Have You Voted?

Have you voted.  I have!  I feel really good about it.  I smiled at all of the other early voters as though we have a special bond.  We do.  Whether we agree on all of the candidates, we all understand the importance of voting as an essential element in our Constitutional rights and freedoms.  Our respect as voters for our nation and our democracy ties us more closely together than any of our differences.

If you haven’t voted yet, take the time to do so now.  You will feel better for having done so.  Then wear your “I Voted” stickers as a reminder to your family and friends to vote.  And don’t forget, at the end of the day we are all in this together.

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Justice In Our Courts: A Fair And Impartial Judiciary

The U.S. Constitution provides for a separation of executive, legislative and judicial powers. [1]  The role of the judiciary is unique among the branches of government.  Our courts are accountable to the United States Constitution, federal and state laws, and the constitutions of the individual States.  Most citizens are in agreement that they want judges to be accountable to the law and not to special interest groups.

In 1940, in response to the increased role of politics in the selection of judges, the voters of Missouri amended the Missouri Constitution when they enacted the “Nonpartisan Selection of Judges Court Plan”.  Identified as the Missouri Plan, it has, since that time, served as a model for 34 other states.  Now that plan is challenged in Missouri by a proposed constitutional amendment that would significantly expand the role of politics in the selection of state appellate and supreme court judges.

The current “Missouri Plan” provides for the selection of state supreme court and appellate judges utilizing a non-partisan commission whose role is to review and evaluate candidates for judicial vacancies and to present the Governor with a panel of 3 candidates for a judicial position, from which the governor selects the successful candidate.  The 7 member commission is chaired by a Missouri Supreme Court judge [2], and includes 3 attorneys, elected by Missouri attorneys, and three lay members appointed by the Governor.  The lay members and lawyers serve staggered 6 year terms.  The governor selects the lay members. The commission picks 3 candidates for the judicial position.  The governor selects the judge from the 3 candidates.  A sitting governor is able, in a single term, to select only 2 lay members, giving the governor control over fewer than 1/3 of the members of the commission.  Over a period of two terms the governor has control of three appointments, still a minority of the commission.  In recent years the selection process has been modified to provide increased transparency in the selection process by providing the public significantly more information about the candidates.

On the November 6, the voters will be asked to consider Proposition 3, a proposed amendment to Missouri’s Constitution that seeks to expand the role of politics in the selection process.  Inherent in the proposed changes to Missouri’s Non-Partisan Court Plan is increased politicalization of the judiciary. The proposed constitutional amendment would remove the Supreme Court Judge from the commission and give the governor the authority to appoint 4 members of the commission, 2 immediately on taking office and two more 2 years after taking office, thus giving the governor the ability to appoint in excess of 50% of the commission in his/her first term.

There is currently no organized support for this Constitituonal amendment.  Neither Governor Nixon nor his opponent supports the amendment.  What, then, is the problem?  Elected officials who support the Constitutional amendment in Missouri also support the direct election of appellate judges.  Why you say?  Purportedly the proponents are seeking increased accountability of judges.  But to whom?

The Missouri Plan was implemented in response to efforts by political bosses to control the selection of judges, particularly at the appellate levels.  The perception was that these political bosses wanted judges who were loyal to them and not to the law.  This risk can be the same whether the perceived loss of independence results from the dominance of the governor over the selection process or the need of judicial candidates to face elections, particularly in large metropolitan areas where the cost of an election can be significant, thus requiring them to solicit the large sums of money necessary for political campaigns.

The role of our courts is to fairly and impartially enforce the laws and to do so without bias. Experience in states including Texas and Illinois suggests that the  election of appellate judges significantly changes the dynamic of the court system. The challenge associated with requiring judges to solicit significant campaign contributions and to campaign for office includes, almost necessarily, an expectation by donors that judges will have some accountability to them. How can this be a benefit to the fairness of the judicial process?  It can’t.

