Martin Dyckman - SaintPetersBlog

Martin Dyckman

Judicial ethics watchdog could suffer in fight for independent Florida courts

Is Florida’s judicial ethics commission about to become collateral damage in a battle over the independence of the courts?

House Speaker Richard Corcoran, the Land O’Lakes Republican, appears to have targeted the Judicial Qualifications Commission (JQC) along with the courts themselves in his campaign to curb the independence of the judiciary.

The JQC and the Supreme Court had not concluded an ethics case against Circuit Judge Mark Hulsey III of Jacksonville when Corcoran scheduled an impeachment hearing a month ago. The judge resigned.

Such intervention in an ongoing JQC matter was an event with scant precedent. Since the agency was established in 1966, there have been only three instances among more than 200 known cases, and none was exactly comparable.

— In 1975, the House held impeachment hearings on three justices after the Supreme Court had rejected the JQC’s recommendation to remove two of them for ethical violations. Two of the three, Hal P. Dekle and David L. McCain, resigned.

— In 1978, the House impeached and the Senate removed Circuit Judge Samuel S. Smith of Lake City despite his attempt to resign after his federal conviction for conspiracy to sell 1,500 pounds of seized marijuana. Gov. Reubin Askew called for the impeachment to make sure that Smith could never hold office again or collect a pension.

— In 2003, legislators dissatisfied with the Supreme Court’s reprimand of a Pinellas-Pasco circuit judge, as recommended by the JQC, threatened to impeach him and he resigned. The judge, Charles W. Cope, was accused of conduct unbecoming a judge for drunken behavior at an out-of-state conference.

The case against Hulsey, who was accused of racist and sexist comments from the bench, had not progressed nearly as far.

Asked for comment on that point, Corcoran’s spokesman, Fred Piccolo, said in an email:

“In this case, the JQC had all the information we had and still delayed. The Speaker believed taxpayers should not be paying a judge like Mr. Hulsey at all, let alone to not hear cases. The Speaker had every confidence that the Judge’s conduct warranted impeachment

” I can say with confidence that this Speaker will not hesitate to use impeachment to remove officers of the government who abuse their office.”

At that point, however, the JQC’s formal case against Hulsey was only five months old. According to the Legislature’s Office of Program Policy Analysis and Government Accountability (OPPAGA), the average JQC proceeding takes 13 months from the receipt of a complaint to the filing of a disciplinary recommendation with the Supreme Court.

Last week, one of Corcoran’s House committees took on the court itself with criticism for a JQC case that has been awaiting the court’s decision for more than a year, an uncommonly long time. It consists primarily of alleged ethical violations as a lawyer and judicial candidate on the part of Circuit Judge Andrew Decker of Live Oak.

The Public Integrity and Ethics Committee gave no warning to Decker or his attorney, who knew nothing about the meeting until it had been held. The agenda noted only that there would be a report on an unspecified JQC case.

That was a far cry from fair. The chairman, Yahala Republican Larry Metz, was quoted as saying the judge wasn’t invited because “we’re not voting on anything.”

The JQC was created in 1966 to provide a more efficient alternative to impeachment for judges accused of misconduct. Two legislative impeachment efforts had failed.

Though the agency got off to a slow start, it turned aggressive under the chairmanship of Richard T. Earle Jr., a St. Petersburg attorney, who fearlessly pursued corruption on the Supreme Court itself.

Since inception, the JQC has now filed formal charges against more than 200 judges.

When it gets to that point, it rarely ends well for the judge. Of the 206 known cases, by my count, 77 — more than a third — ended with the judge off the bench: 19 removed for violations of the Code of Judicial Conduct, 25 resignations, 4 election defeats, 4 forsaken re-election campaigns, 21 enforced retirements for various disabilities, and 4 under threatened or actual impeachment.

Most of the rest were publicly reprimanded by the court, some also with fines and suspensions. The reprimands, almost always administered in person in public sessions of the court, are meant to be humbling, even humiliating, and the cases become everlasting records. Only seven cases have ever been formally dismissed. Four, including Decker’s, are pending.

So, from what we know, the JQC has been doing a good job — to hear some judges, too good a job.

It’s what we don’t know that may be a problem. The Constitution makes all JQC proceedings confidential until the agency files formal charges. That means no acknowledgment, much less an explanation, for any of the many complaints it dismisses.

According to its most recent report, the JQC received nearly 800 complaints in fiscal 2015 and summarily dismissed about 570 of them. Only 10 proceeded to formal charges.

“A great majority of complaints,” the report said, are about nothing more than dissatisfaction with the outcomes of cases and “that is the province of the appellate courts.” The JQC’s constitutional jurisdiction is limited to conduct that “demonstrates a present unfitness to hold office.”

But as OPPAGA remarked in a January 2015 report, the confidentiality rule left it unable “to assess the efficiency and effectiveness of Commission processes, as well as the consistency of its decisions and actions.

“The Commission documents we were unable to review included complaints screened out by staff, cases dismissed by the commission either summarily or after investigation, and letters of private admonishment. In addition … we were not permitted to attend investigative panel meetings,” the report said.

The case for confidentiality is this: Judges don’t deserve to be embarrassed by publicity about unfounded complaints.

But I don’t buy that. The facts should be allowed to speak for themselves. Judges should accept that as a consequence of public office.

