Representatives or Rulers?

The Republican Party in Tennessee succeeded in creating tens of thousands of lifelong Democrats when they did this. … The Tennessee state legislature showed its hand. They’re not representatives, they’re rulers. You don’t get a voice. What you think doesn’t matter. You’re going to do what you’re told. Whether you accept that or not is up to you.

Beau of the Fifth Column,
speaking to young Tennessee voters after the legislature’s expulsion
of elected representatives Justin Jones and Justin Pearson

This week’s featured post is “What We Learned from the Trump Indictment“.

This week everybody was talking about the Trump indictment

Believe it or not, he was arraigned and the indictment was unsealed last Tuesday, not even a week ago. Details of the indictment and what happens next are discussed in the featured post.

and the Tennessee Three

If you’re the kind of Sift follower who reads and remembers every word, you’ve heard of Nashville legislator Justin Jones before: Back in February, I linked to this clip of Jones calling out the Tennessee General Assembly’s Republican majority for its hypocrisy in outlawing drag shows “to protect the children”, but ignoring far more serious dangers to the state’s children. Several more Jones speeches have popped up on my social media feeds in the last few months and very nearly made it into the Sift. You could say I’m a fan.

Well, Thursday the majority took its revenge and expelled Jones from the Assembly, along with another eloquent young Black representative, Justin Pearson of Memphis. A White woman, Gloria Johnson from Knoxville, missed expulsion by one vote. (If the votes had been taken in a different order, Johnson might have been expelled too. Pearson was expelled last, and so was able to vote for Johnson. But the margin against Jones and Pearson was more than one vote.)

The trigger for the expulsions was an incident on March 30. A few days before, a shooter had killed three children and three adults at the Covenant School in Nashville. Young people from all over the state came to Nashville on the 30th to protest the legislature’s unwillingness to do anything about Tennessee’s gun violence problem. As demonstrators filled the Capitol gallery, Jones, Pearson, and Johnson occupied the floor without recognition from the Republican chair, and led the protesters in chants. The business of the Assembly was disrupted for about an hour.

Tennessee, you should remember, was the birthplace of the KKK. A bust of KKK founder Nathan Bedford Forrest was prominently displayed in the Capitol — I saw it myself in 2013 — until 2021, when Jones was leading a protest movement against it. So it should not be surprising that White Republican Speaker Cameron Sexton would not take lightly such disrespect from uppity young Black representatives. Expulsion is vanishingly rare in Tennessee history — only two representatives have been expelled since 1866, and those were for bribery and sexual misconduct. Expulsion for a violation of “decorum” has no precedent.

But never mind that. Gerrymandering has given Republicans a supermajority, so they could muster the required 2/3rds vote purely on party lines. So the Justins are out. (A clever protest line I’ve been seeing: “No Justins, no peace.“)

Much of the debate prior to the expulsions made it clear that uppity-ness was the Justins’ real crime. Here’s White Republican Rep. Andrew Farmer talking down to Pearson.

That’s why you’re standing there, because of that temper tantrum that day. That yearning to have attention. That’s what you wanted. Well, you’re getting it now.

To which Pearson responded:

You all heard that. How many of you would want to be spoken to that way?

Wikipedia explains what happens next:

The expulsions of Jones and Pearson left vacancies in House Districts 52 and 86. Article 2, Section 15 of the Tennessee State Constitution allows the local legislative body—in this case, the Metropolitan Council of Nashville and Davidson County and the Shelby County Board of Commissioners, respectively—to appoint an interim successor until a special election can be held. At least 29 members of the 40-member Davidson County Metropolitan Council have vowed to reappoint Jones; the measure requires a majority of members to approve it. Shelby county commissioner Erika Sugarmon claimed that commissioners were threatened with cuts in state funding for certain local projects during budget negotiations if Pearson were reseated, which was disputed by a spokesperson for the House Speaker.

So local officials are going to send Jones and Pearson right back to the General Assembly. White Speaker Sexton will probably not take that uppity-ness well either, so stay tuned.

Prior to these events, University of Washington Professor Jake Grumbach had quantified the health of democracy in each state.

Grumbach’s State Democracy Index (SDI) grades each state on a series of metrics — like the extent to which a state is gerrymandered at the federal level, whether felons can vote, and the like — and then combines the assessments to give each state an overall score from -3 (worst) to 2 (best).

Tennessee got the lowest score in the nation. Wisconsin (see below) also did badly.

White Speaker Sexton’s draconian response to protest has led some journalists to take a closer look at his own situation. Jud Legum claims to have found a problem much more serious that a breach of “decorum”: Sexton appears not to live in the district he represents.

