April 24, 2007

Two Cents About VT

In the wake of the Virginia Tech tragedy, I have been stirred by a few thoughts. I hesitated to write something because I was not directly affected by this event and thought adding my own voice to the incessant media noise that descended on Blacksburg would be of little value. But I’ve decided to go ahead and write because I do find myself thinking and feeling deeply about the tragedy and its aftermath (and I humblyrealize that my voice is only reaching my friends and family anyway). So here are my two cents….

Cent One
As a person who believes in the fundamental goodness of human beings and is constantly looking for external factors to explain how some people go sour, incidents like Virginia Tech remind me that there really are people in this world who will stop at nothing to do evil things. And they may be on a college campus near me or in my neighborhood or walking past me on the street. What makes Virginia Tech so devastating is that this did not occur in Baghdad (where, tragically, deaths of innocents of this magnitude are occurring every day) or Sudan (where, unbelievably, deaths of innocents of this magnitude have been occurring for decades), but on a college campus in classrooms not dissimilar from those many of us were once in. It is this familiarity with environment that has caused the Virginia Tech tragedy to have such an impact on me and drive home the fundamental fact that evil does exist in this world.

I hate writing the words “evil does exist” because it is such a simple explanation for this incident. It is almost lazy to dismiss the killer as one bad apple and not focus on the societal forces that worked to put him in possession of a gun, a sense of loneliness, and a desire to do harm to himself and others. That is my typical response – if I am robbed, it is not the individual I initially condemn, but the society that has kept him in poverty and convinced him of the need to obtain money or material things by any means necessary. Of course, ultimately, it is the robber who should primarily be held responsible. There are millions of others who are impoverished and need things but do not rob me. Despite the societal influences that impact all of our lives, it is ultimately the robber who has made the decision to do something wrong.

No matter what was going on in his life or what flaws there were in campus security or state gun control laws, it was ultimately the act of one bad apple that killed so many people. The work that is to be done now is to fix the things we can fix – security protocol, gun control, background checks – but with the sad understanding that external factors can’t always stop some human beings from going sour and impacting other lives in the process. I weep for the victims and their families’ shattered lives, but I am equally saddened to be reminded yet again that there are people who just are not fundamentally good and they can devastate society so easily.

Cent Two
Beyond the sadness I feel after this tragedy, the next most prominent emotion I’ve found has been revulsion at the media. Every time a crisis/incident/tragedy like this unfolds, I always find myself being turned off by the circus of media coverage that envelops those involved. In these moments, should victims’ families have to worry about issuing press releases?

Obviously, this is a story the media has to cover. And obviously, viewers/readers should be interested in the causes and details. But as I saw a campus filled with news trucks and microphones in the background of the coverage from every single channel, it struck me that the media had become vultures and I began to question the motivations for their being there. Were they there to cover the story and bring the rest of the country the news? Or were they there out of their own self-interest, searching for the most sensational angle to drive up their ratings? The NBC News release of the killer’s manifesto is the most glaring example of this, but the overall tone of the reporting was only a slight step up from the coverage that passes for news on my local evening news.

The truth is somewhere in the middle – there are some journalists who are there for the noble purpose of the profession, seeking and reporting facts, giving their audience a new perspective on a difficult event, and there are others who are there because they are supposed to be there and must be in order to selfishly maintain ratings/readers/viewers. As a pseudo member of the media, I wish we lived in a world where all journalists were in it for the noble cause just as as a pseudo member of the legal world, I wish all lawyers were in it to help people. But that isn't the world we live in, and besides, if I got my wish, neither journalists nor lawyers would ever get paid. I am certainly being too hard on the media because this is an important story that must be covered, but I know how the victims of Hurricane Katrina have been largely forgotten after a month of blanket coverage and I have little doubt that the circus will move on from Blacksburg as well.

April 17, 2007

Justice Being Served?

In American mythology, the part of Justice is often played by a blindfolded woman weighing competing evidence dispassionately. She is to reach her just conclusions without regard to the way an individual looks or what that individual thinks or which party that individual votes for.

At the Department of Justice, the blindfold has apparently been removed.

The recent firing of eight US Attorneys for what appear to be partisan purposes has led to an outright Washington scandal, complete with hearings and testimony and subpoenas. However, the US Attorney firings were merely a continuation of the practice of politicizing the Department of Justice that began the moment the Bush Administration – and with it, Attorney General John Ashcroft – took office.

DOJ is headed by political appointees, like Ashcroft, who serve at the pleasure of the President. These individuals set larger policies to ensure that the DOJ functions as part of the larger presidential administration but typically do not direct the thousands of cases being pursued by DOJ at any time. That task is left to the roughly 300 career attorneys who serve in DOJ regardless of who is in the White House. Through Republican and Democratic administrations past, there has been a mutual respect, if not always agreement, between the political appointees and the career attorneys.

By many accounts, that respect disappeared when the Bush Administration began shaping its Department of Justice, most significantly in the DOJ’s Civil Rights Division. The mandate of the Civil Rights Division is to enforce the nation’s civil rights laws, whether by suing an employer for a pattern or practice of employment discrimination or enforcing voting rights laws against a state that is disenfranchising minority voters. Through changes in the procedures for hiring new attorneys and shifts in the types of cases it undertakes, the Bush/Ashcroft/Gonzales DOJ has transformed the Civil Rights Division into a partisan tool.