When the Constitution Revision Commission meets, it should provide for eventual disclosure of every complaint to the JQC — not necessarily at the outset, but once it has been either dismissed or moved further along. That’s something that Corcoran’s nine appointees could insist upon without harming the courts.

The public’s trust is something to be earned, not assumed.

___

Martin Dyckman is a retired associate editor of the Tampa Bay Times. He lives in Asheville, North Carolina.

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Hail Britannia: U.K. could teach U.S. a thing or two about running government

Late in the campaign, the New Yorker satirist Andy Borowitz wrote that Queen Elizabeth II was offering to take the colonies back, suggesting that Americans dissatisfied with their options should just write in her name for president.

It doesn’t seem quite as funny now as it did then.

Let’s imagine, though, that we are still part of the British Empire, and that Donald Trump has moved to London and is now Prime Minister.

Imagine him waddling into the House of Commons to face that jolly good British ordeal known as Prime Minister’s Questions.

Imagine him trying to explain to the MPs and to the world on television, why he discussed a North Korean missile launch in full view and earshot of a dining room full of swells without security clearances. Imagine the barrage of questions from the opposition over why he kept a national security adviser for weeks after he was warned that the Kremlin had blackmail on the man who, he knew also, had lied about it.

Imagine him melting down under the jeers from their benches, if not also from his own side. Compared to the Commons, Saturday Night Live is gentle.

Had he been the British P.M., it might not have gotten even that far. There would have been a no-confidence vote once it became plain that he and his family were in it for the boodle rather than for the nation “Buy Ivanka’s stuff?” Really?

Or perhaps his network of Russian connections would have brought him down first.

In 1963, the British regarded minister of war, John Profumo, was forced to resign after admitting that he had lied to colleagues in denying an affair with a call girl who was also sleeping with a Russian naval attaché and spy. The scandal helped to bring down the Harold Macmillan government a year later.

What’s hardest to imagine, of course, is that Trump would have become prime minister in the first place.

In the British parliamentary system, someone like him could never get near 10 Downing Street, except perhaps as a guest, with staff assigned to carefully watch the silver.

Although Britain has no written constitution or law requiring that the prime minister be a member of the Commons, tradition demands it. There hasn’t been a PM who wasn’t since Lord Home was appointed in 1963, and even he quickly resigned his peerage so that he could be elected to the Commons. It is also assumed that the PM will be the leader of his or her party in the Commons.

Nigel Farage, the British politician most like Trump, has failed five times to win a seat in Parliament.

It’s theoretically possible for either of the major party conferences to elect a leader who isn’t a member of Parliament, but in practical terms it’s impossible. Labour Party rules, a friend in Britain tells me, require any candidate for party leader to be nominated by 35 of the party’s MPs. As for the Conservative Party, someone like Trump simply wouldn’t be their cup of tea.

As all the government ministers are drawn from the Parliament — Britain has only two branches of government — the members are particular about who leads them. The judgments of these leaders are questioned frequently and fiercely, but their basic competence is assumed.

Our Founders departed from the British model for good reasons. But is it possible that the mother country still has some lessons in governance to teach us?

We can’t require—and we shouldn’t– that our presidents have Congressional experience. Barely half—25 of 45—have fit that bill. But the parties could—and should—require by rule a certain number of endorsements from Congress to become a nominee for president.

Other good British examples:

—They don’t elect judges. (In fact, almost no one else does.)  Theirs are chosen strictly for professionalism, deportment and experience.

—Their election campaigns are measured in weeks, not years. Spending is limited strictly.

—All of their election districts are drawn by professionals and approved by entities called Boundary Commissions. That’s not to say there are no games played from time to time, but they don’t have anything like the gerrymandering scandals that betray our belief in democracy.

—There are very few political positions jobs at the highest levels of their government. Ministers come and go, but civil servants run most things.

—The most attractive example is the regular grilling that the Prime Minister must endure in the House of Commons and before the nation.

As in Britain, American Cabinet officers are frequently before legislative committees, but the president himself almost never is. The last time—the only occasion in modern times—was in October 1974, when President Gerald R. Ford voluntarily appeared before a House subcommittee to answer questions about his pardon of his resigned predecessor, Richard Nixon.

As it is, we’re likely to have a major showdown soon over executive privilege. That’s the claim made by presidents of both parties that their Cabinet officers and other appointees should not have to tell Congress what advice they give the boss. There’s nothing in the Constitution about that, so the line between talk and action has never been drawn. If the Senate is serious about probing Trump’s Russian connections, that showdown must come.

Meanwhile, can we cheer ourselves up with a rousing chorus of “God save the Queen?” We already know the tune.

___

Martin Dyckman is a retired associate editor of the Tampa Bay Times. He lives in Asheville, North Carolina.

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Federal judges’ lifetime tenure for good reason; Tallahassee should take note

There is a profound reason why the Founders gave life tenure to federal judges, subject only to impeachment for bad behavior. As Alexander Hamilton explained it in The Federalist No. 78:

“In a monarchy, it is an excellent barrier to the despotism of the prince; in a Republic, it is a no less excellent barrier to the encroachments and oppressions of the representative body…”

Judges subject to the whims of a president or the Congress to keep their jobs would be worthless. So would the Constitution.

The founding wisdom has been confirmed time and again, most famously when the Supreme Court ruled that Richard Nixon was not above the law, and most recently Thursday, when the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeal ruled that Donald Trump is not above it either.

