Sunday, January 29, 2017

Problems Again at Dona Ana County's Sheriff's Office

Is Doña Ana County Sheriff's Office a disaster waiting to be exposed as such? [Three columns will explore that question.] 

Sheriff Enrique Vigil lacks relevant experience. He was a long-time U.S. Marshal; but he hasn't dealt with state laws or the variety of situations a cop faces. He's not a state-certified law-enforcement officer. 

Vigil wisely compensated for that inexperience by naming Eddie Lerma as Undersheriff. Lerma had served two other sheriffs as undersheriff, had many years of experience with DASO, and seems generally respected. 

But Vigil soon replaced Lerma with Ken Roberts, a far less experienced DASO officer who reportedly told five deputies he had “axes to grind” with formerly superior officers, though Roberts has denied that. (Vigil, who's free to choose his undersheriff, announced he had accepted Lerma's resignation; when others called to congratulate Lerma, he was startled to hear he'd resigned.)
Roberts makes a great first impression but has limited qualifications. Before getting demoted, he was  a police sergeant in Shawnee, Oklahoma, many years ago. He served in the military police. He failed to complete the Border Patrol training program.  In 2008, he applied to DASO as an uncertified cadet. Folks in and outside DASO don't give him high marks as a detective.

Good officers are fleeing DASO. “Hundreds of years of experience have been lost,” a current DASO officer said recently. 

“They'll say they're cleaning house,” said a former officer. “That we don't fit in with their philosophy. We don't. We don't fit in with a philosophy of favoritism, cronyism, head-hunting, and lying.” LCPD Chief Jaime Montoya confirms that in asking DASO refugees why they wanted to make a change, he's hearing complaints of “targeting of officers.” I've heard the same from several, have read it in formal complaints, and wouldn't be surprised by a new flurry of lawsuits.

Current and former officers paint a consistent picture: senior officers who speak up or ask questions get punished; officers are threatened, or receive written reprimands for minor offenses that go unpunished in others. 

There are allegations of Whistleblower Act violations, bullying, and harassment. There are allegations that people who should be terminated are not, and that hirings and promotions are made easier for friends and allies. That sort of office politics is annoying anywhere; but with people who take guns into difficult situations, it could prove dangerous. (Some also say Roberts's relative inexperience with SWAT teams negatively affected a SWAT call-out earlier this month.)

Many officers believe (or hope!) that Vigil often doesn't know of questionable decisions by Roberts. They say they can't talk to Vigil, that Roberts always says “I've spoken to the Sheriff, and he agrees with my view on this,” but that in a couple of cases where an officer who heard that ran into Vigil later, Vigil said he knew nothing about it and would fix it. I hope they're right. I believe people close to Vigil have warned him that Roberts could bring him down.

Deputies who talk with me fear retribution. County officials say that Vigil and Roberts seem a lot more interested in identifying the complainant than in the merits of the complaints. Vigil asked Montoya which DASO officers had applied to LCPD. Montoya declined to answer. DASO set an event for the day LCPD had scheduled tests for applicants. 

Vindictiveness may play a role in what's happening. (One senior officer's complaint claims Roberts said he'd retaliate against the officer.) But I'd note that neither Vigil nor Roberts knows much about running DASO. When you're out of your depth, it's tempting to eliminate anyone who might recognize your mistakes or speak up about them. 

[The column above appeared in the Las Cruces Sun-News this morning, Sunday, 29 January 2016, went up on the newspaper's website the newspaper's website Saturday evening, and on KRWG-TV's website KRWG-TV's website this morning.  I invite comments, here or on those sites, positive or negative or adding information.]

[The whole DASO situation is unfortunate.  A couple of years ago, when an earlier sheriff made a bad hire and couldn't be convinced it was bad, I saw some folks who seemed like good people and good officers suffering in the workplace.  That sheriff never did see the light.  His friend sued me and many others, but lost badly.  Some at DASO have said this situation is worse.  I hope it will resolve itself in a positive way somehow.  As in the earlier situation, the views I'm hearing are widely shared.]
[I've made repeated efforts to obtain comment from the Sheriff and Undersheriff.  I still hope they'll articulate their views -- and, if they feel I have any facts wrong, point those oout.  I have, as an expert I consulted recently on one aspect of this said recently, no dog in this fight. I voted for Mr. Vigil.  I liked Mr. Roberts when I first met him; and, personally, I've had only pleasant encounters with him.  However, I'm troubled by what I see, and am just trying to see and share the truth.]
[I've asked the County and DASO for documents, pursuant to IPRA.  I've received some, and expect others soonI prefer not to rely solely on what I'm told.]
[Readers will notice I haven't quoted present and former DASO officers and deputies by name.  For obvious reasons, that's the way it is.  Some have talked to me, others have not.  I can only say that in such a situation I'm particularly careful.  Thus I've spent a lot of hours researching this situation and will continue to do so.]

