Friday, September 30, 2016


Haiku Friday: The Rain

It is the time of year when we appreciate that the rain is not yet snow (at least in Minnesota). But it is a part of the fall.

Let's haiku about that this week. Here, I will go first:

Step out of the car
And leap! Must clear the puddle
Close... I am not young.

Now it is your turn! Use the 5/7/5 syllable formula, and have some fun!

Thursday, September 29, 2016


Political Mayhem Thursday: The Long View on Obama

Tonight I was driving home after giving a talk in St. Paul and flipped on the radio. There was President Obama, in an informal discussion about veteran's issues. He was smart and easygoing and sincere and sometimes funny. What he said made sense, and he acknowledged that reasonable people disagreed with him on some of the points. It wasn't that different than many talks he has given over these almost-eight years.

It was a stark contrast from what we heard from both candidates in this week's debate, and it made me nostalgic for something-- the Obama administration-- that is not quite done. Certainly, I have disagreed with some things this president has done. In fact, I have written over a dozen critical op-eds and went on a rant at the White House itself. Still, I think that this president has done a remarkable job, and may be the best of my adult life. We did not get embroiled in war. He engaged in addressing important issues, including clemency. He spoke in a very real way to many of our nation's greatest needs.

Are you nostalgic? Or something less positive?

Wednesday, September 28, 2016


Things that matter

In this election season, like the last one, and the one before that, I hear people on both sides talking as if the most important thing in determining the outcome of their lives is who gets elected President of the United States. How many times now has it been declared that 1988 or 1992 or 2000 or 2008 or 2016 is "the most important election of our lives" because if the wrong choice is made this country will never be the same?

Well... this country will never be the same as it is right now in a few years regardless of who wins the election. That's how history works with complex organisms like large nations. We are terrible at predicting what it is that creates those changes, too-- there will be surprises and that is inevitable because so many things come together to shape our collective society. Politics and the government that results is just one of those factors, and often an insignificant one.

More importantly, the decisions we make about what to do with our own lives will almost always be more significant to our individual outcomes than anything a president does. The vocation you choose, the relationships you nurture, even the car you buy are probably going to matter more than what President Trump/Clinton does. Even a war doesn't directly affect many Americans other than service members and their families. If you don't believe me about that, talk to a veteran about what it is like to come home from an overseas deployment to find that everyone back here had pretty much forgotten about what was going on in Afghanistan or Iraq and went about their business.

I know several people who are remarkably talented in their field, but at the moment are unable to converse for long without reverting to obsessive and often apocalyptic diatribes about the presidential election. Meanwhile, the beauty and eloquence of the complicated and exquisite life they live out otherwise is shoved roughly beneath the ugliness of politics that gets slopped over the top of everything.

My state once elected Jesse Ventura as governor. He was a pro wrestler before that. You know what happened? Well... pretty much what always happens. Some people got married, and it was a stunning, wonderful moment. Others suffered with a loved one who was dying. Some took a new job that either brought fulfillment or misery. Not much had to do with Jesse Ventura.

Much as we would often like to believe that someone else is primarily responsible for our success or failure, that is rarely true. 

So... take a breath. I will too. And then let's all make good choices about those things we actually control. Politics matters, but not as much as we seem to think.

Tuesday, September 27, 2016


Grit and the City

 I love my Dad's blog post for this week, and suspect that you will, too

Besides the pictures, this is my favorite part:

Detroit and jazz are both often described as hard driving and gritty.  This is a good thing according to most fans of the Motor City. We tend to take pride in the perseverance of those who have hung in there in bad times and the good times.

I'm sure many people will recognize what I do when I read this-- that my dad is pretty gritty himself.

Monday, September 26, 2016


A bad day at the Vet!

The consensus seemed to be that Desiree's haiku was the most troubling/awesome of them all last week, on the subject of lousy jobs:

Vet office intern.
Plucked fur off cat testicles,
and some fun stuff too.


