Why Brett Kavanaugh Should Not Be Confirmed

I am inclined to believe Christine Blasey Ford’s account and I have serious doubts about Brett Kavanaugh’s denial of what took place between them in 1982. The two accounts are in stark opposition to one another, but, for me, there is enough additional context in the two other accusations of sexual assault against Kavanaugh, in the testimony of friends of his about his behavior as a young man, and in his Yearbook page to make his flat denials simply not credible.

Would I vote to convict him in a criminal case? No, but this matter has not been adjudicated in a way that remotely resembles a criminal case. This is not a criminal case, where the burden of proof rests with the prosecution and the accused has a presumption of innocence. In this matter, a nomination to the Supreme Court, there is no presumption to believe an accused person.  In this kind of consideration, serious doubts about character should count against a nominee.

Nevertheless, these accusations of sexual misconduct are not the reasons I believe any United States Senator should vote AGAINST confirming this nomination. These are the reasons.

First, this President should not be appointing anyone to the Supreme Court. He has shown such unremitting contempt for the rule of law and for the institutions of justice in the United States that no one he appoints should be considered.

This is the most important reason, and it only gains greater weight in the wake of the refusal of the Senate to consider President Obama’s nomination of Merrick Garland. Here was a duly elected President, one who won a majority of votes and had no stain on the legitimacy of his election making the nomination. Trump not only lost the popular vote and has shown contempt for the rule of law but a Special Prosecutor is working through the question of whether he conspired with a foreign power to steal the election.

Second, Kavanaugh has shown a legal propensity to undermine the accountability of the President and the Executive Branch. These views are in conflict with a proper reading of the Constitution.

Third, we should not appoint to the Supreme Court people who have been deeply involved in partisan politics. Such nominees should be rejected out of hand. Kavanaugh had reasons I do not fault for being involved in the Bush-Gore election matter and in the Starr impeachment investigation, but I believe these should rule him out of consideration for a Supreme Court nomination.

Finally, even if we credit Kavanaugh with reasons to be angry about the accusations of sexual impropriety against him, his opening statement yesterday showed a disqualifying degree of partisanship. Even in the face of provocation, a judge needs to be impartial and measured.

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A Government of Laws, Not of Men

June 7, 2018

I had an opinion piece in yesterday’s Brunswick Times Record.  It concerns Trump’s claim that he could pardon himself — or rather with unsatisfactory reactions to that claim.

“As has been stated by numerous legal scholars, I have the absolute right to PARDON myself, but why would I do that when I have done nothing wrong?” So said Donald Trump in a jaw-dropping tweet at 5:35 a.m. on June 4. That’s an astonishing claim.

My practice is to pay as little attention as possible to what Donald J. Trump says because what he says is consistently untrue and cruel, often both. But I do make it a practice to notice what others say when Trump lies or crudely demeans. I look to members of Congress, and to business and civic leaders to set a tone for the nation. I look to them to uphold norms of truthfulness, decency and civic virtue. Too often these days I’m disappointed and dismayed.

Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), a constitutional lawyer, was asked by a reporter if he agreed with the president that the president could pardon himself. Eighteen seconds of silence followed before Cruz said “That is not a constitutional issue I’ve studied.”

This claim by Trump is not, fundamentally, a matter for lawyers to settle. It is not a question that requires a law degree or careful study of precedents and the text of the Constitution. This question goes right to the heart of what we, the American people, committed ourselves to in declaring independence from Great Britain in 1776. This is a matter around which all citizens of this nation should today unite simply and clearly.

We are establishing “a government of laws, not of men,” John Adams said. It is a phrase that has been repeated thousands of times: in 4th of July speeches and in moments of political crisis. No one is above the law. No man is a law unto himself. In the pledge of allegiance we all promise over and over again “liberty and justice for all.” That doesn’t permit exceptions for tyrants or presidents – or anyone.

Maine Independent Senator Angus King called the claim “troubling because the implication is that a president can never be held to account.” “Troubling? I hoped I would hear a stronger denunciation, something like “False” or “Unacceptable.”

Maine Republican Senator Susan Collins, waffled even worse, saying that ‘self pardoning’ would be a “tremendous abuse” of Trump’s authority, as well as “remarkably unwise.” That statement from our senior senator seems to accept that a president could pardon himself. Say it ain’t so.

