- Associated Press - Tuesday, May 13, 2014

San Antonio Express-News. May 8, 2014.

Time to enact moratoriums on executions

The botched execution by lethal injection in Oklahoma recently is instructive on how the words “humane” and “execution” in the same sentence can be extremely problematic.

But no matter how you feel about the death penalty, perhaps all can agree on a few items.

First, the public should have high confidence that those on death row committed the crimes for which they were sentenced. Second, that the process by which a state executes a person should be as transparent as possible.

Texas can improve on both.

The American Bar Association recently reviewed how Texas administers capital punishment. Its bottom line: “Texas appears out of step with better practices implemented in other capital jurisdictions.”

The state has made strides. For instance, last year’s Michael Morton Act forces prosecutors to share exculpatory evidence with the defense. And, yet, shortcomings persist.

Texas should adopt laws requiring that “the entire case file, including investigation notes, should be disclosed to defense counsel with limited exception for a particularized showing of need for protection of witnesses.”

Morton spent 25 years in prison for a murder he didn’t commit. He wasn’t on death row, but no one can say with confidence that among the 273 people awaiting execution in Texas aren’t those denied a proper defense because of the same or other error.

And there’s something in Texas about who is targeted that raises a red flag. Roughly 41 percent of those on death row are African-Americans though they are only 12.3 percent of the state population. And there is ample evidence that Texas has already executed innocent men.

Roadblocks still exist for access to DNA evidence.

Texas, for instance, doesn’t require indefinite preservation of biological evidence in violent felony cases, “although the commission of a violent felony in the past can affect the decision to sentence a person to death,” says the ABA.

Texas created the Regional Public Defender for Capital Cases in 2007 to represent indigent capital defendants and the Office of Capital Writs in 2009 to represent indigents sentenced to death during habeas proceedings.

But four Texas counties account for about half of all death sentences, Bexar among them. The others are Harris, Dallas and Tarrant. They don’t use these offices for capital cases.

“In these counties, no public defender office has been established to handle capital cases. Although Texas has improved its delivery of indigent defense services in capital cases, the most active death penalty jurisdictions in the state continue to rely on list-qualified appointed counsel,” the ABA report said. “This is a fragmented, uneven system of representation for capital defendants at trial and on direct appeal.

Among other ABA recommendations: all police interrogations be videotaped, that the state ban executions of people with mental illness, that it refine its definitions of mental retardation, that the state clean up its policies governing eyewitness identifications and that it remove a requirement in the penalty phase for the jury to consider the ill-defined “future dangerousness.”

Instructions to juries should routinely include the fact that life imprisonment without parole is an option, not made entirely clear to Texas juries, the ABA found.

Texas says it uses a single lethal dose of pentobarbital in executions, not the midazolam used in Oklahoma. But Texas could change its method whenever it wants under existing rules and has midazolam in stock.

It has been shielding the suppliers of the drugs, how much is stockpiled and other information about the execution process. It should be as transparent as possible.

Of Texas’ nation-leading 133 exonerations, five involved confessions to police, 47 eyewitness identifications and 12 death row inmates. Fixes are needed in Texas.

Who in the Legislature - or running for top statewide offices - will take the lead? In the interim, Texas should enact a moratorium on the death penalty.


The Dallas Morning News. May 11, 2014.

GOP shows hypocrisy in tax credit squabble

As America’s voters careen from one congressional election to the next, each increasingly discouraging, this might be a good opportunity to take a breath and consider what all that voting has wrought.

To be clear, these elections are discouraging only if we expect more out of those we send to Washington than not-just-no-but-hell-no bickering, stonewalling and obfuscation.

It doesn’t take a select committee on Benghazi, more acrimony over Obamacare or just another threat of government shutdown to bring out the worst in our legislating class. Those are the big headlines, sure, but our men and women of lawmaking prove repeatedly and with great gusto that they can stalemate anything into nothingness.

Short of naming a new post office, nothing passes through Congress without the bitterest fight to the death. Our latest example is a little line item that has held a spot in the Internal Revenue Service Code for more than three decades, even though it technically has been a “temporary” tax credit the entire time.

Congress has reauthorized the Research and Experimentation Tax Credit more than a dozen times. The credit allows businesses to reduce their tax burden for certain research and development expenses. Even when it expires, as it did again Dec. 31, Congress has reinstated it in time for the next tax season.

Straightforward and simple? Please. This time, House Republicans sought to make the credit permanent and pushed through a vote Friday to do just that. The problem, as most Democrats see it, is that this means a $156 billion deficit hole over 10 years because Republicans refused to offset the extended credit with spending cuts or other tax increases.

So the GOP, screaming the loudest, most dire warnings about the debt and deficit, wants different rules from the ones it has used to bludgeon Democrats repeatedly on program spending. For instance, Democrats note, this package of tax credits would balloon the deficit far more than the simple extension of unemployment benefits that Republicans opposed, supposedly on principle.

