Thursday, December 31, 2020


Political Mayhem Thursday: What? A Warrant?


 On Christmas morning, a 63-year-old white suicide bomber, Anthony Quinn Warner, blew up his RV in front of an AT & T switching station in Nashville. He was the only one killed, but communications in the Southeast were affected for days.

 It was a strange incident. But the latest developments really have me baffled.

 Apparently, the suicide bomber's girlfriend had recently told the police a straight-up truth: that this guy was building bomb's in his RV. She apparently had a pretty good description of the whole operation.  This was confirmed by an attorney who said that Quinn frequently talked about making bombs.

 So what did the police do? They knocked on the door. They drove by. And then they dropped it.

People I know in the law enforcement business have had a uniform response to this story: She should have told them he was a black guy growing pot in there-- then they would have gotten a warrant. Which is true, and not funny. 

To get a warrant, you need either an informant with a good track record, or a new informant with corroboration. Here, the second applies. Yet, they didn't take action.

 There is a larger picture here, and it is an important one. Our police forces are largely focused on answering 911 calls and arresting people for drug crimes. It's kind of what they know how to do, so they keep doing it. And, of course, it's ineffective-- there are as many drugs as ever out there, in every kind of community, and answering 911 calls rarely prevents a crime. 

"Defund the police" was a dumb mantra, but "rethink the police" would be better. We need to rebuild and retask police forces so that they are more effective at preventing crime. There are ways to do that-- I've written about that a lot, as have many others-- but the first step is to consider doing things differently.

Wednesday, December 30, 2020


My Students: Charles Dolson


I'm devoting Wednesdays to profiles of my students, alternating between Baylor and St. Thomas grads.

Charles Dolson graduated from St. Thomas in 2014, and was one of my favorite people to see show up in class. So, it's good that he took most of them, including the clinic!

He came to law school with a lot of worthwhile experience. He had been a police officer up on the Red Lake Reservation (where he had spent much of his childhood), and then the Chief of Police there. (Red Lake is a "closed" reservation, meaning that all land is held in common, and there is no private land ownership). Before that, he was in the Marines, and among other tasks worked on Marine One (and, I think, closed the door on Bill Clinton's hand, which is understandable since the guy could never stop waving). 

I love having people with law enforcement experience in class-- along with social workers, they have the most useful backgrounds for class discussion. And Charlie was just fun to be around, too.

After law school, he served for four years as the Executive Director of the Red Lake Band of Chippewa, and now works as an attorney for Milles Lacs Corporate Ventures. He's one of those people with a remarkable circle of friends and colleagues-- he seems to know everyone in several overlapping circles. And no doubt, they feel the same way I do: lucky to be in the same circle as him.

Tuesday, December 29, 2020


Those we've lost


The New York Times has an excellent feature titled Those We've Lost, profiling people like Detroit Police Chief Benny Napoleon (pictured). They all died of COVID this year, part of the 1 in every 1,000 Americans who perished.

That number-- 1 in 1,000-- seems small until you consider the number of people most of us know or know of. And, of course, we all do know or know of someone special who has died, it seems.

It will take a while before we realize the shape of this wreath of tragedy, and of course the pandemic is not yet done with us. 

Needless to say, this is what marked 2020 as different. 

Monday, December 28, 2020


Christmas Haiku

 I hope yours was good, however you spent it. 

We should all check out Gavin's reflection on Christmas in his hometown:

The church bell rings out
It connects generations
It transports me home
Christine chimed in:
The spirit of Christmas
is gathering in my heart
The light shines brightly

And so did the Medievalist:

It is Christmas time,
Snow and frost might fill the air,
But light fills the heart.

Sunday, December 27, 2020


Sunday Reflection: The Lost Year (?)


What will 2020 turn out to be? Is it a lost year?

As I look back, it feels that way. I did not get to see the ones I love as much as I wanted. I wasn't as good a teacher as I hope to be. There were days that I felt nothing really happened. It's kind of a downer to put it all out there, actually.

