Archive for the ‘Government’ Category

Reading this article about US Senate majority leader Harry Reid today, I was reminded of Glenn Greenwald’s analysis of how politics currently operates in Washington, D.C.

In the face of such a political culture, perhaps Mr. Reid will listen, as he drafts his bill, to the exhortation of Baha’u’llah, Whose choice of metaphor is remarkably apt in the current crisis.

O YE the elected representatives of the people in every land! Take ye counsel together, and let your concern be only for that which profiteth mankind, and bettereth the condition thereof, if ye be of them that scan heedfully. Regard the world as the human body which, though at its creation whole and perfect, hath been afflicted, through various causes, with grave disorders and maladies. Not for one day did it gain ease, nay its sickness waxed more severe, as it fell under the treatment of ignorant physicians, who gave full rein to their personal desires, and have erred grievously. And if, at one time, through the care of an able physician, a member of that body was healed, the rest remained afflicted as before. Thus informeth you the All-Knowing, the All-Wise.

We behold it, in this day, at the mercy of rulers so drunk with pride that they cannot discern clearly their own best advantage, much less recognize a Revelation so bewildering and challenging as this. And whenever any one of them hath striven to improve its condition, his motive hath been his own gain, whether confessedly so or not; and the unworthiness of this motive hath limited his power to heal or cure.

That which the Lord hath ordained as the sovereign remedy and mightiest instrument for the healing of all the world is the union of all its peoples in one universal Cause, one common Faith. This can in no wise be achieved except through the power of a skilled, an all-powerful and inspired Physician. This, verily, is the truth, and all else naught but error…


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Room for Debate at the New York Times today has one of a series of ‘conversations’ about the state of education in the US. Today’s discussion centers on the first draft of a set of national standards for all students to achieve in English and math by the end of high school. The Washington Post has a story, too.

As an English teacher by training and for the first eight years of my working life, I read the English Language Arts (ELA) standards (.pdf) with interest. I found little to disagree with in the document, and was even slightly gratified to note that most my lessons over eight years could have been taken for a model of how to implement those standards. (Of course, my students and supervisors might beg to differ.)

Aside from the content of the standards, though, I was interested in two aspects of the process through which they are being developed. First, the federal government is not involved in the drafting process, nor will it be involved in accepting them once they are developed. Instead, the several states are leading the charge in development, and adoption will happen (if it does) state by state. Second, the drafters have referred to the best standards they can find, not only among the several states, but also in the rest of the world. These two elements of the process represent, as I understand it, federalism at its best. Each state maintains its independence but uses innovations and best practice in other states (and, in the modern world, countries) to inform its own choices.

As ‘Abdu’l-Baha noted in a talk he gave in New York in 1912, this federated arrangement has no small consequences:

It is very evident that in the future there shall be no centralization in the countries of the world, be they constitutional in government, republican or democratic in form. The United States may be held up as the example of future government—that is to say, each province will be independent in itself, but there will be federal union protecting the interests of the various independent states. It may not be a republican or a democratic form. To cast aside centralization which promotes despotism is the exigency of the time. This will be productive of international peace.

Such a federal approach to developing educational standards is not confined to the U.S., either. A similar process in underway in Australia, as seen in national Statements of Learning. Viewed more broadly, developing common education standards across national boundaries can be seen as one step in the process of defining the standards of what ‘Abdu’l-Baha labels “human education”, which “signifies civilization and progress—that is to say, government, administration, charitable works, trades, arts and handicrafts, sciences, great inventions and discoveries and elaborate institutions, which are the activities essential to man as distinguished from the animal.”

Of course, the trend toward and necessity of training people to think across the boundaries of traditional bodies of knowledge, which I noted in Saturday’s post, plays a crucial role in developing our sense of what human education is, too. How can we have government, administration, sciences, great inventions, and elaborate institutions adequate to the world today if we cannot analyze broad trends and bring together information from a wide variety of fields? To take two recent examples, Jeffrey Sachs’s Common Wealth and Jared Diamond’s Collapse indicate just how much we can benefit from such an approach to thinking.

