June 5, 2012
From the house where he was born, Henry Clark can stand in his back yard and see plumes pouring out of one of the biggest oil refineries in the United States. As a child, he was fascinated by the factory on the hill, all lit up at night like the hellish twin of a fairy tale city. In the morning, he’d go out to play and find the leaves on the trees burned to a crisp. “Sometimes I’d find the air so foul, I’d have to grab my nose and run back into the house until it cleared up.”
The refinery would burn off excess gases, sending “energy and heat waves that would rock our house like we were caught in an earthquake,” recalled Clark, 68. When the area was engulfed in black smoke for up to a week after one accident, “nobody came to check on the health of North Richmond.”
With all of the frequent explosions and fires that sent children fleeing schools, parks and a swimming pool within a mile of the refinery, “we just hoped that nothing happened that would blow everybody up,” Clark said. “People still wonder when the next big accident is going to happen.”
For 100 years, people, mostly blacks, have lived next door to the booming Chevron Richmond Refinery built by Standard Oil, a plant so huge it can process 240,000 barrels of crude oil a day. Hundreds of tanks holding millions of barrels of raw crude dot 2,900 acres of property on a hilly peninsula overlooking the Pacific Ocean and San Francisco Bay. Five thousand miles of pipeline there move gasoline, jet fuel, diesel and other chemical products.
During World War II, African Americans like Clark’s family moved to homes in the shadow of this refinery because they had nowhere else to go. Coming to California looking for opportunity, they quickly learned that white neighborhoods and subdivisions didn’t want them.
The people of Richmond live within a ring of five major oil refineries, three chemical companies, eight Superfund sites, dozens of other toxic waste sites, highways, two rail yards, ports and marine terminals where tankers dock. The city of 103,701 doesn’t share the demographic of San Francisco, 25 miles to the south, or even Contra Costa County, or the state as a whole.
In North Richmond — the tiny, unincorporated neighbor of Richmond — Latinos, blacks and Asians make up 97 percent of the 3,717 residents, compared with 82.9 percent in Richmond and 59.9 percent in California, according to 2010 U.S. Census figures.
Most houses sell for below $100,000, among the lowest prices in the Bay Area, in the zip code shared with the Chevron refinery, and residents complain of a lack of paved streets, lighting and basic services. Short on jobs and long on poverty, there’s not a grocery store or cafe in sight. The median income in North Richmond, $36,875 in 2010, is less than Richmond’s modest $54,012 and less than half of Contra Costa County’s $78,385.
Low-income residents seeking affordable homes end up sharing a fence line with a refinery and a cluster of other polluting businesses. They may save money on shelter, but they pay the price in health, researchers say.
Decades of toxic emissions from industries — as well as lung-penetrating diesel particles spewed by truck routes and rail lines running next door to neighborhoods — may be taking a toll on residents’ health. The people of Richmond, particularly African Americans, are at significantly higher risk of dying from heart disease and strokes and more likely to go to hospitals for asthma than other county residents. Health experts say their environment likely is playing a major role.
While most coastal cities breathe ocean breezes mixed with traffic exhaust, people in north and central Richmond are exposed to a greater array of contaminants, many of them at higher concentrations. Included are benzene, mercury and other hazardous air pollutants that have been linked to cancer, reproductive problems and neurological effects. People can’t escape the fumes indoors, either. One study showed that some of the industrial pollutants are inside Richmond homes…
Justice for Sale: How big money is overwhelming judicial elections and corroding our confidence in the courts
June 5, 2012
The hearing room of the Wisconsin Supreme Court could be a Beaux-Arts museum, exhibiting images of justice as idealized in America for centuries: ornate, dignified, above reproach. Light pours in through a huge leaded-glass skylight, radiating off veined white marble. Large murals set high off the floor dominate each wall, depicting the venerable sources of Wisconsin law—Roman, English, Native American, and federal. The one to the left of the room’s mahogany bench portrays King John of England reluctantly granting the Great Charter, or Magna Carta, which, in June 1215, ended his lawless seizure of nobles’ land and began an era of legal rights embodied in English, then American, common law.
Article 40 of the Magna Carta pledged, “To no one will we sell, to no one will we refuse or delay right or justice.” But recently, in a string of expensive and increasingly contested elections, candidates to be justices of the Wisconsin Supreme Court have flouted the not-for-sale principle, demeaning the courtroom’s grandeur.
Wisconsin is not alone. In state after state, campaign contributions and related spending by special interests have risen dramatically in the past decade and are expected to swell in the wake of the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens Uniteddecision, which removed any limits on independent spending. Wisconsin is one of 22 states that elect judges to their highest courts, or one of 38 if you count states that have so-called retention elections by which appointed judges run to retain their seats. In all of them, independent spending threatens to overwhelm the system of electing judges, making them and the candidates running against them dependent on private money and eroding the public’s confidence in the courts.