Although the effect is only that Trump’s immigration decree remains on hold while the court fully considers his appeal of the District Judge’s order suspending it, the three-judge appellate panel made an enormously important point.

Trump’s lawyers had argued, as the court put it, that his “decisions about immigration policy, particularly when motivated by national security concerns, are unreviewable, even if those actions potentially contravene constitutional rights and protections.” The regime had also claimed, the court said, that “it violates separation of powers for the judiciary to entertain a constitutional challenge to executive actions such as this one.” (Emphasis supplied)

A president in office less than three weeks was asserting the powers of a dictator.

“There is no precedent to support this claimed unreviewability, which runs contrary to the fundamental structure of our constitutional democracy,” the court said.

I hope they’re paying attention in Tallahassee, where some legislators seem to think they too are above the constitution and are trying to take down the state courts that sometimes disagree.

The current attack is led by House Speaker Richard Corcoran, R-Land O’Lakes. A constitutional amendment (HJR 1), sponsored by Rep. Jennifer Sullivan, R-Mount Dora, would prohibit Supreme Court justices and justices of the five district courts of appeal from qualifying in retention elections after serving more than 12 years in the same office.

Why term-limit only those judges? Circuit and county court judges have vastly more power over the lives and property of citizens. But it’s the appellate courts that rule on the laws that legislators enact and the decisions governors make.

Corcoran, whose ambition to be governor is no secret, has declared that his nine appointees to the new Constitution Revision Commission must be committed to neutering the judiciary.

This concerns conservatives no less than liberals. Both sides warned a House subcommittee Thursday that, as one speaker put it, the first-in-the nation term limit would “insure that the best and bright rarely, if ever, apply” for appellate court appointments.

The subcommittee approved the measure 8-7, with only Republicans voting for it. However, the two Republicans voting no portend the lack of a supermajority to pass it on the House floor.

Although there’s no precise Senate companion, term-limit legislation assigned to three committees there is in several ways worse. No one could be appointed to an appellate bench who is under 50 and it would restrict Supreme Court appointees to candidates who had been judges for at least one year.

That would have ruled out such widely-esteemed lawyers as Justice Raoul G. Cantero III (2002-2008) who was 41 when Gov. Jeb Bush appointed him in 2002 and, Justice Charles T. Wells (1994-2009). None of three significant justices in the 1950s, Steven C. O’Connell, B. Campbell Thornal, and E. Harris Drew, had previously been a judge. Nor had Attorney General Richard Ervin when Gov. Farris Bryant appointed him to the Supreme Court in 1964.

Conceptually, there is a form of term limit that would make sense: A single, nonrenewable term of 20 years, with the judge no longer having to face retention elections, and the judicial nominating commissions restored to the independence they had before Republican governors got total control over them. But what the legislators are proposing does nothing good.

As the subcommittee was told but apparently chose not to hear, there is already significant turnover in the judiciary, where judges must retire upon or soon after becoming 70. The Judicial Qualifications Commission has not been idle in getting bad ones kicked off the bench. (I’ll write more about that in a subsequent column.)

The Legislature’s attacks on the judiciary may not succeed, but the greater danger is that Constitution Revision commission, which can send amendments directly to the 2018 ballot. With the House speaker and Senate president each appointing nine members, Governor Rick Scott, another court-hater, naming 15 including the chairman; and the attorney general, Pam Bondi, as an automatic member, it will be the first of the three commissions since 1978 to be dominated by one party’s appointees and, likely, hostile to the courts at the outset. The three members whom Chief Justice Jorge Labarga named next week will have the fight of their lives to protect the courts from becoming subverted by the governor and legislature.

Labarga’s three are well suited for their mission.

Hank Coxe of Jacksonville is a former Florida Bar president and has served on the Judicial Qualifications Commission. The CRC will need to listen to him on that subject.

Robert Martinez, of Miami, is highly regarded as the former U.S. attorney there. “In addition to being a good person and excellent lawyer, with thoughtful and humane values, Bob is one of the most courtly and well-mannered people I know,” a former assistant told me.

Arthenia Joyner, a Tampa lawyer who served in both houses of the Legislature, can tell the CRC firsthand what happens when the courts and law don’t respect people’s rights. As a student in the 1950s, she took part in lunch counter sit-ins at Tallahassee and was jailed for trying to desegregate movie theaters there.

Scott, Corcoran and Senate President Joe Negron have yet to make their CRC appointments. Let them follow Labarga’s examples of integrity, experience and wisdom. One can always hope.

___

Martin Dyckman is a retired associate editor of the Tampa Bay Times. He lives in Asheville, North Carolina.

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How can we respect the presidency, when Donald Trump clearly doesn’t?

When President Harry S. Truman threatened in December 1950 to punch out a Washington Post music critic who had panned his daughter’s singing, he wrote the letter in his own hand, affixed his own postage stamp, and did not make it public. Neither did the Post.

But America knew all about it once it had leaked to the Washington News.

“It seems to me that you are a frustrated old man who wishes he could have been successful,” the president wrote …”Some day I hope to meet you. When that happens, you’ll need a new nose, a lot of beefsteak for black eyes, and perhaps a supporter below!”

Public reaction was divided. Some people, Republicans especially, said that what Truman did was terrible. Others, fathers especially, applauded him for sticking up for his daughter.