I look to our two Senators, our two Representatives, our Governor and everyone who is running for election or re-election next week to firmly and proudly declare that no man or woman is above the law, that no man or woman can distort the law for his or her own purposes, that we are a government of laws not of men.

This is the fundamental proposition of which Abraham Lincoln reminded a torn and weary nation when he called us “a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal” — equally subject to the law.

Doug Bennett is a Topsham resident

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The Education-Jobs Connection

June 5, 2018

Timothy Taylor of the consistently informative Conversable Economist blog provides a useful summary of and commentary on the connection — the not very healthy current connection — between our education system (K-16) and the labor market.  Mostly he’s commenting on a recent Council on Foreign Relations Report arising from a task force chaired by John Engler and Penny Pritzker, The Work Ahead Machines, Skills, and U.S. Leadership in the Twenty-First Century.

Here’s the central predicament as Taylor sees it:

It seems to me that a lot of employers would prefer not to be involved in training, and just want educators to do it, while a lot of educators would prefer that employers remain at arms-length from their curriculum and classrooms. I think some of the discomfort of Americans with the US labor market, despite the very low unemployment rates, comes from a concern that our society is not coming to grips with issue of building job skills that lead to secure and productive careers.
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George Mason University & the Kochs

May 1, 2018

I’ll get to George Johnson in a minute.

First, my hat is off today for Samantha Parsons, a former George Mason University student whose Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests have brought into the light of day a series of agreements between George Mason University and various Koch brothers foundations that gave those foundations a say in who was appointed to professorships at George Mason.  The money to endow the chairs came from the Koch brothers.  The positions were in ‘free market’ economics.  Inside Higher Education has a good overview of the scandal.

Angel Cabrera, the current GMU President told the faculty in an e-mail “I was made aware of a number of gift agreements that were accepted by the university between 2003 and 2011 and raise questions concerning donor influence in academic matters.”  High marks for passive voice.  (Did he really not know before?) And even higher marks for trying to downplay the issue: “raise questions”?  “influence?”  Cabrera also said the agreements”fall short of the standards of academic independence I expect any gift to meet.”  “Fall short?”  Are we talking about a continuum here or a bright line?  Memo to Cabrera: this not only walks and talks like a duck; this has duck DNA.

George Mason University has been caught violating one of the key principles of academic freedom.  We construct university governance out of two different ways of doing things, trying to mesh the two harmoniously.  On the one hand, we have the standard model of organizational governance: a governing board, a president, various vice presidents and so forth: a hierarchical system designed to focus responsibility.  One the other hand we have a self-regulating guild of professionals, each new member named to the guild by their predecessors.  The first system is meant to insure financial health; the second is meant to insure fidelity to the truth-seeking norms of the academy.  Shared governance, we call it.

Says the relevant statement of the American Association of University Professors, “The faculty has primary responsibility for such fundamental areas as curriculum, subject matter and methods of instruction, research, faculty status, and those aspects of student life which relate to the educational process.”  Primary responsibility for faculty status means current professors make decisions about who else is named to the faculty, subject in extraordinary circumstances to denial by the president or (even more rarely) the governing board.  But appointments never start with the president or governing board, and never, never, never with donors.  Said Inside Higher Education:

All 10 of the now-public agreements relate to the university’s Mercatus Center for free market research, a locus of Koch-funded activity. Three of the agreements involve Koch. The two most recent, from 2007 and2009, stipulate the creation of a five-member selection committee to select a professor, with two of those committee members chosen by donors. The other Koch agreement, from 1990, also afforded Koch a role in naming a professor to fund.

The University has long denied any donor role in naming professors to the Koch-funded professorships.  With the release of these documents, it is clear they were lying.

I took note that the first agreement goes back to 1990.  That’s when George Johnson was GMU’s President.  (You can see the agreement here, with Johnson’s signature.)  Johnson was Dean of the College of Liberal Arts at Temple University when I was appointed to a faculty position there in 1973.  (Earlier he had been a Professor of English and Chair of the English Department.)  He left Temple to go to GMU in 1978 and served as President there until 1996.  He died in 2017.