Of course, without divine education, the acquisition of human perfections which will allow us to use that way of thinking for our mutual progress, no amount of purely human education will do us much good. Perhaps we’re not quite ready for public schools to take on that subject matter yet.

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The Washington Post and The Australian both follow The Guardian‘s Jonathan Freedland, whose op-ed sparked my post yesterday, in asserting a certain level of pessimism about the potential success of the Copenhagen negotiations. The Post sees some silver lining, while the Australian focuses on the big, gray clouds. I’ve just started reading Jeffrey Sachs‘s Common Weath, and Sachs doesn’t share that pessimism, at least in the bigger picture, though he does outline the great necessity of acting on climate change at a global level. (While I was looking up that link for Sachs, I also stumbled across two interesting blogs that I’ll start keeping track of: Millennium Villages and State of the Planet.)

On the topic of the death penalty, which I address here, Hendrik Hertzberg at the New Yorker posts about how the death penalty works, or doesn’t work, in practice. If a process set up in the interests of ensuring justice ensures suffering in practice, perhaps it’s time to re-examine that process.

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In the Kitab-i-Aqdas, His book of laws, Baha’u’llah makes the following stipulations about the death penalty:

Should anyone intentionally destroy a house by fire, him also shall ye burn; should anyone deliberately take another’s life, him also shall ye put to death. Take ye hold of the precepts of God with all your strength and power, and abandon the ways of the ignorant. Should ye condemn the arsonist and the murderer to life imprisonment, it would be permissible according to the provisions of the Book. He, verily, hath power to ordain whatsoever He pleaseth.

These two crimes, arson and murder, are the only two for which the death penalty is an appropriate punishment, according to Baha’u’llah. Also important to note is the discretion Baha’u’llah allows: for these two crimes to be punished by life imprisonment is permissible.

The importance of that discretion in human affairs is clear in the case of Cameron Todd Willingham, whose execution for arson David Grann documents in this week’s New Yorker. As Grann shows, Willingham was convicted of arson on evidence that, while convincing under the theories of the time, does not stand up to scientific scrutiny of how fires work. That Willingham was convicted under mistaken theories in 1992; that the scientific scrutiny was not forthcoming until January 2004 and not presented until February 2004, days before his execution; and that Willingham was executed despite the evidence being presented — all these factors combine to indicate Willingham’s execution was unjust.

If we cannot have confidence in the justice of decisions made in death penalty cases, either because science cannot tell us what the facts are or because our systems are imperfect in dispensing justice, then perhaps at this point in human history we should settle for life imprisonment.

For those, like Willingham, who are executed under the current system, perhaps Shoghi Effendi‘s words hold some consolation:

If a man were falsely condemned to die, can we not believe Almighty God would compensate him a thousandfold, in the next world, for this human injustice?

God’s compensation in the next world does not relieve us of our responsibility in this one. Our work, it seems to me, is to reduce as far as possible the number of men falsely condemned to die.

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In her now-famous lecture in 2001, “A Latina Judge’s Voice,” Sonia Sotomayor devoted a few sentences to statistics about minority representation in the US federal judiciary:

As of September 1, 2001, the federal judiciary consisting of Supreme, Circuit and District Court Judges was about 22% women. In 1992, nearly ten years ago, when I was first appointed a District Court Judge, the percentage of women in the total federal judiciary was only 13%. Now, the growth of Latino representation is somewhat less favorable. As of today we have, as I noted earlier, no Supreme Court justices, and we have only 10 out of 147 active Circuit Court judges and 30 out of 587 active district court judges. Those numbers are grossly below our proportion of the population. As recently as 1965, however, the federal bench had only three women serving and only one Latino judge. So changes are happening, although in some areas, very slowly. These figures and appointments are heartwarming.

Clearly, Sotomayor is concerned that minorities are underrepresented in the federal judiciary. According to the statistics, women and Latinos do not hold positions on the judiciary in numbers proportional to their representation in the wider US population. Her standard for justice in this instance seems based on an idea of proportionality. If a particular group is 15% of the wider population, members of that group should also represent at least 15% of the members of the judiciary. This logic makes a certain kind of sense, but justice does not require mere balancing of percentages. It involves righting wrongs and giving all people the opportunity to contribute meaningfully to their communities.