Just be glad that I am foregoing a picture of this. Anyways, check out her blog, The Green Momster (and don't worry, it does not have a photo of this, either!).

Sunday, September 25, 2016


Sunday Reflection: The joy of small things

Yesterday was my Mom's birthday, and I have been reflecting on things that I have learned from her, however awkwardly or incompletely. Yes-- don't worry-- I also called her and sent a little present, but that doesn't mean I haven't also thought long and hard about a few great moments.

One of my mother's great gifts has always been to find beauty and grace in nearly any place or situation. She is the one who notices the wildflowers growing by the abandoned crack house, or hue of a perfect tomato. It's something I have learned to look for, and allow in when we are someplace together.

It seems that focusing on small beauty, the beauty in the spaces, can really bring joy. It also is more reliable that trying to see big things as beautiful, or hero-izing people or institutions that are inevitably complex and disappointing.  I might hear brute stupidity in what someone says; it could be that my mom hears the same, but what she notes is his use of the right word or reluctance to compound something hurtful. 

It must mean something that God speaks to us in a "still small voice." Perhaps we need to listen in that same spirit.

Saturday, September 24, 2016



Sorry I got a little behind on blogging-- I was out in Port Aransas, Texas, with Henry Wright and others. It was a fantastic weekend, and now I am ready to pick up the pace...

Friday, September 23, 2016


Haiku Friday: Bad Jobs

I love my job. But I don't pretend that every job is great. In fact, I've had some not-so-great ones myself. 

Let's haiku about that today. It can be a job you had for a year or a day; maybe not a bad job as such, but just one that you were bad at. That's what mine is about:

World's worst bartender--
I knew how to make two drinks
Customers baffled.

Now it is your turn! Just use the 5/7/5 formula, and have some fun!

Thursday, September 22, 2016


Political Mayhem Thursday: Race and the Election

Last week, Hank Shea and I moderated a great discussion about race and policing.

This week, Charlotte NC exploded with protests after a black man was shot dead by the police there.

This is not a topic that is going to go away, nor should it. Yet, other than the vaguest of generalities, I don't hear it discussed much within the political races in this election cycle. Hillary Clinton has listed it as a problem... but her website puts "criminal justice reform" and "racial justice" literally at the bottom of her long list of positions (really-- you can check it out here). Even at that, the "racial justice" page (linked here) says nothing about policing. At least there, she ignores the bloody core of the Black Lives Matter movement's concerns (though she has talked about it on the stump). 

Meanwhile, Donald Trump's short list of issues and positions doesn't come close to the issue.

The great enduring question in America has long been and will be about racial equality.  Given that there are literally riots in the streets, how is it that this is not a part of the campaign?

Wednesday, September 21, 2016


Guy with some papers

The artwork above, by Minneapolis illustrator Bill Frerenc, is the cover for the most recent St. Thomas alumni magazine. Inside, you will find a great story by Jeanne Bishop about some of my work.

I'm a very lucky person to get such attention, which is often undeserved. The truth is that on each of the cases for which we sought clemency it was my students who did much of the work, and did it exceptionally well. More than anything, I am grateful for a job where I get to both teach and learn.

And to answer the question some people have had: No, despite the vague resemblance to the figure at the bottom of the picture, we did not get Conan O'Brien out of prison. As far as I know, he is still incarcerated.

Tuesday, September 20, 2016


From the Valley News...

A report from my panel at Vermont Law School last week... you can see it here.  I would note that I was saying that drugs are a market for harmful products, just like casinos and fast food-- not that those things pose equivalent dangers.

The best part was sharing a table with two great thinkers. Jeremy Haile is a Texan (and sometime poster here as TexPat) who spent much of his career doing remarkable work at the Sentencing Project. Ekow Yankah is a professor at Cardozo Law School who has some great insights into the law-- I have been reading some of his writing, and it is fascinating.

You can see the panel discussion here:

Monday, September 19, 2016


Phone dreams...