I had just one one-on-one conversation with Johnson while I was at Temple.  He struck me as very smart.  He went out of his way to show me how little I understood then about university governance (true) and how much he did.  I could see he was formidable, but I didn’t like him much.  I learned early in my years at Temple that he had referred to the political science department (of which I was a member) as a “parking lot department.”  By which he meant the following.  When buildings were renovated (and there was a good deal of new building at Temple in the early 1970s), some departments needed to be displaced — housed in temporary quarters, often in trailers in parking lots.  The less valuable departments were the ones to be sent to the trailers.  “Parking lot departments”: He could be dismissive like that.

Now we know he could also sign an agreement that violated academic freedom.  It goes back to him,

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Pompeo and Haspel – Deeper Into Madness

April 30, 2018

I have a column in today’s Brunswick Times Record.  It was sparked by Angus King’s “Aye” on the close vote that confirmed Mike Pompeo as Secretary of State.  Screen Shot 2018-04-30 at 12.14.49 PM.png

Deeper Into Madness

Guest Column      2018-04-30 / Opinion

With both Maine Senators voting “aye,” the United States Senate voted last Thursday to confirm Trump’s nominee Mike Pompeo as U.S. Secretary of State. That vote takes us deeper into the madness of U.S. foreign policy post 2001.

Susan Collins’s vote was hardly a surprise. Despite her posture of sober, reasonable bipartisanship, she has voted to confirm nearly every one of Trump’s nominees. Yes, she voted for Sessions as Attorney General, Mnuchin as Treasury Secretary, Price as HHS Secretary, Zinke as Interior Secretary, Carson as HUD Secretary, Mulvaney as OMB Director. I wonder what she makes of them now, scandal after scandal? She doesn’t say.

Angus King’s vote on Pompeo was the surprise. “[B]ased upon what I know of Mike Pompeo, I believe that…he will be a calm and well-informed voice. He knows his country expects and needs no less,” King said in justifying his vote.

Calm and well informed? I can believe Pompeo will be both of those. And he will be both of those serving a president who is never calm nor well informed. Perhaps that is what King was thinking: Anyone leading the State Department would be better than Trump acting as his own Secretary of State. Said King, “The simple fact is that we need a Secretary of State, especially as Iran and North Korea are both coming to critically important decision points. In addition, the State Department itself is depleted, dispirited, and in desperate need of leadership and direction, which the Director’s experience at CIA indicates he can provide.”

“Leadership and direction:” there’s the rub. What leadership will Pompeo give to U.S. foreign policy? In what directions will he point the way, not just on Iran and North Korea, but on Syria, Israel/Palestine, Saudi Arabia, Europe, Africa, trade policy and climate change? Bad leadership, bad directions, and King and all the rest of us have good reason to know that.

Even the United States military believes climate change poses huge national security risks for the United States and threatens instability around the world. The scientific consensus has been clear for two decades. And yet Mike Pompeo is a climate change denier. Even the last four long-serving Republican appointed Secretaries of State acknowledged the importance of U.S. leadership on climate and environmental matters: George Schultz, James Baker, Colin Powell, and Condoleeza Rice. Pompeo will oppose any efforts to bring the U.S. back into the Paris Accords.

Or take the rolling disaster that is U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East. Since 2001, U.S. military expenditures for war in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan and Syria total at least $5.6 trillion dollars. At least 370,000 people to date have lost their lives in this so-called war on terror (Over 6000 of them Americans.) Ten million people have been driven from their homes. And with all these costs, we are no closer to a just and lasting resolution of these conflicts than we were in 2001.

As Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo will take us deeper into this madness. He has no leadership and no direction to offer except more of the same. He believes Islam is the problem. He believes more military might (and therefore more deaths, especially civilian deaths) are the answer. Who are our friends and who are our enemies? We have no idea and Pompeo will provide no fresh, sane leadership.

He opposes the Iran nuclear weapons deal and will likely encourage Trump to dynamite it: deeper into madness.

Next up on the Senate agenda is visiting again the question of torture. Pompeo comes to his new role from the CIA, where he was Director. Trump’s nominee to now direct the CIA is Gina Haspel, currently the CIA Deputy Director. At the CIA, Haspel oversaw a black site torture prison in Thailand where waterboarding was practiced. She subsequently oversaw the destruction of 92 interrogation videotapes that showed the torture of detainees both at hers and other secret agency locations. Such torture is not just madness but war criminal terrain.

