In this edition of Legally Speaking, we explore the law and the effect of state voter identification laws that are sprouting up around the country. Several Republican-controlled state governments have been pushing laws that require voters to provide a photo ID every time they vote. We talk to Avi Green, executive director of MassVote, about how these have come about. And for a deeper discussion we go to Wisconsin, where the League of Women Voters is filing a lawsuit challenging one such voter ID law. We talk to Lester Pines who is drafting the complaint and Richard Esenberg, a professor at Marquette University School of Law who has spoken on behalf of the law.
Intheir decision last year in Citizens United v. FEC, the United States Supreme Court said that the government could not restrict how much money corporations and other entities spend on political activities such as airing advertisements. The result has been the rise of the so-called SuperPAC which is already having a significant impact on the 2012 race. For a background on the evolution of SuperPACs and their impact on the 2012 election cycle, we have in-studio Tim Farnam, political reporter at the Washington Post. For a deeper discussion we also have in-studio Craig Holman, Government Affairs Lobbyist and Senior Legal Researcher at Public Citizen, and Hans von Spakovsky, Senior Legal Fellow at The Heritage Foundation and a former member of the Federal Elections Commission.
The Defense of Marriage Act is being challenged in two federal court cases. Meanwhile, Proposition 8 is under attack in California in Perry v. Schwarzenegger (now Brown). Legal experts expect that, at some point in the not-too-distant future, one of these cases will land at the United States Supreme Court. Joining us for this discussion in Andrew Koppelman, professor at University of Chicago law school and author of “Same Sex, Different States: When Same Sex Marriages Cross State Lines.” We also have Andy Schlafly, founder of wiki Conservapedia and a lawyer who has worked on a number of Constitutional cases including those that pertain to same-sex marriage.
There are roughly a couple dozen constitutional challenges to the Affordable Care Act, the so-called Obamacare, that Congress passed and President Obama signed in 2009. These challenges primarily focus on the insurance mandate, a provision in the bill that requires those who can afford it to buy insurance. There are several arguments against the bill including that the federal government cannot make individuals buy something. The administration has counted that the commerce clause in the US constitution gives them the power to do so because healthcare involves interstate commerce, which Congress can regulate. I talk to Susan Low Bloch, Professor of Constitutional Law at Georgetown University; Gillian Metzger, a Columbia Law School Professor, who filed a brief in support of the bill; and Ilya Shapiro of the Cato Institute, who has worked against it.
Three cases are in the news regarding the FBI’s warrantless use of GPS devices. I talk with Zahra Billoo of CAIR, Kent Scheidegger of CJLF and Shahid Buttar of Bill of Rights Defense Committee about warrantless searches and the exclusionary rule.
Atheists sue to take down the Ground Zero Cross. I moderate a panel with their attorney Edwin Kagin and Andrew Schlafly, a Constitutional lawyer and founder of Conservapedia.
Over the summer, I went to Haiti to cover the plight of restavkes, indentured servant children. The video below was aired on PBS’s Foreign Exchange with Fareed Zakaria. The following piece was published on MSNBC.com along with a multimedia compent.
Kids forced into domestic servitude in Haiti
‘Restavek’ system thrives as impoverished families have little choice
By Carmen Russell and Dane Liu, Special to MSNBC.com
PORT-AU-PRINCE, Haiti – Evans Antoine wakes at 7 a.m. and dusts himself off from his night on the floor. While other children in his middle-class neighborhood overlooking the Haitian capital head to school, the 15-year-old puts on toeless sneakers and gets to work washing dishes, scrubbing floors and running errands at the market. He also works in the yard and sometimes wields a scythe in the family’s fields.
There is little reward for his toil, except for food and a roof over his head. And often, the quality of his work isn’t good enough; his caretakers sometimes hit him with a switch or slap him on the back of the scalp. Once they tied his hands and put a bag over his head before beating him with a stick.
This has been his life for the past three years.
“They tell me that I’m useless,” Antoine said, speaking softly at a meeting secretly arranged by a teacher who taught him briefly and who fears for his future. “They yell at me and tell me about all the things they do for me and how easy I have it.”
During the interview, Antoine never smiled. He also kept looking away while answering questions, clearly uncomfortable with the subject: his unforgiving life.
Antoine is a restavek, a Haitian term derived from the French for “stay with.” But, he would rather be described by the more genial-sounding Creole phrase meaning “one who lives with people.” He is among 300,000 children, 10 percent of Haitians under 18, who serve as domestics for other families, a tradition in Haiti dating back to the country’s independence more than 200 years ago.