But objectively, I did get a lot done. I wrote an academic article that probably is the most-read that I have ever put out there. I had two pieces in the Washington Post and another in the Atlantic. I put together a major push for clemency reform at the start of the Biden administration, and The NY Times embraced my plan in an editorial. I led a panel that studied a tough case, and played in a role in his freedom. I found that if you mix up Maple Cheerios and Grape-Nuts, it can be pretty good. I also discovered that if you put eyes on almost any gingerbread cookie, it makes the thing fascinating (or at least weird). 

When I was in law school, I was fascinated by the remarkable details on the law school building and the Sterling Library nearby. Both were built in the Great Depression, a terribly grim era. And yet... these beautiful things were created, and the beauty lasted longer than the tragedy.

What, 90 years out, will 2020 have left the world beyond the tragedy and hardship?

Saturday, December 26, 2020


PBS NewHour

 PBS Newshour came to my office to talk about clemency-- about halfway through this clip, which aired yesterday:

Friday, December 25, 2020


Haiku Christmas


Like everything in 2020, Christmas is different this year. For me, it will be the first Christmas in over 50 years that I won't be with my parents in the house where I grew up. It's just too dangerous to be together this year.

But still it is Christmas, a holiday about hope for the world. Let's haiku about that this week.

Here, I will go first:

On the sordid Earth

Too much loneliness; but in

The heavens, a star...

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

Thursday, December 24, 2020


Political Mayhem Thursday: Clemency Mayhem

As I wrote in the Waco Trib last week, being a clemency scholar is like being Santa-- for a few days a year everyone wants to talk to you, and the rest of the year you feel kind of out of place. I would add that for those few days, just like Santa, a lot of people pretend to do what you do. 

Over the past two days, President Trump has released two batches of clemency grants. There are some good ones in there-- I helped Weldon Angelos craft his successful pardon petition, granted on Tuesday-- but a lot of them are sadly familiar: grants to those close to Trump and his friends and those they have vouched for. The overwhelming majority of those given relief either abused power as military contractors or immigration agents, were involved in fraud or political corruption, or received a second grant of clemency from Trump. Left behind were the 13,750 people whose petitions are sitting around somewhere in the bureaucracy of the DOJ/WH pipeline. Actually, it isn't fair to call it a "pipeline" anymore. I would call it a "swamp," but water actually flows in and out of swamps regularly.

On the good side, we are hopeful that the Biden administration will do better. The New York Times today has a staff editorial that promotes the changes I have been pushing for years (with attribution, even!). You can check out the whole thing out here-- be sure to read to the very end to get all the important stuff.

Wednesday, December 23, 2020


My Students: Dustin Benham


I'm devoting Wednesdays to profiling my former students, alternating between Baylor and St. Thomas (since I have now had ten years at each). 

Dustin Benham was an intellectual force from the moment he came to law school from undergrad at Texas Tech (and probably before). He was the kind of person who was quoted in classes he wasn't taking by students in that other class. When I got the chance to teach him I was struck by his straight-up smarts, his humility, and his genuine good character. 

I asked Dustin to help me with my briefing in the crack/powder cases, and it turned out that he was a great writer. When the Kimbrough case was argued in 2007 before the Supreme Court, he worked with me on an amicus brief and contributing to the defenders' brief.  I took him and another student who worked on it, Matt Acosta, to watch the argument. We got to see something remarkable: Chief Justice Roberts use our words almost verbatim in pressing the government's lawyer, Michael Dreeben (who is one of the best appellate advocates in the country). I recounted that here

After he graduated and began working for a firm, he kept helping me with those cases-- including prepping me for arguments on consecutive days in the 9th Circuit and the 8th Circuit. That 8th Circuit case, Spears, we eventually won in the Supreme Court, and the Court held that sentencing judges could categorically reject the 100-1 ratio between crack and powder embedded in the sentencing guidelines. I had the help of one person in that-- Dustin Benham, and we worked as equals. 