Just last week, I remarked on the strangeness of the GOP making absolutely no policy moves to change its disastrous performance with young voters, nothing that would say to them “We’re not your enemies”.

Well, in Tennessee, young people showed up in the thousands to tell the legislature what they want — action against gun violence — and the legislature’s response was to expel two young representatives who demonstrated with them. In short: “We are your enemies.” I think a lot of young voters have heard that message loud and clear.

(See below for similar cluelessness in Wisconsin.)

Two of my favorite podcasters have roots in Tennessee, and commented on this week’s events: “liberal redneck” Trae Crowder and Beau of the Fifth Column. Trae’s reaction is funnier, Beau’s more serious.

and abortion pills

As I predicted three weeks ago, the lone federal judge hearing cases in Amarillo did the job Trump appointed him to do: He issued an injunction taking mifepristone, part of the two-drug combination used in almost all medication abortions (which now constitute more than half of abortions nationwide), off the market.

Judge Matthew J. Kacsmaryk’s ruling makes precisely the arguments that Adam Unikowsky had debunked over a month ago: An organization of doctors (incorporated in Amarillo precisely to bring this case to his court) has standing to sue, based on a mythic rush of patients they may have to treat after medication abortions go wrong. The FDA was wrong to rely on 20 years of safety data out of Europe, and is wrong now to rely on mifepristone’s 23-year safety record in the United States. The plaintiffs do not have to exhaust the FDA’s own process before suing.

All of this flies in the face of numerous Supreme Court precedents, which Unikowsky cited. But nonetheless, Kacsmaryk found that the plaintiffs were likely to prevail in their claims, justifying an injunction upending the majority of abortions in America.

Kacsmaryk’s ruling is couched in the terms of pro-life propaganda, without even a pretense of objectivity. In footnote 1, for example, he explains why he will use the terms “unborn human” and “unborn child” rather than “fetus”. Throughout his ruling, doctors who prescribe mifepristone are “abortionists”, while the doctors suing are “physicians”.

Unlike abortionists suing on behalf of women seeking abortions, here there are no potential conflicts of interest between the Plaintiff physicians and their patients.

In other words, the plaintiffs’ (and the judge’s) prior commitment to a religious ideology that their patients may not share is not a relevant conflict.

Anyway, this predictable judicial activism won’t stand unless higher courts validate it. The FDA and the Justice Department appealed to the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals on Friday. This is one of the most conservative appeals courts in the country (another reason for the plaintiffs to choose Amarillo), so we’ll see what happens.

Almost simultaneous with the Amarillo injunction, a federal judge in Washington state issued a contradictory injunction ordering the FDA not to remove mifepristone from the market. That injunction applies to the 17 (blue) states whose attorneys general were suing.

The two rulings will be appealed to different appellate courts. So unless those courts miraculously come to the same conclusion, the fate of mifepristone will ultimately have to be decided by the Supreme Court. When that might happen, and whether the drug will remain available in the meantime, remains to be seen.

and Clarence Thomas

Speaking of the Supreme Court, there’s a new Clarence Thomas scandal.

Thomas, if you remember, has been embroiled in scandal since Anita Hill accused him of sexual harassment during his confirmation hearing in 1991.

Back in 2011, he had to amend 20 years of financial disclosure forms after Common Cause pointed out that he hadn’t listed the sources of his wife Ginni’s income — largely conservative think tanks like the Heritage Foundation (who have opinions and desires about Supreme Court decisions). He blamed that on “a misunderstanding of the filing instructions”. Common Cause found that explanation “implausible”.

Justice Thomas sits on the highest court of the land, is called upon daily to understand and interpret the most complicated legal issues of our day and makes decisions that affect millions. It is hard to see how he could have misunderstood the simple directions of a federal disclosure form.

Thomas regularly has had conflicts of interests through his wife. In 2011, he didn’t recuse himself from Supreme Court rulings on the Affordable Care Act, despite Ginni’s active lobbying for repeal of the act.

More recently, Thomas didn’t recuse himself from ruling on ex-President Trump’s request that the Court block release of White House records related to January 6. (He was the only justice to vote in Trump’s favor.) When Mark Meadows turned over his text messages, we found out that Ginni had been urging Meadows to urge Trump to challenge the 2020 election, which she called “the greatest Heist of our History”.

The latest scandal is that the Thomases have been accepting massive gifts from billionaire GOP donor Harlan Crow for over 20 years, and Justice Thomas hasn’t been reporting them as the law requires. Clarence and Ginni regularly cruise on Crow’s yacht, fly on his private jet, and vacation at his private resort.

