Is ‘religious freedom’ the new ‘states’ rights’?

By Robert Mann

In the struggle for equality, past is prologue. In the Fifties and Sixties, many Southern politicians opposed racial equality, but for the sake of respectability couldn’t reveal their racism and prejudice. So, they hid behind principles of “freedom of association,” “states’ rights” and private property rights. They argued the federal government had no right to order school desegregation or require businesses to serve black citizens.

In opposing the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Sen. Richard Russell (D-Ga.), leader of the Southern anti-civil rights bloc, called the legislation a “vicious assault on property rights and the Constitution [which] proposes to take away from our society the oldest of our rights, that of freedom of association and the right to do with business as one pleases.”

When it came to desegregation of public schools, Russell and many of his colleagues wouldn’t actually say they were repulsed by the idea of white students sitting with black students in schools. So, they hid behind disingenuous protests about states’ rights.

In 1956, 101 Southern members of Congress signed the “Southern Manifesto,” in which they promised to use “all lawful means” against school desegregation. “We decry the Supreme Court’s encroachment on the rights reserved to the States and to the people,” they wrote.

Today, regarding equal rights for gays and lesbians — and contraceptive rights for women — is history repeating itself?

Some political leaders, especially on the right, dare not acknowledge that they oppose equal rights for gay and lesbian citizens. Nor will they own their archaic and unscientific views about contraception. Instead, they speak in code, warning that Washington is attacking the religious freedom of Christians.

In the fight against LGBT and contraceptive rights, yesterday’s appeal to “freedom of association” and “states’ rights” has become today’s struggle for “religious freedom.”

When Gov. Bobby Jindal speaks of an “ever-expanding regulatory state,” he’s attacking a law that requires most businesses to cover contraceptive services for female employees. When he says “we have the right to practice our faith and protect our conscience,” he’s complaining that some businesses might be required to provide services to gays and lesbians.

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The crime of our criminal justice system

By Robert Mann

I’m not a lawyer, but this is one thing I know about our criminal justice system: it only works if everyone involved performs his or her job honestly and to the utmost.

In too many criminal cases in Louisiana and across the country, one person often unable to do the job properly is the defense attorney. Maybe she’s a new lawyer handling a death penalty case. Maybe he’s a competent and overworked attorney with an indigent client, accused of rape, who cannot afford to hire a lawyer and wage an aggressive defense.

Maybe she’s politically ambitious, ordered to defend an ostensibly monstrous criminal. She fears that one day an opponent for district attorney or a judgeship might attack her for helping him go free. So, she goes through the motions, weakly defending a client she believes is guilty.

In far too many cases, those defendants are innocent people on an express train to prison, hijacked by a legal system that has little interest in the truth, i.e., ensuring the accused receives a proper defense. Attorneys at public defenders offices do their best, but they are often overwhelmed and underfunded.

As I wrote a few weeks ago, the Innocence Project New Orleans has sprung quite a few innocent men from prison over the years. Hardworking, underpaid attorneys at similar organizations across the country are doing the same, digging up ignored or suppressed evidence that might free their clients.

Examine the appalling number of people on death row who’ve been exonerated over the years. It’s clear that our nation’s criminal justice system is, itself, a crime.

All of this came to mind recently when former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton had to explain her 1975 defense of a rape suspect in Arkansas. Twenty-seven at the time, Clinton worked at a legal aid clinic where she represented Thomas Alfred Taylor, charged with sexually assaulting a 12-year-old girl. Clinton didn’t want the case, but mounted a vigorous defense, finally negotiating to get Taylor a year in jail and four years of probation.

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King Alexander might be the leader LSU needs

LSU President F. King Alexander

LSU President F. King Alexander

By Robert Mann

Even a blind miner occasionally finds a diamond. That seems to have been the case when the miners — otherwise known as LSU Board of Supervisors — hired F. King Alexander last year as system president and chancellor of the Baton Rouge campus.

To find its diamond, the board violated the state’s Public Records Law and the public’s trust. Even so, Alexander — who left California State University, Long Beach to take his newly combined position — has so far proved to be just what the beleaguered university system needs.

I was wrong about him. I argued that the rotten job search could only produce rotten results. That was incorrect, although it is still farcical to argue that the search was legal because Alexander was the sole applicant. | The Times-Picayune and the Baton Rouge Advocate will, I hope, prevail in their lawsuit to uncover the names of those considered for the job.

Why do I say Alexander was the right choice? For one thing, hiring him has allowed the school to hit the reset button with Gov. Bobby Jindal and the Legislature. “We’ve had a good working relationship,” Alexander says of Jindal. Say what you will about the leaders who preceded Alexander, you cannot say they had a productive relationship with the governor. Much of that was Jindal’s fault. His attacks on higher education were brutal and unfair.

It wasn’t long after he arrived — shortly after I suggested he was the wrong choice — that I met with Alexander over coffee. (An amiable man, his instinct is to reach out to critics, not ignore or alienate them — a lesson Jindal might learn.) When I suggested that he promptly demonstrate his independence from the governor, Alexander wisely responded that he wouldn’t allow the university’s history with Jindal to impede his work of rebuilding LSU.