He ended up accepting a job teaching at Texas Tech at the same time I took the offer at St. Thomas (summed up here). 

Dustin has positively crushed it at Tech, and is now a Full Professor. He was the Professor of the Year there for advanced-level classes in 2014. And 2016. And 2017. And 2018. And 2019. And last year, he was given Texas Tech's campus-wide Distinguished Teaching Award

Though I didn't have much to do with it, I'm really proud of what Dustin has done. I believe in academic legacies: I am, for example, the product of Dr. Joanne Braxton's teaching, and she learned from John Blassingame, who studied under C. Vann Woodward, who met and was influenced by W.E.B. DuBois, who learned from William James, who was influenced by his godfather, Ralph Waldo Emerson  (and that is just one of many lines of legacy from just one of my mentors). Who teaches us matters, but so does who we teach; there is no doubt that teaching people like Dustin and Joy Tull and Gordon Davenport at Baylor made me better as a teacher and as a person.

Tuesday, December 22, 2020


The Dad Blog


This is just your periodic reminder to check out my dad's blog-- you can find it here.  It bears the very Oslerian subtitle "John Osler's Thoughts About Stuff." Which is also a highly accurate description of the blog!

In other recent mumblings, I had a piece this past Sunday in the Waco Trib about clemency. You can read that here.

Monday, December 21, 2020


The good part

 When I suggested that we haiku about the good parts of 2020, it was before I watched "Recipe for Seduction," the awesome 16-minute mini-movie created by a bizarre collaboration between Kentucky Fried Chicken and the Lifetime Movie Channel. Please, please, please watch it below. And don't call me "crouton."

Oh, and the haiku!

We had this from CraigA (and it makes me happy to think of this):

Taking long morn walks, 
Have met several new neighbors:
Sense of connection grows.

Christine had a take on it:

Drifting on a lake
I found moments of quiet,
inner peace, and joy.

And David Best (whose client got clemency last week!) chipped in, too:

Nothing is better
than standing quiet places
seeing mystery .

Sunday, December 20, 2020


Sunday Reflection: Mercy and the Right Thing


It was quite a week.

On Tuesday, the Minnesota Board of Pardons-- comprised of the Governor, the Attorney General and the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court-- had their second and final meeting of the year. It was a remarkable day-- and it ended with the freedom of Myon Burrell, whose case I have been working on much of this year.

But that wasn't the only remarkable thing that happened that day. 

Right before the Burrell case, the Board heard the case of Maria Elizondo. Over a decade ago, she committed a crime of poverty: While trying to support several children, she took a job under a fake name while collecting public benefits under her real name. It was a mistake and a crime, like many poor choices.

At her hearing, her son plead for her to get a pardon, because if she didn't she would likely be deported. He is in the military, and will likely soon be sent abroad for the latest in several deployments. 

Gov. Walz, who spent decades in the Army Reserves, was deeply sympathetic, and the Attorney General also supported her pardon. The third member of the Board, though, turned and peered at her computer. She noted that though Ms. Elizondo had somehow paid back over $9,000 in restitution, she still owed over $15,000 to the victim-- the State of Minnesota. She said she could not support the pardon unless that was paid.

The Governor scrambled a bit, and suggested that perhaps they could give Ms. Elizondo a week or two to gather the money and reconvene. The son-- the soldier-- said he would give all of his savings, but it would not be enough. They put off the hearing to see if he could find the rest.

I had assigned my students to watch all of the hearings that day. They were watching at their respective homes and talking about them in a group chat-- and were outraged at this. The state-- well, one agent of the state-- wanted to drain the life savings of a soldier about to be deployed to save his mother. This is the same state that shovels money to developers and other corporations, and then doesn't worry much about where that goes. When it comes to abusing state money, "justice" is only for the poor.

In a moment that makes me very proud, my students acted. Working together with my former student Leslie Redmond, the Minneapolis NAACP, and other local activists, they set up a crowdfund site. And within 24 hours, the money was raised.

