Rants, mumbling, repressed memories, recipes, and haiku from a professor at the University of St. Thomas Law School.
Thursday, July 29, 2021
PMT: It's looking good for Amtrak!
As the Biden administration settles in, one thing is clear: He is pretty much the same guy he always was: Not big on criminal justice reform, other than "studying" it. Someone who craves consensus, but too rarely gets it. And, of course, a guy who really really loves Amtrak.
Don't get me wrong-- I'm a fan of passenger rail, and I'm for pretty much anything that Pete Buttigieg promotes. The New York Times reports that the infrastructure bill currently in play includes $66 billion for Amtrak, dedicated to backlogged maintenance, new routes, and new equipment. Here in Minnesota, for example, there is the chance that we will get a rail route from St. Paul to Duluth and a second train daily between St. Paul and Chicago.
There are real advantages to train travel, and as airplanes become less appealing each year--what is it now, fistfights?-- sitting on a train doing work seems pretty appealing.
The other teachers I have profiled here would probably remember me, but I am confident that Paul Gewirtz, who taught me Constitutional Law at Yale, would not. He has had thousands of students in his classes, and nearly all of us remember it well.
He was a dedicated teacher, one who cared deeply about his subject and was good at explaining it (it is surprising how often one of those things does not go with the other). For a while, he co-taught with his political opposite, Robert Bork, which reportedly made for a phenomenal class. Many of my classmates, of course, saw themselves as future Con Law profs themselves, so there was always a lively debate on key topics, and he managed it well. (For the record, I didn't even see myself as a future Crim Law prof at that point).
That period at the end of the 80's and into the 90's was a tempestuous time in the life of the Constitution, too, so we were living through the cases and history that students study now. I was lucky to have such a skilled guide.
If there is one tragic constant about the Justice Department, no matter which administration is in power, it is this: DOJ is bold in the easy job of locking people up and timid in the more difficult task of crafting alternatives to brute-force incarceration. Consistently, DOJ fights common-sense reform, maintains a stranglehold on access to the rusted levers of change, and resists second-guessing its decisions. Asking DOJ to do better has not worked, no matter who has occupied the top appointed positions there. It is not a question of getting the right people in place in positions of power. It is, instead, a fundamental issue of institutional failure that requires fundamental institutional reform. It is time to limit the breadth of the Justice Department to its core prosecutorial functions and to develop broader governmental institutions to address other functions now under its awkward, too-large umbrella.
Last night I was watching the Olympic skateboarding competition, which was fascinating. In part because the announcers are kind of relentlessly positive-- "He didn't land any tricks, but it sure looks like he will do a great job on the next phase of this competition"-- and in part because the sport involves some amazing athletes.
One guy had a pretty bad day. He kept falling off his board. His tricks didn't work. And at the end of the run, he fell on his back and his phone fell out of his pocket, and he looked at it like maybe the screen was broken. And, of course, the whole thing was televised around the world.
But then he got to start over and have another run.
We've all had those moments, and some of us have had them televised. That includes the people who win championships, who change the world, who make things better.
They just all gave us another moment to remember, after the one that we shouldn't. The world, it turns out, can be more forgiving than we expect.
Today we finally get the opening ceremonies for the 2020 (ahem) Olympics! I know, I know-- having them is probably a bad idea, and the Japanese hosts seem to realize that (at least the citizens do). But I'm having trouble resisting my normal excitement.
I'm not sure what the opening ceremonies will be, actually. And it seems like the games have already begun, since the US Women's Soccer Team was thumped by Sweden 3-0 already. But there are some pretty high standards to meet.
My favorite opening/closing ceremonies were features of the 2012 Summer Games in London. Yes, there was a Spice Girls reunion, but also slices of all kinds of British culture. And the Queen and her corgies. I can't stand royalty (I'm an American), but the dogs are cute.