[Note: I realized I shortchanged former Undersheriff Edward Lerma in describing his experience.  He actually had served three previous sheriffs, not two: Jan Cary, Jim Robles, and Todd Garrison.  I know Garrison was a Republican and Vigil is a Democrat, too.]

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Donald Trump Helps Sales of an Old Book -- and it Ain't the Bible!

The best-selling book on Amazon, as of mid-week, was published in 1949.

Big Brother is Watching You
Before I discuss it, please take a just moment. Contemplate our times for a second, read over in your mind a few dominant headlines from recent days and months, and identify the 68-year-old book.  (Gee, it's nearly as old as I am!)  It's a mental task you ought to be able to perform without further assistance, if you just blank your mind and try.

It would be fair to offer a few clues.  First of all, it has long stood for a certain concept of an autocratic government keeping people in check partly by the abuse of language.  It has long been invoked in conversation (or newspaper columns) to comment unfavorably when governments are totalitarian (as Nazi Germany had been, vividly, just before the book was written, and as Stalin's USSR still was) and particularly when they tell particularly big and obvious lies, or use technology and complex concepts to mislead their populations.  In the novel's futuristic setting, "perpetual war" and omnipresent surveillance of the populace are facts of life.  In fact, the novel gave us such familiar terms as "Big Brother" [not the reality TV show, no], "thought police," "Newspeak," and (perhaps most notably this week) "doublethink."

Who failed to think of "doublethink" when Donald Trump's press secretary described huge crowds not apparent in photographs of the inauguration and Trump advisor Kellyanne Conway then
called his comments "alternative facts"?

Winston Smith, out on a limb
It's only fair to note that sales of the novel, George Orwell's Ninteen Eighty-Four, spike a bit early each year, when spring semester is imminent, and spiked some in 2013, too, after Edward Snowden leaked zillions of details from U.S. mass surveillance.  But this spike is far beyond the normal annual surge.  Reportedly folks bought 47,000 since the election, compared with the 36,000 that's more usual for that time of year.

Certainly the book doesn't reach the top of Amazon's best-seller list most years.

But Trump's character, manner, and conduct have sparked or revived people's fears of just such a totalitarian state as Orwell described, in what was then science fiction.

Winston and Julia
Orwell's "doublethink" was a government ploy to present two contradictory facts as both true.  Sure sounds like alternative facts.  Sounds like Trump's frenetic assertions that massive and unprecedented voter fraud robbed him of a popular-vote victory, when there's no evidence of such an occurrence and plenty of evidence the party that supported him had been busy purging folks (notably poor folks and minorities) from the voter rolls and otherwise making it a little harder for such people to exercise their rights to vote.

Winston Smith, the novel's protagonist, would be hired instantly by Trump's Administration.  His job was to rewrite news articles to "correct" their mistakes.  He hated it, and dreamed of rebelling against Oceania,  He knew quite well that he's falsifying the historical record to support the current party line, not (as his instructions claimed) fixing "misquotations."

The Thought Police initiate their interrogation of Winston
With Smith's expertise, he could rewrite all the news articles (and, now, re-edit all the videotape) in which Trump attacked the Intelligence agencies (before he went to the CIA recently to tell them he loved them), mocked a physically handicapped reporter (before he "never did"), or insisted he had powerful evidence that Obama was born in Africa (before he said he no longer believed that and hadn't started (or fanned the flames of) the whole silly controversy.   Other minions could excise some of those facts from our memories, or delete from certain women's brains the cells holding memories of Trump's abuse or harassment of them.

Modern "doublethink," or use of "alternative facts," would not be nearly so troubling if  Trump were not initiating his Presidency by a sustained attack on the independent new media for reporting facts he doesn't like.  It would not be nearly so troubling if we hadn't just seen a great example of "blackwhite" in which he conned numerous voters, understandably angry at government, to believe he was their champion, when his intent was to install a cabinet uniquely full of mega-wealthy men who've opposed labor unions, workers' rights, minimum wage, social programs, and the like all their lives.  When Trump and Paul Ryan destroy social security, on which many elderly Trump voters live, they will call it "reform" and articulate why the changes are necessary, even beneficial, to the people whose food and medical care they are minimizing so as to maintain corporate profit levels.

Stripped of wrong thoughts, loved again by Big Brother, Winston joins the others celebrating Oceania's victory!

If Trump hoped to strip the media of all power to shine any objective light on his actions, or support any dissent, then his media attacks and bold assertions of flat falsehoods would be a great first step.