Haspel will need Senate confirmation to become CIA Director. Will she get Aye votes from Maine’s U.S. Senators? Will they take us yet deeper into madness?

Doug Bennett, a Quaker and a retired political science professor, is a Topsham resident.

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Randa Jarrar and Academic Freedom

April 20, 2018

Randa Jarrar doesn’t seem to understand academic freedom, and I don’t think officials at Fresno State University, where she has a tenured appointment, do either. I say ‘seems’ because I’m finding it difficult to locate thoughtful statements from any of them (pro or con).  But what I do find they are saying is seriously inadequate.

Fresno State

Fresno State

Jarrar is the Creative Writing professor who fired up a tweet storm after Barbara Bush died, calling the former first lady “an amazing racist.”  When the tweet storm brought on a public backlash, she declared “I will never be fired.”  I take that to be a claim that her tenured status makes her invulnerable to dismissal for anything she says.  Said Jarrar in a follow-up tweet,

“LOL let me help you. You should tag my president @JosephlCastro. What I love about being an American professor is my right to free speech, and what I love about Fresno State is that I always feel protected and at home here,” Jarrar wrote. “GO BULLDOGS!”

Pressed to say something, President Joseph Castro said that her remarks went “beyond free speech. This was disrespectful.”  He said, “A professor with tenure does not have blanket protection to say and do what they wish,” he said. “We are all held accountable for our actions.” A statement from the university declared that Jarrar’s tweets were “obviously contrary to the core values of our University” but that they “were made as a private citizen.”

Later, the university backtracked by issuing another statement in which Castro declared ““academic freedom is at the core of our University, something we promote and practice every day in our teaching, research and public service. I am a fervent supporter of academic freedom and its underlying principles, as defined by the First Amendment. This is the essence of our democracy.”

Academic Freedom, First Amendment: we confuse these all the time and we should not.  The First Amendment is a constitutional guarantee that the government cannot prevent speech.  Because Fresno State is a public (i.e. government) institution, there may well be First Amendment protections for Jarrar.  I’m not a lawyer; I won’t try to address those.  We should note, though, that the First Amendment recognizes rights that everyone has, and carries no parallel responsibilities.

Academic Freedom, however, is a professional understanding of the relationship between a university and its faculty and students.  It is commonly written into Faculty handbooks, employment contracts and other legal documents that give it force of law.  It does NOT, however, protect a professor from being dismissed no matter what they say.  It carries both rights and responsibilities.  Foremost among those responsibilities are to speak truthfully and respectfully.

Its canonical expression is the 1940 Statement on Academic Freedom and Tenure of the American Association of University Professors.  Its explication of academic freedom comes in three parts: one concerning research and the publication of the fruits of research, one concerning teaching and the classroom, and one concerning public expression.  All three parts articulate both rights and responsibilities of professors.  Here is what the 1940 Statement says about public utterances:

College and university teachers are citizens, members of a learned profession, and officers of an educational institution. When they speak or write as citizens, they should be free from institutional censorship or discipline, but their special position in the community imposes special obligations. As scholars and educational officers, they should remember that the public may judge their profession and their institution by their utterances. Hence they should at all times be accurate, should exercise appropriate restraint, should show respect for the opinions of others, and should make every effort to indicate that they are not speaking for the institution.

“Obligations,” “appropriate restraint,” “respect for the opinions of others,” “indicate they are not speaking for the institution:” Jarrar failed each of these tests in the opinion of many.

Could she be disciplined: suspended? docked pay? fired? All these are possible under the 1940 Statement.  She is not invulnerable under the 1940 Statement.  Instead she has a right to specific process using professional judgments.

A judgment that she had failed to live up to her professional responsibilities would have to be considered by a committee of other professors at Fresno State, she would have to see all the evidence gathered against her, and an opportunity to respond to the charges and the evidence.  The President or Provost could not simply sanction her.  But she could be sanctioned by joint action of the her peers and officials of the university.  More specifically, here is what the 1940 Statement says:

Termination for cause of a continuous appointment, or the dismissal for cause of a teacher previous to the expiration of a term appointment, should, if possible, be considered by both a faculty committee and the governing board of the institution. In all cases where the facts are in dispute, the accused teacher should be informed before the hearing in writing of the charges and should have the opportunity to be heard in his or her own defense by all bodies that pass judgment upon the case. The teacher should be permitted to be accompanied by an advisor of his or her own choosing who may act as counsel. There should be a full stenographic record of the hearing available to the parties concerned. In the hearing of charges of incompetence the testimony should include that of teachers and other scholars, either from the teacher’s own or from other institutions. Teachers on continuous appointment who are dismissed for reasons not involving moral turpitude should receive their salaries for at least a year from the date of notification of dismissal whether or not they  are continued in their duties at the institution.