As a student at John R. Barnes Elementary School, I spent a fair amount of time with my class in the music room with the music teacher, Dr. Fenton. I remember the names of composers she had up above the chalkboard:
You know... it was the 70's. It was somewhat confusing that she was "Dr. Fenton," and it wasn't until much later that I realized she must have had a doctorate in music.
At Barnes, I became convinced that I was bad at music. Looking back, that's unfortunate; it steered me away from what is a wonderful part of many people's lives.
Tomorrow at 4 EDT (3 Central), I'll be participating in a short webinar for FASPE (the Fellowships at Auschwitz for the Study of Professional Ethics) on race and criminal justice, along with Shannon Prince and Father Stephen Bell. Their last guest was historian Eric Foner, so the bar is set high!
How We Repair It: The Arc of Justice — A Conversation with Mark Osler
America have a justice system or an injustice system? Do racial
disparities in incarceration and police brutality mean that the system
is broken – or that it’s working exactly as designed? And how can the
arc of the moral universe be bent toward justice? We’ve invited Mark
Osler, a renowned social justice lawyer and legal scholar — who is also
a preacher — to join us for a discussion about the infrastructure of
oppression and the art of changing the world.
Featuring: Prof. Mark Osler, Professor and Robert and Marion Short Distinguished Chair in Law, University of St. Thomas
Dr. Shannon Prince (FASPE Law 2016), Attorney, Boies, Schiller & Flexner, LLP
Father Steven Bell
(FASPE Board Member & Seminary Faculty), Priest and Associate
Pastor, Newman Hall/Holy Spirit parish, University of California at
The Olympic Ring colors can be found in the flags of all nations.
The Medievalist had one I did know:
Trucks and flags and guns, Flying flags on vehicle. Seems a bit hostile.
Andrew had an opinion (which makes sense-- it is a good flag):
Colorado has The best flag and license plate No one else comes close.
And IPLawGuy had a bunch, of which I liked these two best:
Virginia Flag Latin motto, deep purple Dead guy on the Ground.
Ohio Pennant Unique amongst all states Which strikes me as odd.
Also, just as a side note, if you are really into state symbolism and you live in Elkhart or something, please consider these Indiana State Flag leggings (which I'm sure Mike Pence approves of), which are available at Zazzle:
Because of continuing restrictions on entry into Canada, it looks like I will not be able to go to remote Osler Island this year. That makes me sad, and it kind of hurts my soul.
Part of it is, of course, that I love that place and the people I share it with. Had I been able to go last year, it would have been my 50th consecutive year spending time there. So, yes, I miss the place.
But on a deeper level, that week or two is a retreat in the best sense-- time away from the tumult that I invite into my life through my work and other responsibilities. We see Jesus doing this, after all: retreating to the wilderness. It was there he encountered things he did not when he was surrounded by people. And sometimes, I would imagine, we was just resting.
Sometimes, in the morning there, I will get up and pad out to a point of the island that juts out towards the deepest part of Lake Saganaga. I sit on a rock.
Who doesn't love Alaska's flag? Simple, elegant, meaningful:
On the other hand, we have Minnesota's overburdened flag:
Seriously, who came up with this? The blue is nice, but then there is a little bulls-eye in the middle with way too much action. Here is a close-up of that:
So there's a tree stump-- nice. And a Native American appears to be riding by the land stolen from his people as a guy in a hat uses a plow. In the back, it looks like... maybe a drained lake? There are many unexplained dates floating around, and what look like onions are garnishing the periphery. Well, that sums up the state pretty well!
Let's haiku about flags this week. Here, I will go first:
Awarded under flying
Banners. Look for ours...
Now it is your turn! Just use the 5/7/5 syllable pattern, and have some fun!
In 2020, a record 93,000 Americans died of drug overdoses, according to the Washington Post. That's about a 30% increase over the year before. It's almost one-third the number of people who died of COVID last year. The overwhelming majority of the overdoses involved opioids.