P.S. Everyone always describes Nineteen Eighty-four as "dystopian," one of those words I sort of understand but have to look up.   An on-line dictionary reminds me that it means "a society characterized by human misery, as squalor, oppression, disease, and overcrowding."   It also points out something I don't think I knew: that the word, which dates back only to about 1865, was coined by taking the word for a perfect world, "utopia," and placing "dis" (or "dys") in front of it.  I wonder now whether slavery or our civil war contributed to the concept.  [Nope: coined by philosopher J.S. Mill in a parliamentary speech in 1868, opposing the Irish land policy.]

Monday, January 23, 2017

Inauguration Weekend

Donald Trump lost the first weekend of his presidency.  Big-time.  Or did he?

Headline items were his fixation (and misjudged response to) a smaller-than-hoped-for inauguration crowd on Friday; a tasteless stop at CIA Headquarters Saturday; and a huge national "women's march" against his misogyny, personal conduct, and public policies.

His crowd wasn't huge.  Some folks credited that to his remarkably low public approval, for a gentleman elected two months ago and just taking office.  Trump, upset, sent a minion out to deny reality.  His P.R. guy said the crowd was unusually large, despite clear photographic evidence to the contrary.

The incident was significant not because it was a lie, or even because it was a stupid lie, but because it was also such an unnecessary lie.  Obviously it was psychologically necessary to contest a perceived effort to de-legitimize Trump's victory; although to any perceptive person the fixation with legitimacy serves only to let us know that Trump is insecure on that score. (I'm surprised Trump didn't blame the low turnout on sabotage of public transportation by liberal residents of D.C.)  But in any practical sense, it was unnecessary.  First, there was no need to address the whole crowd issue.  Second, there were ready and reasonable explanations why Obama's 2009 crowd, and even Obama's 2013 crowd, dwarfed Trump's 2017 crowd.  Two such explanations stand out: Obama's 2008 win was historic, the first successful Presidential run by a person of color, and there were a whole lot of people who wanted to witness that piece of history, whether or not they liked Obama; and in particular people of color wanted to be there, and D.C. is conveniently full of those.  The second, and quite reasonable explanation, is that the bulk of Trump's voters were working-class folks who live in rural areas far from D.C.  For them, it wasn't a trivial matter to take a couple of days off to travel to D.C. and attend an inauguration.

Instead, Trump chose a fight with the media that he couldn't win.  Dumb.  Or maybe not?

He doubled-down on that by lying again at the CIA.  After tastelessly bragging instead of acknowledging with any real respect the names of CIA officials killed in the line of duty, instead of trying to bury the hatchet with the CIA (which was still investigating his and his cohorts' Russia connections), he ludicrously denied there was any hatchet.  The media made it all up.  Despite plenty of tapes of him saying what he said, he now claimed it was all media bullshit.

Seems a bad start to a Presidency, if you think a U.S. President should tell the truth or at least limit himself to vaguely plausible lies.  Trump loses, with anyone who studies evidence and reasons from it.  But there's a pattern here: what if sufficient attacks on the media convince his followers (who are already half way there) that everything they see on the media is liberal propaganda?

Peter and Nacho by Bernie

Saturday brought a very different event.  What started as a "women's march" to protest Trump's and the Republican Party's treatment of women, startled everyone by its size and passion, not only in major cities but all over the country, even the world.  My part of that world is a little city in New Mexico named Las Cruces.

 by Bernie Digman
We, frankly, had not really intended to participate, though we sympathized.  We did get down to the Farmers' Market, though.  It was technically closed because of cold temperatures, possible rain, and predicted strong winds, but three of our favorite vendors were there.  Since the march was to start from that area, we lingered to visit with friends.  There were speeches and signs in the new Plaza de Las Cruces, and we lingered longer, listening to speeches and gabbing with friends.
Ilana and Yosef by Bernie
The march route here was short: North on one street bounding the Downtown Mall, then a quick jog West to walk back along the south side of the Mall, then back east to where we'd started.  Quite to our surprise it turned out there were about 1,500 people marching.

A couple of things struck me, as a veteran of the 1960's.  First was that this was a march of people of all ages.  Some of the older ones I knew had experienced the 1960's and 1970's too.  The day bore similarities to those days, but was also quite different.  The energy was similar; some fellow old folks were concerned about security: one fellow old guy,
Earl and someone by Bernie D
protester then and later a lawyer and judge, said he'd used his old SDS training to advise his daughter, marching in D.C., to wear good boots, carry water, wear a bandanna in case it was needed as a bandage, etc.; and another friend, a Viet Nam vet I've known for 45 years, said he came over only because he wanted to make sure there was no problem with security.  I hadn't expected one; but I watched the cars that passed us.  Many honked; but I saw not a single middle-finger and heard not a single insult addressed to us.  People waved or put a thumb up, or just sat in their cars watching; but

Another by Bernie Digman
there wasn't a hint of hostility.   Having moved here in 1969, and witnessed the next few years of antiwar agitation in this conservative western town, I could testify to how different such a march would have been then.