I think I am working in the right place. 

Saturday, December 19, 2020


Some serious engineering!


Friday, December 18, 2020


Haiku Friday: What have you discovered?


2020 has been pretty rotten. There have been all kinds of things- jobs, personal connections and even life-- that have been lost. There is no denying the tragedies of this year, small and large.

But it has led some people to discover something new here and there, a corner of comfort or revelation. Quiet ones, mostly, but that fits advent pretty well. Let's haiku about those this week. Here, I will go first:

Left back in Waco
Something precious, returned
World's best Sunday school.

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

Thursday, December 17, 2020


Political Mayhem Thursday: No Time for the Bold

As you might expect, I'm in contact with a lot of people who have big plans for the Biden administration-- bold, innovative plans that will hasten much-needed changes in a range of areas, especially (given the people I know) in the field of criminal law.  

We do need bold, clean reform, and fast.

I don't think we are going to get that, though. I hope I am wrong. But I fear that I am right. 

Bernie didn't win. Warren didn't win. Even Cory Booker didn't come close (I still don't know why he wasn't at or near the top). Democrats nominated as our presidential candidate the most centrist thinker among those competing in the primaries at a serious level. While he has chosen a racially and gender-diverse group of leaders for his administration, he has not chosen bold innovators or outsiders. He has picked, almost exclusively, veterans of the Obama and Clinton administrations. 

And now that we have these experienced plodders in positions of power, they are the ones that bold ideas will be pitched to. And-- shocker-- they won't bite. That's not what they do. They might form a study group. They'll take meetings. They might adopt a minor part of a bigger plan here or there. But they are unlikely to be change agents. 

Believe me, I am all for simple competence, and that in itself will be a big change in some areas of government after the anything-goes administration that will be moving out. Yes, it is way better to have competent centrists in power than fringe-element goofballs. 

But... for those of us who hoped for systemic change in some areas, we probably have already lost. No one with a similar mindset will be in the inner circle of government unless there are some surprises yet to come. That means that we outsiders have no ally on the inside. And in criminal justice, it means that the chief and only advisor to the president will probably be the good old DOJ. Sigh. I mean, really-- taking a major decarceration plan to Merrick Garland is not a high-percentage shot. 

But also... I might be wrong. And I will still try.

Wednesday, December 16, 2020


My Students: Sara Sommervold


I'm spending Wednesdays on the blog profiling my students, alternating between Baylor and St. Thomas-- after all, I have now spent  ten years at each. 

I met Sara Sommervold when she was in my first-year Criminal Law class at St. Thomas. She had good, and sometimes fascinating answers in class, and even better was the fact that she got genuinely upset at injustices when we got to them in class. I'll never forget the time I got to sentencing for acquitted conduct and she threw both hands in the air like Kermit the Frog and said "Come on!" It was, after all, exactly how I felt about the same topic.

Sara was later in my clinic and a great part of it. When we did the Trial of Jesus the very first time at St. Thomas, I sent Sara to pick up Jeanne Bishop at the airport. What I didn't realize was that I had sent the second-worst driver in America to pick up the very worst driver in America-- they both gesture constantly with both hands, something that is really disconcerting in a driver. I'm still shocked they made it back to school alive.

Sara became Jeanne's partner in the trial, vs. me and Joy Tull for the State. She was obviously skilled in the courtroom, and had a wonderful sense for timing and delivery that probably came from her background in theater. 

Sara now works as the Deputy Director of the Wrongful Conviction Clinic at Northwestern Law School in Chicago, where she has developed a great reputation for organization and management. I love that when I talk to people from the clinic world there, they know about Sara, and sing her praises.

One of her colleagues at Northwestern is Laura Nirider, who (along with Barry Scheck) asked me to chair the panel to investigate the Myon Burrell case. I don't doubt that the connection was made in large part through Sara. She's like that. 

