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Archive for March, 2013

Two Gun Wars Exist and More Than One Solution is Needed

Sunday, March 31st, 2013

GunThere are two gun wars. One occurs on the urban streets of New York, Chicago, Washington, DC and other urban cities around the country. Another gun war occurs in small towns, small cities and on college campuses in places like Auora, Colorado, Virginia Tech University, Tucson, Arizona and Newtown, Connecticut. Regardless of where the gun war is taking place, the end result is the same—people are being killed at an alarming rate and in large numbers.

Gun legislation has been proposed in Congress and the Senate to address the gun issue. President Obama speaks of the urgency and need to curb gun violence. One thing is for sure if we do nothing, nothing different will happen. People will continue to be killed. The question is what should we need to do. The two wars are not fought in the same way. The urban war involves hand guns and the other war involves assault weapons and massive gun cartridges. The urban war is usually targeted against people of color. The small town war is random violent acts against anyone in the cross fire. Treating the two wars in the same way is not the solution.

In the Washington, DC area, recently a teenager was shot and killed for a shopping bag he was carrying with a pair of shoes as a gift for his girlfriend. Maryland State’s Attorney Angela Alsobrooks said, “I am really enraged that a young person in our community with a shopping bag can’t walk down the street without being shot in the back.” In Chicago, Hadiya Pendleton, an inaugural parade participant was shot for being in the wrong place. There have been urban killings where people were sitting on their own front porch. And a baby was shot and killed in the Atlanta area because the mother had no money to give to her would be robbers. Eliminating assault weapons and large magazine cartridges will not cause these killings to cease. Increased penalties for these crimes will not also be a deterrent. There must be a different approach to urban gun violence. Prince George’s County Maryland prosecutor Angela Alsobrook recognizes that we must also treat what ails us in society. Gun laws by themselves will not be enough to stop the violence. I agree with President Obama that legislation that will save one person’s life is still well worth it.

And in the mass killings, assault weapons are primarily used to injure and kill large groups of people at a time from 26 in Newtown, 10 killed and 70 injured in Aurora, 33 dead in Virginia Tech and 10 dead in Arizona. Again, the total ban of assault weapons and large magazine cartridges will not be enough to stop the violence. It will be a start. Many of those killers who commit these crimes have mental health issues. That is not to say that killers in urban areas are not also subject to mental health and other issues. And our laws on mental health are quite inadequate to presently deal with the problem.

A a prosecutor, I prosecuted crimes of gun violence. As a trial lawyer, I have on occasions defended crimes of gun violence. The main problem is present in urban and small town gun violence—many of those committing the crime have no regard for their life or any human life. That is a societal issue. More guns on the streets in the hands of would be victims will not solve that problem.

Tougher gun laws are a necessary tool but they should not be the only tool to stop gun violence. Until we find out what ails us in society and work towards curing that problem, guns and gun violence will continue to plague us. Taking the first step is a start. But we will still need to take many more steps in the process, if we want to make a dent in the problem. It takes a village to raise a child and the same is true to stop gun violence. It will take a collective effort on a legislative, judiciary, mental health, economic, socio-economic, religious front to begin to solve the gun violence. The real question is whether we are up to the challenge.

A Woman Leads the Fight for Marriage Equality

Wednesday, March 27th, 2013

supcourt_buildingWomen continue to make history and lead from Julia Pearson, the first woman appointed by President Obama to ever lead the Secret Service, the first woman to head the national clandestine service unit of the CIA to Edie Windsor, the 83 year old woman whose case is leading the Supreme Court and the country to marriage equality.   On Wednesday, the Supreme Court heard the case of Edie Windsor who filed a lawsuit alleging the Defense of Marriage Act was unconstitutional as it denied her federal estate tax benefits when her spouse died.

The 1996 Defense of Marriage Act (“DOMA”) defines marriage as between one man and one wife. In doing so, it makes clear that only heterosexual couples can receive federal benefits whether tax benefits, social security or military benefits.  In all, there may be about 1000 federal benefits denied to same sex couples over their heterosexual married friends. Edie was not able to receive the estate tax benefits afforded marriage couples under DOMA. She sued and on Wednesday, her case was argued before the U.S. Supreme Court.  And Edie was electrifying as she walked down the 44 steps of the Supreme Court following the argument to make a statement.  Ironically, that’s the length of her relationship with Thea Spyer.   She said it went well and spoke of how humbled she felt to bring the case.

Real stories of real people’s lives are affected by the injustice and unfairness of the federal law which denies federal benefits to same sex couples. Nine states allow same sex marriage.  And those couples who are legally married in those nine states cannot by law receive any federal benefits which stem from being married.

Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan paraphrased and stated that the purpose of DOMA was to morally defend the definition of marriage as between a man and a woman. In 1996 Congress decided to express its moral disapproval of same sex marriage. In doing so, DOMA creates a cast system where marriage between heterosexual receive all the federal benefits of being married and same sex couples receive none.  Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg likened it to whole milk marriage versus skim milk. She said there is the full marriage and then there’s this skim milk marriage.

Edie Windsor was in a 40 year relationship with her spouse whom she married in 2007. In 2008, she passed and Edie learned about the injustice in the law when she was hit with over a $300,000 estate tax bill which would not have existed if she were allowed to receive estate tax benefits due married couples.

The opposition to Edie’s case and in support of DOMA are those who support the biblical reading that God made a marriage union between a man and a woman.  With all due respect to the religious and conservative proponents of DOMA, this case is about affording equal benefits under the law.  And it’s ironic to see that people of color who were and are still legally discriminated in some instances support a law that discriminates.  A Maryland pastor Bishop Harry Jackson has been outspoken against equal rights for gays in marriage in all the cases.

The time to accept marriage equality is now. And over 50% of Americana accept marriage equality.  It is not only morally right but legally fair and just. As a society, we can no longer have a two tier marriage system.  The time is right, the time is now. And hopefully, the Supreme Court of the U.S. will do the right thing.

The Supreme Court is expected to rule by June.  And judging by the accounts, it appears that there may be enough justices to vote to do the right thing.

 

A Glance Back at Women’s History Month

Monday, March 25th, 2013

Harriet TubmanToday, towards the end of Women’s History month, President Obama announced a national monument in Maryland in honor of abolitionist and freed slave Harriet Tubman.  Tubman who was born in Maryland helped to free hundreds of slave without ever losing one.  She embodies the symbol of freedom and the risks involved to fight for freedom.   The monument will be called the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad Monument to commemorate the woman who was responsible for helping slaves to reach freedom while risking her life in the process. The new national park in her memory and its monument are located on Maryland’s Eastern shore.

Midway through Women’s History month, the topic of rape and sexual violence against women was the center of focus in many media outlets.  The Steubenville, Ohio rape case concluded with the judge finding the two teenagers, Trent Mays and Ma’Lik Richmond responsible for raping a 16 year old girl known as “Jane Doe”.  The trial was significant because most of the evidence was uploaded online via video, photographs or through the use of Twitter. The two teens were not tried in an adult court so the verdict is not a guilty one but a finding of delinquency with a sentence to a juvenile facility.

The case centered around Jane Doe, a West Virginia honors high school student, who was substantially intoxicated or impaired and unable to consent to rape or any sexual act while attending several parties in Steubenville, Ohio.  During the course of the evening, at least these two teenagers who were later adjudicated delinquent raped the victim while partying around her and then taking photos of her.  Those photographs went viral online along with tweets supporting the act of sexual assault on Jan Doe.   In Ohio, it is rape to forcibly penetrate with fingers or an object without consent.  Most condoned the acts of sexual assault on the victim.  Few spoke out against the act of rape against her.   Most of the sentiment was about the future lives of the two young men. It seems the age old adage of boys will be boys and that she deserved it are still the norm in many parts of the country when it comes to assaults on women and girls.  The judge will decide if the two teenagers will be required to register as sex offenders.

 

This month Ford Motor Company had a rather unfortunate way of honoring women or rather I should say dishonoring women. Ford Motor Company came out with an ad campaign for its new vehicle.  The posters uploaded to a website depicted women in sexually compromising positions as one of the images depicts Silvio Berlusconi, former prime minister of Italy driving a Ford Figo with three tied-up women in the back. He’s looking back on the women with the “victory” hand sign.  Another image depicts Paris Hilton driving a Figo with what’s meant to look like three Kardashian sisters tied up in the back.  Ford Motor Company and its ad agency apologized for the art work depicted in the posters.  One has to wonder, what, if anything, Ford was thinking when it displayed such an offensive display of insensitivity against women.  Three women tied up in the back of a car with a man driving while smiling looking at them has no place in an advertisement.  When a major corporation and its ad agency think this type of ad is acceptable, one has to wonder what messages are we sending about women.

In other parts of our country, during Women’s History month, North Dakota passed the most stringent form of legislation practically banning abortion in the state.  Other states continued to fight a woman’s right to choose and vow to abolish abortion.

 

At the beginning of Women’s History month on March 3, in Washington, DC, approximately 25,000 members of Delta Sigma Theta Sorority and other women came out for the re-enactment of the Women’s Suffrage march to commemorate its 100th year.  From the suffrage march of 100 years ago to November, 2012 where women outvoted men, women’s rights have evolved.  Women still continue to fight for the right to vote when it comes to disenfranchised felons and against voter ID laws which disenfranchise many women.

