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Hearing on Judicial Independence and Civics Education, with testimony from Justice Sandra Day O'Connor PDF Print E-mail
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Written by Grassley Press   
Wednesday, 25 July 2012 08:45

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Thank you for holding this hearing, Mr. Chairman.  And I extend hearty greetings to Justice O’Connor for being with us today.  You were not only the first woman to serve on the Supreme Court.  You were the first Justice whose confirmation I voted for.  Your performance justified the confidence that the Senate placed in you.

We would like to believe that our judges, whose independence is guaranteed by the Constitution, rule based only on the Constitution and not on their policy preferences.  Judicial independence was established to make the courts independent of the other branches and independent of popular views.  It is not designed to make the judges independent of the Constitution so that they can impose their policy preferences.  We hear that if only our citizens properly understood the role of the courts, unprecedented attacks on judicial rulings would vanish.

This view is at odds with both current reality and the history of our country.  In fact, the leading reason for the so-called attack on judicial independence is the judges themselves.  Only last week, The New York Times reported that only a few weeks before the Court’s health care decision, the public approved of the Supreme Court’s performance by a 44-36 margin.

But the article reported that after the ruling, as many Americans disapprove of the Supreme Court as approve of its performance.  That decision, which some have speculated was issued, at least in part, to reduce political opposition to the Court, appears to have accomplished exactly the opposite result.

The article states that most Americans believe the decision was based mainly on the justices’ personal or political views.  Only about 30 percent of Americans say the decision was made mainly on legal analysis.  For myself, I respect the decision, even if I am disappointed by it.  And I question no one’s motives.  But I do not think that the poll results would be different if only the public had a better understanding of the Court.  In fact, I think the poll reflects that the public does have reason to suspect that politics enters into some Justices’ decisions.  They accept them anyway, as shown by the polling on 18 earlier major cases presented in the article, two-thirds of which were unpopular with the population when they were decided.

Although unfortunate, this perception should not be a cause for alarm, so long as it does not lead to threats of violence, threats of impeachment, or threats to imprison judges for their rulings.  Much more serious threats to judicial independence have occurred regularly in our history when the citizens were convinced that what courts presented as law was not constitutionally sound, such as when Andrew Jackson refused to be bound by the Supreme Court’s opinion of the constitutionality of the Bank of the United States or its rulings on Indian rights.  Or, when Abraham Lincoln said that the Dred Scott decision was “erroneous” and refused to accept it as a precedent because it reflected “apparent political bias.”  Or, when Theodore Roosevelt ran the most successful third party candidacy in our country’s history on a platform of “restriction of the power of the courts [so] as to leave to the people the ultimate authority to determine fundamental questions of social welfare and public policy,” including the ability of voters to overturn constitutional rulings of state courts.  And, when Franklin Roosevelt tried to “pack” the Supreme Court because of its rulings striking down New Deal legislation.  So let us keep perspective.

It is not a violation of judicial independence for a senator to criticize court rulings that he or she believes are incorrect   It is not a violation of judicial independence for a senator to conduct legitimate oversight of the judiciary.   Those are appropriate ways of ensuring accountability.

But judicial independence could be jeopardized when a President at the State of the Union misstates the holding of a Supreme Court case in front of Justices when they cannot respond.  Judicial independence could be threatened when, after a pending case is briefed or argued, the President publicly misstates the process of judicial review and claims that the Court’s legitimacy, and a particular Justice’s legacy, will be tainted unless the Court decides that case as the President wants.  And judicial independence is certainly weakened if Justices give in to those attacks, rather than decide based on the Constitution, or appear to do so.

Finally, I appreciate Justice O’Connor’s work in advancing civic education.  I believe that all citizens in a democracy benefit from the participation of informed and active citizens.  I think the ICivics site is a good one, although I wish CourtQuest told students that citizens can challenge laws on constitutional grounds in state as well as federal courts.  It should also say that a trial held for violation of a state criminal law claimed to violate the federal Constitution would be held in state and not federal court.  And, although I have supported federal efforts to promote greater understanding of our constitutional system, I do not believe that the federal government should develop and mandate civics standards.  And I do not think the Framers of the Constitution thought they had given Congress the authority to impose such standards.

Justice O’Connor, I look forward to your testimony.

 
The ‘Musical Chairs’ Spiritual Trend PDF Print E-mail
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Written by Ginny Grimsley   
Tuesday, 24 July 2012 14:33
Polls Show More Non-Denominational Believers; Commingling Disparate Traditions is Good, Author Says

Growing numbers of Americans are changing their relationship with religion, recent Pew Research Center polls indicate.

Consider the stats:

• Forty-four percent of U.S. adults have either switched religious affiliation, or report “no affiliation”

• More than 16 percent report they are unaffiliated with a religion; that includes those who are spiritual but not religious, and agnostics and atheists

• Twenty-eight percent have switched from the religion in which they were raised

“A full-bodied understanding of the truth does not necessarily come neatly packaged in the form of a church or a scientific theory,” says Eli Just, former physics teacher and author of Manny Jones and the Place (www.elijustsupernaturalwriter.com), which links quantum theory, biblical stories and the Mayan precession.

