Supreme Court Rolls Back the Clock But We Shall Overcome

[raw]Today the Supreme Court of the United States has rolled back the clock. In a majority decision striking down Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act, the court attacked a mechanism that has safeguarded the enfranchisement of millions of Americans.

Understand, this decision comes after the outrageous machinations undertaken during the 2012 election to curtail voting; it comes after a spate of new laws designed to restrict voting in areas with high African-American populations; it comes after the entire nation witnessed the serpentine lines where minorities were forced to wait for hours for the right to cast their ballot.

Yet Chief Justice John Roberts, writing in the majority opinion, says: “Our country has changed in the last 50 years.”

[/raw] Of course our country has changed, and it has changed for the better. Roberts and the court, however, confuse progress with perfection. Even the safest cities in America keep a police department, understanding that the presence of a watchful eye deters wrongful behavior. It surpasses logic to determine that improvement should signal the end of meaningful monitoring.

Passed at the height of the civil rights movement, the Voting Rights Act of 1965 was a historic piece of legislation meant to strengthen the 15th Amendment. Specifically, it was meant to protect African-Americans’ voting privileges after decades of disenfranchisement. And that’s exactly what it did.

Even after the 15th Amendment was passed in 1870, literacy tests for blacks, along with other restrictions, remained rampant in the South, effectively blocking voter participation by African Americans. Section 4 of the Voting Rights Act maintained that 16 states—mostly in the South—with a history of discrimination must seek approval from the federal government before changing any election laws or procedures. That will no longer be the case.

Roberts is correct in asserting that racist public policy is not as blatant today as it was in 1965, but he and other justices in the majority opinion are ignoring the problems that do exist. Witness Texas’ disingenuous drawing of maps and literally dozens of other efforts to reduce the minority vote. In fact, Texas’ attorney general declared today that the state’s voter ID law will now take effect as well as the redistricting maps passed by the Legislature. We shall see how minority voters fare in that climate.

As Rep. John Lewis, a soldier for civil rights so eloquently wrote in The Washington Post, in the course of the 21 hearings it held on the Voting Rights Act in 2006, Congress found that although there has been improvement, “places with a legacy of long-standing, entrenched and state-sponsored voting discrimination still have the most persistent, flagrant, contemporary records of discrimination in this country.”

Those 16 jurisdictions affected by Section 4 represent only 25 percent of the nation’s population, yet they still are responsible for more than 80 percent of voting discrimination lawsuits. For decades, expanding voter access, increasing opportunities for registration and participation in the nation’s democracy have been the single focus of the states and the federal government and the courts.

Section 4 was challenged in this case by the local government of Shelby County, Alabama—one of the 16 states covered.

Those seeking to overthrow the voting rights act say their states have overcome racism and shouldn’t be handcuffed to the past by Congress. I would agree if it were that simple. As I have said before, the era of segregationist governors standing publicly against integration may be long past. But as recent court cases show, less violent and more subtle efforts to thwart the will of voters are alive and well today and constitute a fundamental, growing threat to democracy.

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, called the majority decision “egregious” and recalled the words of Martin Luther King, Jr. who said, “’The arc of the moral universe is long, but ‘it bends toward justice,’ if there is a steadfast commitment to see the task through to completion.”

She correctly noted, “that commitment has been disserved by today’s decision.”

It is also correct, however, that justice has a gravitational pull. This is a setback, and a serious one, but it is the last gasp of those who would see our country return to a past most of us have worked to overcome. Ultimately, however, we shall overcome.

Chairman Ridley-Thomas’ Huffington Post article is available here.

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William T. Cartwright dies at 92; rescued Watts Towers

If William T. Cartwright hadn’t gotten lost on his way to visit an aunt in 1959, the Watts Towers might not have been saved.

Cartwright was trying to find Lynwood, but soon realized he was near the famed folk art towers and took a detour to see them. Shocked by what he found, he quickly set about trying to rescue them.

The mosaic-encrusted spires, created by Italian immigrant Simon Rodia over more than three decades, had been abandoned since the artist moved away in 1954. Five years later, Rodia’s house had been lost to a fire, gates to the property stood open, and the area was littered with debris.