In The Advent of Divine Justice, written in 1938, Shoghi Effendi outlines Baha’i policy on minority representation in Baha’i work:

…every organized community enlisted under the banner of Bahá’u’lláh should feel it to be its first and inescapable obligation to nurture, encourage, and safeguard every minority belonging to any faith, race, class, or nation within it. So great and vital is this principle that in such circumstances, as when an equal number of ballots have been cast in an election, or where the qualifications for any office are balanced as between the various races, faiths or nationalities within the community, priority should unhesitatingly be accorded the party representing the minority, and this for no other reason except to stimulate and encourage it, and afford it an opportunity to further the interests of the community. In the light of this principle, and bearing in mind the extreme desirability of having the minority elements participate and share responsibility in the conduct of Bahá’í activity, it should be the duty of every Bahá’í community so to arrange its affairs that in cases where individuals belonging to the divers minority elements within it are already qualified and fulfill the necessary requirements, Bahá’í representative institutions, be they Assemblies, conventions, conferences, or committees, may have represented on them as many of these divers elements, racial or otherwise, as possible. pp. 35-6

Shoghi Effendi clearly values the participation of members of minorities in the life of the community, especially in its representative institutions. And in the quotation above he establishes a mechanism by which that participation may be achieved. In the racial parlance of modern America, Shoghi Effendi establishes a type of affirmative action. It is, however, markedly different from many affirmative action policies in place. It has at its root a similar motivation: “to stimulate and encourage [the minority]”. But Shoghi Effendi goes further than that, stating that the policy also exists to “afford [the minority] an opportunity to further the interests of the community.” This is a crucial distinction, in that through their participation in institutions, members of minorities have their opportunity to contribute to the work of the community as a whole. In making this contribution, they become an integral part of community life and play their part in forging the unity which it is the purpose of the Baha’i Faith to create. So, their participation is not an end in itself but a means to the unity of the community. If there is any question that this would undermine unity, it must be kept in mind that members of Baha’i institutions do not represent any constituency but look after the interests of the community at large. (See this article for more about Baha’i elections.) Viewing minority representation on institutions through this lens puts the lie to Sotomayor’s focus on proportionality. It is not mere representation that is important, but active contribution to the diverse and unified whole.

As American experience over the last forty years demonstrates, affirmative action policies, potentially aimed toward or driven by specific quotas, also have the danger of breeding a sense of resentment among members of majorities. Shoghi Effendi’s policy avoids this pitfall. It establishes a requirement that any individual who is elected or appointed to a representative institution within the Baha’i Faith must be “already qualified and fulfill the necessary requirements.” Implementing this requirement allows Baha’i communities to avoid experiences like those of Clarence Thomas or other members of minorities who are perceived to have advanced not through their own merit but because of their race. So, Shoghi Effendi’s policy preserves the unity of the whole while at the same time encouraging members of minorities to advance and to contribute to the community.

So, should we have “a wise Latina” on the highest court in the United States? Undoubtedly so, and necessarily one as well-qualified as Sonia Sotomayor.

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In my last post, I outlined competing ideas about what kind of judicial philosophy a Supreme Court Justice ought to have. In their basic outlines, the two arguments are for judicial restraint (emphasizing the limited role of the judiciary) or for compassion from experience (emphasizing the human effects of court decisions). I should be clear, too, as I probably wasn’t in my first post, that Obama actually calls for both of these qualities in a nominee to the Supreme Court, though he does deem the first “insufficient” without the second. Also, McCain does call for a nominee to have “experience,” though his interpretation of experience is different than Obama’s. Stemming from this debate, and important in its own right, is the notion of whether a the Supreme Court (or the judiciary more broadly) should be representative of the nation’s diversity, specifically its ethnic diversity.