I would have gone home earlier; but watching my wonderful wife, who's noticeably younger than I, made me recognize how different her day was from mine, in that she'd had few such moments.  For people under a certain age, Saturday had a special freshness to it, and they watched and listened with obvious wonder.

71? Yeah, this shit gets old.
In the 1960's, the government was way off base.  The rampant prejudice against blacks, not merely in the south, had lasted way too long; and the pointless and unwinnable war in Viet Nam was known even to those running it to be stupid and unwinnable, despite their public proclamations to the contrary; anyone could see it was not only dumb but way dumb; but it persisted.  We recognized that, initially with some surprise, and protested that, as a tiny minority, and got persecuted to some degree, and eventually saw our point of view spread among the populace and prevail.

Then we got spoiled.  Successive governments made plenty of mistakes over the years, but probably none was ever so
Same beyond 71.
completely out of tune with the majority (or with rationality) as this one promises to be.  Against such a government, there is tremendous power in average folks, standing shoulder to shoulder with each other, being there for each other.  Understanding that despite their personal concerns and preoccupations, something national needs their attention, their thoughts, their words, their feet.

I hope we will prevail.  This government is particularly out of step with its largest constituency: working-class white folks, not racist or "deplorable" but very tired of how both the wealthy Republicans and the managerial-class Democrats have given them
short shrift during recent years.  Trump instinctively channeled their very real and very reasonable anger into Republican votes, and in some ways Hillary helped him; but the dissonance between his Inauguration Day rhetoric (we stand for all Americans) and his actions (notably the appointment of universally wealthy cabinet-members sworn to fight most working-class interests) would seem to wide to hide.

But perhaps not.  That dissonance echoes the dissonance in Huxley's Brave New World or in 1984.  Lies don't usually work; but if they're big enough and consistent enough, maybe they do.  Since in the real world -- if people see what's going on with any clarity at all -- President Littlehands must lose over time, his tack must be to blind us to the real world by undermining what credibility the media has left and ignoring facts and evidence in saying whatever he chooses, loudly.  Will it work? I think not; I hope not; but no guarantees.

another by Bernie
We must also recognize that the buffoon-like president may be the head of the snake, but he ain't its brains.  We must recognize that the Republican Party, which has moved ever rightward over the years and wants to ignore such problems as healthcare, economic inequality, untrustworthy financial entities, climate change, and the need to strengthen public education, can and will easily slice Trump off it the moment he gives him an excuse.  They like Pence better.  They know Trump is dangerously unhinged and narcissistic.  They remember him insulting them or their friends all through 2015 and2016.  Some even feel they know he will commit an
Bernie Digman by Bob Diven
impeachable misstep, probably sooner rather than later, and are waiting to pounce.

Thus we must not, when that happens, let it lull us to sleep or sap our energy.

By the way, you should be able to access Bernie Digman's album of photos from the Las Cruces Women's March at: this Facebook site .

And here's the Las Cruces Sun-News's story.

Sunday, January 22, 2017

Rio Grande Theater

The City Council heard suggestions last month that it toss the Doña Ana County Arts Council out of the Rio Grande Theater and put the Theater in the hands of the Convention and Visitors Bureau.

Fortunately, the Council didn't seem to warm to that idea.

I watched movies in that theater forty years ago. In 1998, when Allen Theaters finished using it, granddaughters of the original owners wanted to preserve and protect the place and possibly restore it. They gave their half to the Arts Council, which bought the other half. The idea was to create a community facility that would also house the Arts Council. 

The Arts Council raised $3.2 million, and dealt with demolition, construction, and asbestos problems. The Arts Council has operated the Theater. Several years ago, $250,000 in state money was available. A governmental entity had to be the fiscal agent. The City said it could do that only if it had title to the place. Thus the Arts Council deeded this $3 million cultural asset to the City, to get the $250,000 to help keep operating it, with an unwritten agreement that the Arts Council would continue having its offices there. Later, after a general tightening up of rules on non-profits being housed in municipal facilities, the City contracted with the Arts Council to run the place. The contract made clear that the Arts Council wasn't getting a free ride. 

Now there's a proposal to toss out the Arts Council. Aside from the unfairness of that to the Arts Council, and those who donated money, the issue highlights a deeper question of who we want to be.
The Theater is a community resource. It's a major part of making and keeping this a community. It presents events the whole community can enjoy. That's important. Not just to artists and patrons, but to the City. Creating a community people enjoy, where they're stimulated culturally, is not insignificant to drawing visitors and even businesses concerned about their employees. 

The Theater might never be self-sustaining. Such theaters elsewhere generally are not. With just 450 seats (compared to 2,000 at El Paso's Plaza) our Theater can't bring in big acts at reasonable ticket prices. The City shouldn't view the Theater as a potential profit center, any more than our parks or plaza are. It's a major contribution to quality of life with a price tag kept reasonable by ticket sales – in a building the City obtained free. Judging it as a profit center guarantees “failure” and probably the sale of the place.