Read the full story courtesy of the Los Angeles Times here…

Sheriff’s Department needs Civilian Oversight

In a recent editorial regarding allegations of corruption at the L.A. County Sheriff’s Department, the Los Angeles Times called for the Board of Supervisors to quickly install an inspector general.  In his spot-on response to the Times editorial board, noted civil rights attorney, Samuel Paz, emphasizes that equally necessary is the establishing of a civilian oversight panel.  The full text of Paz’ letter is below.

L.A. County Sheriff Lee Baca, seen here in October speaking with reporters at Men's Central Jail, has been harshly criticized by a onetime trusted aide. (Reed Saxon / Associated Press via LA Times)

By R. Samuel Paz

The Times’ editorial Thursday on the dysfunction at the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department was only half right in concluding that the recent spat between Sheriff Lee Baca and former Undersheriff Paul Tanaka “should serve as a catalyst to speed along the Board of Supervisors in hiring an independent inspector general to oversee the department,” as recommended by the Citizen’s Commission on Jail Violence.

What is missing is the recommendation by the Kolts Commission in 1992 that the county should also create a permanent civilian oversight panel to be the eyes and ears of the public. Such oversight would operate in harmony with the new inspector general, similar to the Board of Police Commissioners that oversees the Los Angeles Police Department‘s inspector general.

The need for civilian oversight of the Sheriff’s Department became apparent in 1992 after a wave of excessive-force incidents and deaths resulted in public outrage and several revelations by The Times and other newspapers, not unlike what we have seen in the last two years with L.A. County jails.  Then, the Board of Supervisors voted to create the Kolts Commission to review the department and make recommendations to stop the violence.

The Kolts Commission then, just as the jails commission now, rejected the sheriff’s argument that civilian oversight was unnecessary because, as an elected official, he was accountable to the public. The commission noted: “Indeed, we know of no major metropolitan police department in the United States which is not subject to some civilian oversight — except the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department.”

Its recommendation was unequivocal: “We believe that a commission should be appointed by the Board of Supervisors and empowered on an ongoing basis to audit and monitor the [Sheriff’s Department] on the topics covered by this report and any others the Board of Supervisors may deem appropriate.”

This recommendation was ignored.

The jails commission found the present oversight systems ineffective and inadequate. L.A. County Special Counsel Merrick Bobb’s frequent reports on systemic problems and the necessary reforms to fix them were ignored by the sheriff and lacked any enforcement mechanism or follow-up capability. The oversight by the Office of Independent Review, which was created in 2001 to monitor use-of-force and misconduct investigations, was found to be ineffective, ignored or changed by management. It also has been hampered by Sheriff’s Department officials withholding key documents on use of force in jails, in violation of the understanding that the Office of Independent Review was to have “unfettered access” to records.  The ombudsman, which the jails commission described as the “clearinghouse for public complaints,” was found to be woefully inadequate in identifying patterns in complaints by civilians.

Beyond the moral obligation to have a permanent civilian panel to prevent another episode of uncontrolled violence, such an oversight body would save money. As a practical matter, it is doubtful that the county supervisors can adequately monitor an inspector general with all of their other obligations as elected officials. Plus, the jails commission found that in the five years before 2012, the county paid $25.6 million to settle excessive-force cases in the jails (a combined $42.3 million was spent on force cases involving the jails and regular patrol).  Fiscal responsibility demands that the Sheriff’s Department establish a civilian panel in addition to an inspector general. Most police departments have found such meaningful civilian oversight to be absolutely necessary to establish accountability, trust and community respect.

One could argue that because the Sheriff’s Department ignored the recommendation by the Kolts Commission in 1992 for a civilian oversight panel, L.A. County has continued to pay a high price for deputy violence, the sheriff has remained disconnected, dysfunctional leadership has been the norm and many individuals have suffered unnecessary deaths and serious, permanent injuries. We are where we were two decades ago, with the chance to establish meaningful civilian oversight — or again to ignore it and invite the past to repeat itself.

Original letter was posted in the LA Times on May 3, 2013.

Addressing Street Vending Countywide

Street vendors along Compton Avenue from 60th Street to Slauson Avenue.

For years now, residents and business owners in the Florence-Firestone section of Los Angeles County have complained about street vending lining Compton Avenue from 60th Street to Slauson Avenue, where everything from ice cream to t-shirts to CD’s and DVDs or bicycles and infant car seats are available for sale.