This is a spectacular failure.
It's a failure of public health. It's a failure of law enforcement. It's a failure of culture, and of values.
More than anything, it's a failure to pay attention to what matters most. While the traditional war on drugs was doing its thing-- and, as always, doing it with little real impact on actual drug use-- US drug companies were hooking Americans on opioids. OxyContin was advertised and pushed and marketed to doctors, and the Sackler family got filthy rich by pushing these drugs. None of them were ever convicted of anything, of course.
It's bizarre to me that so many Americans think they can ensure their safety by having a gun in their house-- a claim that is straight-up wrong-- but trot home from the hospital or a clinic or a street corner with a pocketful of lethal, highly addicted pills that have probably already killed someone they know.
The war on drugs not only didn't work, but it distracted us from the worst drug epidemic of our time, in terms of death. And now we are paying the price.
Rachel Barkow and I have an Op-Ed (er, I guess they call them "Guest Essays" now) in today's New York Times. You can read it here.
All the way back to the primaries, we feared that now-President Biden would win and then replicate Obama's first-term timidity on clemency... and so far, that is what is happening. There is a backlog of over 15,000 petitions, and another issue as well-- 4,500 people who have been released on home confinement and who have done well, proving that their sentences can be safely commuted.
Earlier this summer, just a few weeks ago, I was in Death Valley. It was an overwhelming, purifying dry heat that day-- between 107 and 110 degrees. The sweat evaporated right off my skin, so it did not even seem like I was sweating.
This weekend, it was 20 degrees hotter than that.
The West, especially, is consumed with heat and fire this summer. Yes, I think it is connected to climate change. But whether you believe that or not, there is no doubting that this is happening. And that raises some important questions.
A big one is about water. Reservoirs like Lake Powell are only at about 36% of capacity, and shrinking fast in the heat and drought. The wisdom of more and more people moving to places like Phoenix seems questionable. That part of the Earth just doesn't have enough of what people need in its natural state, and our artifices and constructions are coming apart. As with people who choose to live on barrier islands that inevitable erode and shift, the rest of us will end up subsidizing their choices.
Of course, buying a home in Phoenix or Miami Beach is what rich people do, and we usually DO subsidize their bad, bold choices in a way we often refuse to consider when the people making the choices are poor (or even when it is not their choice at the root of the tragedy, actually). That's wrong-- and something we need to think about when things go wrong. Should we help them find a new house? Sure... but only if we are willing to help the people who lost their house when they lost their job.
Last week I found myself sitting by this little stream in Michigan. Its formal name is Allen Creek, but it is just one of a lot of little streams that flow into bigger rivers in Western Michigan.
It's a lovely little creek. Deer drink from it, frogs peek out from it, and a bear lives near it. But I was thinking about the little tiny drops of water in that little stream. Without them, there is no stream, of course. And where do they go?
To the bigger river, the South Branchof the Pere Marquette, and then to the Pere Marquette itself. Then, it rolls into Lake Michigan, that huge tub of water, and then to the even bigger (by surface area) Lake Huron. From there it would go down the Huron River to Lake St. Clair, on whose shores I grew up. Then down the Detroit River to Lake Erie and OVER Niagara Falls to Lake Ontario, and from there down the St. Lawrence Seaway and into the Atlantic Ocean, that amazing sea that makes England warm and nestles firm against Africa.
It's quite a journey!
Maybe we are just a drop of water, on of billions. But is that anything less than spectacular?
Someone was distributing this card at CPAC, and the web site referenced is, um, along the same lines.
IPLawGuy was recently talking about a South Park Episode where a business plan had these three steps: "Phase 1: Collect underpants. Phase 2: ?. Phase 3: Profit!" This seems to suffer the same fatal flow, though it gets right to the problem in Point 1. I'm pretty sure Nancy Pelosi melting is not going to happen.
There are weird theories on all sides, of course, but this one really leans into the magical thinking!