What’s fair is fair, and Democrats are right to point out GOP hypocrisy. Maryland Democrat Steny Hoyer, the House minority whip, grabbed the moral high ground and fired away at the majority: “This takes no courage to put on the floor or to vote for. None. Zero. Zip. Tax cuts are easy to vote for. Paying for what you buy is difficult to vote for.”

The White House, even as it says it supports extending the R&D; tax credit, has promised a veto of the House GOP action, presuming it makes it through the Democratic-controlled Senate, which it won’t.

The larger point is the important one: Principle doesn’t mean doing what’s convenient or necessarily popular, and trust and cooperation seldom occur in the absence of two parties operating from principle.


The Monitor of McAllen. May 7, 2014.

What’s in our Rio Grande Valley water? Fish kill in Mexico threatens source

Since last week, many of us have feared that toxic chemicals might be flowing from Mexico into the Rio Grande and into our Rio Grande Valley water supply. Yet after days of waiting and fearing the worst, so far all we’ve been told is that “bad material” could be on its way.

We must know more.

With all due respect to our southern neighbors, U.S. officials should be told specifically what “bad material” means. Mexican officials need to elaborate to U.S. officials, and then we must be told what might be heading toward Falcon Reservoir and the Rio Grande and when and why.

To keep American citizens in the dark about this mystery material violates trust - trust that we have in Mexico that it will do its best to safeguard this planet that we share, and trust we have in our government to ensure that our international relations are such that we garner enough international respect to be afforded the particulars and details of significant water events, like this that worry us.

Furthermore it’s shocking to learn that U.S. officials with the International Boundary and Water Commission first learned of this via Mexican newspaper articles the week of April 21, which reported a massive fish kill in the Salado River on April 8, about 56 miles upstream from Falcon Lake.

An April 25 article in El Manana de Nuevo Laredo newspaper characterized the material as “bad” and said it came from a Pemex facility. On April 29, IBWC told the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, which issued this notice on April 30 saying IBWC was “advised by CILA (their Mexican counterpart) about a ‘bad’ material that was released from a Pemex facility in Mexico. They do not know what the material is or the quantity released, but it went into the Rio Salado and is headed towards the Rio Grande near Zapata. IBWC estimated approximately four days for it to reach the Rio Grande.”

IBWC Spokeswoman Sally Spener tells us water quality tests done by Mexico were “inconclusive” and the U.S. is monitoring the situation by performing water tests in Falcon Lake. Further shocking: She said the United States has no formal agreement with Mexico to release information on fish kills. She said that it is up to local officials on both sides to notify the IBWC and CILA when events like this occur so precautions are taken.

“In general, if we hear of something we inquire about it and/or pass on info to the Mexican section and I’d say vice versa,” Spener said.

We find that an extraordinary lack of policy between our two nations that could one day lead to a water disaster that could threaten our homes, businesses and way of life in the RGV. So far no contaminants have been reported in our water supply related to the April 8 fish kill. And McAllen officials have urged us not to worry. But let’s use this incident as an example to shore up international policy and put in place the necessary protocol between both countries for better reporting to ensure the safety of our water and our livelihood.


Austin American-Statesman. May 10, 2014.

Veterans deserve competent care

The Department of Veterans Affairs has a long history of dysfunction and scandal, to its great shame. And the country has an equally long history of following each revelation of neglect and mismanagement with flimsy promises to fix the agency once and for all.

We hope the dismal cycle isn’t taking shape again. Recent reports allege VA officials in Central Texas and elsewhere hid how long veterans were waiting to see doctors and receive treatment. Delays in Arizona may have resulted in the deaths of veterans. Outrage has been expressed. Investigations have been launched. Talk of change is in the air.

The nation’s veterans deserve better. On that we can all agree. Thus, at long last, let’s commit to translating our rhetoric into competent and lasting reform.

As the American-Statesman reported last week, a scheduling clerk for the Department of Veterans Affairs has accused supervisors of directing him and others to falsify appointment records at clinics in Austin and San Antonio so the time between a veteran’s request to see a doctor and the actual date of the appointment would appear to be minimal, and certainly to fall within the department’s goal of 14 days. Real wait times for appointments could be as long as three months, the clerk said.

The clerk, Brian Turner, has received whistle-blower protection from federal investigators to protect him from employer retaliation. Turner is a 40-year-old disabled Army veteran, the American-Statesman reported, who worked at the Austin VA Outpatient Clinic until December and currently works at the North Central Federal Clinic in San Antonio.

Turner’s allegations of manipulated wait times echo similar accusations made recently in Arizona and Colorado. Up to 40 patients at a VA facility in Phoenix may have died while waiting for an appointment, according to news reports.

Central Texas VA officials told the American-Statesman that scheduling practices would be reviewed and “refresher training” provided to staff members who scheduled appointments. That sounds all well and good, though it’s the managers who may need the training more than the clerks if Turner’s allegations prove true.