Should someone tell IPLawGuy that this is pretty easily possible now?

Second Battery
Charge one while other in use
Switch them; keep going.

But Christine is onto something real (though who would buy it)?:

My ideal IPhone?
One that turns off when the car
starts. Much safer roads.

Sunday, September 18, 2016


Sunday Reflection: The Ethics of Sports

Playing sports, especially the most violent sports, is often characterized as "building character." Does it really do that? And what principles do they teach?

As with all things, it depends on who is teaching you. "Winning is the most important thing" is a terrible goal. Winning what? It takes into account nothing about the value of the contest. Some things are not worth winning, yet people who are competitive, who have been trained to always win, pursue them with a full-throated roar regardless.

What does winning mean?

Christ always turned everything upside down. It is the meek who win the earth. Why, then is it so hard for our Christian society to accept the value of the meek?

Saturday, September 17, 2016


South Royalton

Yesterday, I was speaking at Vermont Law School in South Royalton, Vermont. What a beautiful place! It was a great day, and I love the school. 

Besides, how can you not love a place represented by the "Fighting Swan?"


Friday, September 16, 2016


Haiku Friday: The iPhone of your dreams

Do you ever fantasize about what cell phones might someday be able to do? I know that I do. For one thing, I am hoping that my phone will be able to answer my calls about clemency and give people competent answers.

Here, I will go first:

If only my phone
Would run around on little legs
And jump up and down!

I really do want that. Sigh.

Anyways, now it is your turn. Just use the 5/7/5 pattern o' syllables, and have some fun!

Thursday, September 15, 2016


Political Mayhem Thursday: How much should candidate's health matter?

The consensus seems to be that Hillary Clinton has taken a hit politically after the controversy involving her suffering from pneumonia while campaigning. Two things seem clear to me: 

1) Pneumonia is not that big a deal. I have had it several times in the last decade or so. It is easily curable. The Trump line that Hillary Clinton "lacks stamina" was thoroughly disproven by her performance before the House Committee that grilled her for a full day (and more) about the email scandal.

2) Hiding the fact that Clinton had pneumonia reinforced a much more important problem about the campaign than her health: A penchant for secrecy and control that dashes any hope for transparency in a Clinton administration.

What do you think?

Wednesday, September 14, 2016


Michelle Alexander to Union Theological Seminary

In a move that signals something interesting about the way we think about criminal justice, Michelle Alexander is going to serve for the next five years as a Visiting Professor at Union Theological Seminary in New York. According to Union, Alexander (best known for her book The New Jim Crow) will both teach and "engage in directed study in consultation with Union faculty to provide her with a strong theological foundation for her work at Union and beyond."

I think this is a really exciting development, one that will move the discussion of criminal law reform towards a faith that should seek change and has the ability to bring great resources to bear.

Tuesday, September 13, 2016


The Book Tour Kicks Off!

As I have mentioned before, I have a new book out-- Prosecuting Jesus.   I'm speaking about it several places, and that started this week in Chicago. On Sunday we kicked things off in a beautiful apartment high over the city, and yesterday I did a reading at Fourth Presbyterian Church in Chicago.

It was a great audience that included Theologian Martin Marty, my sister Kathy, fashion designer Barbara Bates, the family of Rudy Martinez (my client who received clemency a few weeks ago), and many others I met for the first time. The questions were great, the location was wonderful, and I'm energized for the many discussions ahead!

Monday, September 12, 2016



That's my favorite word from Gavin's great haiku:

A field with pheasants.
Flush. Bang. Dang! He flies away.
First miss of the year. 

You really have to be from Baylor to understand the Farmer's, but if you are you will:

May not feel like fall
here 'till TCU game or
even Kansas State.

Christine went right to the heart of one of my favorite things:

The Farmers Market
So many types of apples
Sweet, crunchy, tart, crisp.

Meanwhile, it seem that the Medievalist forgot that he lives in Texas!

Shorter days are here
The heat of summer dwindles,
Soon frost coats the mind.