And about Myon Burrell, and the kind of work that Sara now does all the time--

He was granted clemency yesterday, and walked out of prison a free man. The story is here.

Tuesday, December 15, 2020


Pardon Board Day

 I have long said that the Minnesota Pardon Board runs the most interesting hearings in American law. People who want clemency appear personally before the board, which is composed of the Governor, the Attorney General, and the Chief Justice of the MN Supreme Court. Usually without a lawyer, they argue their own case, sometimes call witnesses, and then wait as the three officials talk about the case and rule, all in open court. It's bracingly transparent.

And now, in the age of COVID, it is all virtual, so you can watch at home starting at 10 AM central time today. Just go to this Facebook page: Minnesota DOC. You can read about each of the cases here by clicking on the names listed. 

If you are interested in the Myon Burrell case, that will be the last one of the day-- probably between 4 and 5 central. If you can, definitely tune in....

Monday, December 14, 2020


Tree poems

 I love the tree haiku you all sent in! Such fascinating stories in so few words....

IPLawGuy nailed a basic Christmas truth:

O cursed light string!
You work fine when I test you
But fail on the tree.

As did, in her own way, Jill Scoggins (who described something I think every year):

Unwrapping all the
ornaments is greeting my
good old friends again. 

Like a tree, the Medievalist is always welcome here:

Fragrant evergreen,
Symbol of eternal life,
Bless this home of ours.

And Christine as well:

Oh Tannebaum, please
grace our home with our branches
Festival of light.

And, of course, my dad:

When chopped off at its
ankles and dragged away still
happy to bring joy.

Tall Tenor dropped a gem:

Real trees are pretty;
Fake trees are much easier.
Both look good to me.

And Desiree's was so intriguing she got an anonymous response (in favor of colored lights):

Classy white lights or
my festive colorful lights?
That's the tree question.

Sunday, December 13, 2020


Sunday Reflection: Santa's friends are dead


Hopefully you have heard Bob Dylan's frantic and confusing klezmer-style "Must Be Santa." It's kind of perfect for a year where things are frantic and don't make sense. The song is older-- at least as old as Mitch Miller and the Gang's recording in 1961. Part of the lyrics are these for lines:

Who wears a long cap on his head?
Santa wears a long cap on his head!
Cap on head-suit that's red
Special night, beard that's white....

Anyways, when I was a kid I heard a band doing this song, and they messed with the lyrics, so that it came out this way:

Who wears a long cap on his head?
Santa wears a long cap on his head!
Cap on head-friends are dead
Special night, beard that's white....

I know-- where were the parents? We welcome their take in the comments section.

Anyways, the song got stuck in my head that way, and eventually the idea that Santa's friends were dead migrated over into my unexamined back story about Santa. If someone had asked me over the past several years about this, it would have gone like this:

IPLawGuy: I wonder who Santa is friends with?
Mark: Well, his friends are dead.
IPLawGuy: What?!?
Mark: Yeah, Santa's friends are dead. That's part of the story, right? Like in the song. {sings      "Cap on head-Friends are dead!"}
IPLawGuy: Stay away from my kids.

It's only now that I am thinking this through. In a way, it makes sense: Santa has employees (possibly slaves), a wife, and reindeer, but no buddy to watch football with or anything, right? And I suppose that at some point he could have been part of a cabal or political movement that got wiped out with Claus as the only survivor, and after that he no longer trusted friendship. 

The point is (yes, there is a point) that we all have things that become beliefs without really examining them, often entering through the broader culture. That's true, maybe especially, in our faith lives. Of course, it is tiring and sometimes dispiriting to really examine the things we assume and believe, especially if those things are reinforced by the people around us.

For Christians, this can be especially hard regarding those beliefs (ie, Christianity=capitalism, or Christianity=nationalism) that underpin other beliefs. For me, I long assumed that Christianity=Pacifism, but under close examination I had to re-thing an absolute view on that.

But Santa's friends being dead? I'm sticking with that one.  