Begin to rebuild it, he has. That’s not to say that LSU is returning to its glory days (when were those, exactly?). Still, Alexander has righted the ship, earned the trust of legislators and seems to enjoy a decent relationship with Jindal. Some of that means occasionally giving Jindal more praise than he deserves and enduring ridicule of critics like me.

More than anything, however, it’s been Alexander’s tangible successes that suggest that — if the school can keep him — he might find a way to turn LSU into a more-respected and better-funded university.

Alexander clearly recognizes that he inherited a school with little political capital. He’s worked hard to build bridges at the state Capitol. He’s working on unifying the LSU system so its 10 campuses and divisions speak with one strong voice in Washington, “so our federal legislators know which [priorities] are most important to us.”

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Louisiana’s modern-day slavery

By Robert Mann

There is a dramatic scene in the Oscar-winning movie “12 Years a Slave,” in which a black freeman, Solomon Northup, is kidnapped in 1841 after being lured from his home in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., to Washington, D.C., where he believes he has been temporarily employed as a fiddle player in a circus company.

Instead, one morning, Northup wakes up in a dank holding pen, sold into slavery. “I was handcuffed,” he wrote in his remarkable 1853 memoir, from which the film got its name. “What was the meaning of theses chains?” he asked himself, terrified and disoriented. Lamenting his sudden enslavement, Northrup wrote, “I felt there was no trust or mercy in unfeeling man; and commending myself to the God of the oppressed, bowed my head upon my fettered hands, and wept most bitterly.”

That disturbing scene haunts me. The inhumanity of selling a human into slavery and shipping his shackled body to a Louisiana plantation was, and remains, a shocking act. Thank God, I thought, such inhumanity – in the United States, at least – is history.

Then I attended a dinner sponsored by the Innocence Project New Orleans, where I learned about the appalling case of Gregory Bright. In 1975, a jury convicted Bright and co-defendant Earl Truvia, both of New Orleans, for the second-degree murder of Eliot Porter in the Calliope Housing Project.

Prosecutors secured their convictions and life sentences solely on the testimony of a single “witness,” a paranoid schizophrenic suffering from various delusions, who gave police information for cash and testified under a false name to conceal her criminal history. The jury knew none of this. There was no physical evidence linking either man to the murder. Bright’s attorney never once visited him in jail as he awaited trial. Prosecutors withheld other vital information from the jury, including a police report, which contained the names of two other likely suspects.

Lest you believe that the cases of Bright and Truvia are isolated, visit the website of Innocence Project New Orleans. There, you will meet Reginald Adams, who spent 34 years in prison for a 1979 murder he did not commit. New Orleans police detectives not only coerced Adams to confess, detectives perjured themselves on the stand. With the help of the IPNO, Adams won his release in May.

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Hubert Humphrey’s year in Baton Rouge and how it helped shape our civil rights laws

By Robert Mann

Shortly after noon on Monday, March 30, 1964, U.S. Sen. Hubert H. Humphrey (D-Minn.) stood at his polished mahogany desk in the Senate chamber and launched what would be an 83-day debate over the proposed Civil Rights Act of 1964. The Senate’s Democratic whip, Humphrey was also the floor manager for the historic bill, legislation he had dreamed about and promoted since the day he arrived in the Senate in 1948.

It was Humphrey who, at the 1948 Democratic National Convention, had forced a strong civil rights plank onto the party’s platform. “My friends,” the then-mayor of Minneapolis told delegates in Philadelphia, “to those who say that we are rushing this issue of civil rights, I say to them we are 172 years late. To those who say that this civil rights program is an infringement on states’ rights, I say this: The time has arrived in America for the Democratic Party to get out of the shadow of states’ rights and to walk forthrightly into the bright sunshine of human rights.”

Perhaps because he had waited so long to see the day when this long-awaited bill would be debated in the Senate — where southern filibusters had killed so many civil rights measures — Humphrey had much to say about civil rights. He cared deeply about passing a comprehensive law that would guarantee black people the rights he had long believed were promised in the Constitution but were denied by many local and state officials, especially in the segregated South. He would speak that day for three-and-a-half hours.

“If freedom becomes a full reality in America,” Humphrey told the half-dozen colleagues present for the Senate debate that afternoon, “we can dare to believe that it will become a reality everywhere. If freedom fails here in America, the land of the free — what hope can we have for it surviving elsewhere?”

Humphrey was particularly enthusiastic about the bill’s public accommodations section, a portion of the bill that would allow black citizens equal access to business, like restaurants, movie theaters and hotels. Quoting from two travel guides, he noted the many motels and hotels throughout the South that allowed dogs into rooms but prohibited African Americans. “In Charleston, South Carolina,” he said with disgust, “there are 10 places where a dog can stay, and none for a Negro.”