Because judicial elections occur on different cycles and are subject to the push and pull of different forces in different jurisdictions, Citizens United has not increased spending uniformly in each state. But across the country, the ruling has caused spending to continue to rise at an ever-accelerating rate. This year, races in Florida, Michigan, and West Virginia have already set new highs for independent spending. Nowhere, though, are the pernicious effects more evident than in Wisconsin, which stands as a warning of just how bad things can get.
In 2007, in a Wisconsin Supreme Court race in which the two candidates spent a total of $2.7 million and special interests spent $3.1 million, Annette Kingsland Ziegler was elected and kept for conservatives a seat being vacated by another judge. The following year, the two candidates together spent “only” $1.2 million, joined by $3.4 million from special interests, much of it on distorted attack ads, which helped Michael Gableman defeat Louis Butler, the court’s first African- American justice, and swung the seven-member bench from liberal to conservative. And things have only gotten worse—over the past five years, special interests in Wisconsin have spent $14.8 million on TV ads to influence judicial elections, more than in any state except Pennsylvania, which has more than twice Wisconsin’s population.
After his defeat, Butler appeared at a conference on judicial selection reform. Holding up a copy of John Grisham’s 2008 novel, The Appeal, he said, “Welcome to my world.” In the novel, a chemical company’s industrial waste poisons the water in a Mississippi town, causing widespread cancer and death. The company stage-manages and heavily funds a successful campaign to replace a liberal justice with a conservative one, who shifts the state supreme court from left to right and casts the deciding vote to overturn a $41 million verdict against the company. The ads that defeated the liberal incumbent attacked her record on crime and other social issues, but really it was her lack of favoritism to business that led the company to take her down.
Like Grisham’s successful challenger, Michael Gableman was a little-known county trial judge with thin credentials, recruited by business to run against Butler. He became the first candidate to defeat a sitting justice since 1967; only three other justices in state history had been defeated in the previous 115 years—in 1947, 1908, and 1855.
Gableman’s TV ads accused Butler of having worked “to put criminals on the street,” pointing to the rapist of an 11-year-old girl. The ad was so misleading that the Wisconsin Judicial Commission charged Gableman with misconduct for “reckless disregard for the truth.” As a judge or justice, Butler never heard a case involving the rapist. But as a public defender years before, he had unsuccessfully sought a new trial for the man because of a breach of criminal procedure in a rape case. The rapist served out his time, and after his release, when he was no longer Butler’s client, he sexually assaulted another girl. Nevertheless, a review board rejected the misconduct charge against Gableman, finding that each individual assertion in the ad was true, so their sum could not be false.
Butler was not targeted for his views on crime, however. Gableman shifted the Wisconsin court to the right and cast the pivotal vote in 2011 when, by 4-3, the court overturned a trial court’s stay of a Republican-backed state law curbing the collective bargaining rights of public employees, effectively upholding the law—the legal fight that made Wisconsin a battleground between the rabid new right and the outraged old left in American politics.
In a detail outdoing the Grisham novel, Gableman turned out to have received two years’ worth of free legal counsel in a second appeal of the judicial commission’s misconduct charge heard by his fellow justices on the Wisconsin Supreme Court. While sitting on the bench, he received the unpaid counsel from a law firm that regularly appeared before him and the rest of the court. In 10 cases in which the firm appeared before the court during that period, Gableman recused himself just once. He voted against the firm four times when the votes weren’t close, but sided with it in the five remaining cases—two where the vote was 4-3, including the anti-union ruling.
Gableman defended himself by saying the counsel he received was not a gift, and therefore not unethical, because he had agreed to reimburse the firm if he won the case and the state paid his bill—a standard contingency fee arrangement, his lawyer called it, although it is standard only in cases to recover for civil damages, not to defend against charges of misconduct.
The arrangement distilled to its corrosive essence a core problem of judicial elections: Gableman received free counsel from a law firm that asked for his vote, an explicit conflict of interest; and worse, he gave his vote five times. The give-and-get had the appearance of a quid pro quo, despite his claim to the contrary—and only after a state prosecutor discovered and revealed what had been an undisclosed deal. In the matter of his misconduct charge, the court split 3-3 along right-left lines and dropped the case because of the impasse.
But the conflict did not go away. Under well-established ethics principles, the independence and impartiality required of a judge are undermined by dependence on lawyers’ donations, just as they were in the anti-union and other cases by Gableman’s acceptance of free legal counsel. If a judge’s impartiality can reasonably be questioned, even if only as a result of the appearance of partiality, the judge must disqualify himself….