The process of Baha’i elections, as established by ‘Abdu’l-Baha and Shoghi Effendi, provides a useful lens through which to analyse the process of selecting Supreme Court Justices.

Writing to the delegates chosen to elect the National Spiritual Assembly of the Baha’is of the United States in 1925, Shoghi Effendi established criteria that Baha’is use to this day in their elections, even at the local level:

Hence it is incumbent upon the chosen delegates to consider without the least trace of passion and prejudice, and irrespective of any material consideration, the names of only those who can best combine the necessary qualities of unquestioned loyalty, of selfless devotion, of a well-trained mind, of recognized ability and mature experience.

Several parallels bear noting here. First, Obama’s call for a “rigorous intellect” and McCain’s for “legal competence and ability” in a nominee parallel Shoghi Effendi’s requirement of a “well-trained mind” and “recognized ability”. So, both politicians have this criterion correct: the nominee must be intelligent and able.

The two politicians also mention what we might call qualities of character. McCain notes that two qualifications in his mind are “integrity” and “character,” and Obama mentions that life experience “can give a person…a sense of compassion.” Shoghi Effendi clearly has in mind personal character in mentioning “unquestioned loyalty” and “selfless devotion” as two of the necessary qualities, but the difference between his standard and those of the politicians bears note. Shoghi Effendi requires that a person have loyalty and devotion to the Baha’i Faith, the system he or she will support and defend if elected. Any other qualities of character a person might have – integrity, say, or compassion – would be subordinate to this loyalty and devotion and would thus be used in service of the larger system which the role exists to support. So, perhaps Senators and Presidents should satisfy themselves of a nominee’s loyalty and devotion to the United States Constitution and let the nominee’s other qualities of character serve that loyalty.

Last, and most divisively, comes the question of experience. Both McCain and Obama require experience in a nominee, and their requirement aligns with Shoghi Effendi’s inclusion of “mature experience” as one of the necessary qualities for a potential member of the National Spiritual Assembly. Obama and McCain seem to disagree in their understanding of “experience,” though, as it relates to Sotomayor. McCain focuses on her professional experience as a lawyer and judge, while Obama includes that but goes beyond it to consider her broader life experience. As Obama put it, “What Sonia will bring to the Court, then, is not only the knowledge and experience acquired over a course of a brilliant legal career, but the wisdom accumulated from an inspiring life’s journey.” That wisdom, for Obama, will help the Supreme Court take “another important step towards realizing the ideal that is etched above its entrance: Equal justice under the law.” For McCain, that “wisdom accumulated from an inspiring life’s journey” is not as important as a philosophy of upholding “all acts of Congress and state legislatures unless they clearly violate a specific section of the Constitution”.

These two quotations return us to the “necessary qualities” of “unquestioned loyalty” and “selfless devotion” to the larger system that Shoghi Effendi mentions. For although they do not state explicitly what each man understands by loyalty or devotion, they do give clues. For Obama, loyalty means helping to achieve a national ideal, and a Constitutional necessity, that does not yet exist in reality. For McCain, loyalty means respecting the will of the people (as expressed in legislative acts) unless it violates the text of the Constitution.

It seems, then, that both McCain and Obama consider these two necessary qualities important, though each interprets them differently than the other. This difference in interpretation is perhaps expected among people of different political stripes and by no means invalidates either man’s approach. In fact, if there were not partisan politics involved, we might not consider their differences to be quite so worthy of note. Considering Shoghi Effendi’s criteria helps us remove some of the partisan tension from this weighty decision.

The last issue Sotomayor’s nomination raises in the question of minority representation on important bodies, and I will turn to that question in my last post on the topic.

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In a historic moment in the U.S. yesterday, the Senate voted 68-31 to confirm Sonia Sotomayor as an Associate Justice on the United States Supreme Court. The U.S. will have its first Latina Justice, and it’s about time. (For some reason, the video won’t embed here, so you’ll have to click through on the link above. And yes, that’s Al Franken acting as President pro tempore.)