While these sidewalk swap meets provide income for some, they are a constant nuisance for local residents who live in the area, a drain on tax revenues and a hardship for mom-and-pop businesses that are forced to compete with vendors that literally set up shop directly in front of their venue.  They are also a public health hazard –vendors sell food that often is improperly stored or prepared in unsanitary conditions.

To address this problem, which  over the years has become increasingly  entrenched,  the Board of Supervisors , acting on a motion brought by  Chairman Mark Ridley-Thomas , called for county departments, including the departments of Regional Planning, Public Health and the Sheriff’s Department, to coordinate with each other and  create an ordinance that would abate the problem.  The motion also called for the departments to seek ample input from businesses, vendors and residents, who would be affected by new rules.

“These street vending areas have long posed a problem for residents and local businesses,” said Chairman Ridley-Thomas. “We have heard their complaints and we need more substantive and effective measures to address their needs. I fully support  appropriate channels for employment for hardworking people,  but this must be done in a way that is safe, healthy and legal, and  that does not harm the quality of life for others.”

Residents complain that as early as Thursday night, customers for the street vendors park and sleep in their cars to reserve a spot for shopping Friday through Sunday.   Not only is the congestion a neighborhood nuisance, many brick-and-mortar shop owners have trouble  making ends meet, unable to compete with the lower prices offered right in front of their stores.

“The same people that came to the United States for the American Dream are also being affected; these small mom-and-pop shops are being affected,” said Efren Martinez, executive director of the Florence Firestone/Walnut Park Chamber of Commerce. “I have had business owners come in here crying because they can no longer pay their rent because they losing all business to these vendors.”

Antonio Moreno, owner of a mini-mart in the Florence-Firestone area, told the supervisors that he rarely turns a profit on weekends, due to the 400 vendors who typically line the street, selling the same merchandise that he and other store owners sell too.

“At this point I’m in danger of closing my business, because I don’t have any sales Saturday and Sunday,” Moreno said. “Please keep me in mind when you’re deciding what to do — there are all kinds of delinquencies going on in that area — we’re desperate.”

Also, community members have noted that many of the  unauthorized vendors are not from the area, but have come to Compton Avenue because the laws against unlicensed vending are more rigorously enforced in other cities.

“For two long we have turned the other way while these communities are taught to think that there’s one standard for them and another for affluent communities, where rules are obeyed and enforced,” said Chairman Ridley-Thomas. “What we seek here is balance. We seek an ordinance that promotes fairness and safety and public health.  For everyone.”

[h3_underlined]What should the county do about street vending?  Share your thoughts. [/h3_underlined]

Supervisors Call for Budget Breakdown of Sheriff’s Medical Services

With the goal of increasing accountability from the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department Medical Services Bureau, the Board of Supervisors Tuesday took the unprecedented step of requiring a detailed breakdown of the bureau’s budget and detailed enumeration of services it delivers to inmates.

Acting on a motion by Board of Supervisors Chairman Mark Ridley-Thomas, the board ordered the creation of a separate budget unit for the bureau in next year’s annual budget, insisting that its current method of accounting is insufficient.

“We need to know – taxpayers need to know — exactly what services are being provided by the Sheriff’s medical bureau; how the bureau is staffed with doctors and nurses relative to the number of patients treated and what services are being delivered at precisely what cost,” said Ridley-Thomas. “This is a question of both patient care and economic efficiency.”

The Sheriff’s medical services bureau screens approximately 144,000 inmates each year, and the Sheriff’s Department estimates that 60 percent of all inmates who enter the jails receive some medical services. Treatments include: primary care, general obstetrics, gynecology, specialty care, ophthalmology and dentistry. In addition to services provided by the Sheriff’s department, the departments of Health Services and Mental Health also treat inmates, with the cost for medical care totaling about $241 million annually, according to a review of the bureau by the Auditor-Controller.

This significant investment of taxpayer funds, however, is not carefully tracked. The Sheriff’s Department, could not provide the Auditor-Controller with detailed information about physician and nurse contacts with inmates or a detailed workload.

Serious lapses by the department in medical attention to inmates have resulted in millions of dollars of payouts from the county to inmates who received either poor treatment or none for serious conditions, incidents that, along with the Auditor-Controller’s report, have catalyzed the board to more rigorously scrutinize the bureau.

“The lack of workload data prevents the county from assessing the efficacy of the services being delivered to inmates and the appropriateness of the cost for these services—and that’s no way to run a department,” the Supervisor said.