  No, I was still on the road headed home from the grocery store when I heard two words that broke through and provided some clarity of mind, finally, amid the onslaught of distressing rulings from the Supreme Court of the United States.

Just a week ago, the court’s six “conservative” justices ruled that a program in Maine that subsidizes tuition for certain private schools in rural areas of the state cannot exclude religious private schools from the program.  Two days later the same six found that a New York law placing strict limits on carrying guns in public violates the Second Amendment.  And the day after that, those same six members not only found that a Mississippi ban on abortions after just 15 weeks was constitutional, they went the extra step and overturned the nearly 50-year old precedent of their own court that established a woman’s right to an abortion.

The separation of church and state.  The rights to privacy, and to safety, individual liberty, and self-determination.  The targets of this Supreme Court and the “conservative” movement in general couldn’t be clearer.  With each new Republican-appointed justice on the court, and each new ruling by the new majority, they demonstrate their mission to remake America as a paradigm of Christian nationalism.  It seems clear that the decades-long mission to destroy the secular society that has grown up since World War II just can’t be denied, not even when the inconvenience of the facts gets in the way.

It was Nina Totenberg on the radio reporting on the ruling in favor of the high school coach who insisted on holding a prayer circle at midfield after football games, and Justice Neil Gorsuch’s opinion scolded the school district:

“Here, a government entity sought to punish an individual for engaging in a personal religious observance, based on a mistaken view that it has a duty to suppress religious observances even as it allows comparable secular speech. The Constitution neither mandates nor tolerates that kind of discrimination. Mr. Kennedy is entitled to summary judgment on his religious exercise and free speech claims,” Gorsuch wrote.

The three dissenters said that account of the facts blinkered reality (emphasis added). Writing for the three liberals, Justice Sonia Sotomayor said that Kennedy’s prayer was neither private speech, nor benign. She pointed to the fact that the coach conducted a media blitz leading ultimately to the field being stormed and students being knocked down. And she said “schools face a higher risk of unconstitutionally ‘coerc[ing] … support or participat[ion] in religion or its exercise’ than other government entities.”

“This decision does a disservice to schools and the young citizens they serve, as well as to our Nation’s longstanding commitment to the separation of church and state,” Sotomayor wrote. “Today’s decision elevates the rights of a school coach who voluntarily accepted public employment, over the rights of students required to attend public schools and who may feel obligated to join in prayer.” In doing so, Sotomayor claims, the court gives “short shrift” to the constitutions ban on state entanglement with religion.

University of Virginia law professor Douglas Laycock usually files briefs siding with religion advocates. But not in this case. He called Monday’s ruling, “fundamentally dishonest” and pointed to the third sentence of the Gorsuch opinion, which characterizes coach Kennedy’s conduct as “quiet isolated prayers,” stating, “They weren’t quiet and they weren’t isolated. They were leading the students in prayer, and to say that’s okay undermines all the school prayer cases.” By that he means Supreme Court decisions barring teacher- or student-led prayers in public school classrooms, and ceremonies like graduation.

It was like a fire alarm went off inside my head: “fundamentally dishonest.”

Yes—the fundamental dishonesty of these justices, and of the Christian religious extremists who have been fighting the secularization of American society for generations!  They have had a winking understanding with a certain segment of America: anything is permissible—the end justifies the means—when it comes to returning America to be the Christian country we all “know” it should be, including lying under oath in order to gain positions of power.  Don’t believe me?  Look at the video of the confirmation hearings over the years of the “conservative” justices now on the court: is it just a coincidence that when the Senate Judiciary Committees asked these nominees about Roe v. Wade, these individuals had the same answer, in virtually the same words, words meant to leave the impression that they believed in the doctrine of stare decisis in general and specifically for this case?  I think not.

In a concurring opinion on Dobbs, Justice Clarence Thomas says the quiet part out loud about using the wedge they perfected in overturning Roe to take aim at other precedents that guarantee other rights to Americans.

“In future cases, we should reconsider all of this Court’s substantive due process precedents, including Griswold, Lawrence, and Obergefell,” Thomas wrote on Page 119 of the opinion in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health, also referring to the rulings that legalized same-sex relationships and marriage equality, respectively.Because any substantive due process decision is ‘demonstrably erroneous’ … we have a duty to ‘correct the error’ established in those precedents.”

Just coincidence, right, that the other cases on his mind are the ones that guaranteed the rights to same-sex marriage, and same-sex sex, and the use of birth control.  BIRTH CONTROL!?  He wants to return to a time when the use of birth control by married couples in the privacy of their own home could be and was prohibited by states?  Who can even imagine such a thing?