With science developing new concepts about the nature of reality; changing attitudes in institutional religions, and widespread sharing on the internet, more believers are creating their own spiritual narrative -- one that makes more sense to them, he says. Scandals involving sex and money in Christian denominations, which account for more than 78 percent of the faithful in America, have contributed to religious shifting, Just adds.

A recent Pew poll on religion reveals that nearly 40 percent of Americans say there is “too much” religious talk in politics. Many respondents think politicians use religion as a tool for their own benefit, which may serve to increase alienation to religion for the average American, Just says.

Despite wariness on some religious issues, most respondents polled say spirituality plays a significant role in their lives.

“Type in ‘new religious movements’ in Wikipedia and you’ll see the hundreds of religions that have popped up since the 1800s, and those are just the registered ones,” Just says. “As a man of science and faith, and I don’t think the truths of these two traditions are mutually exclusive. After all, Newton was a fervent Christian.”

One of the more recent registered religions was created in 2000 and is called Jediism – a movement based on the philosophical and spiritual ideas posited by Jedi characters in the “Star Wars” movies. Jedi churches often incorporate beliefs from mainstream spiritual traditions including Christianity, Buddhism, Taoism and Stoicism.

“Everything is connected, which is probably why so many people come up with such a variety of spiritual perspectives,” Just says. “Personally, however, I don’t think the interconnectivity of everything gives license to the notion that all religions are the same.”

In addition to the new and fascinating data coming from sources like the Large Hadron Collider in Europe, it’s important to remember ideas that are still alive after thousands of years, he says.

“Old religions like Christianity have withstood the test of time,” Just says. “That’s why the majority of Americans remain spiritual and religious in a traditional sense.”

About Eli Just

Eli Just is the author of several books including the popular “Manny Jones” series and “The Eddy.” He has a master’s in history from Southeastern Louisiana University and is a self-taught student of physics, which he taught at the high school level. As a Christian, Just enjoys exploring themes involving physics and its relationship to religion. He lives in northern Georgia.

 
Governor Quinn Signs Laws To Reduce Disability Parking Abuse PDF Print E-mail
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Written by Nafia Khan   
Monday, 23 July 2012 13:38
New Laws Increase Penalties for Unauthorized Use of Handicap Placards

CHICAGO – July 23, 2012. Governor Pat Quinn today signed two new laws that will crack down on unauthorized use of handicap parking placards. The laws will help those with a disability find parking and help municipalities crack down on abuse that raises costs for taxpayers. The governor was joined by legislators, Illinois Secretary of State Jesse White and disability advocates from across Illinois.

“People who rely on handicap parking should not be victimized by those who would use fraudulent placards,” Governor Quinn said. “These laws will ensure more fairness and fight fraud across Illinois.”

House Bill 5624, sponsored by Rep. Karen May (D-Highland Park) and Sen. Maggie Crotty (D-Oak Forest), increases the initial fine for unauthorized use of a disability license plate or parking decal to $600 (up from $500), and doubles the initial fine for creating or possessing fraudulent disability plates and using a genuine disability placard in the absence of the authorized holder ($1000, up from $500). The new law also imposes an initial fine of $1000 on a physician or other specified healthcare professional who knowingly falsifies a certification for a person who does not have a disability to entitle him or her to a disability license plate or parking decal. The legislation was developed following numerous reports of abuse.

The legislation ends, effective in 2014, the full parking meter fee exemption for those with disability placards and allows the Secretary of State to issue a new meter-exempt decal to people with disabilities who meet certain requirements and who are unable to access or operate a parking meter. Fraud and misuse of this broad exemption have resulted in lost revenue and decreased parking availability for people with disabilities in municipalities across Illinois.

House Bill 5056, sponsored by Rep. John D’Amico (D-Chicago) and Sen. Martin Sandoval (D-Cicero), establishes tougher penalties for the improper use of a deceased person’s handicap placard. The law makes the new offense a Class A misdemeanor with a minimum fine of $2,500 and mandatory revocation of the offender’s driving privileges. It also raises the fine for a second conviction of misuse of a disability placard from $750 to $1000 and allows the Secretary of State to suspend or revoke driving privileges. The Secretary of State may also revoke or suspend the driving privileges of an offender who violates a similar local ordinance against improper use of disability placards. This bill is an initiative of the Secretary of State’s Advisory Committee on Traffic Safety. The Secretary of State oversees 600,000 disabled-parking placards and 82,000 handicap license plates statewide.

“It is against all the laws of human decency for an able-bodied person to deprive a person with a disability of using a disability parking spot. I commend Governor Quinn for signing this important legislation,” said Secretary of State Jesse White.

Both laws passed the General Assembly overwhelmingly and are effective Jan 1.