The CVB folks at the December work session didn't appear to know much about running a theater. I don't. The Arts Council now does, having run one for years, meeting a variety of challenges and learning a lot of important lessons.

I'd say that the ideal solution is for CVB to work with the Arts Council on this, in a true partnership giving us the best of both. The Arts Council has extensive knowledge. If CVB has ideas that can help bring in more people or more dollars, great!

Tossing out the Arts Council ain't right. The Theater is a gathering place where we see a variety of local performers – plus unusual and interesting performances from elsewhere. City Manager Stuart Ed calls it “a unique and beautiful asset” that helps distinguish Las Cruces from other communities.
Having heard citizens passionately defend the Theater, Ed said, “I'm very appreciative of all the input from the community.”

Ed says Cruces won't break its contract with the Arts Council; but that contract is renewable July 1. A February 13th work-session will discuss the issue.
[This column appeared in the Las Cruces Sun-News this morning, Sunday, 22 January 2016, as well as on the newspaper's website and on KRWG-TV's website.]
[Not everything of value has to be a money-maker.  I'm all for performance measurement and accountability; but these need to be reasonable, and tailored to the circumstances.  Here, there's a lot the Theater does and will do that has value without turning a monetary profit.  As, again, our parks don't.  Expecting the Theater to be a money-maker is probably nonsensical, unless city officials know something the rest of us don't (or want to set up a "failure" that would justify them in taking it over to "fail" in their turn); but expecting it to provide shows and performances and lectures and events of interest, and trying to keep an eye on costs, certainly sounds reasonable.]

Sunday, January 15, 2017

Consolidated Community Elections

Honestly, how many of you will vote February 7 for school-board members? (I'll vote to re-elect Maria Flores!) How many will vote in the Soil and Water Conservation District election in May – or even know that DASWCD elections violate the Constitutional “one person, one vote” rule? 

Fact is, very few. In November 2016, 71,362 county residents voted; in November 2014, 40,628; and in 2015, 3,798 for school board and 2,937 for DASWCD. 

State Sen. Daniel Ivey-Soto is introducing a bill that would consolidate elections. Election day would be in early October every year; and all that “minor” stuff that happens at odd times or on odd years we'd vote on that day: city council, ballot questions, conservation districts, school boards, city charter amendments. Everything.

Why is that a good thing? First, it'll clearly save money. One election this year, not three or four.
More important, it'll shine more of a light on some elections that don't garner enough attention. A blatant example is Doña Ana Soil and Water Conservation District elections. The board is wholly unrepresentative of the voters in this County. That's partly because board-members' districts are drawn up unfairly and probably illegally: a voter in Salem or Garfield is equivalent to dozens or hundreds of voters in Las Cruces. (I haven't done the math.) The result is a board that is mostly against conservation and wastes time on resolutions to fight Agenda 21 and the BLM.

Hiding the ball is easier because the election occurs on relatively short notice at an odd time. You have to care enough about your DASWCD representative to make a special trip to the voting booth. Records show few people bother. (A few more might if those elections were fairer.) That helps an unrepresentative group perpetuate itself, claiming to speak for us as a quasi-public body.

Common Cause New Mexico Executive Director Viki Harrison says, “We support consolidation of elections because turnouts will increase, resulting in better representation. Also, the more people actually vote, the more people feel invested in our governments. Government isn't some abstract concept. It's the people.”

Ivey-Soto says “The public has a right to know when their taxes are going to rise, and consolidation ensures the public has that ability.”

County Clerk Scott Krahling calls it “a no-brainer” and will testify in favor of the bill. “I support consolidating all these smaller elections into a community election on a year when we don't have the general election. It saves money, it's more efficient, and it's more accessible to voters. Everyone knows when the vote is.” 

The counter-argument is that the school-board election issues would get lost in the commotion of a general election. And that more people who aren't deeply interested in schools would vote in school-board elections, whereas only those who really care turn out for a quiet election in February. (Ms. Flores says she sees both sides and hasn't a strong view on the bill, although the state school board always opposes consolidation.)

I can understand a school board's desire to have its special day.

But all elections get less attention than would be ideal. We're busy people. We have a right to vote on who'll run our schools or towns or conservation districts. Making it easier to exercise that right is pretty important. Someone who works long hours every day and hasn't time or energy to vote six times a year instead of one or two, s/he has the same right as the person with plenty of time or a more flexible schedule.

Consolidated community elections better serve our democratic values in the 21st Century.
[The above column appeared in the Las Cruces Sun-News this morning, Sunday, 15 January 2017, as well as on the newspaper's website and (presently) on the KRWG-TV website.]
[A careful reader might inquire, "Why October?"  Originally, it read, "November" -- great time for an election.  But a few communities have run-off elections when no one wins a clear victory.  If the "main" election is in November, that means that in those communities you could be making the final decision about Mayor or councilor in December, which gets awfully close to the end of the year.  I assume the concern is that it would limit time for a new mayor or councilor to make plans or bone up on stuff before assuming office, unless December brings worth weather or seems to close to Christmas.  At any rate, the change was made to October.]