Haiti revolted against French colonial rule and became the first “black republic” in 1804. With newly emancipated slaves in power, it also became the first nation to outlaw slavery. Dependent on coffee and sugar, however, Haiti kept the plantation system after the revolution, requiring “mandatory labor” of many citizens. The masters were no longer white, but working conditions improved only marginally.
Children were particularly susceptible. The sons and daughters of slaves remained house servants following the revolution, indentured to newly rich army officers who took over the plantations.
Key to the economy
Today child workers remain an important part of Haiti’s economy, a system that barely sustains a nation of 8.7 million that is wracked by poverty and lawlessness.
Haiti is the poorest country in the Western hemisphere. A little over half of primary school-age children are enrolled in school, according to UNICEF, and less than 2 percent finish secondary school.
Children become restaveks in a variety of ways. Some, like Antoine, are orphaned and taken in by family friends. Others are runaways pulled off the street. Most are given up by parents from depressed rural areas who can’t afford to care for them and hope that another family will do better and send them to school.
Antoine’s case is an example of what so often goes wrong. His adoptive family promised to pay his tuition, but when it came time to do so, his adoptive father reacted harshly. “He said I was lying and he beat me,” he said.
In fact, the majority of families are only slightly better off than restaveks’ parents, despite living in the capital.
“It is not in Haitian culture to send children away,” said Guerda Constante, a child-rights activist in the small coastal city of Jacmel. “Parents do this because they do not have the means to provide for their needs. It seems strange, but the parents are acting with love.”
Promises by host families to feed, educate and take care of the children are just too alluring to poor parents, Constante said. In some cases, the new family meets those promises, but in most cases, she says, “the difference between the promise and reality is seen on the first day they arrive.”
It takes a bumpy four hours in a 4×4 to make the 60-mile trek from Port-au-Prince to the rural village of Fond des Blancs, where electricity and running water are scarce. The center of activity — a foreign foundation-funded hospital, a church and an outdoor meeting hall — sit in the middle of the valley.
Over the treeless mountains to the south lies the Caribbean Sea. Single-room, thatched-roof huts dot the landscape, many housing families with 10 children or more.
Fond des Blancs has little communication with Port-au-Prince and the capital’s political system has nearly no influence on the area. Lack of police has made it a favorite destination for Colombian planes to drop drugs for local Haitian runners to send onto the United States.
While some families farm or make charcoal, most have no regular means of support. In the most depressed areas, fortunate children are those that are fed once a day.
Children in places like these, activists say, are most at risk of winding up in the restavek system. A group of Fond des Blancs residents formed the Committee to Promote the Rights of Children of Fond des Blancs (COSEDERF) last year in an effort to keep children in the community.
The committee circulated a petition which asks Haitian leaders to “fulfill Haiti’s obligations to provide free and compulsory education,” believing fewer parents would send their children away if they had access to schooling.
“More than 50 percent of the children in Fond des Blancs don’t have the chance to go to school,” said Briel Leveille, a community leader and member of COSEDERF. “It is said that education is the foundation of development. It is through education that Haitians will one day come out of this misery.”
One U.S. community gets involved
Hearing about the lack of education, one American school has become involved with the Haitian community.
At the Seth Boyden Elementary school in Maplewood, N.J., the PTA is trying to set up a sister-school relationship with those in Fond des Blancs. Students have been collecting school supplies and attended a Haitian Flag Day celebration.
“I hope we can do a lot more than this,” said Tamara Thompson, a former U.N. observer in Haiti who now resides in Maplewood and has a 9-year-old son who attends Seth Boyden. “Education is a key to ending the restavek system and it is their right.”
For now, however, many parents in Fond des Blancs see the restavek system as the only hope for their children.
“I’m afraid to send them, but I really don’t have any choice,” said Rodette Clermanceau, a mother of 10 in Fond des Blancs. She is sending two of her children to Port-au-Prince to work for other families. Clermanceau has been raising her children alone since the father was sent to prison.
“If I had the financial means, I would not give them away,” she said.
We also talked to a woman who has a tumor the size of a baby in her stomach but can’t get it cared for and another family whose house caved in but don’t have the money to do anything about it.
I know I don’t have to say much about the poverty, but it is impressive. It’s amazing that people survive. I’ve seen gross poverty before, but this kind really seems to offer no hope. Some of the children here are so hungry they have taken to eating dirt. According to J.P. – our “guide” of sorts – most of the families in the area are lucky to have one meal a day. There are few sources of employment beyond cutting down trees and making charcoal and selling mangoes which are plentiful in Haiti and, therefore, don’t fetch much on the market.