Sunday, September 11, 2016


Sunday Reflection: The Fall

Doesn't it seem like fall is the deepest season? It is in the fall that the change of the season is the sharpest and most distinct: it begins with the change in the air, and ends with the first flakes of snow, despite what the calendar might say.

And yes, there is death, as represented by the leaves that change color and fall to the earth. But what is deeper than that? They fall, and linger, gather together, and turn to earth. 

I love this Psalm, #42, which feels like an autumn song:

Deep calls to deep
    in the roar of your waterfalls;
    all your waves and breakers
    have swept over me.
 By day the Lord directs his love,
    at night his song is with me—
    a prayer to the God of my life.

Saturday, September 10, 2016


The most depressing story I have read in a while...

Judge locks up 4 more Detroit principals for robbing students

Sigh. I do have to say, though, that I am proud of my former colleagues in the Detroit US Attorney's office and US Attorney Barbara McQuade for bringing these cases. It is one area where deterrence might work.

Friday, September 09, 2016


Haiku Friday: Rites of Fall

I love this time of year- love love love it! For me, it means the return of college football, but for you there may be other rites of fall that bear deep meaning.

Let's haiku about those this week. Here, I will go first:

Sitting on hard seats
I brought a blue fleece sweatshirt
The air is changing.

Now it is your turn! Use the 5/7/5 syllable formula and have some fun!


Thursday, September 08, 2016


Political Mayhem Thursday: The Absurd Certainty That Hillary Clinton Will Win

There are two really scary things that I am noticing in the news lately. One, of course, is the prevalence of creepy lurking clowns breaking out across the nation.  I've always been highly suspicious of clowns, anyways, and this is not helping!

The second trend, which I also see among many people I know, is a blithe assumption that Hillary Clinton will win the November election. That assumption is not grounded in reality.

I do think it is more probable than not that Clinton will win-- but in no way is it a certainty. After all, she is running against a candidate that the experts counted out at every stage of the primary, yet Donald Trump prevailed. And how many times has a Trump gaffe led to the smug assertion that his campaign was finally doomed? Yet, the latest CNN poll shows Trump leading the race by two points.

Trump could win, and he is especially likely to win if Clinton voters don't care enough about the race to turn out. I think that is a real possibility, too-- Clinton's cautious nature seems aimed at showing competence, not igniting passion. Do American voters care a lot about competence? I'll bet John Kasich has concluded that they don't.  

Trump seems to now have a campaign team that is doing some things right, and that is having an effect. At the same time, facts about Hillary Clinton-- most recently, the smashing of her phones with a hammer-- dribble out little by little, supporting Trump's narrative. 

Clinton supporters, I suspect, simply cannot imagine a world where Donald Trump is president. They probably need to imagine that now-- because that might create the passion that has been missing so far in the Democratic camp.

Wednesday, September 07, 2016


So, yeah, college football...

What games did I watch? Well, Alabama/USC. Which was fun. I don't like either team at all, but USC is probably the worst in terms of arrogance + cheating + always getting the benefit of the doubt at the start of every year.  So watching them get torn apart was ok by me.

I also watched some of the Wisconsin/LSU game which was awesome. Big Ten over SEC? I'll take that anytime, and I got my wish. Plus, there was plenty of televised highjacks by America's Third Greatest Mascot, Bucky Badger:

Tuesday, September 06, 2016


Epi-Pen and Competition

There has been a furor of late over the successful efforts of a company called Mylan to raise the price of one of its products, the Epi-Pen. Epi-Pens are used by people suffering severe allergic reactions. It is a simple machine that delivers a small amount of epinephrine, which allows people to survive those reactions.  Mylan did not invent or develop the Epi-Pen (they bought the patent), and the devices cost a small amount to produce (they contain less than $2 worth of epinephrine).  Over the past ten years, Mylan has raised the price 588 percent, to $600 for a set of two.