Saturday, December 12, 2020


Myon Burrell: The short version


I have a piece in today's Minneapolis Star-Tribune about the Myon Burrell case. You can read it here. If you are inclined to read the full report, you can see that here.

It's been a busy week.

Friday, December 11, 2020


Haiku Friday: The tree


I've already documented my tree issues this year-- but how you doin'? Hopefully, everyone has the tree in place by now. Let's haiku about that this week.

Here, I will go first:

In the field, this tree
Looked a bit forlorn. But now?
Might pine abides!

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

Thursday, December 10, 2020


PMT: The case for vaccinating those in prison (almost) first


Vaccines are about to be approved and distributed, just as the pandemic hits a new peak, with over 3,000 Americans dead of the coronavirus yesterday, a new high. And the debate over who should get a vaccine is raging.

Let's clarify one thing: no reasonable person seems to disagree that medical workers should be vaccinated first. And of course they should-- they are in direct contact with infected people, and at the greatest risk, PPE or no.  

Beyond that, though, opinions diverge. Some think we should inoculate the elderly next, particularly those in congregate living situations like nursing homes. I agree with that. But on an equal level should be those in prison.

Here's why: like those in nursing homes, those in prison do not have the ability to control their environment- in fact, their inability to create social distance is probably even greater. And I have previously discussed the recurring tragedy of COVID in prisons, where waves of infection sweep quickly through the population, then spread to nearby areas. 

I realize that some people oppose giving precious vaccines to those in prison because they are (mostly) guilty of crimes. But the punishment they are supposed to face at the hands of the state is a loss of freedom, not biological assault-- that would be torture. Those incarcerated people may deserve punishment, merit confinement, etc., but they are people deserving of human dignity and an approach as fellow citizens who almost all will return to life among the rest of us. Torture-- confining them as a pandemic threatens their lives-- is not supposed to be part of the deal.

Few states are likely to follow this protocol, though-- our ingrained ideas of those in prison as less than human are too strong. And that is a tragedy that will outlast the pandemic.

Wednesday, December 09, 2020


The Burrell Report


Since July, I have been working on a big project: Chairing a panel that was reviewing the conviction and sentencing of Myon Burrell, who was sentenced to life for murder based on a killing that occurred when he was 16. He has maintained his innocence throughout. I was asked to head the effort by Barry Scheck and Laura Nirider, who are themselves leaders in the field of wrongful conviction-- which is a different animal than my field of sentencing and clemency. 

Our report came out yesterday. I'm proud of our work-- I think it coherent and well-reasoned. But, I'll let you decide that for yourselves!

The Star-Tribune article is here, the Washington Post's is here, and the full report is here

Tuesday, December 08, 2020


Five Questions About The Pardon Power-- with answers!