Women fight for the right to control our bodies when it comes to women’s reproductive rights. Although slavery has ended, hundreds of thousands of women are victims of human trafficking in the U.S. and abroad. Women continue to fight for equal pay—the right to earn the same salary as a man for the same type of work.  Women must continue to fight against the victimization of women whether by Ford Motor Company or sexual assaults and rapes committed by men and boys in towns and cities across America.  Women’s rights have evolved but they are still a work in progress.

Affordable Care Act Turns Three

Sunday, March 24th, 2013

ObamaElectionThe Affordable Care Act known as Obamacare turns three years old.  On March 23, 2010, President Obama signed the Affordable Care Act, helping millions of Americans to gain access to affordable health insurance coverage. Despite the Republican controlled Congress’ efforts to block the law, prevent it from being fully implemented in states or threatening to deny state’s funding, it is the law.  Republicans have voted more than 35 times to repeal health care reform, according to Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz (D. FL).  And despite the Supreme Court upholding the law in 2012, just this week, Michele Bachmann, Mitch McConnell, Ted Cruz and Paul Ryan vowed to continue the fight to repeal it. Some major employers are still fighting against the law by reducing employees’ hours to skirt around the law. Democrats are still fighting across the country to keep Republicans out of office, who vow to continue fights against health care reform

The Affordable Care Act, known as health care reform, has significantly made a positive impact on Americans and particularly, African Americans and minority communities, many of whom lack health insurance. One in 5 African Americans lack health insurance, more than any other group. The law provides many African Americans the freedom to get the care they need without seeking primary care from a hospital emergency room. Many African Americans also suffer from pre-existing illnesses such as hypertension, heart disease and high cholesterol in larger numbers than white Americans. Most importantly, the law provides vital protection for those with pre-existing conditions and provides continuing coverage. Rep. Emanuel Cleaver (D. MO) said on a conference call that he is not sure why so many fought against it, when so many people need it, including those who fought against it. Under the law, it is now illegal to deny health care to children based on pre-existing conditions. With jobs being lost daily and several hundred foreclosures an hour, the African American community should “embrace it with a vengeance” says Rep. Cleaver.

The health care law goes beyond coverage and adds key investments like increasing jobs.  16,000 new primary health care providers, including nurses and physician assistants, will be added over the next 5 years as a result of the law. In addition, Medicare recipients will receive free preventive care, including colonoscopies, mammograms and annual physical x-rays, allowing many persons to get help before life threatening illnesses arise. Physicians who were skeptical about the law have come to understand its benefits. Dr.  Deneta Sells, a Georgia based pediatrician has benefited from the tax credits granted to small businesses by the Affordable Care Act. Many practicing physicians are small businesses.

Americans, who are often silent over the loud clanging of the opponents of Affordable Care, are beginning to speak out.  One such person is Renee Ford of Memphis, TN.  Renee, a mother of 5 and wife learned about the catastrophic nightmare of being uninsured when her husband needed a kidney transplant.  The family was on COBRA at the time at a cost of $1200 a month. Her husband now has to take rejection medicine for his kidney transplant at a cost of $2400 for the rest of his life.  No insurance will cover him due to his pre-existing condition.   The only coverage her family could find would cost $2400 with a $25,000 deductible.  Now there is hope for the many persons living in this country like Ms. Ford’s family.

Happy Birthday Obamacare and wishing you many more birthdays!

Debbie Hines is a lawyer and legal and political commentator. She is frequently seen in the media speaking on issues affecting women and African Americans. She also writes for the Huffington Post. She holds a Juris Doctorate from George Washington University law School and a BA from the University of PA.

 

CVS’ New Health Policy is not Fooling Anyone

Thursday, March 21st, 2013

Ever since the Affordable Care Act was passed,  some employers have been trying to find a way to circumvent it.  Your neighborhood pharmacy Rhode Island based CVS has a new health insurance initiative aimed at the privacy of its employees. CVS’ new policy requires that its employees must see a doctor and provide weight and height information to an independent third party provider, WebMD or face a penalty of fine of $50 per month.  CVS is also requiring that its employees with health insurance stop smoking or enter a smoke cessation program.  Now just about everyone was outraged over Mayor Bloomberg’s law on limiting drinks larger than 16 ounces.  An employer somehow having access to personal health information of its employees smacks of a clear privacy invasion.  And even though CVS says it will not be privy to the information, I doubt if any of the employees believe it.  And they would have good reason to disbelieve it.

Employers who are having to provide health insurance under the Affordable Care Act are trying new and innovative ways to deny coverage like Papa John’s that wants to reduce hours of some employees to get around the law. And now CVS has a more innovative means to circumvent the Affordable Care Act by targeting unhealthy employees.