Or there’s the drug trade. We hiked up a mountain today to get B-Roll of the countryside. While Dane got footage of the landscape, a plane appeared and J.P. said it was making drops of cocaine on the shore to be taken to Port-au-Prince for delivery to the States. Naturally, I pulled out my camera and started taking pictures. They must have seen me because they turned around and came right at us and J.P. started saying “This is bad news. We really should get out of here.” So, we quickly packed up and started back down the mountain.
I originally wrote this several months ago just after the military coup in Thailand. I thought I would post it now with all the news about the Swiss guy who was arrested for defacing the king’s portraits.
Working in Thailand a few years ago, I was constantly struck by the way Thai people glorify their king.
Before a film starts, the audience stands as the national anthem plays and photos of King Bhumibol Adulyadej drift by the screen. If a Thai drops a coin, he or she will immediately pick it up; coins have the king’s image and it would be disrespectful to leave it lay. The Thai language has an entire vocabulary reserved for talking to the king.
From doctors, to the restaurant workers, to prostitutes, everyone I met held a reverence that could only be compared to the worship of a god. Such adulation seemed eerie, if not sinister.
One day, sitting with a group of Thai friends, I incredulously asked “What’s so great about the king?”
My friends were only a little offended, but told me many stories illustrating how the king loves his people and works for the destitute in the country. Their responses seemed honest and genuine.
As time went on, I continued to follow news about Bhumibol. Often he would be spotted in a far flung town in the north taking pictures and talking with locals as though they were his equal. It was reported he would keep them from kneeling and insist they speak without the archaic and difficult honorary language.
Everyone I asked said they would die for their king including the most learned and worldly among my acquaintances: university professors, doctors, and those who had studied abroad.
When Bhumibol became king 60 years ago, he was an 18-year-old studying in Paris. With no power in what was then a military dictatorship, he was relegated to ceremonial status, but he cleverly used this status to build programs for the poorest of his subjects, particularly farmers and laborers.
A military takeover in 1991, however, changed all that. A battle between General Suchinda Krapravoon, a coup leader, and a pro-democracy movement lead by Major General Chamlong Srimuang, escalated into violent nation-wide demonstrations.
Up to this point, the king had never publicly intervened, but he summoned both Suchinda and Chamlong to his palace where he chastised them on national television. The nation watched as the two men dropped to their knees, bowed prostrate in front of Bhumibol per royal protocol, and silently received their admonishment.
I saw the footage years later in a documentary, but the visuals were still immensely powerful: The two highly influential and commanding men appeared pathetic in the face of the glaring king who only sought peace for his people.
Suchinda resigned and elections were held shortly afterward. It was the last army takeover in a country that had become synonymous with military coups. Since then, the country had been ruled by a democratic government with credit, ironically, going to the sympathetic monarch.
Earlier this year, things changed again.
I often visited Bangkok over the last several months as hundreds of thousands of protestors clogged key shopping districts demanding the resignation of Prime Minister Shinatra Thaksin who had come to be seen as grossly corrupt. Thaksin refused to step down and the opposition asked for the king to intervene. But, the king refused, saying that Thailand was a democracy and the different parties had to work it out between themselves.
Then, last month, a military junta by General Sondhi Goonyaratglin’s answered the question by circling Thaksin’s office with tanks while he was away in New York. Sondhi asserted he took up arms for the king, but he never claimed he did it at Bhumibol’s bequest. That Bhumibol blessed his actions last week is far from admission that he was complicit before the fact.
There is little doubt the king disapproved of Thaksin’s proclivities, but he wouldn’t have had to ask the military to remove him. He could have simply asked. Thaksin couldn’t have politically survived after refusing a monarchial order to vacate his office. Alternatively, the king could have summoned him to the palace as he did with Suchinda 15 years ago. Thaksin, too, would have found himself prostrate and silent as the king denounced him in front of the country.
Following the coup, blessing Sohndi’s peaceful takeover – not a single shot was fired – was necessary to keep stability. Otherwise, we would be looking at a country amidst a secession crisis much like the one that led to the deaths of innocent protestors in 1991.
The king may not have any real power allocated by the law, but he is the most powerful person in the country. With part of his power derived from the fact he seldom exercises it in public, he can be seen as an aged guru watching from his divine perch above the earthly fray. Bhumibol can be content that he didn’t need to intervene and no one was killed.