Again, the First Amendment may give her different rights relative to the university.  But “academic freedom” doesn’t make her invulnerable to dismissal.

For the record, I don’t think Randa Jarrar’s tweets make any case for dismissal.  Rude, they were.  Perhaps she should be made to read the 1940 Statement (and other AAUP statements on academic freedom) before she returns to the university. President Castro should read it, too.

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Susan Collins’s Ever-So Pleasant World

I had a column in yesterday’s Brunswick Times Record about the (to me) strange silence of our Senior Senator while our republic continues its plunge into constitutional crisis.  Screen Shot 2018-03-22 at 5.45.11 PM

Here’s the text:

I wish I lived in Susan Collins’s world. It’s much more pleasant than mine.

I wake up to a daily worsening constitutional crisis: a president showing contempt for the rule of law. I wake up to a Republican Party whose leadership shows no interest in reining in this out-of-control president. I wake up to a Congress that is hell-bent on increasing the wealth of the wealthy and on loosening regulations that prevent banks, oil and chemical companies from doing as they please.

Susan Collins, for what I can see, wakes up to a world that needs to focus on celebrating the 106th birthday of the Girl Scouts and receiving a Congressional Champion Award from the YWCA. Reading her twitter feed is like returning to the late 1950s world of Leave It to Beaver.

I see nothing that troubles me in her press releases. She is concerned in one about Boko Haram in one, eager to help lower health care premiums in another, determined to protect seniors from financial scams in a third. These are all worthy causes, all appropriate for legislative concern.

No, it is the silences that take my breath away. It is what she doesn’t seem to notice that makes me think she has teleported to the land of Father Knows Best.

Republican members of the House Intelligence Committee s shut down their investigation of Russian meddling in the 2016 election. They do so without taking testimony from key witnesses and without talking to the Democratic members of the committee. Susan Collins is silent.

Donald Trump fires James Comey and now regularly decries the Mueller investigation. Susan Collins is silent.

With crises in Syria, in Iran, in the Koreas, in Saudi Arabia, Trump fires Rex Tillerson as Secretary of State. About the chaos in U.S. foreign policy, Susan Collins is silent.

Donald Trump daily tweets insults aimed at federal judges, at FBI officials, at elected members of Congress. Susan Collins is silent. On Congressional oversight of the Executive Branch she says nothing.

We do know how Susan Collins votes; those are a matter of public record. She shows us she is a reliable vote for nearly anything Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell allows the Senate to vote upon. Trump-appointed judges: she votes to confirm nearly every one. Trump-appointed cabinet members? She voted for all but DeVos (Education) and Pruitt (EPA), but about their many failings and misdeeds she is silent. On regulatory roll-back she has voted to approve nearly every such initiative. And is silent.

While Barack Obama was President she opined that his Supreme Court nominee Merrick Garland should be given Senate consideration. But she balked not at all when Mitch McConnell refused him a vote. Subsequently she voted again for Mitch McConnell to be Senate Majority Leader, and then voted to confirm Trump-appointee Neil Gorsuch when McConnell allowed a vote on him.

Susan Collins continues to work on the signature issues that have defined her so-far four terms in the U.S. Senate: strong defense spending (including contracts for BIW), support for veterans, protections for seniors, concern for the environment. By her actions (if not her words) she daily shows she wishes these were the only important issues of the day

Mitch McConnell and House Speaker Paul Ryan are enablers-in-chief for Donald Trump. See-no-evil, Hear-no-evil, Speak-no-evil is their watchword when it comes to the President. Tax cuts, conservative judges and deregulation are their only concerns. In her silence especially, and in her being a reliable vote for Mitch McConnell, Susan Collins, too, allows our constitutional crisis to deepen.

Please, Senator, come back to the disturbing world in which the rest of us live. Help all of us find our way back to a healthy constitutional democracy.

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