Remember that one time when President Obama took some of the people who had received clemency out to lunch at Busboys & Poets in DC? Yeah, that happened. And it seems like a long time ago.
As you might imagine, I am fielding a lot of calls these days about the limits of the Constitutional pardon power. Today, I am going to throw out eight of those questions, and then provide some answers!
1)  Can someone get a pardon even if they haven't been convicted yet?
The answer to this one seems pretty clear: Yes. We have some historical examples of this, the most prominent one being the pardon that President Ford gave to President Nixon. More recently one of President Trump's pardons went to Matthew Golsteyn, who was charged but not yet convicted of premeditated murder at the time of the pardon. 
Also, at the Constitutional Convention, this point came up. On August 27, 1787, it was moved and seconded to add the words "after conviction" to the pardon clause, but the motion was withdrawn. So... the Framers rejected that idea. 
Note: My source on the Constitutional Convention is Max Farrand's "The Records of the Federal Convention of 1787." Here, volume 2, p. 422.
2)   Can someone get a pardon if they haven't even been charged yet?
There is less grounding here than for post-charge but pre-conviction pardons, since this possibility was not explicitly discussed by the framers.  The Ford/Nixon precedent looms large here, though, as does the broad mandate of the pardon power. Also, in an 1866 case (Ex Parte Garland), the Supreme Court said that a pardon may be given for a crime "at any time after its commission...."
3)  Can someone get a pardon for crimes not yet committed?
This is over the line. The pardon clause says that the president "shall have power to grant reprieves and pardons for offenses against the United States, except in cases of impeachment." It's most reasonable to read this reference to "offenses" as offenses that have already been committed. (The plain language of this provision also limits the pardon to federal crimes). See also Ex Parte Garland.
4)   Can the President pardon himself?
Now, that's a hot question! A memo from the DOJ's Office of Legal Counsel during Watergate briefly mentioned that this would be improper, since a self-pardon runs against the general legal principle that one cannot judge their own case.
I disagree, for two reasons. 
First, a broad, unrestricted Constitutional power is going to win out over common-law precepts. In the four-and-a-half decades since the OLC memo was issued, presidential power under the Constitution has expanded while the sway of common law precepts has waned.
Second, in a way this DID come up at the Constitutional convention. Edmund Randolph moved to create an exception to the pardon power for treason. In making his argument, he said (quoting Madison's notes here, which were not a transcript): "The president himself may be guilty. The Traytors [sic] may be his own instruments." The amendment was rejected. Farrand, Volume 2, p. 626. 
In other words, the framers expressly considered the fact that the president may be the guilty party needing pardon-- and declined to limit that power.
5)  Can Congress limit the pardon power?
I'm pretty sure that some members of Congress want to do exactly that. But such an effort would fail in the courts.
Once again, the men who wrote the Constitution talked about this. They considered  giving the Senate control over pardons, and rejected that idea, too, leaving it solely in the hands of the executive. Farrand, Vol. 2, p. 627. 

There is a theme here: Those who wrote the Constitution intentionally chose to make it a broad and unchecked power.

And that will end up mattering if this ever comes before the Supreme Court.


Monday, December 07, 2020


Haiku of Change

 It's on our minds, isn't it? Change, that is. And we got some good poems on it:

We had this from my Dad (which has been more true for some people than others):

In twenty twenty
we all learned to love at a
distance and with masks.

And one from Christine, which I 100% agree with:

This year I ordered
Happy New Year cards, something
worth celebrating. 

And I liked this from the Medievalist, which gets to the core of it:

December is here,
And 2020 is ending,
Can we hope for more?

Sunday, December 06, 2020


Sunday Reflection: Advent


There it is. The 2020 Christmas Tree.

In a year where nothing feels right, at least we should be able to nail Advent. After all, it is about waiting for something to come, right? And that is what we are living though every day anyways.

But it isn't just generic waiting. Advent anticipates the coming of Christ, who would change everything. And right now what we are waiting for is just for things to be as they were before. It's very different.

But, of course, we can do both at the same time, right? We can both know that we will get back to seeing one another unmasked, going to movies, and sitting at dinner with people we love, laughing, and that there is deep within us a longing for something beyond even the joy of that. 

Which means, I guess, that it is all uphill from here!

Saturday, December 05, 2020


The land down under

 As you might expect, I'm fielding a lot of calls about clemency these days. I have been talking to the Philadelphia Inquirer, Politico, NBC, NPR, apparently (though I don't remember that one), The Washington Post (which had a fact wrong-- I have been to two meetings in the WH under Trump, not "several"), and the Buffalo News. Tuesday, people from PBS's Newshour are coming to Minneapolis to talk about things-- but that is not even the most interesting thing happening on Tuesday. More on that as we get closer.  

My favorite so far, though, was talking to the Australian national TV network (ABC) about how things work here. You can see that here.

Of course, being an expert on clemency is like being Santa Claus: A few days a year, everyone wants to talk to you, and the rest of the year no one is interested.


No 1 v. No 2


It doesn't happen often, but it is happening today at noon: Number 1 in college basketball plays number 2 when Gonzaga meets Baylor. 