Actually, the critic, Paul Hume, was a young man, 34, only three years into what became a long and acclaimed career at the Post. When they finally did meet, years later at Truman’s home in Independence, Missouri, they played the piano together.

Truman’s outburst comes to mind with the news of the very public way in which Donald Trump and his shrill White House shill, Kellyanne Conway, reacted to news of a department store chain, Nordstrom, dropping Ivanka Trump‘s branded merchandise.

The so-called president used his personal and White House Twitter accounts to denounce the company for treating his daughter “unfairly.” Conway was on Fox “News” the next day urging people to “go buy Ivanka’s stuff.

“I’m going to give a free commercial here. Go buy it today everybody, you can find it online,” Conway said.

That goes way, way beyond what Truman did, and is far, far worse. Truman involved public resources only to the extent that he was living in the White House when he wrote the letter, and he did not pitch his hissy fit in public. Trump and Conway are using their bully pulpit—a term that they obviously misunderstand—to promote his daughter’s private business. And although Trump as president is exempt from ethics rules that prohibit that, Conway clearly is not.

Those rules—with which Conway, as a lawyer, ought to be familiar–forbid any executive branch employee from using the office “for his own private gain, for the endorsement of any product, service or enterprise, or for the private gain of friends, relations, or persons with whom the employee is affiliated in a nongovernmental capacity.”

At least one formal complaint has already been lodged with the Office of Government Ethics.

And here’s what the chief ethics counsel to President George W. Bush, Richard W. Painter, said about it, quoted in The New York Times:

“The events of the past week demonstrate that there is no intent on the part of the president, his family, or the White House staff to make meaningful distinctions between his official capacity as president and the Trump family business.”

Trump’s staff, he noted, “instead of trying to push him back on this, they’re jumping in this and shilling for the businesses alongside him.”

Can we count on Jeff Sessions, the new attorney general, to law down the law to Trump?

Perhaps when pigs are piloting 747s.

There are doubtlessly a lot of people who aren’t bothered by any of this. They’re those who either voted for the new regime, knowing and liking what it would be, or weren’t concerned enough to go and vote. They seem to include the Republicans running the Senate, which has yet to deny Trump anything.

But for the rest of us, which I think is a majority, this is the question:

How can we be expected to respect the office of president when its occupant doesn’t respect it himself?

The regime’s abuse of public office for private gain is far from the worst of it. Trump’s relentless attacks on the media and, now, the judiciary are the worst of it.

None of his predecessors, not even Richard Nixon, were so persistently thin-skinned, petulant, and heedless of the stature the presidency needs and deserves. Trump’s bombastic, childish, vainglorious outbursts are diminishing not only him, but the office.

If it were just about him being a crybaby, that would be bad enough.

But what he is doing—with calculation and malice, and no doubt with Steven Bannon’s encouragement—is to poison the public’s mind against the only two nonpartisan institutions, the courts and the media, that are willing and able to stand in the way of his abuses of power and his incipient dictatorship.

As it happens, the war on the media is a monumental act of ingratitude. Trump wouldn’t be in the White House had television not fawned on his every act and outrage as a candidate, had the newspapers not contrived to put his picture on every Page 1, had the media been willing earlier to call him out on his falsehoods, and had it not given him, in effect, a free ride against Hillary Clinton by portraying her, falsely, as his equal in sleaze.

Trump understood, as they did not, that it did not matter what they said about him so long as they said it.

Now it matters. It matters a lot. The case for impeachment already exists, and it is building hour by hour, day by day.

___

Martin Dyckman is a retired associate editor of the Tampa Bay Times. He lives in Asheville, North Carolina.

 

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Paul Ryan, Mitch McConnell — why are you enabling Donald Trump?

An open letter to House Speaker Paul Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell:

Gentlemen:

It was wisdom rather than whim that guided the founders of our nation in separating the powers of government with a system of checks and balances. As James Madison remarked in The Federalist 47, “the accumulation of all powers … in the same hands, whether of one, a few or many … may justly be pronounced the very definition of tyranny.”

Their faith in the future is being put to the test by current events in Washington that prompt me to ask: Have you lost your minds?  Are you as irresponsible as the madman in the White House? Why are you defaulting on the duty of the Congress to defend our democracy?

Why are you enabling Mr. Trump’s excesses?

I’m writing this letter Jan. 30, the anniversary of two world-changing events. One was the birth of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who greatly honored the office that you are allowing the current occupant to disgrace. The other was that of Adolf Hitler attaining the chancellorship of Germany in 1933, despite not having won a majority in any election.

A month and a half later, Dr. Paul Joseph Goebbels, Hitler’s new propaganda chief, warned German newspapers against publishing criticism that could be used, as The Associated Press paraphrased it, “by oppositionists to the government’s detriment.”

“The press must be the keyboard on which the government can play,” he said. “Criticism will be allowed, but it must be expressed so that no enemy of the government at home or abroad may be enabled to seize upon such criticism to the government’s detriment. Cooperation between the government and the press is our aim.”

I don’t have to tell you what happened soon after to the German press.

Well, sirs, it hasn’t taken nearly that long for Mr. Trump’s propaganda minister, Steve Bannon, to tell The New York Times to shut up, for the president himself to indulge himself in infantile Twitter messages attacking the Times and other great newspaper, The Washington Post; for a committee chairman in your Congress to lecture the media on its duty to be the government’s mouthpiece; and for Kellyanne Conway, who is apparently the junior propaganda minister, to say that reporters who criticize Trump ought to be fired.