[I should note that the counter-argument to community elections is that with, for example, the school board, a smaller subset of citizens are directly interested in how the schools are run and that in a solely school board election most or all of the voters are focused on that issue and have at least some idea whom the prefer and why; if school board choices are on the ballot with a bunch of other choices, it could be that a higher percentage of the voters who vote in school board elections will be there to vote for mayor or whatever, will know nothing about the school board election, and will vote based on party or some frivolous basis.  That's not an unreasonable argument.  However, one should note that since school boards use our tax money, others who don't work in schools or have school-age children do have a legitimate interest in the elections; and in my view the considerations supporting the change (including saving money, facilitating bigger turnouts, and avoiding abuses such as the soil-and-water district "elections") outweigh it.]

Sunday, January 8, 2017

Serving on a Grand Jury

Because grand jury proceedings are confidential, this column has limits.

When I got called, I guessed they'd throw me out for being a lawyer, a columnist, and an oddball. But I went.

Serving each Thursday for three months was uninviting, but seemed a civic duty. The first day, I sat with scores of others, watching some folks try to get out of serving. The chosen twelve went into a room. Then a lady came out to ask for a volunteer to replace someone. I volunteered. The other eleven made me foreperson. Nothing personal. They'd just agreed to lay that on the new guy. 

Grand juries decide whether or not to indict people charged with crimes. An indictment means the case continues toward a possible trial. Grand jurors merely decide whether it's “more likely than not” that the prospective defendant has committed the crime(s) charged. Not whether searches or arrests were legal or the cops entrapped someone. Not whether someone's guilty “beyond a reasonable doubt.” It takes eight affirmative votes to indict.

Proceedings are secret because everyone's innocent until proven guilty. There's no need to tarnish reputations of people investigated but not indicted. Also witnesses deserve to be sure their testimony won't be reported.

We started by 8:30 and worked till late afternoon, even 5:30 once. 

Each morning we got a list of 20-30 cases, identifying the person charged, the alleged crimes, and the testifying officer. If any of us knew the officer, victim, or accused, we were asked whether or not the relationship would affect our objectivity. The crimes ranged from car burglaries to murder, but were heavy on drug cases (mostly meth), domestic violence, and child abuse. 

For each case, Assistant D.A. Heather Chavez would go on record and read the applicable instructions for the count(s) charged. If we had no questions, she brought in the law-enforcement officer. After I swore him or her in, s/he answered Heather's questions. Hearsay was allowed, so we heard everything through the one officer. We listened for the required elements of each crime. When Heather finished, we could ask questions, and often did.

Then Heather, the witness, and the court reporter left, so we could deliberate. Privately. We couldn't tell even Heather about our deliberations, beyond the result. Sometimes “deliberating” was just me asking if anyone had a question or observation, then taking a vote by show of hands on each count. Sometimes we had extended discussions. Sometimes we called Heather or the officer back in to answer a further question. If there were eight affirmative votes, I'd sign the indictment and call Heather back in.

Defense attorneys complain that grand juries are so strongly influenced by the district attorney that they would indict a ham sandwich. The first day, we declined to indict someone because the victim's account didn't seem credible, even secondhand. 

Most cases were straightforward. Sometimes I foresaw real issues for trial, but not for the grand jury. Occasionally we declined to indict. Sometimes we indicted on a lesser charge, or on just some of the counts. Sometimes we added or strengthened a count because we thought the testimony warranted it.
Our varied group enjoyed working together. We were forced to take a glimpse into some very unpleasant lives being lived among us; but legal problems, which are basically human problems, can be interesting. Without commenting on whether grand juries are good or bad, I can say people I met took it seriously. 

We had a pot-luck the final session. I asked how many, if we were asked to serve three more months, would agree? Nearly everyone raised a hand.