Prior to 2001, job applicants would be hired by career attorneys subject to approval from the political appointees. Under Ashcroft, this practice was abolished in 2003 as career attorneys were removed from the hiring process completely. The results were predictable. According to the Boston Globe, only 42% of the career attorneys hired in the two years after 2003 had civil rights litigation experience, compared to 77% in the two years prior. In addition, of those 42% who had civil rights experience, half had gained it by defending employers against discrimination or arguing against affirmative action policies.

Similarly, the perspective of the career attorneys has been minimized in selecting the cases and positions taken by the Department. Despite career attorneys’ recommendations to the contrary, the DOJ has come out in favor of redistricting efforts in Mississippi and Texas that have benefited Republican candidates and recommended approval of a Georgia voter identification law that the career attorneys concluded would disenfranchise minority voters. The number of enforcement actions being brought for employment and voting discrimination is down, while the number of cases brought on the theory of “viewpoint discrimination” (i.e., cases claiming discrimination on the basis of religious beliefs) is up.

Career attorneys have been resigning in protest of these policy shifts throughout the Bush reign, but are only now gaining an audience in Congress. Last month, a House Judiciary subcommittee held hearings on the Civil Rights Division. At the hearing, Joe Rich, a 37-year veteran and a former chief of the Voting Rights Section in the Civil Rights Division who left in protest in 2005 testified that “the political decision-making process that led to the questionable dismissal of eight United States Attorneys was standard practice in the Civil Rights Division years before these recent revelations.”

In this context, the firing of US Attorneys who were reluctant to pursue a partisan agenda makes perfect sense. This Administration has never made it the goal of the DOJ to pursue justice, but has used the Department as part of a larger effort to create a permanent Republican majority. Only time will tell if it has succeeded in permanently removing the blindfold from DOJ.

April 01, 2007

Help More Celebrate First Birthdays

NOTE: This column appeared in the April 1 edition of The Commercial Appeal.

Several weeks ago, a dozen babies gathered in our living room to celebrate my daughter's first birthday. It was a joyful afternoon of bubbles and balloons, singing and snacks -- the kinds of things all 1-year-olds should enjoy. Yet I know that in the Mid-South, many infants -- children who could have been my daughter's peers -- never make it to their first birthday.

What makes this sad fact more distressing is that we know what it takes to give children the best opportunity to survive -- proper vitamins and diet for the mother during pregnancy, prenatal health care, regular pediatric visits after birth, and careful attention to the tiny details through which babies send us signals about their health, hunger and happiness. Yet we do not do an adequate job of delivering the necessary information and services to the pregnant women whose children are most at risk.

The tragically high infant mortality rate in and around Memphis has been well documented. In 2005, Memphis had the highest infant mortality rate among the 60 largest American cities, a rate of 14 infant deaths per 1,000 births, twice the national average. In some of the poorest pockets of our community, the infant mortality rates are on par with those of several Third World countries. Statewide, Tennessee ranks 48th and the rates in Hardeman, Shelby, Tipton and Haywood counties are the worst in the state. Last month, this newspaper reported that the infant mortality rate in Mississippi, already the worst in the country, is rising, particularly in the Delta communities along U.S. 61. In the Mid-South, more human beings die each year before their first birthday than from homicides, even though we know the tools necessary to bring infant mortality rates down.

As a result of the notoriety born of such intolerable statistics, local and state leaders have pushed to make reducing infant mortality a top priority. Last spring, Tennessee Gov. Phil Bredesen and Shelby County Mayor A C Wharton convened a workshop aimed at decreasing infant mortality. The Tennessee Department of Health has set a goal of bringing the state infant mortality rate down to the national average by 2010. In addition, local and national organizations with experience in infant health are converging on Memphis. In March, the founder of the Birthing Project, a program that matches pregnant black teenagers with women trained to guide them through pregnancy and a child's first year, was in Memphis meeting with potential volunteers.

These initiatives are a start, but more must be done. Too many women do not see a doctor during their pregnancy until they enter the hospital for labor. They neglect to visit the doctor because they do not have health insurance or because they cannot get time off from work or because they do not know that regular doctor visits during pregnancy drastically reduce the risk of infant mortality.

Among pregnant women in Tennessee who received no prenatal care, the infant mortality rate is astronomical -- 46 infant deaths per 1,000 births. In 2005, infants born to mothers who first received prenatal care in the seventh month of pregnancy or later were twice as likely to die as those born to mothers who received care during the first trimester.

To give our community's most vulnerable the chance to survive their first year, we must remove all barriers to pregnant women receiving prenatal care early and often. This means providing health care coverage to all pregnant women and infants, a goal addressed by Bredesen's CoverKids program, slated to take effect today.

But coverage is only the first step -- all efforts must be made to ensure that covered individuals actually enroll in the new program and that sufficient numbers of doctors and health care facilities serve those in the highest-risk areas.

We know not only that these steps can lower the risk of infant mortality, but also which women need attention the most. In addition to behavioral activities like smoking or drinking while pregnant, increased risk of infant mortality is highly correlated to a pregnant mother's social traits, including poverty and lack of education. Unfortunately, infant mortality breaks along racial lines as well. In Tennessee in 2004, the infant mortality rate for African-American mothers was more than two and a half times higher than that of white mothers.

So we know the mothers whose babies are most at risk for infant mortality and we know what it takes to lower that risk. It is a matter of delivering the proper information and care to the right women at the right time. As a community, we must embrace maternal health and work to ensure that the information and services necessary to give women the best opportunity to give birth to a healthy child reach those women most at risk early in their pregnancies. We will not eliminate the tragedy of infant mortality, but we must do better at protecting our most vulnerable.