Doesn’t any of that concern you?

I have specific concerns about what Trump is doing and what you are not doing.

A case in point is your reported assurance that Mr. Trump’s great wall will be built, at extraordinary expense to the public in one form or another of direct or indirect taxation. That wall will be as abject a failure as France’s Maginot Line, and the only beneficiaries will be wall builders in the United States and tunnel builders in Mexico. The latter, as you should know, already have expertise in smuggling narcotics and people under our existing defenses. As deep as you build a wall, people will find ways around it. We have a long and essentially unguarded coastline. The Canadian border is open. Visas can easily be overstayed. The wall would be a failure not only practically but in the moral sense as well. History will come to regard that wall and its builders with the same contempt deservedly directed at the Soviet Union and its puppets in the former East Germany.

My second issue is your timid acceptance of the catastrophic incompetence and cruelty with which the president issued his executive orders against Muslim immigrants last Friday. That he picked Holocaust Remembrance Day to do so is an irony almost too painful to bear. The agencies that would have to carry out his abuse of executive power (and what has become of the distaste you expressed when President Obama exercised his?) were neither consulted nor forewarned in time to avert massive confusion at airports. Decent people holding legitimate green cards were treated as criminals. Families were sundered. And why were only certain countries singled out, excluding those where, by remarkable coincidence, Mr. Trump has been doing business? Why are people from Iraq subject to his ban when those from Saudi Arabia, the country of origin of most of the 911 terrorists, are not barred?  Don’t these inconsistencies bother you? Are you unconcerned by his unconstitutional preference for immigrants of one religion over all others?

Are you not frightened — frankly, I’m terrified — that he is excluding the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the Director of National Intelligence from the regular meetings of the National Security Council? And that in their place, he is installing his far-right adviser, Steven Bannon? It would seem that he wants to hear only from those who would inform and flatter his biases. In my opinion, the Congress should without delay provide by legislation for the permanent, full NSC membership of those officials, and find a way to keep the dangerous Mr. Bannon at a distance.

In my view, and that of others among whom we share concerns, you have decided to tolerate and even enable the administration’s dangerous conduct because of the short-term benefits that might accrue to the Republican Party. Yes, you might attain some policy goals that the candidate who won the popular vote would have blocked. But you are deluding only yourself if you think all this will rebound to the long-term benefit of your party. When America comes to its senses, the people will hold you along with Trump responsible for all the damage that needs to be undone. The greater the harm, the more you’ll be blamed for it.

Sincerely,

Martin A. Dyckman

___

Martin Dyckman is a retired associate editor of the Tampa Bay Times. He lives in Asheville, North Carolina.

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Time to call the White House, complain to the Madman in Residence

It was not long after the first telephone conversation in 1876 — Alexander Graham Bell to his assistant, “Mr. Watson. Come here. I want to see you” — that the White House opened a public comment line.

OK, I exaggerate. Elasticity with the truth seems to be in fashion.

But seriously, the comment line has been a sounding board for the public for quite some time. No longer. It has been shut down — whether at the inauguration or earlier is not clear — and the madman currently in residence there has replaced it with a wall. This one is not between the U.S. and Mexico but between him and the public that he fantasizes is so adoring.

Call the main White House switchboard (202-456-1111) and a recording answers with four options, none of which connects you to a living person.

The first — press 1 — is to the now-defunct White House comment line. Another recorded message announces that the comment line is closed and invites you to access the White House website or leave a message on Facebook Messenger, which is not quite as simple as it sounds. But there is still no option to talk to a living person whose salary you are paying.

Since this runaround is typical of the commercial world’s voicemail hell, to which we are all accustomed, I experimented to see whether it could be bypassed by pressing 9 or 0. 9 worked. A live human being answered. I said I wanted to leave a message about the dearly departed comment line.

She refused to take it.

“You have to go to www.whitehouse.gov or mail a letter,” she said.

“You mean I can’t talk to a real person, as I do with my senators and congressman?”

“You are talking to a real person,” she said, “but I can’t take a message.”

So there.

There is no guarantee that a message on the website will be read, much less counted. Snail mail will take forever, as a letter has to go through multiple stages of security to ensure that it contains nothing harmful, such as the truth.

And if you’re one of the many, many Americans who don’t own computers or dwell on the internet, Madman Trump won’t be hearing from you very soon … if at all.

But this I would recommend to everyone reading, and to their friends. Call the White House switchboard. Press 9. Make the same complaint. Demand that they restore the comment line. Never mind that she won’t take down your name or message. Do it often enough, and that’s a message they WILL get.

The comment line, I read, was staffed by volunteers. Is it possible that unlike Barack Obama and his predecessors, Trump just can’t get any?

Meanwhile, the madman who doesn’t want to hear from us continues to indulge himself in the delusion that he would have won the popular vote but for millions of phantasmal people who voted illegally for his opponent.

He has announced a major investigation. To suspicious ears, it sounds like yet another Republican voter suppression scheme.

That news wasn’t even several hours old when it came out that his far-right guru Steve Bannon and his daughter Tiffany are two of the many people who had been on more than one voter roll.

That doesn’t mean they voted illegally. It’s against the law only to actually vote more than once. Otherwise, millions of people would be scrounging for bail money.