Members of Congress, including Texas Republican Sen. John Cornyn, responded to reports of treatment delays by calling for VA Secretary Eric Shinseki to resign. Cornyn also called for a congressional investigation into the allegations reported by the American-Statesman. “Scandals like this confirm the VA lacks safeguards against official abuses and also lacks accountability,” he said.

The U.S. House Committee on Veterans Affairs voted unanimously Thursday to subpoena Shinseki and other VA officials to testify before it. The committee also subpoenaed potential evidence related to the hiding of treatment delays in Phoenix. Shinseki, meanwhile, ordered the Veterans Health Administration to do a “face-to-face” audit of all VA clinics and their appointment practices.

Shinseki, a Vietnam combat veteran who retired in 2003 as Army chief of staff, was the general whose analysis of the number of troops it would take to defeat and control Iraq challenged the rosy, low-cost rhetoric of the Bush administration. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and other Bush administration officials sharply criticized Shinseki’s assessment, but events in Iraq largely vindicated his view. Veterans groups welcomed his appointment as VA secretary in 2009 and the Senate unanimously confirmed him.

From reports in the 1990s of wretched care in VA hospitals to reports last year, also by the American-Statesman, of yearlong delays filing veterans’ disability claims at a facility in Waco, the department never seems capable of rising beyond its bureaucratic sluggishness and frequent ineptitude. There are doubts that replacing Shinseki will improve matters fundamentally, but it’s hard to see how Shinseki can stay in light of recent developments and a spreading loss of faith in his abilities.

Effective leadership must be found for the Department of Veterans Affairs, and the damage done to its credibility repaired. The department cares for 9 million veterans. Hundreds of thousands of veterans of the Iraq and Afghan wars - their medical needs greatly expanded by our improved understanding of the physical and psychological toll war takes on veterans - will be relying on the VA for care for decades to come.

And the nation has made a promise to provide them the best care possible. Our veterans made a commitment to serve the nation. The nation’s commitment to them must be to stand by them when the fighting is done.


Waco Tribune-Herald. May 11, 2013.

Supreme Court decision on public prayer ignores its too-frequent use to divide us

Most faiths are rooted in benevolence, offering signposts and guidelines to help followers and others through life. So the great irony is how much hurt, division and discrimination have been done in the name of religion through the ages.

Consequently, the U.S. Supreme Court’s 5-4 decision last week on the constitutionality of public prayer offered before governmental meetings probably isn’t for the best - not if Americans’ goal is to practice constitutional inclusiveness of people of all faiths and to keep our governmental meetings free of religious gestures that might rally some Americans but ostracize or exclude others.

The Supreme Court examined complaints about town council meetings in Greece, New York, that begin innocently enough in prayer. Given the community is mostly Christian, town elders didn’t worry about diversity - not till a complaint was leveled about the lack of it. (The council later enlisted a Jewish layman, the chairman of a Baha’i temple, even a Wiccan priestess, to little avail.)

The high court ruled that such public prayers are constitutional given our nation’s Christian tradition and the fact these prayers were not intended to divide but to unify Americans. Yet how is, say, the Jewish layman - every bit the citizen as his Christian neighbor - to feel when the prayer each time begins with an invocation in Jesus’ name?

Many of us are quick to note that the Founding Fathers were men of faith. Yet close examination reveals they were also cautious about touting their Christian faith in public life. As Justice Elena Kagan noted in her dissent, back when almost every American was a Christian of one kind or another, George Washington consistently avoided language or imagery associated with only that religion. He shrewdly noted that “religious controversies are always productive of more acrimony and irreconcilable hatreds than those which spring from any other cause.”

In his First Inaugural Address, Washington deleted the phrase “the blessed religion revealed in the word of God” because he felt it favored one religion to the exclusion of others - hardly his idea of America. Thomas Jefferson and James Madison, “Father of the Constitution,” took similar stances.

Does this mean that Washington, Jefferson and Madison didn’t identify with Christian principles? Hardly. Only that they believed religion was primarily a matter for home and church. One can shout it from the hilltops if one wishes - but in governmental contexts, the followers of one religion must observe some respect for followers of other faiths, even as Christianity remains a vibrant part of our American identity. As Kagan accurately notes, America today is also “a rich mosaic of religious faiths.”

Some Christians these days spend enough time condemning one another to make prayer in public venues awkward on occasion. Anyone recall the sniping about Mormons in 2012? And at the National Day of Prayer, an event designed to acknowledge our many blessings, James Dobson, founder of Focus on the Family, used the occasion on Capitol Hill this year to rail against President Obama over abortion, ensuring the National Day of Prayer no longer rates the reverence it once commanded. It’s strong evidence that the court’s hopeful notion of public prayer necessarily being unifying, uplifting and respectful in secular halls of power is hopelessly naïve.

In our system of government, the Supreme Court is final arbiter of such matters, so the decision must stand. But elected leaders more respectful of the wise insights of the Founding Fathers will readily bow to their principles and judgment and instead observe a moment of silence at such meetings, when each person can consult privately with his or her maker. Or not.

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