When you are asked to support changes to the processes by which judges are selected, ask yourself whether you would want to appear before judges who are responsible to the law, or who are indebted to one or more special interest groups.  Hopefully, the answer is quite clear.  Citizens should reasonably expect that judges are fair and impartial, responsible to uphold the Constitution and be governed by it and by other duly enacted federal and state laws, they protect individual rights and that they provide access to the judicial system.  There is no place in these responsibilities for judges who are–or appear to be–subject to the desires of any special interest.[3]

John Johnston, Past President of the Missouri Bar and strong advocate for the retention of the non-partisan court plan summed it up:  “When we select judges, we want people who will be good umpires, not players.  We want people who will set aside any feelings they have about who should or who should not win.  We want people who will apply the rules that we made as a people through our constitution, or that our elected representatives made through laws, or that our governors made through executive policies.  when any of these rules conflict, we want judges who will say that the people win, and that our most direct voice, the constitution, wins.”

Perhaps the Federalist Papers say it the best:  “there is no liberty, if the power of judging be not separated from the legislative and executive powers.” And further: “The complete independence of the courts of justice is clearly essential in a limited Constitution…” [4][5].

Isn’t that what we all want?  I think so.

[1]  U.S. Constitution, Articles I, II and III.

[2]  By tradition, the Chief Justice sits as the chair of the appellate commission.

[3]  Experience suggests that it is in statewide and major metropolitan elections that we face the greatest challenges associated with expensive elections and the associated concerns about contributors attempting to influence judges.

[4] See our post on The Federalist Papers and the Judiciary’s Role in Government, dated Dec. 29, 2011.

[5] See our post on U.S. Role in World Affairs, Pt. 2: Courts as a Model and Trusted Protector of the Rule of Law, dated Nov. 8, 2011.

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The opinions expressed in this blog are not the opinions of our employers, our families or our friends.

The day I met the President

Meg has a J.D. in Urban, Land Use and Environmental Law. She focuses on political organizing, environmental policy, and sustainable living.

If you’ve ever met a sitting President, you know what that day feels like. Whether you voted for him or not, it leaves an impression on you. It may be a handshake, a short conversation, or perhaps you met the President in a completely random setting you never expected, like he was out getting ice cream with his family. For me, it was a handshake and a few words at the airport.

While President Obama was in San Francisco a couple of weeks ago, I had the honor of meeting him at the airport. It wasn’t about a campaign. Sometimes it’s just nice to be able to meet the nation’s leader, have him shake your hand and look you in the eye. Not many people get to do that, so I am glad I was given the opportunity.

For me, meeting the President really wasn’t about the politics. It wasn’t about being a Democrat or a Republican. It was about meeting the man in charge, as one of his constituents, and being able to share that experience with others. Well, definitely a cool part about the morning was getting to stand in front of Air Force One. That thing is HUGE!!

Independent Action: An article by guest author, Terry Christenberry

Guest author, Terry Christenberry.

Please note: the views expressed in this article are not necessarily those of the primary authors of Shifting the Balance, however, we think it is important to encourage the free flow of ideas in order to promote collective action and compromise. In order to keep the country “in balance,” we believe we should all work together, and that means sharing and respecting ideas! Including those that may be different from our own.

INDEPENDENT ACTION

Since starting their blog, Meg & Ann have asked me to consider authoring some guest articles.  However, given the stipulation that they be absolutely non-partisan and the fact that my world is finance, I have to date been a reluctant participant.  However, an excellent opinion article in New York Times on Monday April 16, 2012 by Bill Keller has pulled me out of my shell.  The article (http://www.nytimes.com/2012/04/16/opinion/keller-the-sweet-spot.html ) focuses on the 15% of Americans who comprise the “independent” segment of the voting population.  In this article, Mr. Keller notes that independents get so little attention because “The politics of the center… do not quicken the pulse,” and goes on to say that “the middle is not the home of bland, split-the-difference politics” but rather they are “just not views that all come from one party’s menu.” I am also mindful that while our friends and family often vote differently, we all share many common beliefs, including the importance of a healthy economy.

Mr. Keller identifies several characteristics he believes are associated with independent voters.  In reviewing those characteristics, I quickly noted that almost all fit me.  While Ann and I sometimes vote differently, we are seldom very far apart when considering practical solutions to either economic or political problems.  For example, a couple of years ago, when the New York Times offered a chart that provided readers an opportunity to make their own choices in balancing the budget, Ann’s choices and mine were amazingly close.