In late June 2019, right after the U.S. Supreme Court released its final opinion of the term, Justice Clarence Thomas boarded a large private jet headed to Indonesia. He and his wife were going on vacation: nine days of island-hopping in a volcanic archipelago on a superyacht staffed by a coterie of attendants and a private chef.

If Thomas had chartered the plane and the 162-foot yacht himself, the total cost of the trip could have exceeded $500,000. Fortunately for him, that wasn’t necessary: He was on vacation with real estate magnate and Republican megadonor Harlan Crow, who owned the jet — and the yacht, too.

… These trips appeared nowhere on Thomas’ financial disclosures. His failure to report the flights appears to violate a law passed after Watergate that requires justices, judges, members of Congress and federal officials to disclose most gifts, two ethics law experts said. He also should have disclosed his trips on the yacht, these experts said.

Crow himself has not had cases before the Supreme Court during this time, but he is associated with organizations that often do, like the Club for Growth and the American Enterprise Institute.

He has also donated hundreds of thousands of dollars to a Tea Party organization founded by Ginni Thomas — one that paid her $120,000, ProPublica notes.

Thomas issued a statement making this excuse:

Early in my tenure at the Court, I sought guidance from my colleagues and others in the judiciary, and was advised that this sort of personal hospitality from close personal friends, who did not have business before the Court, was not reportable.

In other words, Thomas has once again misunderstood the legal requirements. I have three comments on this:

  • As in the Common Cause scandal, Thomas’ defense is that he isn’t very good at law.
  • Even if his false impression were true, Supreme Court justices shouldn’t be trying to squeak through loopholes in the rules. Any idiot should know that accepting these kinds of favors looks really, really bad and would undermine the legitimacy of the Court.
  • Thomas’ “close friend” is someone he didn’t know when he joined the Court.

Meanwhile, elected Republicans and conservative media has been lining up to defend Thomas. The Wall Street Journal editorial page characterized this scandal as a “smear” and “another phony ethics assault to tarnish the Supreme Court”. The “smear” charge is repeated in a tweet from Senator Cornyn.

Last week, many of the same voices were trying to make some sinister connection between Trump-indicting DA Alvin Bragg and billionaire George Soros, because Soros contributed to an organization that contributed to Bragg’s political campaign. But here we have an actual corrupt arrangement, where millions of dollars in benefits accrue to Thomas personally, and it’s no big deal.

I don’t want to make too much of Crow’s collection of Nazi memorabilia. Lots of people collect weird things, after all. But it does seem like a red flag.

and Wisconsin’s stunning election

Most other weeks, this would be the top news story: Wisconsin voters elected a liberal to replace a conservative on the state’s Supreme Court, tipping the balance in the liberal direction for the first time in 15 years.

The result is important for two reasons:

  • Wisconsin’s Supreme Court has been one of the most blatantly partisan in the country, giving Republicans a huge advantage statewide.
  • Wisconsin elections are typically close, and this one wasn’t. The liberal won by 11%.

Let’s start with partisanship. Wisconsin has long been one of the most gerrymandered states in the country, locking in large Republican majorities in spite of a relatively even split among the voters.

Wisconsin is an evenly divided purple state and [Governor] Tony Evers won re-election with 51.2% of the vote, but on the very same 2022 midterm ballots, Republicans won more than 60% of seats in the state legislature.

Republicans also hold six of the state’s eight seats in the House of Representatives.

Many states are gerrymandered because the state’s supreme court tolerates biased maps. But in Wisconsin, the state supreme court chose the map itself, resulting in a map that was even more biased than the previous one. If the new liberal majority tears those maps up, the state could return to a semblance of democracy.

Now let’s talk about that “evenly divided” electorate. In 2016, Trump won the state by 43,000 votes, or less than 1%. In 2020, Biden won by 20,000 votes, a little more than half a percent. But on Tuesday, Janet Protasiewicz beat Daniel Kelly by over 200,000 votes, more than 11%.

We don’t have detailed exit polls that break that victory up according to demographics, but educated opinion attributes the landslide to two groups: women and young people. The court is expected to rule on whether the state’s ancient ban on abortion is back in effect after Dobbs, and Republicans nationwide have a serious problem with young voters.

It’s fascinating watching Republicans try to deal with this reality without changing any of the positions that have alienated women and young voters. National GOP chair Ronna McDaniel said, “When you’re losing by ten points there is a messaging issue” on abortion. But of course there isn’t a “messaging issue”; voters understand very well where the two parties stand on abortion, and they agree with the Democrats.

Former Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker sounded a similar alarm about young voters. He noted the big margins Democrats ran up among younger voters in the 2022 midterms, and then called attention to the 82% of the vote “the radical” (Protasiewicz) got in Dane County, home of the University of Wisconsin.

