Nel's New Day

March 7, 2014

Travesties in Congress: Issa, Sexual Assault in the Military, Abegdile

More negative news came out of Congress last week, including the House’s 229-183 to pass the Electricity Security and Affordability Act. If the bill became law, big companies would be more secure because the EPA could no longer place any rules on coal-fired electricity plants. Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV) has introduced its companion in the other chamber.

Last week’s big news about the House, however, was Rep. Darrell Issa’s (R-CA) continuing vendetta against President Obama via the IRS. The chair of the Oversight Committee spent last week bragging that he would make former IRS official Lois Lerner will talk to his committee about the non-existent IRS corruption.

Issa’s plans went awry, however, after he tried to close down the hearing because Lerner answered his questions by asserting her Fifth Amendment rights. When Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-MD),  ranking member, tried to speak because he had information from Lerner’s lawyer, Issa literally cut him off by shutting off his microphone. No Democrat was allowed to speak at the hearing. After that, the story became all about Issa because the Ethics Committee tried to censure him.

At first, Issa demanded an apology from Cummings. Later Cummings said that Issa had apologized, and Cummings had accepted it. Issa still blamed Cummings for having a “hissy fit.”

In a letter to House Speaker John Boehner (R-OH) demanding that Issa be removed as chair, the Black Caucus pointed out that Issa had not only broken the House rules on civility but also failed to allot each committee the requisite five minutes for questioning witnesses. In a party vote, a resolution to chastise Issa was tabled, killing the move.

The day after Issa’s hearing, the Senate rejected independent oversight of prosecution of sexual assault in the armed forces.  Sen. Kirsten E. Gillibrand’s bill received 55 votes—which these days does not constitute a majority of the 100 Senate members. The bipartisan bill is supported by conservatives Sens. Rand Paul (R-KY) and Chuck Grassley (R-IA). Supporters of the bill have argued that military commanders cannot be unbiased because they know both the victims and the accused abusers. In some circumstances the commanders are actually those being accused.

On the same day that Gillibrand’s bill was filibustered, Army Brig. Gen. Jeffrey A. Sinclair was accused of twice forcing a female captain to perform oral sex and threatening to kill her family if she told anyone about their three-year affair. He confessed to three lesser charges: adultery, asking junior female officers for nude photos and possessing pornography while deployed in Afghanistan.

The Army is also investigating its top sex crimes prosecutor, Lt. Col. Joseph Morse, for allegedly groping a female lawyer at a sexual assault conference in 2011.  Morse, who supervised 23 other special-victims prosecutors, was removed but not charged.

Paul Rieckhoff, the founder and executive director of Iraq and Afghanistan Veterans of America, called the Senate actions part of “a frustrating pattern” because it “has chosen to keep the status quo.”

In opposing Gillibrand’s bill, Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) made the accusation that “this [bill] is about liberal people wanting to gut the military justice system.” Eleven GOP senators supported  the proposal including conservative Sens. Ted Cruz (R-TX), Mike Enzi (R-WY), Mitch McConnell (R-KY), Rand Paul (R-KY), and David Vitter (R-LA).

adegbileAnother low point for the Senate was the rejection of Debo Adegbile to head the Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division. Unfortunately, it was expected because the Fox network waged a vicious campaign against the nominee for over a month and Adegbile has proved to be a master lawyer in the field of voting rights. President Obama called the vote “a travesty based on wildly unfair character attacks against a good and qualified public servant.”

abuSenators focused almost entirely on Adegbile’s defense of Mumia Abu-Jamal, convicted of killing a Philadelphia police officer. The NAACP Legal Defense Fund had taken the case before Adegbile joined them. His only part of the case was to file a motion in 2009 claiming that the jury was discriminatory. A U.S. Supreme Court ruling agreed with the NAACP lawyers that the trial judge’s jury instructions violated Abu-Jamal’s rights, but the conviction remained. Abu-Jamal is still in prison for life without parole. Fox inflamed its audience by concentrating only on this one issue, consistently referring to Abu-Jamal as “cop killer” and showing his photograph while discussing Adegbile which gave the impression that the man in prison was the lawyer involved in his case.

One of the seven Democrats who voted against Adegbile, Chris Coons (D-DE), did so although he found Adegbile to be qualified because he wants someone who can get along with the police. He, Mark Pryor (D-AR), and John Walsh (MT) are up for re-election this year. The other four Democrats aren’t: Heidi Heitkamp (ND), Joe Manchin (WV), Joe Donnelly (D-IN), and Bob Casey Jr. (PA.).

People in the United States have a long history of respecting lawyers who advocate for justice, working to ensure that the American criminal justice system is fairly and constitutionally administered. Attorney John Adams defended the soldiers who killed his fellow Bostonians in the 1770 Boston Massacre before he went on to be elected the president of the United States. He called this defense “one of the most gallant, generous, manly and disinterested actions of my whole life, and one of the best pieces of service I ever rendered my country.”

John Roberts was confirmed as Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court after he defended a murderer who killed eight people, including a teenager.

For the last two Democratic presidents, the Senate has fought nominees with strong civil rights backgrounds. President Clinton lost two nominees, Lani Guinier and Bill Lann Lee, because they defended minorities when they worked for NAACP. Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-UT) went so far as to claim that Lee’s work for NAACP made him biased. George W. Bush’s appointees created a “significant drop in the enforcement of several major anti-discrimination and voting rights laws,” according to the nonpartisan Government Accountability Office.

During the confirmation of former Supreme Court Justice David Souter (October 1990), Sen. Orrin Hatch was the voice of reason. When critics opposed Souter for defending literacy tests in his home state of New Hampshire, Hatch pointed out the Souter did this because they were law. Souter was required to defend the law.  In Souter’s defense, Hatch said:

“It is not right to go back in hindsight and say he should not have done that; that that shows something wrong with him. Come on, that is what advocates do. If we are going to start using a nominee’s briefs against him in the confirmation process, we are going to be setting a shocking precedent. It would be a very, very dangerous message to send to lawyers: If you have any ambition to be a judge, you lawyers, do not represent controversial clients and be careful what you say on behalf of a client because you might be held responsible for the fact that the law was as it was at the time you made the statement.”

Hatch, all the other GOP senators, and seven Democratic senators are now sending that dangerous message to lawyers. House Speaker John Boehner and 211 GOP members of the House have spoken, saying that committee chairs are not required to follow House rules. And military commanders can continue to sexually abuse members of the military either themselves or by overlooking these tragic events. This past week has been very sad for people’s constitutional rights.

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