[The column above appeared in the Las Cruces Sun-News this morning, Sunday, 8 January, as well as on the newspaper's website and KRWG-TV's website.]
[It seems in order to thank court staff for their unfailing courtesy and helpfulness.  We met Alma, who kind of kept the whole thing running, as well as several court reporters, bailiffs, and others.  They were great.  ]
[It may shock some readers to hear that although we had long discussions on some cases, some took under five minutes to hear the Instructions and testimony, deliberate, and report to Heather whether or not at least eight of us had voted to indict.  (We couldn't even tell her the exact vote.)  However, for indictment purposes, some cases are that simple.  An officer reports that she saw a car going 70 in a hospital zone and that when she made the traffic stop the driver, Abel Smith, emerged mumbling, "I'm soooooo shit-faced," then falls on the ground, and scientific tests confirmed the driver's blood-alcohol percentage of .19.  Is it more likely than not that the driver drove while intoxicated?  Although I unfailingly asked whether anyone had a question or concern, it sometimes happened that, quite reasonably, none of us did.  Sure, at trial the defense attorney can try to prove the driver was Abel's twin brother, Cain, or that the breathalizer hadn't been calibrated for 17 years, or that a search of the car, turning up methamphetamine as well as an open bottle of tequila, was illegal.  But no one's making those arguments to us, at this stage of the proceedings.  We're not convicting anyone, or assessing legal issues such as the propriety of a search.  We don't meet the accused, and in some cases don't meet the officer who actually made the stop or conducted the search, so we're not making fine judgments on witness credibility.  Or imprisoning anyone.]
[I should note that the accused can ask to testify to the grand jury; or he or she, or his or her lawyer, can suggest the grand jury subpoena a particular witness who allegedly be helpful to the accused; but these rights are very rarely utilized.  Nor would a competent lawyer want to invoke them in the average case.] 
[I may write some later column on the legitimate political question of whether grand juries ought to continue or should be phased out.   The alternative is a preliminary hearing, in which the two sides, with lawyers, fight a kind of preliminary trial.  This has benefits for the defense.  It's also public.  Defense attorneys argue that it's fairer.  On the other hand, it's probably more costly.] 

Saturday, January 7, 2017

Healthcare:Getting what Republicans Wanted Scares the Hell out of Them

There's so much to say about what's going on in Washington these days, but I have so little appetite for saying it.

One inescapable question is what the Republicans think they're doing about health care.

Of course it's a scandal that we don't have some form of universal health care -- as most civilized countries do. 

The basic plan of the Affordable Health Care Act ("Obamacare") is a compromise.  It's actually modeled on something Massachusetts did under a Republican governor, and some Republicans had proposed such a plan at the federal level.

The fact that Republicans so violently opposed Obamacare when Obama proposed it testifies to their real purpose, to try to thwart and embarrass Obama in any way possible.  That was their first priority -- to make him a one-term president -- when one might have wished the country's well-being and security would be up there.

The fact that Republicans have screamed about repealing and replacing Obamacare for several years, but still have not managed to develop even the outlines of a different plan testifies eloquently that they were interested in the political issue -- "Obamacare Bad, Republicans Good!" -- and only secondarily with how good or bad Obamacare was for the country, let alone how to improve it.  Improving it was "giving in" to Obama.  So for years as faults in the law, which addressed a very complex and changing healthcare landscape, appeared, the Republicans had no appetite for making corrections, as one might have expected legislators to do. 

The Republicans are kind of like kids screaming for hours about something just to scream about it -- angry that their will has been thwarted, or that they don't control the universe, screaming about some specific thing as a symbol of all that, then ignoring the thing when someone finally gives it to them.  The prime imperative was to oppose Obama in everything.  So they vigorously opposed Obamacare.  Declined to improve it so they could scream about all its faults.  (Anything you fixed would be one less thing you could scream about.)  Declined to think about what they'd put in its place, because the point was to attack Obama, not to build the best healthcare plan we could. Certainly gave little thought to the actual human beings who had finally gotten healthcare only because of Obamacare.

Obamacare undoubtedly has problems.  It has been a major pain in the ass for my wife, who's younger than I am, and has added to our costs.  Dealing with an underfunded bureaucracy and having to provide the same form three times or tell people the same facts over and over hasn't helped.  On the other hand, Obamacare has been a life-changer for many.

The current debate among Republicans would be comical if it weren't potentially tragic for so many of our fellow citizens.  Republican legislators suddenly have the power they wanted; but since Obamacare has helped many real people, people from all political parties and perspectives, there's an obvious political cost to repealing it.  Polls show that despite the huge political and talk show campaign to paint Obamacare as not only flawed but an evil and dangerous conspiracy against our very way of life, most people do not want to see it repealed but would rather see it improved, or replaced by something better.  So the saner Republican legislators see that they can't just repeal it.

Further, some of the parts of Obamacare they most dislike are some of the most popular or essential.  Forcing healthy people like my wife, and particularly even younger people, to buy healthcare offends Republican ideology, but is essential to making the plan work.  Extending healthcare to young people living with their parents, and to people with pre-existing conditions, has saved lives and saved people from bankruptcy.  So those have to stay, too.

I'm no healthcare expert.  But I suspect there are improvements that could be made.  The fact that the Republicans can't seem to propose any tell us that either they're stupid or they're lazy -- and/or that healthcare in the U.S. is a difficult and complex problem to which Obamacare is basically a pretty good first step toward solving. 

Sunday, January 1, 2017

Happy New Year!