Definitely worth checking out.

Friday, December 04, 2020


Haiku Friday: The challenges of 2020

 As my post yesterday pretty much laid out, 2020's been a downer for teachers. But, of course, it's been not-so-great for everyone else, either! I suspect there are as many inflections of 2020 as there are people, so let's haiku about that this week-- what 2020 has brought.

Here, I will go first:

Wait, what? It's advent?

We are now good at waiting.

Color will return?

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

Thursday, December 03, 2020


PMT: The Costs of Zoom School


I do a lot of things, but mostly I'm a teacher. That means that right now I teach a mix of people in masks in seats and others on a little screen via Zoom. And it is terrible.

I've rarely been so discouraged. Teaching and learning has everything to do with connection and discussion, and that is really hard right now. The students who do remote learning simply don't do as well. They don't learn material as well, they don't perform on exercises as well, and they don't even seem to catch basic information in class, like when and how the final will be given. I've never before gotten questions asking expressly for information that I laid out explicitly in the previous class, and now it is a regular occurrence. It is baffling to have several students ask about something I just laid out clearly. 

My students usually have a choice to either show up in person or Zoom in (some, of course, don't have a choice, because of illness or susceptibility to COVID).   For those students who have a choice, and attend in class then switch to Zoom, you can watch in real time as their performance dives. It is disheartening.

 It may be, of course, that I'm not very good at online teaching. I'm doing my best to stay engaged, vary activities, and watch the room. But if I am just bad at it, so are a lot of others-- most people I talk to say the same thing.

 As does this piece in yesterday's Washington Post.  It describes a school in DC where all 45 of the second graders-- every single one-- fell behind in reading when they went online. They are now six months behind, at a critical time. How can that ever be made up?

Honestly, second grade is more critical than law school, but the issues are the same. We just are not educating people as well as we used to.  

In all this plays into something discussed on Tuesday-- that little kids don't often get COVID. That means that unlike law school, it is relatively safe (for the kids, not the teachers) to open elementary schools. BUT... the health of the teachers should matter, too.

What can we do going forward to make sure that we don't have an entire disadvantaged generation?

Tuesday, December 01, 2020


Two Coronavirus Mysteries


As we move sloooowwwwllllly towards a vaccine, two anomalies in the spread of the Coronavirus pandemic have endured. One relates to age: it appears that children under 10 don't get COVID as often as other age groups and when they do, it is generally not very serious. The second relates to region: as the map above (from The NY Times) shows, African and South Asian nations have much lower reported COVID rates than Northern Hemisphere countries. 

The age disparity is fascinating. Some have speculated (according to the Mayo Clinic report linked above) that kids might be primed to fight it because they so often get colds, or that their bodies' immune systems don't over-react to the virus the way older people's bodies do. It seems like that would be a pretty good thing to figure out, so we can understand what limits the spread of the virus to kids and perhaps replicate that in adults (though I don't want to be catching a cold every week).

The regional disparity is striking. Three African countries--Madagascar, Tanzania, and Western Sahara-- have no recent reported cases at all. Zero. Rates in most other African countries are extremely low: the populous nation of Nigeria, for example, has a rate of .1 per 100,000 people, compared to the US rate of 49 per 100 people.

There are a lot of bad and borderline racist explanations floated for this. For example, some say that repressive regimes in the third world are more effective at limiting movement than first world nations. That's an inapt comparison right now, if you look at the efforts European nations are taking compared to African states. The European lockdowns have been far more extensive. Similarly, the argument that there are few tests doesn't explain it either, not when you have nations reporting ZERO cases (even without broad testing, severe cases would become clear), and western medical workers and skilled African doctors in much of the continent. A third argument, about dispersed populations, falls apart when you consider densely populated Nigeria and thinly populated North Dakota.

I'm hoping that part of what comes out of the studies being done is some explanation of these anomalies. From that might come a deeper understanding of our world.

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