29 Jul

In the House of Representatives, it could soon be impeach season

It might be about time to get tickets for the Barack Obama impeachment trial.

This isn’t because Obama has piled up an impressive pile of high crimes and misdemeanors, or that he has big plans to replace the border crossings with neon signs reading “Y’all Come!” It’s because the House of Representatives had the power to impeach him, and is having increasing trouble thinking of anything else to do.

Legislating, after all, it gave up on a while ago. Unlike the Senate, it doesn’t have federal nominations to act on, or not act on.

What it can do, and what it’s going to hear more and more demand from its base to do, is impeach the president. Whether there’s any real chance of conviction and removal, GOP House members can figure, isn’t their problem.

It’s the Senate’s, and the House isn’t really worried about its problems.

Back in the last century, a Republican House that was 16 years less extreme than this one impeached Bill Clinton because it could, although the chance of the Senate producing a two-thirds vote for conviction was about the same as Newt Gingrich getting elected president.

The House that comes into office after the elections this November may not be much more Republican, but it’s likely to be more extreme. Over the August recess, and the fall campaign, the members will hear from the people demanding to know why Obama hasn’t been impeached and chased back to Kenya already.

Sometime in the next year or so, the House may impeach Obama, just because it can.

And because it can’t do anything else.


29 Jul

In Oregon politics, at least we talk to each other

In 1982, when Vic Atiyeh was governor, the Oregon Legislature had liberal Republicans from Washington County, Ashland and Salem. There were conservative Democrats from Grants Pass and Klamath Falls.

Those days, and those bridge-builders, are gone. Now, the ideological lines, and the geographic lines, are sharper. The division is worse in Congress, where studies now show that just about the most conservative Democrat is more liberal than the most liberal Republican.

Talk radio, Fox News and ungodly amounts of outside money have changed politics. Now, congressional Republicans fear attacks and primary challenges if they’re seen dealing or even speaking with Democrats, and Congress can’t carry out basic responsibilities, like producing budgets or voting on presidential nominations.

But while party lines like World War I trenches have paralyzed Congress, the Oregon legislature, even with deeper divisions, manages to function. In last year’s special session, to reform PERS and find some more money for schools, Democrats and Republicans worked together. Each of the different parts of the deal had a different coalition behind it, with the leaders of both parties supporting the whole thing.

It’s not an ideal situation. It’s not even 1982.

But in the Oregon legislature, Democrats and Republicans still talk together, and sometimes even work together. In today’s politics, that’s something.

NOTE: This commentary appeared on KGW-TV, 7/26/14

29 Jul

If you don’t execute anybody, maybe you should stop pretending you have a death penalty

In a state where it’s tough to find long-term housing, one great exception has been Oregon’s Death Row. Since criminals continue to be sentenced to capital punishment in Oregon, but the state has executed just two people in 50 years – and those by the convicts’ request – anyone sent to Death Row is pretty clearly moving in until a hand higher than the state ends his residence.

In the words of federal judge Cormac J. Carney of Orange County, California, such a situation makes execution “so unlikely that the death penalty carefully and deliberately imposed by the jury has been quietly transformed into one no rational jury or legislature could ever impose: life in prison, with the remote possibility of death.”

Carney’s phrase came from a decision earlier this month that set the California capital punishment system against the Eighth Amendment’s ban on “cruel and unusual punishment.” Carney, a George W. Bush appointee, concluded that whether or not capital punishment was considered cruel, it was hard to deny that in California, it had become pretty clearly unusual. On that basis, Carney declared it unconstitutional.

The ruling by district judge Carney will go through federal appeals court and possibly the Supreme Court, and the full legal process could take a while – although not nearly as long as a capital punishment sentence. But if there is support for Carney’s argument – that a vast gap between the number of criminals sentenced to die and the few who actually executed invalidates the system – then his reasoning clearly extends to the long-term housing project that is Oregon’s Death Row.

The Golden State’s capital punishment system, outlined by Carney in his decision, is a different branch of the Hotel California: Convicts can’t leave, but it’s highly unlikely they will ever draw a final check-out from the state.

Since 1978, he notes, California has sentenced more than 900 people to death, but has conducted only 13 executions. Of the rest, 94 have died of other causes and 39 have had their death sentences set aside by federal judges, leaving 748 in extended residence. The mandated appeals process, through state and federal courts, goes on for Dickensian decades.

By the time the sentence has proceeded through the state courts, the process will likely have lasted 17 years. The convict who was the subject of the case before Carney was sentenced to death in 1995.

To Carney, the death sentence under these conditions is not only random and arbitrary – not to mention “unusual” – but unlikely to be much of a deterrent. “The realistic expectation of an individual contemplating a capital crime in California is that if he is caught, it does not matter whether he is sentenced to death – he realistically faces only life imprisonment,” noted Carney. “Under such a system, the death penalty is about as effective a deterrent to capital crime as the possibility of a lightning strike is to going out in the rain.”

Oregon, being a legal footnote to California in these matters, has 36 people on its Death Row, not 750. But its frequency of actual execution is comparable, with two executions since the death penalty was restored by voters in 1984. Four of the convicts on Oregon’s Death Row have been there since 1988, and four more since 1989.

There could, of course, have been one more execution this year, when Gary Haugen asked to be executed, apparently the only way capital punishment can happen in Oregon. But Gov. John Kitzhaber, who was also governor for the other two executions, refused to sign off on another. If Kitzhaber is re-elected, that means no executions until at least 2019.

GOP candidate Dennis Richardson took a poke at Kitzhaber on the issue during their first debate. But while Richardson’s election might open a pathway to eternity for Haugen, it would be unlikely to move Oregon to a Texas-style execution pace.

Oregon has rested in a very Oregon-style compromise on capital punishment, having a death penalty and death sentences but not executing anybody. It seems it’s an arrangement Oregonians can live with – except, apparently, Haugen – but it does involve a certain philosophical contradiction, and an expenditure of state time and money.

“In California, the execution of a death penalty is so infrequent, and the delays preceding it so extraordinary,” ruled Carney, “that the death penalty is deprived of any deterrent or retributive effect it might once have had.”

Carney is just one judge, and in this and every other way, California is different from Oregon.

But the math looks familiar.

NOTE: This column appeared in The Oregonian, Sunday, 7/27/14.