As I walk to the goat-pen, soon after dawn, white clouds cover the valley. The land slopes down toward Las Cruces, but I see no city -- just bright clouds, then dark peaks on the horizon. 

We could be an island, and those peaks the mainland. A northern island. It's icy today.

We have no goats, but keep compost in the pen. We carry buckets of sink-water down there to keep things moist for the worms. As we poison our planet, composting seems right. 

On my imagined island, people live their lives, don't interfere much with others, but are there for the neighbors when needed. They don't worship things so much. Going to the mainland to buy stuff is more trouble than it's worth.

But the seas are rising. I hope our island rises more steeply from the sea than Bangladesh, Florida, or Manhattan. 

Doing chores on a chilly island seems about right for facing this challenging year. We face serious problems, and have chosen a government which will not help solve them. Those rising seas and melting ice-caps and rising temperatures? We will cease trying to address those issues – and even root out civil servants in Washington who've tried. 

More generally, our government will adopt simplistic methods that would be comical if not so clearly futile. Our economy, in which one major problem is economic inequality, we will address by giving huge tax cuts to the wealthiest folks and minor cuts (or small increases, effectively) to the disappearing middle class. The long-discredited “trickle-down” myth. McDonald's employees, so poorly paid that many need public assistance, will be cheered to know the Secretary of Labor will be a fast-food executive strongly opposed to raising the minimum wage. 

Leaders from both parties have long recognized that we must address our carelessness toward our environment, particularly for future generations. Now the EPA will be led by an oil-and-gas lawyer who has spent his life fighting it. As polar ice caps melt, as predicted, we'll fiddle – or watch “The Apprentice.”

Extremists, perverting Islam by killing in its name everyone who does not agree precisely with their program, have tried to portray events as a holy war between Islam and a diverse modern world full of Christians, Jews Muslims, agnostics, atheists, Buddhists, and people who don't much care. Now, our President-elect cooperates with them by threatening to ban Muslims from entering the country.

Religious extremists – Islamic, Christian, Hindu – have fought against science and tolerance. Now we too will deny scientific developments we don't like and blame “the Other” for our difficulties.

The Chinese are serious economic competition. So we will start by insulting them, to soften 'em up, like trash-talking in basketball. (But trash-talking often serves merely to inspire opposing players to play harder and better.) The Russian government is greedy, imperialistic, and corrupt. So we will start by expressing our admiration for Vladimir Putin while refusing to listen to the unanimous view of our intelligence agencies that he tried (perhaps successfully) to determine a U.S. election.

Will we replace the majestic eagle with the ostrich as our national symbol, hiding our eyes to some problems and to the subtle difficulties of others, or with some yappy little breed of dog that barks ineffectually at everything? 

Still, have a Happy New Year! (Do not let political and social difficulties affect too deeply your heart and mind, or infect them with hatred.) Watch this government closely, but understand that we deserve it, and try to assess why. Make your world better by nurturing children, helping elders, loving friends, and maybe even composting.
[This column appeared in the Las Cruces Sun-News this morning, Sunday, 1 January, and also on the newspaper's website and the KRWG-TV website.

[We had a couple of mornings that were beautiful in the same unusual way, with white clouds catching the early-morning sunlight and blanketing the city, then the distant black peaks looking like a mainland sixty or seventy miles away -- and with reddish or pink in the sky above those.  Did remind me of islands I'd known.]

[I understand that composting doesn't weigh much in the environmental scales compared with all that we're doing, and even the part of all that attributable to me.  That it's too late to prevent the problem, and probably too late to minimize it, particularly with folks coming on board who profess to believe it's a Chinese hoax.  Too, although I composted for years elsewhere, because I also gardened, if my wife were not so strict I'd probably (once we moved our compost down to the goat-pen, because it attracted too many roaches) have proved too lazy to carry buckets so far so often; but it does feel idiotically reassuring.  It's a reminder.  It's also a wonderful opportunity to see birds, butterflies, tricks of the light, and occasional flowers or wildlife I'd not have seen from my desk if carrying buckets hadn't drawn me outside for a short walk.]

[Folks have said we should give the incoming administration a chance; and I've agreed.  For one thing, there is little profit in repeating the observations we all made during the election about Trumps' past and character and unsavory connections, because those failed to convince a whole lot of our fellow citizens that he'd be medicine worse than the illness.  Rather, we need to focus on what he actually does, particularly what he does to enrich the rich even further at the expense of his "constituency," mostly white mostly male folks who feel undervalued and pissed off.  They have good reason to be pissed off.  Trump will not prove the answer; but they will see that, if at all, only through his actual betrayals of them, not through carping progressives pointing out his many faults as a human being.  Perhaps I've jumped the gun, but most of my comments in the column are based on his appointments and his post-victory conduct, not on campaign rhetoric.  Sadly, he's proving so far to be about as bad as he could be.]