The U.S. is now facing what many describe as fiscal Armageddon (The New York Times and others have labeled this “Taxmageddon”).  This coming crisis is because Congress, as usual, has “kicked the can down the road”.  Unless Congress and the President agree on changes to laws currently in place, on January 1, 2013, tax rates on capital gains, dividends, the alternative minimum tax (AMT) and payroll withholding rates will increase dramatically resulting in large tax increases for almost all tax payers.  At the same time, extended unemployment, Medicare reimbursement rates, many entitlement programs, national defense and other programs will all be subject to significant reductions. This combination would in all likelihood send the U.S. economy back into recession.

To address our country’s fiscal issues, President Obama created the bipartisan National Commission on Fiscal Responsibility on February 18, 2010.  The Commission was charged with identifying policies to improve the fiscal situation in the medium term, and to achieve fiscal sustainability over the long run.  Specifically, the Commission was to propose recommendations designed to balance the budget, excluding interest payments on the debt, (“primary balance”) by 2015. The Commission was composed of 18 members drawn from both political parties and co-chaired by Alan Simpson, Former Republican Senator from Wyoming and Erskine Bowles, Chief of Staff to President Clinton (and thus came to be known as the “Simpson-Bowles Commission”).  The Commission worked diligently to come up with a workable bi-partisan plan to meet its objectives.  The Commission provided its report, entitled “The Moment of Truth” on December 1, 2010.  The Commission’s plan included a combination of spending cuts and tax increases that would bring the budget into primary balance by 2015.

This group really did their homework and I would encourage all to read the full 66 page report which is available at http://www.fiscalcommission.gov/sites/fiscalcommission.gov/files/documents.  While I am reasonably knowledgeable regarding tax matters and government programs, this report recommended the elimination of numerous tax breaks and billions of dollars in reductions of entitlement programs, many of which I was completely unaware.  I say this only to point out that this was not a broad brush effort, but a very detailed, well thought out plan based on thousands of hours of work by bi-partisan commission members and their staff.  There are many recommendations in the report that I disagree with and would change if I were “king for a day.” I am sure each member of the commission felt the same way.

America’s future under our current policies (today’s existing tax rates and expenditures), the current law (assumes tax increases and spending cuts due to be implemented at future dates under current law all take place and remain in force) and the Commission’s recommendations are shown below.  Which option would you choose?

American business must contend with global competition.  The uncertainly of our country’s fiscal policy and changing regulations are crippling U.S. businesses ability to return to growth and global competitiveness.  Competition with lower cost countries is difficult in the best of circumstances.  It is difficult enough when lower cost countries undercut us on wages, dump government subsides products on our shores or impose unreasonable tariffs on our goods, but even worse when we, as a nation, shoot ourselves in the foot economically with the uncertainty created by warring factions in Washington.

Business is desperate for a plan!  (Probably why Herman Cain got initial support for his ill-conceived 9-9-9 plan:  at least it was a plan.)  Simpson Bowles is also a plan!  It is a well-researched, well thought out, bi-partisan plan to put our country on sound fiscal footing.  Yet subsequent to its submission, the Commission’s report has been virtually “swept under the table” by the Administration and Congress alike.

What do Mr. Keller’s article and the Simpson-Bowles plan have to do with each other?  A lot, I think. I believe it is time for independent thinking voters-whether they consider themselves Independents, Democrats or Republicans-to take lessons from the far left and the far right and “shift the balance” of politics by making our voices heard. Implementing a well researched and well thought out plan should be a priority.  We need to come together now by immediately passing legislation implementing the Simpson-Bowles plan or a similar well thought out plan.

Failure to act now will almost certainly mean nothing will be done as we get closer to this year’s presidential election.  Failure to act now will also mean that actions after the election, no matter which party’s candidate is successful, will be taken in the approximately six-week period between the election and year-end, resulting in “kick it down the road” or “cram it through Congress” legislation that is likely to be ill-conceived and poorly drafted.

Our Founding Fathers

On July 4, 11776, our founders declared in the Declaration of Independence: “we hold theses Truths to be self-evident, that all Men are created equal and that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among them are Life, Liberty,pursuits Pursuit of Happiness.”  With these words, they began the process of shaping a government that obtains its powers from “the Consent of the Governed.” The Constitution continues in a similar fashion, professing the desire of the people of the United States to “establish Justice”, and to “secure the Blessings of Liberty” to ourselves and our posterity.”  These are powerful words, and the goals expressed in them have shaped this nation.  What kinds of men authored these documents?

When I read Madeleine Albright’s book, The Mighty and the Almighty, her brief description of the philosophical and religious perspectives of our first Presidents intrigued me.  Albright’s own belief in religious tolerance may certainly impact her vision of our founding fathers.  Particularly pertinent is her belief that religion should not be  a source of conflict and hate.  It is reasonable that she focuses on similar attributes in our founding fathers.

What were the beliefs of the men who shaped these documents?  What is it that inspired George Washington and others to create our Constitutional form of government?  How is that these men created a government based on concepts of liberty, freedom and democracy?  What caused them to enact a Constitution that gave so much power and dignity to the common man?  Albright believes they considered themselves to be like the Israelites, guided by God through the wilderness, presumably to the promised land, the a United States.

Almost certainly, the vast majority of early colonial leaders were closely associated with clearly defined religious denominations: Primarily Congregationalists, Puritans, and Anglicans. In contrast are the less clear cut beliefs of a small group of pivotal individuals who took center stage as authors of the Bill of Rights, and the Constitution.  Their letters and speeches suggest they were deep thinkers, wise and thoughtful, “primarily political–not spiritual theorists” who focused  on “civil concepts: democracy, liberty, freedom of the press, freedom of religion, jury trial, all of the fundamental rights we hold dear.”

Consistent with their own political and philosophical beliefs, these men were highly respectful of the wide scope of religious and philosophical beliefs found among the citizenry.  What do we know about their beliefs?  Their religious beliefs appear not to have been stagnant.  They grew and changed as they faced the challenges of building a nation.  Historians describe them as very religious, not very religious, atheists or Deists, depending at least in part on the perspective of the various historians who write about the, while relying on whatever quotes fits.  Without question, they seem to have believed that this new nation should welcome people of different beliefs.

Our first President, George Washington, often acknowledged the importance of a supreme being, while advocating “scrupulous support for religious tolerance” including “Mohametans, Jews or Christians of any sect, or Atheists”.  In Washington’s 1790 letter to the Hebrew congregation of Newport, R.I., he wrote: “The government of the United States gives to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance.”  He made frequent references to a deity, nonetheless, ministers of his time, including the Rev. Bird Wilson, Episcopalian, and Rev. James Abercrombie, Rector of Washington’s church, described him as a “Deist”.  Certainly as Secretary Albright indicates, he was committed to the right of every citizen to worship “according to the dictates of his own conscience”, as he did himself.

Our second President, John Adams, is described by Secretary Albright as a Unitarian who considered liberty “a gift from God” and democracy “a creation of man”.  She describes him as having had little use for the concept of the Trinity.  A prolific writer in the area of philosophical and religious issues, his various writings provide little clarity as to his personal beliefs. Like Jefferson, his religious and philosophical views were intertwined.  His primary concerns appear to have been civil rather than religious.  As a statesman he was dedicated to religious tolerance. Treatises about him quote him as inconsistently stating both that “Our Constitution was made only for a moral and religious people” and in contrast that “This would be the best of all possible worlds, if there were no religion in it.”  I wonder whether this statement was in response to world events of his time.  He expressed concern that people “are often for injustice and inhumanity against the minority”, as demonstrated by “every page of the history of the whole world.” Almost certainly a reference to the French Revolution which occurred almost simultaneously with our own, but with a level of brutality we never experienced.

Albright describes Thomas Jefferson, our third President, as a student of science and ethics.  The controversial nature of his beliefs is evidenced by his opponents’ attacks against him, labeling him an atheist. His own words make this suggestion highly suspect. In his letter to Benjamin Rush, in 1800, he acknowledges God, stating: “I have sworn upon the altar of God, eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man.”  But he certainly ascribes to a very personal system of beliefs: “I never submitted the whole system of my opinions to the creed of any part of men whatever in religion, in philosophy, in politics, or in anything else where I was capable of thinking for myself.  Such an addiction is the last degradation of a free and moral agent.”  He had little good to say about Christian clergy, describing them as the “greatest obstacles to the advancement of the real doctrines of Jesus”.  Ouch, my dad would loudly protest against any suggestion that his life’s work is an obstacle to the teachings of Jesus!!

Jefferson is the primary author of the Declaration of Independence.  He and George Mason, authored the Virginia Declaration of Rights, adopted by the Virginia Constitutional Convention on June 12, 1776.  In addition to codifying rights including freedom from excessive bond, separation of the powers of the three branches of government, the right to freedom of the press, and the right to jury trial, the document states that: all men are equally entitled to the free exercise of religion according to the dictates of conscience”; and that it is the mutual duty of all to practice Christian forbearance, love, and charity toward each other.

Jefferson wrote respectfully of atheists in a letter to Thomas Law in June 1814: “If we did a good act merely from love of God and a belief that it is pleasing to Him whence arises the morality of the Atheist? … Their virtue, then, must have had some other foundation than the love of God.”  In a speech to the Virginia Convention in June 1778, he proclaimed:  “Freedom arises from the multiplicity of sects…For where there is such a variety of sects, there cannot be a majority of any one sect to oppress and persecute the rest.”  Finally he states: “Say nothing of my religion.  It is known to my God and myself alone.”  Letter to John Adams, January 1817.

James Madison, the fourth President, and often identified as the “Father of the Constitution” authored major sections of the Federalist Papers, advocating for the passage of the Constitution.  He was certainly one of the greatest champions of that document. Because his early expressions of his religious views are said to have varied greatly from his private statements late in his life, it is difficult to set forth a concise statement of those beliefs.  Early in his political life he described that the “democratic will” is subordinate to the commands of God, but clarified that those commands are “heard and understood in the individual conscience”. Advocating for the Constitution’s language on the separation of church and state, he stated that “Every new and successful example of a perfect separation between the ecclesiastical and civil matters, is of importance;…in showing that religion and Government will both exist in greater purity, the less they are mixed together.”  Letter to Edward Livingston, July 10, 1822.  Madison spoke and wrote frequently on the issue of religious freedom. He authored Federalist Papers #51, in which he wrote a slight variation of his theme, stating that: “In a free government the security for civil rights must be the same as that for religious rights. It consists in the one case in the multiplicity of interests, and in the other in the multiplicity of sects.”

 Last, but not least, of our best remembered colonial leaders is Benjamin Franklin.  Never a President, and always somewhat apart from the main stream even of the late 18th century, his thoughts about faith, only months prior to his death are witty and plain-spoken: “I believe in one God, Creator of the Universe…That the soul of man is immortal…As to Jesus of Nazareth, my opinion of whom you particularly desire, I think the system of Morals and his Religion, as he left them to us, the best the World ever saw or is likely to see; but I apprehend it has received various corrupt changes, and I have, with most of the present Dissenters in England, some doubts as to his divinity; though it is a question I do not dogmatize upon, having never studied it, and think it needless to busy myself with it, when I expect soon an opportunity of knowing the Truth with less trouble.”
What does it matter? It is apparent that they were respected by their peers, that they were able to define themselves as men of integrity who embraced people of good will where ever they found them.  Certainly, in forging a government of people from such varied backgrounds they were able to shape the original “big tent” of which President Ronald Reagan spoke.  But further, they constructed a government in which people were able to come together as equals, with the interests of the majority and the interests of the various minorities all considered and given worth.  They gave respect to the individual, created a government based democratic values and expectations of liberty.  Most important, they gave our citizens a Constitution and Bill of Rights that became the basis for a government that has thrived for over 200 years.  Sadly, they did not protect us from the inhumanity of  slavery or insure the equal treatment of women and minorities.  But over the course of U.S. History. the concepts of liberty, equality and justice have prevailed and these fundamental rights were extended to all citizens.
                                                                                          Out of Many, One

What do Madeleine Albright and Condoleezza Rice have in Common? Czech Mentors!

Madeleine Albright and Condoleezza Rice are dynamic women whose influences on U.S. and world events had a significant impact on foreign policy decisions.  Both served as U.S. Secretaries of State.

Albright is a Democrat, politically a moderate.  Rice is a Republican, politically a conservative. They are of different faiths, with different philosophic perspectives. Two powerful, but very different personalities, styles and beliefs. Since reading Madeleine Albright’s book, The Mighty and the Almighty, I have enjoyed discovering her world views, her life experiences and her views of the development of the U.S. as a nation and an international power. But I was still surprised when I learned of the political interconnections between Albright and Rice. It is all about mentors.

In her book,  U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, the 64th U.S. Secretary of State under President Bill Clinton, describes her values and beliefs.  She describes being influenced by her father, Josef Korbel, a Czechoslovakian diplomat, and by Tomas Garrigue Masaryk, the first President of Czechoslovakia, in whose government Korbel served. Rice also identifies Josef Korbel as a major figure in her life. So, who are these men? And how did they influence two such brilliant and unique individuals?

Tomas Garrigue Masaryk (1850-1937) was born in Hodonin, Moravia. He was a Professor of Philosophy at the University of Prague and a visiting professor at the University of London.  He served in the Austrian Parliament from 1891 to 1893 and 1907 to 1914.  He went into exile in 1914 and organized Czechs and Slovaks living outside Austria-Hungary. He developed a network of exiles who passed intelligence to the Allies while helping to establish the Czechoslovak Legions who fought with the Allies in World War I. He traveled throughout Europe and the United States from 1916 to 1918, encouraging allied leaders to force the “disintegration” of Austria-Hungary. When Austria-Hungary fell at the end of WWI, Masaryk became head of the provisional Czech Federation.  He was elected President by the National Assembly in 1918, 1920, 1927 and 1934.  He died before the Munich Agreement was signed in September 1938. Korbel briefly served in Masaryk’s government.

Masaryk was raised Catholic and, as an adult, converted to the Unitarian faith.  He married a U.S. citizen, also Unitarian.  Albright describes him as an intellect who did not consider belief in God necessary to be moral, but did believe “religious faith, properly understood, did much to encourage and strengthen right behavior.” Masaryk considered humanism and religion to be intertwined, with religion ultimately being about showing respect for every person and helping others.

Josef Korbel was born in what is now the Czech Republic.  He was a young diplomat when he was forced to flee his homeland due to his Jewish heritage when the Nazis occupied Czechoslovakia. He would also have been at risk of arrest due to his diplomatic ties to President Edvard Benes, President of Czechoslovakia after Masaryk’s. He returned to his homeland after World War II, served as ambassador to Luxembourg, and fled again when the communists assumed power in 1948. Sentenced to death in absentia, he was given political asylum in the United States.  It is little wonder he had a keen interest in democracy and a love for this country.   Korbel ultimately moved to the University of Denver where he founded the school bearing his name, the Josef Korbel School of International Studies. Even though he was Jewish by birth, Korbel appears to have espoused no religious faith in his youth, and raised his children in the Catholic faith.

Josef Korbel may be best known as Madeleine Albright’s father, but he was also a mentor to Condoleezza Rice, the National Security Advisor and 66th U.S. Secretary of State under President George W. Bush.  She studied under him at the University of Denver and describes him as a central figure in her life.  Her PhD dissertation dealt with politics and policy under communism in his homeland, Czechoslovakia.

Both Albright and Rice credit Korbel with the belief that “democratic values are at the heart of peace and stability in the world.” Both women have reflected that Korbel considered the United States the “Indispensable Nation” because of its pivotal role in world affairs. They, too, share that belief.

In understanding Secretary Albright, it is helpful to understand her admiration of Masaryk, her father, and the impact both had on her world view. In understanding her father, it is important to recognize that his beliefs were broad enough to nurture two women with such diverse points of view.  It also gives us insight into the values that influence the beliefs of both women and their perspectives of faith and politics in interacting with world and national leaders. We journey on!