But like McDaniel, Walker doesn’t see the need for any policy changes. In his mind, the problem isn’t that the GOP is dominated by climate-change denial, or that it promotes (or at best winks at) racism and homophobia, or that it wants the state to take control of women’s bodies.

This is years of liberal indoctrination come home to roost.

I suppose the obvious answer, then, would be to ban more books, as DeSantis is doing in Florida. But in the real world, the GOP’s problem with young voters isn’t that they’re deluded, it’s that they see all too well what Republicans stand for.

and you also might be interested in …

Texas Governor Greg Abbott says he will pardon newly convicted murderer Daniel Perry if the pardon application reaches his desk.

Perry murdered a demonstrator who was protesting the murder of George Floyd. Both Perry and his victim were armed, so Perry claims self-defense. But he raised that claim in his trial, and a jury of his peers unanimously rejected it. What does Abbott know that they didn’t?

This is yet another example of creeping fascism in red states: brownshirt violence going unpunished. Apparently, in Texas you can get away with murdering people the regime considers undesirable.

Over 100 classified documents have appeared on social media sites, revealing closely held US assessments of the military situation in Ukraine, China, and the Middle East. It’s still not known who released the documents or why.

A. R. Moxon makes an apt analogy I wish I had thought of first: Elon Musk and his Twitter followers resemble Butthead with an army of Beavises.

Along the way he raises a dangerous idea that I haven’t analyzed: Maybe the profit in technological disruption comes from the associated destruction, not the creation.

Jon Cooper explains the folly of Ron DeSantis’ escalating war against Disney:

If he eventually wins, his GOP presidential primary opponents (and Democrats) will rightfully portray him as being anti-business. If he loses, his opponents will ridicule him for having been beaten by a mouse. Either way, the American people are already seeing DeSantis for what he is — thin-skinned, vindictive, stubborn, mean, shortsighted, and not very bright.

Meanwhile, Democrats are using the vagueness of DeSantis’ own laws to try to get his book “The Courage to Be Fascist Free” taken out of school libraries. After all, it contains several “divisive concepts”.

and let’s close with a blast from the past

Yesterday my wife and I were drinking tea at the one table in Cafe Vinyl in Santa Fe (“coffee, records, books, t-shirts”) when the not-quite-30 guy behind the counter cued up a Tom Waits album we used to listen to in the 1970s.

Aside from the sheer nostalgia of it, listening to Waits while the 20-somethings flipped through used vinyl records raised an issue I’ve been thinking about since I read a Slate retrospective on Rod McKuen last fall: What gets remembered and what doesn’t?

One of the weird contradictions of living in the future is that every artist is at the tip of your fingers, but you can only find who your fingers know to search for. In the not-so-distant past, artists could avoid slipping away thanks to only the physical evidence: a record in a thrift store, a used book with a man in a white turtleneck on its cover, murmuring to the bewildered shopper, “Who am I? To whom did I matter? To whom did I stop mattering?”

The Spotify algorithm, Amazon’s recommendations, they’ll never, ever show you Rod McKuen. Those are designed to direct you towards things that other people like right now. But thrift stores, used bookshops, and Goodwills are, accidentally, perfectly designed to show you things that people liked decades ago, then stopped liking.

Unlike McKuen, Waits deserves to be remembered. So here’s one of my favorites from 1976, Waits’ lampoon of salesmanship and advertising, “Step Right Up“.

“You got it, buddy. The large print giveth and the small print taketh away.”

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  • Brian Douglas  On April 10, 2023 at 12:51 pm

    I think McKuen (and Sinatra of course) deserves to be remembered for this. I know McKuen was schmaltzy and of course Frank had his own problems – but “Loves Been Good To Me” ain’t bad.

  • Fred Rickson  On April 10, 2023 at 2:21 pm

    Tom Waits……thanks.

  • Carolyn  On April 10, 2023 at 9:34 pm

    I don’t remember if you pointed me to Trae and Beau in the first place, but I heartily second the shoutout.

  • Wade Scholine  On April 11, 2023 at 11:47 am

    With respect to the efforts to ban DeSantis’ book using DeSantis’ own law, I fear that’s a little too clever to accomplish anything. “Books” like the one DeSantis “wrote” are not intended to actually be read. They’re a grift, designed to be purchased in bulk by political supporters, who will then distribute them free as tote-bag stuffers at some event, to people who will eventually use them as doorstops.

    If there were going to actually be any copies in Florida schools, things might be different, but this is just Florida Democrats making themselves look stupid. As a Florida Democratic voter this makes me sad but does not occasion any surprise.


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