Fouad Ajami On The Syrian Rebellion: How a people conquered fear to challenge a despot of unspeakable cruelty
June 5, 2012
Yalla Erhal Ya Bashar” (“Come on Bashar, Leave”), the crowds had taken to chanting. More poignantly, in Hama, the young people carried placards that read, “Like Father, Like Son.” Back when he had come into power, Bashar al-Assad had made a good first impression, if only because he was different from his intimidating, stern father Hafez al-Assad. His father had been a peasant boy, born in the Alawi mountains and married into his own community; he had come into the coastal city of Latakia, and he had plotted his way to the summit of political power. So many of Hafez al-Assad’s peers and rivals had fallen to assassins’ bullets or perished in Syria’s cruel prisons, dispatched there by Assad himself.
In contrast, Bashar had been the entitled prince, schooled in the best academies in Damascus and with a stint of time in London behind him. He had known no hardship. In the manner of a society eager for deliverance, it was hoped that he would open up the big prison that Syria had become under his father.
Outsiders prophesied good tidings for Bashar. U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, who had gone to the Old Man’s funeral in 2000 and met the son, came back with a favorable report: he was a “reformer,” she said, bent on modernizing his country. French President Jacques Chirac took it upon himself to induct the young ruler into the respectable order of nations. Bashar married well, which was his first olive branch to his country. His wife was a Sunni, the London-born daughter of a cardiologist, Fawwaz al-Akhras, who lived in self-imposed exile in London and spoke discreetly of the sins of the old regime. The bride had worked for J. P. Morgan in London and was on her way to pursue a Harvard MBA when she met and then married Bashar. There was talk of a “Damascus Spring” at the beginning of his reign.
Small gestures mattered. Bashar made his way to restaurants now and then without heavy security. He was head of the Syria Computer Society and promised openness in a country where the ownership of fax machines was restricted. Western cigarettes, banned by his father, were now available. There was a boom in tourism and a respectable flow of investments from the Gulf states. Art galleries and five-star hotels changed the drab atmosphere.
There was talk of a “Damascus Spring” at the beginning of Bashar’s reign.
He released from captivity several hundred political prisoners, and his people could be forgiven the classic hope that if only the “good tsar” knew, if only his palace guard would let him rule according to his wishes, the realm would be repaired and the oppression lifted. But the realm was what it was, the political universe had been closed up. Power had made a seamless transition—from the Baath Party to the Alawis, and then to the House of Assad—from the sect to the family. The young man who was said to thrill to the music of Phil Collins was cut of the old cloth. He, too, like his father, could brook no dissent.
Syrians had puzzled over their ruler’s place in the constellation of power: Was he, like his father before him, master of the realm, or a puppet, his strings pulled by mightier powers? To rule Syria effectively, the man at the helm had to have mastery over the four pillars of political power—the Alawite community, the army, the security services, the Baath Party. A renowned journalist and activist, Michel Kilo would maintain as late as 2009 that Bashar dominated foreign policy while the security services reigned over domestic affairs.
The answer as to the proclivities of the young ruler was not long in coming. The regime quickly snuffed out the Damascus Spring. There was a thirst for liberty. Syrians long silenced yearned for political argument and debate, it had been so prominent a feature of their political life before the Assad years. A noted intellectual and academic living and teaching in Paris, Burhan Ghalioun recalls the enthusiasm of that moment: civic forums sprouted everywhere, there were fifty new “salons” in the space of a few months, and even villages wanted forums of their own and were willing to run afoul of the security forces. Ghalioun attributes this enthusiasm to the “exceptional thirst of the Syrian middle class for freedom.”
One such civic group, the Forum for National Dialogue, headed by Riad Seif, a dissident of high standing and genuine courage, invited Ghalioun to give a public lecture. Seven hundred people showed up, and Baath Party functionaries grew alarmed at the public ferment. People had taken the young president’s claims to openness at face value and had begun to test them. It did not really matter whether the ruler himself had recognized the threats to the autocracy, or whether that perennial “old guard” had drawn a line against these new temptations.
The people had taken the young president’s claims to openness at face value.
The forums were shut down, and dissidents hauled off to prison were given sentences between two and ten years. “I called it a warm day in winter,” a renowned civil libertarian and lawyer, Haitham al-Maleh, said of this false spring. “I was not surprised. Bashar is the son of his father.” The hopes invested in the young ruler were in vain. If anything, Bashar’s rearing had formed an uncompromising autocrat, one perhaps more unyielding than his father.
Ghalioun put it well: “When Assad the elder died, I knew his son was going to be more dangerous than his father. His father was a political figure with political connections. He had struggled to reach his position, irrespective of his methods. But Bashar was born into a qawqaa (a shell), with no political experience. I knew he would not be able to respond to a complex society and that he would use violence more than his father. People would say he is more open, European-educated. But I viewed him as a young, inexperienced, out-of-touch crown prince, surrounded by bodyguards and an entourage.”…