###

 
Secretary Vilsack Announces Proposed Rule to Help Utilities Assist Home and Business Owners' Energy Conservation Efforts PDF Print E-mail
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Written by Dawn Bonsell, Pennsylvania USDA PIO   
Monday, 23 July 2012 13:18

As Harrisburg, Penn., temperatures reached 93 degrees on Tuesday and continued to climb throughout the afternoon, it seemed an appropriate time for Secretary Tom Vilsack to announce a new proposed Federal Rule that could help rural homeowners and entrepreneurs save on their utility bills and create jobs in rural areas. The new energy efficiency effort will make federal loans available for rural electric cooperatives to re-lend to electric cooperative customers throughout America who want to make their homes and businesses more energy efficient. The partnership demonstrates a new "pathway to prosperity" according to Secretary Vilsack, and is "a reminder of President Obama’s commitment to stronger rural communities, a stronger rural economy, and strengthening rural values."

The Secretary unveiled the details of the plan during a meeting with the Pennsylvania Rural Electric Association in downtown Harrisburg—a meeting attended by over 50 residents and businesses. The electric cooperatives, which distribute electricity in rural areas, will manage the loans and will collect payments on utility bills, allowing customers to spread out the loan payments. Homeowners and businesses will be able to seal air leaks and replace inefficient heating and air-conditioning systems through the program.

In addition to helping homeowners and businesses, the energy efficiency program will also create jobs for contractors who retrofit homes to make them more energy efficient and will help to reduce our dependence on foreign oil.

USDA Rural Development is accepting comments on the proposed Rule for 60 days. To find out more, click here.  To hear audio of the Secretary’s announcement, click here.

 
Protecting the Whistleblowers PDF Print E-mail
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Written by Grassley Press   
Monday, 23 July 2012 12:33

Protecting Whistleblowers

Friday, July 20, 2012

The value of whistleblowers to the public good, and the need to protect whistleblowers, is clear as ever.  Whistleblowers within federal government agencies have courageously and patriotically stepped forward to point out waste, fraud and abuse of tax dollars.  A famous whistleblower decades ago said whistleblowers are guilty of "committing truth."  We're all better off for the truth whistleblowers commit, and they deserve our respect and support.

Click here for audio.

Here is the text of the address:

The value of whistleblowers to the public good, and the need to protect whistleblowers, is clear as ever.

Without whistleblowers, the public probably never would have known about the operational tactics in the federal government's Fast and Furious program that might have led to the murder of United States Border Patrol Agent Brian Terry.  That's why Congressman Darrell Issa and I have asked the head of the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms, and Explosives to clarify his remarks to employees about reporting concerns within the agency.  His ominous comments are likely to chill whistleblowers from reporting legitimate problems and undermine very necessary efforts to make improvements in the agency.    The message sent by the acting director of the ATF is unacceptable.

Another federal agency - the Food and Drug Administration - is also demonstrating the kind of intense retaliation whistleblowers can face.  The FDA started an aggressive campaign more than two years ago to spy on protected, personal email messages of certain agency employees.  Then the FDA retaliated against these agency whistleblowers after they raised concerns to Congress about the safety of drugs and devices approved by the FDA.

What the FDA has done has serious implications for the right of federal employees to make valuable protected disclosures about waste, fraud, abuse, mismanagement, or public safety to Congress or anyone else.  This kind of communication is protected for good reason.  The scope and tone of the surveillance effort reveals an agency more concerned about protecting itself than protecting the public, which ironically is the agency's mission.  I will continue to dig in and pursue information and accountability from the FDA.

Finally, this week the Judiciary Committee, where I serve as Ranking Member, held a hearing on improving forensic science in the criminal justice system.  I renewed my request for information from the FBI about the scientific integrity of its crime lab, and from the Department of Justice about its review of past prosecutions.

The Department of Justice is conducting an expansive review of criminal cases where defendants may have been wrongly convicted because of flawed forensic work in the FBI crime lab following investigative reporting by The Washington Post that indicated that "sloppy" and "unreliable" work may have led to the incarceration of hundreds of innocent people.  This review needs to avoid mistakes made by a previous task force, so that the forensic science system in this country is as good as it can be.

Today's problems in the FBI crime lab follow improvements made 15 years ago, after a crime lab scientist named Dr. Frederic Whitehurst risked his career to come forward with allegations about wrongdoing in the FBI crime lab.  At that time, the scientific integrity of the lab and thousands of prosecutions that relied on evidence it processed were in question.  Dr. Whitehurst was retaliated against by the FBI, as well.  Ultimately, after a lengthy fight, Dr. Whitehurst's disclosures resulted in an independent investigation that recommended lab changes, including accreditation by an outside body.  Today, again, work needs to be done to safeguard the integrity of the FBI lab.

I stand up for whistleblowers through legislation to empower and protect them, and through congressional oversight of the federal agencies they legitimately, and importantly challenge.  A famous whistleblower decades ago said whistleblowers are guilty of committing "truth."  We're all better off for the truth they commit, and they deserve our respect and support.

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