Few people knew it at the time, and perhaps fewer still know it today, but Humphrey’s views about human rights and economic justice had been largely shaped by a memorable year he spent in Baton Rouge, studying at Louisiana State University, beginning in the fall of 1939. “His year in Baton Rouge put a face on segregation and discrimination that Humphrey never forgot,” John Stewart, Humphrey’s trusted Senate aide for civil rights, said recently.

The future senator and vice president had grown up in South Dakota with a strong sense of social justice — values instilled in him by his irrepressible father, Hubert “H.H.” Humphrey, Sr., a loyal Democrat, small-town druggist and part-time politician.

While the lessons his father taught him were profound, it was the younger Humphrey’s year in Louisiana, that made the difference in his outlook and approach to his civil rights advocacy.

Humphrey had graduated with a political science degree from the University of Minnesota earlier that year and — with thoughts of become a college professor — immediately began thinking about where to earn a master’s degree and, eventually, a PhD. He settled on earning his master’s at LSU upon the recommendation of a former professor who knew the school’s political science department chair, Charles Hyneman.

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David Vitter’s tacit admission that Obamacare won’t be repealed

U.S. Sen. David Vitter

U.S. Sen. David Vitter

By Robert Mann

I’ve argued for months that the Affordable Care Act (ACA) will play only a minor role in the 2014 U.S. Senate race between Sen. Mary Landrieu and her main Republican challenger, U.S. Rep. Bill Cassidy.

Landrieu will probably never campaign on the wisdom of her vote for the legislation. But have you noticed that Cassidy hasn’t launched any major attacks on her for supporting it? (He has recently aired an anti-Obamacare spot, but it strangely never mentions Landrieu’s name.) If Landrieu’s vote were as fatal to her reelection as many Republicans once believed, wouldn’t you expect Cassidy to pound her relentlessly about it?

Republicans aren’t savaging Landrieu about the ACA because they know such attacks won’t work. The ACA might not be overwhelmingly popular in Louisiana (and other places), but it’s becoming more widely accepted and successful. For example, in Louisiana, a clear majority opposes its repeal, preferring, instead, to fix it. That’s why, in his spot, Cassidy’s carefully says he wants to “replace” the law (with what is not clear).

Even Gov. Bobby Jindal, a few months ago, advised the GOP to not run the 2014 election solely on repealing Obamacare.

Most telling, however, was what occurred last Monday during Sen. David Vitter’s appearance before the Baton Rouge Press Club. Vitter is running for governor next year, but his former communications director is running Cassidy’s campaign. Vitter is close to Cassidy and has every reason to want Landrieu defeated.

Therefore, when reporters asked Vitter about the ACA’s Medicaid expansion provision (which Jindal refuses to accept), he could have easily attacked Landrieu on Cassidy’s behalf. He didn’t. Instead, Vitter said he might be open, under certain circumstances, to accepting the federal funds to expand Medicaid.

Some of this was probably a result of Vitter’s reflexive dislike of Jindal, whom he obliquely ridiculed during his Press Club appearance. But Vitter’s statement that he would consider accepting Medicaid was also significant for what he left unsaid, but clearly implied: The Affordable Care Act is here to stay.

Vitter might have said, “Here are my ideas about how to better care for Louisiana’s working poor who don’t have health insurance, after we repeal Obamacare.” He could have ignored the question and launched a gratuitous attack on Democrats, like Landrieu, who supported Obamacare. He could have endorsed Jindal’s alternative health care plan. But he didn’t.

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Jindal on Common Core: He was for it before he was against it

By Robert Mann

Gov. Bobby Jindal announced Wednesday he’s moving to extract Louisiana from Common Core. Whatever you might think about the standards, which Jindal now describes as a federal government plot to take over the state’s education system, Common Core was an invention of the National Governors Association, of which Jindal was a member.

Common Core was a policy that Jindal once enthusiastically supported, that is until his presidential ambitions overrode any concern for the education of Louisiana’s students.

In other words, Jindal is telling us that he will not allow President Obama to use the education standards that Jindal helped create, and then enthusiastically promoted, to “take over” Louisiana education system.

This is a “leader” who Republicans should take seriously as a presidential candidate?

Here are just a few examples of Jindal’s previous, strong support for Common Core:

In a video released by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Foundation on April 2 , 2014, Jindal said :

“Adopting the Common Core State Standards … will raise expectations for every child.”

In January 2012, Jindal announced his so-called education “reforms.” Of Common Core, he said:

“Adopting the Common Core State Standards, which will raise expectations for every child.”

Jindal staffer Kyle Plotkin, defended Common Core in November 2012, saying,

“In order to make sure our kids are able to compete with students around the country and the world in math and science, students in the scholarship program are taking the exact same tests as the students in public schools. Starting in 2014 with Louisiana’s move to the Common Core State Standards, those will be nationally standardized assessments. That means that a parent can choose the school with the curriculum and environment that’s right for their child, while still ensuring that they are receiving the baseline content they need to compete.

“Furthermore, these results are going to be summarized and publicly available so parents and taxpayers can make comparisons. Schools whose scholarship students do not do well on the exams will not be allowed to continue participating in the program.”

Wednesday, all of that changed. Here are some tweets by Jindal: