Friday, April 27, 2007

Everything is better in triplicate

Good sense has a way of assuming the fetal position whenever the Alabama Legislature is in session.

From the group that brought you a law to make it illegal to pass a law comes another favorite standby: legislation to remind you that something that's already illegal is, in fact, still illegal. This time, it's an argument between House Majority Leader Ken Guin, D-Carbon Hill, and Rep. Micky Hammon, R-Decatur, over who deserves the credit for a measure stating that illegal immigrants, who can't register to vote, can't vote. Because, you know, the law only allows registered voters to vote, and it would be illegal for anyone who can't register to vote to try to vote, just like it already says in our voter fraud statutes.

Yes, it passed the House. Why did you even ask?

But hey, look on the bright side: Every minute the Legislature spends passing laws that it's already passed is a minute that it's not doing anything even sillier.

Thursday, April 26, 2007

Clearing the smoke-filled rooms

I don't smoke, but I have a fairly libertarian attitude toward tobacco use, be it in America or Bhutan or anywhere in between. With that said, I can understand -- on principle and from personal experience -- why state Sen. Vivian Davis Figures, D-Mobile, supports a smoking ban in most of Alabama's enclosed workplaces and public spaces.

As it should, the bill exempts private homes and most outdoor areas, among other locations. If it's amended to add exemptions for bars and nightclubs, where patrons generally expect to encounter numerous smokers, I would have no trouble supporting it. Citizens need to be free to make a personal choice on whether to smoke, but the choice must be just that: personal. As an American Heart Association spokesman said, "The right of a smoker to smoke stops where a non-smoker's nose begins."

This post is long, but it only dips once

Birmingham News reporter Brett Blackledge's continuing investigation into the employment practices in Alabama's two-year college system, the latest installment of which came today, has prompted curiosity as to whether one can defend the Pulitzer Prize like a championship belt. It also has revealed a convoluted web of connections between junior colleges and state lawmakers that raises an obvious question: Why do we allow legislators to draw paychecks from entities whose funding the Legislature controls?

Label the concern as double-dipping, conflict of interest, or whatever you'd like, but most people on Goat Hill seem to agree -- at least publicly -- that something has to change. The debate centers not on identifying the illness but on picking a cure with the least harmful side effects. And on this issue, people from each extreme want to play doctor.

On one side is Gov. Bob Riley, who wants legislators -- or, barring that, the state school board -- to forbid lawmakers from working in the two-year or K-12 systems while they serve in the Legislature. On the other is education lobbyist extraordinaire Paul Hubbert, who thinks the best check on any abuses is the same one we have now: a well-placed indictment here and there.

Riley's proposal has precisely no chance of escaping the Legislature alive this year. That's especially true because Riley is a Republican governor proposing a bill in a Democrat-controlled Legislature that could cost 39 Democratic lawmakers their seats. Things could get more interesting at the school board, where Riley is only one vote away from getting a ban approved. Still, Hubbert is the force to be reckoned with in Montgomery, so it wouldn't be entirely unwise to bet on the status quo as the ultimate outcome.

Independent of what will happen, of course, is what should happen. Three questions are relevant here. First, if a ban is approved, when should it apply? Second, is it fair to force some people, but not others, to choose between their job and their legislative service? And third, is there a better way to address this whole messy situation?

On the first point, if a "double-dipping" ban goes into effect immediately, it probably would lead some duly elected legislators to resign before serving out their current terms. If the Legislature opts for a ban, it should apply equally to all state employees and shouldn't take effect until the next round of legislative elections in 2010. Voters made their decisions last year, and no bill should try to force out their chosen representatives before their terms end.

As for the second question, a blanket ban on lawmakers getting paid for two state jobs sure does look good on the surface. It draws a clear line in the sand and eliminates suspicions of a conflict of interest in a legislator's votes or lobbying efforts on behalf of an entity. The appeal of the clear distinction is so strong, in fact, that state Sen. Rusty Glover, R-Semmes, fully supports Riley's proposal even though it would cost him his job as a high school teacher. (Principle? In our legislature? Imagine that.)

But it's important to remember that the Legislature is supposed to represent a cross-section of Alabama. We have geographic diversity -- every part of the state has a representative and senator of its very own -- but diversity of background is just as important. Businessmen, doctors, lawyers, etc., all bring their own valuable strengths and perspectives to public service, and so do education employees. It simply would seem unjust to force educators, many of whom work in the public sector because that's where the jobs are, to sacrifice their careers to run for public office, but to require no such choice from other professions.

There's a better answer: Make legislative service a full-time job. If all lawmakers have to surrender all other employment for the duration of their time on Goat Hill, no profession would face disincentives to serve that the others didn't. More importantly, we could alleviate concerns about conflicts of interest in both the public and private sectors. A full-time Legislature (with a full-time level of pay, which we now have) also could lure good candidates who otherwise might not be able to serve.

Full-time service would cost more, especially if we tacked on retirement benefits and a paid staffer or two to ease lawmakers' reliance on lobbyists to research and write bills. But the practical and ethical advantages a full-time Legislature would provide would be well worth the expense.

Wednesday, April 25, 2007

In the eyes of the law

Hold your index finger in front of your face and look it. Now close your left eye. Then open it back up and close the right one.

Your finger never actually moved, but it appeared differently depending on the vantage point from which you saw it. The phenomenon is known as parallax, and it's worth remembering whenever you hear the term "judicial activism" bandied about in discussions of U.S. Supreme Court rulings.

Some Republicans believe the justices are on a mission to legislate from the bench and remake the nation in their own liberal image. For support, they point to a number of recent cases, including a ruling that a ban on only homosexual sodomy is unconstitutional, a decision that courts can't impose the death penalty on people who were under 18 at the time of their crime, and a declaration that state legislatures can define what constitutes a "public use" to justify the exercise of eminent domain.

Viewed in a vacuum, it might be impressive evidence. But also consider these rulings: It took seven years for five conservative-
leaning justices effectively to overrule the U.S. Supreme Court's prior jurisprudence on sovereign immunity and late-term abortions. And if today's oral arguments were any indication, it may take only four years for Chief Justice John Roberts' bench to strip precedent on the McCain-Feingold Act of any real meaning.

Whether you agree or disagree with any of these outcomes, remember them the next time you hear complaints from either side of the aisle that judges are engaging in judicial activism by ignoring precedent and the will of the people. The difference between an outrageous example of judges running wild and an admirable defense of constitutional principles often comes down to nothing more than which eye you have open.

Yeltsin's mixed legacy

Winston Churchill rallied the British people to devote their "blood, toil, tears, and sweat" to the cause of defeating Nazi Germany, but his party was crushed at the polls just months after V-E Day. Lech Walesa captured the hearts and minds of Poland as his Solidarity movement brought the Soviet-backed government to its knees, but he got kicked to the curb in the election six years later.

The political career of Boris Yeltsin, who died Monday in Moscow, followed a similar path. Like them, the former Russian president excelled in crisis but struggled to adapt to more tranquil times.

Yeltsin became an international icon while the Soviet Union collapsed in the late 1980s and early 1990s, particularly when he took to a tank while rebuffing a coup attempt by hardline Soviet Communists in 1991. He also instituted a number of seemingly sincere efforts to transform Russia into a democratic nation with a free-market economy and oversaw the country's first steps toward becoming a free society after centuries of repressive rule.

But after the dust settled, Yeltsin's difficulties began in earnest. Within two years after his famous speech atop the tank, he had turned the tanks on the Russian parliament to consolidate his power. He also launched two bloody wars in Chechnya, the latter of which is still ongoing and has become very unpopular, and did little to combat the rampant corruption that still has hold of many facets of Russian life. Yeltsin resigned apologetically in 1999 and handed the reins to his anointed successor, Vladimir Putin, whose track record could be described as "troubling" if you're feeling generous and as many other things if you aren't.

We shouldn't forget Yeltsin's role as a pioneer in Russia's move toward democracy, but neither should we gloss over his many woes (or his proclivity for outlandish, drunken public antics). For a moment in time, Yeltsin was in the right place at the right time to rally his people to change. But when that moment passed, he became yet another clear example of the idea that the skill set for good revolutionaries rarely overlaps with the skill set for good peacetime leaders.

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Be they ever so resolved

You say you want a resolution? Well, Alabama has two notable ones in the news today.

In the category of unfinished historical business, the Legislature looks set to issue an official apology for the state's role in slavery, more than 140 years after the Thirteenth Amendment abolished the practice. Both houses OK'd an apology resolution today in votes accelerated by Gov. Bob Riley's promise to sign any such measure that emerges and an amendment by state Sen. Hank Sanders, D-Selma, to bar the resolution from being used in litigation. (The Alabama Constitution already explicitly grants the state sovereign immunity from private suits, but Sen. Charles Bishop, R-Jasper, nonetheless warned that the measure could open the door to reparations lawsuits.)

The House approved its legislation on a voice vote, while the Senate vote was 22-7, with Democrats providing all of the "yes" votes. The "no" votes came from Sens. Scott Beason, R-Gardendale; Bishop; Larry Dixon, R-Montgomery; Hank Erwin, R-Montevallo; Rusty Glover, R-Semmes; Harri Anne Smith, R-Slocomb; and Jabo Waggoner, R-Vestavia Hills. Abstentions came from Sens. Ben Brooks, R-Mobile; Bradley Byrne, R-Fairhope; Steve French, R-Birmingham; Del Marsh, R-Anniston; and Arthur Orr, R-Decatur. The lone Democrat not to vote "yes" was Sen. Phil Poole, D-Moundville, who was recorded as present.

The other measure back in the news is a second attempt to pass an inclusiveness resolution that would declare Birmingham to be a tolerant place for all kinds of minorities, including gays. The measure went down to defeat last month, but Wade Kwon reports that Councilwoman Valerie Abbott will reintroduce it soon and should have the votes to get it approved.

The symbolic resolutions are just that -- symbolic -- and won't have much direct substantive effect on Alabamians' everyday lives. Still, each has its own importance. The slavery apology will indicate to outsiders whose mental image of our state is still filled with fire hoses and attack dogs that today's Alabama is quite a different place. Along the same lines, the inclusiveness resolution will acknowledge that Birmingham, the heart of the civil rights struggle, is a city that hasn't forgotten the value of fighting for the rights of minority groups.

In an age when image is everything, these resolutions would show the world a picture of Alabama as it is: an imperfect place (just as all other places are) determined to move toward a brighter future. Here's hoping both measures find acceptance.

Back from intermission

They heard speeches from a pair of Republican presidential candidates, Rudolph Giuliani and John McCain. They raised their pay more than 60 percent. Together, they passed a grand total of one meaningful piece of legislation -- the Enterprise tornado relief bill -- and only after a lengthy debate over when to debate it. Then they took their scheduled week off for spring break.

Now get ready for round two of the 2007 edition of the Alabama Legislature. This time, maybe they'll get something done.

Saturday, April 21, 2007

September in April

Not news: Alabama played football before yet another overflow crowd in Bryant-Denny Stadium.

News: It was the spring intrasquad game.

Crimson Tide fans annihilated the national record for attendance at a scrimmage by almost 20,000 today for the coaching debut of Nick Saban. Unreal as it was, the number would have gone even higher had the fire marshal not ordered UA officials to close the stadium gates. And all of this was to watch practice.

Ladies and gentlemen, this is Alabama football.

The Tech link compendium

Trillions of electrons have been devoted to coverage and discussion of the Virginia Tech shooting since Monday. Here's a recap of a few of the most remarkable pieces:
  • The Washington Post published the definitive account of the tragedy Thursday in a haunting narrative that reveals the chaos and horror of those deadly few hours.
  • Also from The Post is a look at the world's reaction to the shootings. Particularly notable are Iraqis' questions why Americans are so shocked about 33 deaths when the death toll in Iraq has hovered around three times that much lately. The answer is twofold. First is the proximity factor: Humans tend to be more interested in events that occur in their countries than in events involving people and places half a world away. Second is the "man bites dog" principle: Iraq is a war zone where people (sadly) have grown to expect mass casualties; Blacksburg isn't.
  • Author Stephen King examines the links between violent writing and violent behavior and finds few reliable ways to forecast when someone may cross that line.
  • Doug at Hey Jenny Slater has the most moving blog post I've read about the massacre and the public reaction to it.
  • ACG at Practically Harmless lays the smack down, with authority, on some appalling attempts to pin some blame on shooting victims for their split-second responses.
Any other valuable links I missed?

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Some badly needed good news

For obvious reasons, Monday was an exceptionally bad news day on the whole. But it wasn't devoid of positive headlines.

The most notable of those in Alabama was the revelation that Birmingham News reporter Brett Blackledge landed a Pulitzer Prize in the investigative reporting category for his outstanding coverage of the state's two-year college scandals, just as I hoped he would. (He originally was nominated in the public service category, but the contest organizers moved the entry elsewhere.)

It was the first Pulitzer for a state newspaper since The News' last win in 1991, when the paper claimed the editorial writing award. More importantly, it's an indication that quality, hard-hitting journalism is alive and well in Alabama.

We are all Hokies today

You just can't understand evil.

Almost always, you can recognize it right away when you see it. Often, you can identify its perpetrators and strategy. Sometimes, you can point out some of the factors that fed its development. But to stare the final product -- evil -- in its cold, soulless eyes and truly, honestly understand its deep-seated, active disdain for humanity and morality -- well, that's a task that's beyond all but perhaps the most depraved members of society.

So, with no real way to comprehend utter iniquity, the public at large, desperate to make some sense out of a senseless act, is left fumbling to plug evil acts into a pre-existing frame of reference. Confronted with an inexplicable tragedy like the ruthless killing spree that ended 33 lives Monday at Virginia Tech, and with the sense of loss compounded by the fact that the murderer cowardly evaded justice by turning the gun on himself, Americans have grasped for something -- anything -- that could bring some order to the abject chaos at a bucolic college campus.

Do Americans have access to too many guns too easily? Should we bar people from carrying their own guns to school to protect themselves instead of having to rely on the police? Does our culture spawn violence by glorifying it too much? Do we have big problems in our approach to mental health care? What about our student visa process? And should Virginia Tech officials have shut down the campus more quickly after the first shooting incident?

All of these questions and more have permeated the national discourse in the hours after the Blacksburg shootings. All of them are legitimate inquiries that will be pondered endlessly in the days to come. All of them, in the end, are not so much the ultimate questions in which we're interested as they are efforts to cope.

As humans, we seek to substitute incomprehensible horror for a familiar debate, to flee the unfathomable abyss for the more comfortable terrain of scandal or political wrangling, to find a way to hold someone or something accountable for the tragedy when the person responsible is now beyond our reach. But the answer to the ultimate metaphysical question -- Why do bad things happen to good people? -- remains unknowable, at least in this world.

The profound sense of loss in Blacksburg is a quintessentially human experience, and as the saying gaining currency goes, we are all Hokies today. Togetherness may not provide the answers we seek, but it offers hope for healing and the promise that, united, we can surmount even the most wicked obstacles.

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Can green tomatoes cut down nets?

It's a good day for anyone who had Fannie Flagg winning the title in The Birmingham News' bracketed showdown for the state's top entertainment icon. Alabama, in the form of 913 online ballots in the final round and more than 5,000 throughout, has spoken.

Bad news for the tissue industry

Auburn University fans probably will have to find a new tree to roll soon, because the oak at Toomer's Corner seems to be heading inexorably toward its demise. Among the speculated causes of death, according to The Auburn Plainsman, are encroaching development, a hit from a car, and -- yes -- too much rolling from overeager Auburn backers who take advantage of any opportunity to hurl toilet paper into the branches.

So how did momentous events on the Plains come to be associated with toilet paper in the first place? Wikipedia comes strong with the knowledge: "[T]his tradition is said to have begun when Toomer's Drugs had the only telegraph in the city. During away football games, when employees of the local drug store received news of a win, they would roll the oak trees to signal a win to the public. Traditionally used only as a way to celebrate football victories, in recent years it has become a way to celebrate anything good that happens concerning Auburn."

Well, all right then.

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

There's a line you don't see every day

How to write an attention-grabbing lede, courtesy of The Detroit News: "Credit Ford Motor Co. CEO Alan Mulally with saving the leader of the free world from self-immolation."

Friday, April 06, 2007

Must be one of those known unknowns

The Black Eyed Peas' "My Humps" is one of the worst songs of the last decade, and maybe ever. So it's with slight trepidation that I direct you to a cover of it -- even if it's Alanis Morissette's hilarious deadpan parody that's spreading like wildfire.

How this song ever won a Grammy is one of those unanswerable Zen questions, like "What is the sound of one hand clapping?" or "Why do the Devil Rays even bother?"

Postseason bracketology

Florida came through after all, so I salvaged a respectable showing in basketball prognostication. The results are a bit more mixed on the state celebrity front, though. My pick of a Harper Lee-Hank Williams final in The Birmingham News' pop culture showdown was halfway right, but I didn't foresee Fannie Flagg's march to the title game, including upsets of Lee in the Elite Eight and Tallulah Bankhead in the Final Four. Williams still should be the favorite, but it's tough to overcome the kind of momentum Flagg has.

You can pick your favorite between the Cinderella and the No. 1 seed until 11 p.m. CST. After that, it's back to our favorite spring sports pastime: waiting for football to come back.

The quiet giant of the gridiron

Eddie Robinson was one of college football's last real heroes. He was a hugely successful coach -- the winningest in Division I history -- who won with class. He also persevered for decades despite the uphill battle he faced for so long at a traditionally black university in the segregated South.

Loyalty defined Robinson. Many coaches today seem to change jobs by the minute, but Robinson stayed at Grambling for his entire 57-year career, sending more than 200 players to the NFL in the process. Just as impressively, he also graduated 80 percent of his players in an era when the national norm was closer to half. He was a man who truly cared about his teams -- not just about how they could help him succeed on the field but also how he could help them succeed off the field.

Robinson's death Tuesday night ripped a giant hole in the heart of college football. But the sport -- and the country -- are better places for what he did in life.

Wednesday, April 04, 2007

Running low on bread here at the circus

Forget constitutional reform, tax fairness, and overcrowded prisons. Alabama's lawmakers know what the real problems are.

Take specialty beer, for example. It's a threat to teenage sobriety, as you could learn from some of the state House members who voted Tuesday against allowing a vote on the gourmet beer bill. Because as we all know, college students, with their limitless disposable income, tend to get drunk on the most expensive imported brew available instead of knocking back a 12-pack of cheap domestic beer. And as we also know, you're wrong, even if I'm not entirely sure what you said, so there. (Dan of Between the Links has the audio clips -- and the outrage.)

Our legislators aren't the only ones with our very best interests in mind. U.S. Rep. Spencer Bachus, R-Vestavia Hills, is looking out for us on Capitol Hill, where he knows the most urgent concern America faces is not the Iraq war or Katrina recovery, but rather the prospect of gay couples getting a marriage certificate: "We could lose Iraq and survive; we lost Vietnam and survived, but if we lose this battle against gay marriage, we are doomed." (At press time, Massachusetts had yet to collapse into an anarchic, dystopian nightmare, but considering they haven't banned gay marriage in triplicate, it may be only a matter of time.)

Lost in all of this talk, of course, is that our elected officials still have done nothing to guard us from the most pressing danger of all: Internet usage by U.S. Supreme Court justices.

We're vulnerable, people. Vulnerable.

Looks like one for the negative column

Attorney General Troy King's long list of ethics concerns, political stunts, and general negatives is, of course, well-known among careful followers of Alabama politics. But today's negative press goes not to the man who chose to wear an electronic ankle bracelet while testifying before Congress but to the opponent he beat in the fall, Mobile County District Attorney John Tyson, Jr.

Tyson's office encountered a major setback Monday, when a circuit judge ruled she had to toss out a triple murder case because prosecutors violated the defendant's Sixth Amendment right to a speedy trial. The judge said the state waited too long -- more than 11 years -- to proceed with the prosecution and that the delay unfairly prejudiced the defendant. The assistant district attorney said the delay was necessary because the defendant was in federal prison during that time, but the judge said the state still could have sought to go ahead with the prosecution.

The law in the speedy-trial realm, as in so many other areas, is nebulous. The king of jurisprudence there is the U.S. Supreme Court's ruling in Barker v. Wingo, which noted four key factors in finding a breach of defendants' speedy-trial rights: the length of the delay, the reason for it, the degree to which defendants assert their rights before trial, and the harm that defendants suffer. But the clarity ends there; the justices said judges must weigh those factors on an individualized basis in each case to determine whether a Sixth Amendment violation exists.

So Tyson's office could look to a higher court, but the 11-year-plus wait will remain a glaring detriment to that cause. Even if an appeal were to succeed, the situation is a black eye for a DA who has what largely appears to be a solid record of accomplishment.

Tuesday, April 03, 2007

Albert E. Gator is insatiable

A national title in football. A repeat national title in basketball. A No. 1 ranking in gymnastics. First place in the SEC East in baseball.

If we don't invent new sports, Florida may never lose again.

Out of the shadows at last

For years, history has sat -- untouched and deteriorating -- at the heart of the University of Alabama campus.

Decades ago, Foster Auditorium was the place to be for concerts and graduations. It was the home court for some of the Crimson Tide's best basketball teams, including the Rocket 8 that swept through the SEC undefeated in 1956. Most significantly, it was the site of former Gov. George Wallace's notorious Stand in the Schoolhouse Door, a stunt that brought the world's attention to segregation and added further fuel to a civil rights movement that culminated two years later in the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

But UA officials have done little for Foster as it aged in recent years, winding down its usage to the point of vacancy as it slid into a mess of broken windows and falling ceiling tiles. A building that should be protected and promoted as a civil rights landmark instead was subjected at best to benign neglect and at worst to suggestions that it be bulldozed.

At long last, though, the Capstone is taking baby steps toward reviving a moribund Foster. Fundraising is set to begin in earnest around 2009, if the promises are to be believed. More tangibly, UA officials last month ponied up nearly $500,000 for a badly needed roof replacement that should be finished later this month.

It's small progress, but it still offers hope that leaders of Alabama's flagship university won't try to push the history that occurred in the shadows of their offices into the forgotten shadows of time.

They'll be watching you

Almost 60 years ago, author George Orwell warned readers of Big Brother's perpetual surveillance in 1984. Today, 32 closed-circuit cameras are within 200 yards of his former London residence.

Monday, April 02, 2007

When good protests go bad

Things were rocking along recently at a Montgomery rally against Alabama legislators' 62 percent pay raise. But then, out of left field, came the question from state Sen. Charles Bishop, R-Jasper, of whether "all of the Mexicans should go back to Mexico."

The crowd of several hundred reached a general consensus that, in fact, they should, according to the (Mobile) Press-Register. It was not immediately clear whether those crowd members agreed that they, too, should repatriate their ancestors' homelands.