We’re a notably mobile society. When we move, whether to another state or even just across the street, we’re supposed to file a new voter registration. There’s a place to note whether and where we are already registered. It’s the responsibility of the new registering agency to notify the old one to drop us from their rolls. But sometimes this isn’t done, or it isn’t done in time to clear the books for an imminent election. We’re doing nothing wrong unless we vote in both places, and to hear the nation’s election supervisors — most of whom are Republican, by the way — that does not happen often enough to worry about. In any case, the numbers would work both ways.

Oh well, let Trump go on a hunt for those millions of people who voted illegally and against him. While he’s at it, perhaps he’ll help O.J. Simpson search for the real killer.

___

Martin Dyckman is a retired associate editor of the Tampa Bay Times. He lives in North Carolina.

 

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Dear Congress: On Jan. 21, the people roared — and they will vote

A letter to my Senators and Representative. Crib freely if you wish.

Dear Senator Burr:

It would seem that we are living in an alternative universe, one in which Nazis, Ku Kluxers and other traitors to our American way of life are euphemized as the “alternative right” and the propagandists for Donald Trump claim entitlement to “alternative facts.” Does that make him an “alternative president?” If only it were so.

But about this I am serious: There is no “alternative Congress.” We have only one, the one in which you serve. We are looking to that Congress, looking to you, for the mature, stable leadership that, sad to say, is plainly not forthcoming from the infantile and petulant personality in the White House.

My wife and I marched Saturday, along with as many as an estimated 5 million other people in the United States and abroad, to affirm the values that we fear are in great danger from that man and from those in the Congress — not including you, we hope — who would enable his alarming behavior.

It was unquestionably the largest single-day demonstration in our nation’s history. And it was unfailingly peaceful.

We do not delude ourselves that Mr. Trump was even slightly impressed. We did not expect him to be.

But we do expect you to take account of our great numbers and our great resolve. What you saw Saturday — unless, perhaps, you were watching Fox News — is only the beginning. We will not acquiesce tamely to the vindictive destruction of Planned Parenthood, thereby denying lifesaving medical care to multitudes of women. We will not abide the repeal of Roe v. Wade. We will not tolerate the repeal of the Affordable Care Act in the absence of new provisions that genuinely broaden its coverage and reduce its costs. We will no longer ascribe legitimacy to that dangerous constitutional anachronism known as the Electoral College. We will not let the Congress sacrifice Social Security on the altar of Wall Street greed or destroy Medicare by turning it into a voucher program euphemized as “premium support.” We will not allow mass roundups of immigrants who work hard to support their families. We will stand in unbreakable unity with our Muslim brothers and sisters. We will not accept the erosion of hard-won LGBT rights. If the government pursues any such ill-chosen goals, we will be back in numbers as great or greater than you saw Saturday.

We, the people, didn’t just speak Jan. 21, 2017. We roared. And we will vote.

Yours truly,

Martin Dyckman

___

Martin Dyckman is a retired associate editor of the Tampa Bay Times. He lives in Asheville, North Carolina.

 

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A visit to Franklin D. Roosevelt Hyde Park home gives insight, solace

HYDE PARK, N.Y. — Finding ourselves in the neighborhood, we made a point of visiting a most famous site Friday to pay our respects to a First Couple who truly did make America great again.

No matter what anyone else pretends, the nation is still great. Whether we can remain so is in some doubt. Sad.

For a chilly, gray January day, there were more than the usual number of pilgrims to the home and grave site of Franklin D. and Eleanor Roosevelt.

“It’s a little busier today. People are seeking solace,” the ticket-taker said.

Springwood — the actual though little-known name of the tasteful mansion — was a place to find that solace, to forget for a little while that FDR’s office now belongs to a man who could not possibly be more unlike him in education, temperament, intelligence, and — what matters most — character.

Compare their inaugural addresses — easily found on the web — and you’ll see what I mean.

The contemporary problems that Donald J. Trump delights in rubbing in, like salt into a wound, are nothing compared to what FDR faced on his first day in office in March 1933. Nearly one in every four Americans were unemployed, almost 13 percent of the workforce, and many of the rest weren’t earning enough and lived in daily fear of losing their jobs. There was no safety net.

Americans knew, as FDR reminded them, that misconduct in high financial circles had contributed to their misery. But that was not the point he wanted to stress, that he wanted them to most remember. He began his inaugural address on an uplifting note.

“So, first of all, let me assert my firm belief that the only thing we have to fear is … fear itself — nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance,” he said. “In every dark hour of our national life, a leadership of frankness and of vigor has met with that understanding and support of the people themselves which is essential to victory. And I am convinced that you will again give that support to leadership in these critical days.”

The superbly organized museum at the presidential library details how swiftly he and Congress moved to confront the crisis. Among them, barely three months later, was the enactment of the Glass-Steagall Act, which built a firewall between the banks entrusted with other people’s money and the risks that they had been taking on Wall Street.

The repeal of Glass-Steagall six decades later, in which both Democrats and Republicans were complicit, helped to bring on the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression. Now, Republicans in Congress see Trump’s election as an opportunity to unleash even more predatory greed. I’m speaking of Dodd-Frank and the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, which proved its worth again last week in going after fraud in the student loan racket. It is now probably as endangered as the honey bee.