After President Obama nominated her, the media focused much attention one comment Sotomayor made in the 2001 Judge Mario G. Olmos lecture, titled “A Latina Judge’s Voice”: “I would hope that a wise Latina woman with the richness of her experiences would more often than not reach a better conclusion than a white male who hasn’t lived that life.”

(Here’s one post that covers some of the media response.)

This statement (along with others) was taken to indicate that Sotomayor believed that a judge’s role involves something more than applying law as crafted by legislatures. Obama seemed to support this view in his speech to nominate Sotomayor. After stating that the first two qualities he sought in a nominee were a rigorous intellect and a recognition of the limited scope of judges’ decisions, he went on:

These two qualities are essential, I believe, for anyone who would sit on our nation’s highest court. And yet, these qualities alone are insufficient. We need something more. For as Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes once said, “The life of the law has not been logic; it has been experience.” Experience being tested by obstacles and barriers, by hardship and misfortune; experience insisting, persisting, and ultimately overcoming those barriers. It is experience that can give a person a common touch and a sense of compassion; an understanding of how the world works and how ordinary people live. And that is why it is a necessary ingredient in the kind of justice we need on the Supreme Court.

Many Republicans disagreed with this view. The kerfuffle got me thinking about how we (I am a U.S. citizen) select the members of the Supreme Court and how that process relates to Baha’i principles for selecting people for roles of great responsibility. This will take two posts to get through. The rest of this one will summarize main threads in the argument over judicial philosophy, and the second will consider what insights might be gleaned from considering Baha’i principles for elections in thinking about selecting Supreme Court Justices.

As far as I can tell, there are not any specific requirements in the Constitution for who should become a Supreme Court Justice and who should not. (Article III is the relevant section.) In reading John McCain’s statement about why he would not vote to confirm Sotomayor, I saw two criteria implicit in McCain’s decision: (1) professional qualifications; and (2) judicial philosophy. McCain has no problem with Sotomayor’s qualifications. He said, “There is no doubt that Judge Sotomayor has the professional background and qualifications that one hopes for in a Supreme Court nominee.” On the matter of judicial philosophy, though, McCain thinks Sotomayor’s track record shows that her philosophy is beyond the pale:

[In 1987] I stated that the qualifications I believed were essential for evaluating a nominee for the bench included ‘integrity, character, legal competence and ability, experience, and philosophy and judicial temperament.’ … I believe that a judge should seek to uphold all acts of Congress and state legislatures unless they clearly violate a specific section of the Constitution and refrain from interpreting the law in a manner that creates law. While I believe Judge Sotomayor has many of these qualifications I outlined in 1987, I do not believe that she shares my belief in judicial restraint.

Although he did not say so specifically, it seems that the only one of his qualifications which Sotomayor does not meet is the required judicial philosophy. Thirty-seven other Senators joined McCain in voting against Sotomayor’s confirmation, and based on my reading of the coverage I assume that many of them agree with McCain. Jeff Sessions of Alabama (scroll down about half way on the linked page to see his questioning) focused especially on Sotomayor’s statements that her life experience influences her decisions on the bench.

Reading Sotomayor’s lecture it is clear that she thinks more members of minority groups should be represented in the judiciary. Linking these two threads of Sotomayor’s thought, perhaps she wants more minority representation because including their life experience in the process of legal judgment will make the judiciary more representative of the varieties of American experience. Sessions seems not to care about that kind of consideration, only that nominees have a judicial philosophy of “restraint,” as McCain called it, or “fidelity to the law,” to use Sotomayor’s phrase from her opening statement.

So, there appear to be competing ideas about what should constitute the appropriate judicial philosophy for a Justice of the Supreme Court. There’s the idea, espoused by Sotomayor in her speech and Obama in his comments on her nomination, that a person’s life experience may influence his or her judgment. Then there’s the idea of McCain and Sessions, which is that only the person’s understanding of the Constitution should matter. If the first holds, then having a diversity of experiences on a court would be of benefit to society. If the latter, a court’s diversity does not matter.

Can looking at the process of Baha’i elections shed any light on which of these criteria are legitimate? That will be the topic of my next post.

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