I know who…so do you.  And I don’t take any comfort—at all—in the protestation from the other five “conservative” justices that “[n]othing in this opinion should be understood to cast doubt on precedents that do not concern abortion.”  When there is fundamental dishonesty, I have doubts.

Enough

Joe Holley is a writer here in Texas with a background in newspapers and magazines right up to his own books.  He writes the feature column Native Texan in the Houston Chronicle about Texas places and people and history, and today he started off referring to “The Captured,” a history of frontier Texas telling the story of Anglo children captured by Indians in the late 19th century.  He uses it to touch on the harshness of life on the Texas frontier in those days, facing not only the Natives but the constant threat of disease, and outlaws, you name it.  And yet, Holley says,

…it’s only today’s Texas, our Texas, that experiences mass shootings in a suburban high school, in churches, a Walmart, an Army base, the streets of Midland-Odessa, a Luby’s Cafeteria and a small-town elementary school. Our frontier forebears, whatever their own travails, would have been aghast, unbelieving.

I’m wondering, why aren’t all of us today just as aghast and unbelieving?  Sure, with each new horror we mumble some hopefully appropriate words to express shock and disbelief, but are we really so surprised?  I mean, it just keeps happening, over and over again; can we really still be shocked, and really feel the emptiness in the pits of our stomachs that we ought to feel when innocent children are massacred with weapons meant for war on the battlefield?  This time, in Uvalde, it was fourth graders…nine and ten year olds; it was six-and-seven-year olds in Sandy Hook in Newtown, Conn. ten years ago.  The Washington Post chose the almost arbitrary starting point of the Columbine shootings in 1999 and calculates that more than 311,000 American children, at 331 schools, have been exposed to gun violence at school in those years.  All the students in that time, right up through today’s college graduates, have normalized the grotesque concept of the active shooter drill as just a part of life.

Why would a person take a gun to a school and open fire at…some kids, ones they often don’t even know?  Why did I take a magnifying glass to school in the fourth grade and focus sunlight to burn holes in a classmate’s sweater I found hanging on a fence at recess?  Same response to both questions: who knows?  Short of finding that answer, we should be doing something to try to reduce the chances of our schools become killing grounds, and of our own children and those of our friends and neighbors becoming one of those small images in a large collection of class photos that identify the dead.

Holley recalls the 1937 natural gas explosion that killed some 300 students and teachers in New London, Texas, and that the Texas Legislature and then Congress responded to that by requiring the “odorization” of natural gas so future leaks could be detected before they became catastrophes.  What can we, through our elected representatives, do now to make a meaningful change in the normal course of business that will better protect our children’s lives when they simply go to school?

Among the common sense suggestions I’ve read since last week – and not that it hasn’t been suggested before – is that we stop letting children buy these guns legally.  Our laws prohibit those under age 21 from buying alcoholic beverages; why not guns, too?  Connecticut Sen. Chris Murphy, who’s been working on gun restriction legislation since he represented Newtown in the House of Representatives, argues that “most of these killers tend to be 18, 19 years old.” and PolitiFact has rated that claim as Mostly True: “That’s largely accurate when looking at school shootings alone, according to a Washington Post database of school shootings since 1999. The database did include shootings that did not result in a death, and the share of teenagers committing mass shootings overall is smaller.”

Also judged to be Mostly True is the assertion last week by Golden State Warriors coach Steve Kerr, that “90% of Americans, regardless of political party, want universal background checks.”  PolitiFact finds that “For years, polls have shown a majority of Americans support gun background checks for all buyers. Some polls show overall support in the ballpark of 90%. Support is lower among Republicans (emphasis added), but polls still indicate majority backing” for a review designed to make sure that guns are not being sold to people who are not permitted under law to possess guns, people who have been “convicted of a serious crime or committed to a mental institution.”

No right guaranteed under the United States Constitution is absolute.  The law recognizes, even when some Americans don’t or won’t, that rights come with some limitations.  Even your right to life is not absolute, not if you are convicted of committing a crime for which the approved punishment is the loss of your life.  Your right to be free of government censorship of your expression of your thoughts and feelings doesn’t mean your speech can endanger the health and safety of others with impunity.  And none of us has an unrestricted right to gun ownership.

Please, let’s get creative.  Adding mercaptan to AR-15s won’t stop school shootings, but expanding background checks and limiting gun ownership by minors will help.  We’ve got to find something else that will make a difference.  We can’t just accept that this is the way things have to be, and there’s nothing we can do.  I don’t want to settle for the situation Holley found himself in as he finished up his phone call with the Uvalde County Judge, Bill Mitchell:

When it came time to hang up, I tried to tell him how sorry I was. My voice broke. So did his. Perhaps for both of us, the faces of those little kids swam into view.

We were two men of a certain age. We’ve seen much over the years. Words failed us.