Nothing in Trump’s inaugural address lends itself to confidence that he really understands what the nation needs most to do, let alone that he is prepared to be honest about it. American corporations haven’t lost anything to foreign competition. Our corporations are fat. But too often their workers haven’t shared in the prosperity they have helped to create. Most of the jobs Trump promises to restore have been lost to automation, not globalization. He gives no sign of understanding that.

We read this week that Trump fancies himself in the mold of Andrew Jackson, another radical populist. That’s undoubtedly true. We also hear that he has never really read in detail the biography of any American president, which is also likely true because it’s well-known that he just doesn’t read anything. What history teaches about Jackson should make us worry about Trump fancying his example. Jackson’s fixation with destroying the Second Bank of the United States brought on hard times. His treatment of the Cherokees and other Native Americans in the Southeast was ethnic cleansing, if you prefer a euphemism and outright genocide if you care to be honest about it.

Like Trump, Old Hickory knew how to evoke discontent and anger to get himself elected. Whether Trump will be a better president than Jackson will depend, as David Brooks wrote in The New York Times Friday, on whether Congress can manage to control the helpless excesses of the unprepared man Brooks calls “Captain Chaos,” and whether we, the public, can compel Congress to heed the better angels of our nature.

Visitors to the FDR home and museum learn the story of a man who was born to wealth and privilege, whose mother would not let him apply to the Naval Academy because she thought a gentleman of his status was meant for Harvard, and who overcame his protected upbringing to become the best friend that ordinary Americans ever had.

And when you hear the story of the polio that paralyzed his legs and see the heavy, cumbersome braces that helped him give the illusion of walking, you understand how the child of privilege became the champion of the people.

The disease that withered his leg strengthened his character and inspired his compassion.

Trump is another child of wealth and privilege. What would inspire him to connect, really connect, with ordinary people?

___

Martin Dyckman is a retired associate editor of the Tampa Bay Times. He lives in Asheville, North Carolina.

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Donald Trump, government is not a business. Reject Rex Tillerson.

If it is to be believed, as Donald Trump evidently does, that government is just another business, then Rex Tillerson is a plausible nominee for secretary of state. Hasn’t he been running one of the most powerful and profitable businesses in this corner of the universe?

But government is not a business.

The duty of a business is to produce profits for its owners. Period. How it’s done rarely matters so long as there are profits. Whether a business treats its customers and employees with consideration or stiffs them, as Trump so often did to his, is “right” or “wrong” only in the light of the profit margin or loss. A CEO who doesn’t put profits first won’t last, and he or she is most unlikely to find a soft landing on a business school faculty.

The competitive situation of a business requires keeping certain secrets from the public. In a proper democracy, however, there are no secrets to be kept from the public, other than those that directly implicate national security. The personal assets of a wealthy Cabinet nominee are no such exception. And certainly those of a president are not. We deserve to know, we need to know, what conflicts of interest may exist. Florida Governor Reubin Askew maintained that full financial disclosure was the only way to earn the trust of the people, and the voters agreed with him overwhelmingly.

A business can fail. It can declare bankruptcy, freeing its owners to foist off the losses on other people and start over, as Trump has done four times. A local government can do that too, but a national government, one with the power and the duty to maintain the economy, cannot do that without catastrophic consequences. It cannot even suggest renegotiating its debts, as Trump casually speculated during the campaign, without risking the collapse of its currency and runaway inflation.

The fundamental duties of a government are so obviously different that they shouldn’t need explanation, but there seem to be more than a few folks who don’t grasp them.

One of the differences is that a government’s stockholders and its customers are one and the same, and its duty to them is to protect and serve them as efficiently as possible. There is no place for profit in that equation. Pay-as-you-go projects, like toll roads and park fees, should take in only enough revenue for operation, maintenance and improvement.

I’m speaking of a democracy, of course. The other kind of government, the kind run by Vladimir Putin, gauges its success by the extent of its power over its own people and others. Its loyalty is to the tyrant, not the citizens.

And that inescapably calls into question the loyalty of multinational corporations, like Tillerson’s Exxon Mobil, which occasionally find it necessary to do business with such despots. When a man who would be our secretary of state can’t acknowledge the simple fact that Putin’s conduct in Syria is that of a war criminal, he is tacitly confessing the moral cost of doing business with Putin. Tillerson’s professional accommodation to the realpolitik of the international energy market is an inherent conflict of interest with the duty of a secretary of state to put our country first and always.

We have Senator Marco Rubio to thank for making that point in his deft interrogation of Tillerson at the Foreign Relations Committee hearing. As someone who hasn’t exactly been one of his fans, I have to say that would have been anyone’s finest hour. It certainly was Rubio’s.

That brings us to the second profound difference between a democratic government and a business. Most people expect their government to embody, represent, assert and advance their national character and ideals. We don’t really expect that of a business. This is why the British still support and revere their monarchy long after it was reduced to a splendid but powerless symbol. This is why until now, Americans have believed that character is what defines the suitability of a candidate for president. When we think of George Washington, what comes to mind? His towering reputation for patriotism and personal integrity.

We revere our country. We don’t revere corporations, not even the ones we work for. We don’t sing, “My company, ‘tis of thee.” We sing of purple mountain majesties, not towering smokestacks. We pledge our allegiance to our flag, not to the Chamber of Commerce.

Americans have been accused, sometimes fairly, of preaching too much to people elsewhere about the superiority of our form of government. Most of the time, though, we do it for the best of reasons: our belief that democracy is the only suitable environment for personal liberty and economic opportunity and a sincere wish to see others enjoy what we do. We are proud of what we have. It speaks well of us that we want to share it. Our hearts fill with pride and admiration for those who gave their lives for our country and for those who still risk theirs.