CVS states its new policy was in the best interests of employees’ health and well-being and the company would never see test results.  That doesn’t even sound believable.  According to company spokesman, Michael DeAngeelis, who says “We want to help our employees to be as healthy as they can be, which is why we decided to implement this plan.” If CVS wants their employees to be as healthy as they want to be, they could start a program based on eating less and moving more.

What CVS is probably planning on doing down the line is finding a way to get rid of its more undesirable and unhealthy employees.  And what better way than to require that employees get health check-ups with weight and height information.  If CVS wanted to do something to assist its employees’ well-being, they could have educational health seminars, reduced prices on gyms or exercise classes, reduced prices on nutritionists, provide written information to employees on healthy topics or any other number of ways to disseminate information to its employees.  Information like requiring calorie counts in restaurants is what will start to diminish our increasing weights and obesity.  Education is the key ingredient to assisting people to a better and healthier lifestyle.

Spreading fear and added stress over whether one’s job is at risk is not the way to accomplish a benefit to employees’ health.  There are tests that are acceptable like requiring drivers to take an eye exam.   I fail to see any benefit to an employee to get a height and weight test. That alone is not going to do anything for an employee but cause them to worry if they will be fired due to their gaining weight or smoking.

At some point, we need to call to task these employers who are out to provide anything but information in the best interest of the employees.  They are looking for a way to unload some of their unhealthy employees.

Time will tell if CVS made a wise decision.  If I were their lawyer I would advise against this practice.  In the future, it may prove more costly than it’s worth.  And if an employee’s privacy is violated, CVS should get ready to pay big bucks.

Arizona Voting Law Heard by Supreme Court

Monday, March 18th, 2013

 

Photo Courtesy of Color Lines

Photo Courtesy of Color Lines
Voters

Voting law cases heard by the U.S. Supreme Court are coming fast and furious.  Last month, the court heard argument on whether to drop Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act.  On Monday, the Supreme Court justices heard the Arizona voting law case of whether Arizona may add an additional requirement to the federal law on registering voters.  It is not a voter fraud or voter ID case. This case hinges on Arizona law that requires a first time voter registrant must provide proof of citizenship.  The U.S. Constitution gives Congress the power to regulate federal elections. Under the National Voter Registration Act (“NVRA”), the federal law for federal elections requires that a voter must only complete a form attesting under penalty of perjury that he or she is a U.S. citizen.  Nothing else is required.

Arizona’s law attempts to interfere with the federal regulation of federal elections.  In most circumstances, a state law may not interfere with a federal one. And the previous appeals courts to hear this case decided that Arizona’s law was fundamentally flawed because it interfered with the federal regulation of federal elections.  Arizona contends that it may add on provisions to the law.  Most legal scholars disagree.

The Arizona law resulted in decreased voter registration drives since instead of just signing a form, a new voter would need a birth certificate or other proof of citizenship before registering to vote.  And it gets even more confusing for women.  In instances where the name of a woman is now changed from her birth name whether due to marriage or any other reason, she would also need to provide a marriage certificate to show how her name changed from her birth certificate.  In 90% of marriages, women change their name whether by hyphenation or assuming the last name of the spouse.

supcourt_building

The present federal law allows for penalties if a person attempted to register to vote who was not a citizen.  Perjury carries a term of imprisonment.  And there is not real proof that non-citizens are attempting to register to vote. Nonetheless, Arizona is fighting the need for this law all the way to the Supreme Court.  It seems that a more beneficial use of state money could be used elsewhere.  Most legal analysts do not think the Supreme Court will rule in Arizona’s favor.

Presently, there is a bill pending in Congress to further streamline federal elections.  If the Supreme Court upholds Arizona’s law, it would have devastating effects as other states will no doubt join on the Arizona band wagon to make it difficult for persons to register to vote.  This case puts a chilling effect on voter registration. In the present Arizona case, the individual involved was a new citizen who was denied the right to register because he was unable to provide proof of his citizenship. He attempted to register to vote on the same day that he became a citizen.

The Voter Empowerment Act (“VEA”) presently pending in Congress would be affected by the Supreme Court’s decision should the court uphold Arizona’s law.  Under the VEA, attempts are being made to make voting easier in federal elections and allowing the states to control their own state elections.  The Voter Empowerment Act would bring our voting system in federal elections up to the 21st century with Internet modernization.

In modernizing and bringing voter registration up to 21st century standards, the VEA would allow citizens to register to vote by email. And to further encourage greater participation of voters, universities would be treated as voter registration agencies and register students to vote at time of their enrollment of college.  And for all of the proposed new changes, no proof of citizenship is required in the federal registration process—only a single form.

The Supreme Court is expected to render an opinion by June, 2013.  And with the Supreme Court split between liberals and conservative justices, it’s anyone’s guess if the Arizona law will be defeated or whether the Supremes will find some oddball way to decide in Arizona’s favor.