It has been possible for Mylan to do this because of a lack of competition. A fascinating article lays out how they worked to defeat the entry of a competing product by a company called Teva.  Here is the heart of it:

Mylan responded by filing a citizen’s petition with the FDA in January 2015, and urged the agency not to approve the Teva product unless it was the same as EpiPen. A key part of the Mylan argument was that anything other than an identical product may make it difficult for patients in an emergency situation to use a generic safely and effectively in keeping with instructions for EpiPen. 

Apparently, it is not unusual for companies to use "citizen complaints" in this way:
The analysis found, in fact, that brand-name drug makers filed 92 percent of citizen petitions between 2011 and 2015, although the US Food and Drug Administration denied more than 9 out of every 10 petitions. Last week, the FDA wrote Congress that most petitions do not raise valid scientific concerns and appear to have been filed to delay approval of competing medicines.

Urg! I really despise this tactic. It reminds me of the industry-funded "patient groups" that defend the over-prescription of opioids.
Capitalism works where there is competition. Government must make sure that competition is maintained, especially in relation to something as vital to some people's health as an Epi-pen.

Monday, September 05, 2016


Mrs. Figgen

Didn't you love this haiku by the Waco Farmer, about his kindergarten teacher? "Made me feel like a student" is a high compliment.

Mrs. Figgen! She
made me feel like a student,
learning everyday.

Sunday, September 04, 2016


Sunday Reflection: Justice and Mercy

As the week closes, I'm reflecting on all that happened. Clemency seems a lot more real when you tell the prisoners they will be freed.

One question I am sometimes asked is whether granting clemency to someone who was over-sentenced is justice or mercy. My answer is that it is both.

Certainly, the sentence (ie, life without parole for a low-level, non-violent narcotics offense) in many of these cases was not just. It was unjust because it was disproportional to what people got for more serious crimes, it was unjust because the length of these sentences did not correlate with any reasonable need for retribution, and they were unjust because justifications rooted in deterrence did not correlate to reality (since you can't deter a market).  So it is fair to say that correcting those unjust sentences is justice.

But, in a way, it is also mercy. That is because these men and women are receiving a break relative to the sentence they were given according to the law in place. Clemency has something else that fits the shape of mercy, too: it is uneven and unpredictable. 

Is it justice? Yes. Is is mercy? Yes. Does it matter which one you call it? Not really, in that moment when freedom becomes a reality, and a prison door opens.

Saturday, September 03, 2016


News and notes...

It was quite a week for news in the wake of all the clemency grants...

Yesterday I had a piece in the Minneapolis Star-Tribune titled Donald Trump, Meet Ronald Blount. Reading it over, I realize that it memorializes one of my favorite moments yet in this life.

I got to talk to the BBC about another one of our clients, Richard Von Winrow.

Ted Haller came back to UST to talk about the events of the week on Fox 9.

Conservative site The Daily Caller had a nice piece about the UST Clinic.

And, way back on Tuesday when all of this came down, Carrie Johnson did a great job with it on NPR.

There is much work left to be done...

Friday, September 02, 2016


Haiku Friday: Kindergarten Teachers

School is starting all across the country, and for our kindergartners, it is the first day of school ever! There is something special about that very first year, and many of us remember the teacher well.

Let's haiku about that this week: Your kindergarten teacher, or one you know through a child or legend. Here, I will go first:

Clark Elementary
Detroit, Michigan, long 'ere
Teacher: Mrs. Bone.

Scary but true!

Now it is your turn! just use the 5/7/5 syllable pattern and have some fun!

Thursday, September 01, 2016


Political Mayhem Thursday: Talking to Ted

Yesterday I got to talk to my former student Ted Haller about the clemency cases we have worked on. Ted was a wonderful student in my clinic and he is now a reporter for Fox 9 here in Minneapolis. It is a job he is well qualified for-- with his law degree and an undergrad degree from Northwestern's Medill school of journalism-- and every once in a while our paths converge again, and it's always a good thing.

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