Judges delayed, justice denied in nation’s courts

Nine hundred days: that’s enough time for a newborn to grow ready for nursery school, and significantly longer than a term of Congress. It’s also the length of time that a number of seats on the federal judiciary have been vacant, due to the gridlock in Washington.
It’s getting to the point where there are so many judicial emergencies, it’s hard to know where the crisis is even focused. Alarm bells are going off everywhere: New York to Arizona, Illinois to California, Florida to Wisconsin. Many states are affected.
What’s the big deal? The remaining judges can work a little harder, cases can move a little slower, right? But, at this point, the problem grows ever-larger and has crippling effects on the justice system. With vacancies routinely hovering in the low to high 90s, civil dockets in many districts are grinding to a halt.


Standing up to Chevron

This Op Ed is a crime.

Over a 30-year career, I've worn the hat of journalist, press secretary to a U.S. Congressman and cabinet member, and public affairs professional. I recently acquired a new title, courtesy of Chevron: a co-conspirator in a massive global scheme to extort money from the oil giant.
What exactly did I do? Pretty much what PR types and lobbyists do daily in Washington, D.C.: tell my client's story.
The clients are residents of the Ecuadorian rainforest who are in an 18-year legal battle with Chevron over the intentional dumping of toxic oil into the pristine waterways and nutrient soil of the planet’s largest oxygen bank, known as the “Lungs of the World.”


Prison rape must be taken seriously

Attorney General Eric Holder proposes to seriously weaken standards intended to hold prison officials accountable for eliminating rape in their prisons. 

It isn’t often that we hear much about prison rape - except in jokes on late night TV. However, it is not a laughing matter. It is the horrid reality faced by hundreds of prisoners each day in American jails and prisons. That’s right – hundreds of victims every day of the year. The Bureau of Justice Statistics reports that in a year’s time there were 216,000 sexual assaults on inmates. 

This high incidence of rape in our prisons is a blot on the character of the nation. Yet, for years many prison officials have scoffed at the notion that rapes were taking place in our prisons. Others shrugged it off as an expected part of prison life. When asked about prison rape, one spokesperson for the Massachusetts Department of Correction said, "Well, that's prison...I don't know what to tell you." In that offhand remark, he was expressing what many feel in their hearts but are loath to admit: "They deserve it."


Justice in jeopardy

The words “equal justice under law” are so fundamental to our culture they’re carved in stone above the entrance to the United States Supreme Court. But today, the opportunity to access justice in our courts is becoming as much a luxury as a Louis Vuitton bag.

Funding of the justice system is an uneven patchwork that leads to unequal delivery of justice and is highly vulnerable during hard economic times. Legal aid to the poor, already anemic, is threatened with huge new federal cuts. And the justice gap is trickling up to the middle class and small business.


A demoralizing consensus on free speech and family grieving

Isn’t it nice when the right-leaning and left-leaning Justices of the U.S. Supreme Court can agree on a decision, rather than battling it out in a 5-4 split? Consensus seems especially happy where political passions are running high, as in the funeral-picketing case Snyder v. Phelps. And so Wednesday’s 8-1 decision in favor of the picketers would appear to be – as the Times Editorial called it – “admirable.” One might even think this is a step toward the much discussed aspiration for a political culture in which decency and mutual respect transcend malice and rancorous distrust.

Alas, nothing could be further from the truth. Chief Justice Roberts’ opinion elevates raw liberty over the duty to take others’ needs and vulnerabilities seriously. Albert Snyder, a private citizen mourning the loss of his son in Iraq, was forced to endure the decision of total strangers to turn his son’s funeral into a media event of national proportions. 

Fred Phelps and his one-family religious sect have a message for America: homosexuality is evil and God kills American soldiers to punish America for tolerating homosexuality. 


The president cannot declare a law unconstitutional

Two weeks ago, President Obama made an unprecedented decision to declare a Federal law unconstitutional and thereby abdicate his responsibility to uphold and defend that law.

While much of the public debate over this decision has focused on the law the President declared to be unconstitutional – the “Defense of Marriage Act” (a law I strongly support) – the bigger concern is not the President’s apparent flip-flop on his position that marriage is something sanctified between a man and a woman but the unconstitutional action the President took to impose his new vision of marriage on the American people. In other words, I am deeply concerned that the President simply declared a law to be unconstitutional and one that he will not defend or enforce.


Delivering innovation and jobs through patent reform

Today, there are more than 700,000 unexamined patent applications log-jammed at the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO). Many of them represent inventions that will come to market and launch new businesses and create new, high-paying jobs.


But without a patent, securing the funds needed to get a business or innovation off the ground is nearly impossible, for both small and large inventors alike.


Patent reform legislation the Senate is considering this week can change that.


And it can build on the progress USPTO Director David Kappos has already made in reducing the time it takes to process the average patent – currently nearly 3 years.


New programs have been introduced to fast-track promising technologies, reforms have been made to help examiners more quickly process applications, and the Patent Office recently announced a plan to give inventors more control over when their patent is examined. 


A pressing need for a judicial code of ethics

Recent reports about Supreme Court justices participating in partisan events have raised concerns that this behavior may undermine public perception of the Court’s impartiality and the legitimacy of its decisions. In fact, the situation is so acute that 107 judicial ethicists from 76 law schools around the country signed a letter to Congress calling for reform of the Court’s ethics rules.

Perhaps the most notorious example of justices willfully entering into politicized activity was the reported attendance by Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas at an electoral strategy conference for big donors and politicians hosted by the billionaire Koch Brothers. This wasn’t just an opportunity to speak or socialize at a gathering on conservative philosophies. A central purpose of the conference was the solicitation of millions of dollars from wealthy donors in order to influence elections and advance a political agenda. 


More action needed to protect America's IP

It began with one patient exhibiting unusual symptoms in 2006. Doctors were puzzled. When dozens of similar cases began to appear, they got worried. But it wasn't until they found the common factor that the mystery was resolved — counterfeit cough syrup containing diethylene glycol, a poisonous chemical used in antifreeze.   

This fake cough syrup was manufactured in China and sold – through international brokers – to the Government of Panama to be distributed to the poor. By the time it was discovered, more than 100 people had died. What stands between that public health horror in Panama and the safety of Americans? We — and thousands of law enforcement officials across the country — do. 


Will Internet pirates walk the plank in 2011?

As speculation continues over what to expect from a polarized 112th Congress, legislative attacks on Internet pirates offering fake Louis Vuitton bags and illegal movie downloads online could be an issue that gains traction in 2011. Both Republicans and Democrats view counterfeiting as a global problem that threatens this nation’s economic might and creative talent.

Previous litigation and earlier legislative fixes have failed to alleviate the problem, and now Hollywood and other affected industries last year urged Congress to take a different approach by passing the Combating Online Infringement and Counterfeits Act.  COICA aimed at halting the selling, marketing and downloading of illegal materials on Internet sites by cracking down on the domain names of websites that are “dedicated to infringing activities.” Introduced in the Senate last year, COICA garnered bipartisan support and passed the Senate Judiciary Committee by a unanimous vote last November, but controversy over some of the more punitive enforcement measures stalled further action. Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) is expected to re-introduce legislation in 2011.