That does not mean trying to be the “world’s policeman” in places where our influence is unwanted or likely to be ineffective. It does mean taking care, in consort with allies, to keep our part of the world safe from a hostile power’s quest for unhealthy dominance in trade and military affairs. World War II was in large part a consequence of the self-centered isolationism that led to the Senate rejecting the League of Nations and to our indifference as tyrants rose “over there.”

We expect — reasonably so — that those we elect or who are appointed to serve us will embody the ideals that make us proud to be Americans. That’s what so confounding about Trump’s impending presidency. What’s done is done, but as it considers the qualifications of his Cabinet nominees, the Senate can still redeem our national character. Rejecting Tillerson’s nomination would be a good start.

___

Martin Dyckman is a retired associate editor of the Tampa Bay Times. He lives in Asheville, North Carolina.

 

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Jan. 20, 2017: A day that will live in infamy

When a family member or another loved one dies of natural causes, we understand that death is the price we pay for life. We must accept it and count on memories to console us.

But how do you grieve for your nation? How do you move beyond the death of everything you held sacred about the land of your birth? Whose uniform you wore proudly? Whose virtues you have tried to teach to your children and to anyone else who would listen? When you know that the tragedy owes not to an act of God but to the malice of a man and so many of his supporters? How can you accept this? How can you rationalize it?

For me, Jan. 20 will be the saddest day ever. I don’t think I’m alone in that regard.

Donald Trump is the most undeserving, unqualified, and untrustworthy person ever to seek the presidency, let alone obtain it. He is a clear and present danger to our principles, our economy, our self-respect and our national security.

No one has put that better than J. M. “Mac” Stipanovich, a trusted adviser to two Florida Republican governors, expressed it in a Facebook post earlier this month.

“Ignorant, unprincipled and amoral,” he wrote. That was in reply to a friend who had wearied of “my constant carping” against Trump and had challenged him to state his three “foremost objections” to Trump’s presidency.

There’s no need to try to summarize here the vast evidence of Trump’s unprincipled amorality. Everyone is aware of it, although only some care. In a world bristling with economic rivalries and nuclear-armed powers, Trump’s ignorance is the greater danger than what he might steal.

“I am concerned,” Stipanovich explained, “about what Donald Trump does not know, the fact that he does not know what he does not know and will not listen to those who do know.”

Some Republicans, perhaps most, may relish what Trump will let the Congress do to the Affordable Care Act and to Medicare and Social Security despite his transparently worthless promises to protect them. Some will rejoice in the destruction of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and the Environmental Protection Agency, and in the neutering of the Securities and Exchange Commission.

But my hope is that there are still members of both parties who understand that character — defined as integrity, trustworthiness, fidelity to principle and fundamental decency — is what America has assumed in its presidents since the Constitution was written with George Washington in mind. It was to prevent the ascension of someone like Trump that the founders opted against direct election. Ever since, Americans and the world have looked to the presidency of the United States as an avatar of America itself. But what do we see now? What does the world see? A braggart, a bully, a libertine, a cocky ignoramus, an infantile personality in the body of a 70-year-old man who has never cared, even once, about anyone or anything other than himself, who breathes contempt for the four freedoms of the First Amendment, who craved the presidency for self-aggrandizement and whose election was sought and applauded by the most vicious people among us as a license to make America hate again. For the first time, Nazis and Ku Kluxers have helped elect an American president. Think about that.

And if that weren’t enough, he is an apologist and sycophant for a murderous foreign tyrant who means to eliminate the United States as an obstacle to reviving the Soviet empire and dominating Europe. John LeCarré, whose novels envisioned a mole secretly subverting British intelligence, never imagined a scenario as wild as that of the cousins, as he called us, being taken over so openly at the very top. The most unenviable job in the United States today becomes that of an intelligence officer who remains faithful to duty and principles.

I don’t know which is more discouraging — that such a person is actually president or that so many people voted for him knowing what he is. That he lost the popular vote to Hillary Clinton by nearly 3 million votes is some consolation but the awful truth is that he is in the White House and the radical Republicans in Congress no longer have anyone there to check their worst ambitions.

The awful truth is that even with Russia’s assistance Trump would not have won but for the racists who haven’t forgiven the rest of us for twice electing a black man, the misogynists who couldn’t abide the thought of a woman president, the cynical opportunists who saw in Trump a reactionary Supreme Court, and the idiots who swallowed Trump’s absurd lies along with the false equivalency the media assigned to Clinton’s mostly decent record and Trump’s utterly deplorable one. These people are not going away, although more of a few may come to regret their votes when their Medicare is sacrificed to the insurance industry, Social Security is sold out to Wall Street, and they’re forced to wait until they’re 70 to begin collecting what’s left.

Is American democracy dead? Can it be resurrected? The answers depend on those of us who do not celebrate Inauguration Day. What we must do, for love of country and self-respect, is to make ourselves heard every day in Congress, and especially in the Senate, where there are still some grown-ups on the majority side, and which can’t be gerrymandered like the House.

We must never, never give up. The United States of America is too precious to waste.

___

Martin Dyckman is a retired associate editor of the Tampa Bay Times. He lives in Asheville, North Carolina.

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