Abortion back in Supreme Court? Scary.

US Supreme Court building, front elevation, st...
US Supreme Court building, front elevation, steps and portico. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

A new challenge to women’s reproductive rights could soon be heard by the Supreme Court, according to an insightful report posted by Linda Greenhouse September 4 on the New York Times Opinionator. The Court may decide whether or not to hear the case (Cline v Oklahoma Coalition for Reproductive Justice) by this fall, and its current make-up is unlikely to come down on the reproductive justice. It’s a scary scenario.

Scary because the case is going to be billed as “protecting women” while no one with a brain can fail to see it for what it is: a new attempt to make abortion virtually impossible for women in the U.S. A little sleight-of-hand interpretation of an old FDA ruling will translate to ending the use of RU-486. Greenhouse explains it better, but that’s the gist of it: medical abortion will cease to be available if anti-abortion forces win this case. State regulations continue to limit access, clinics continue to close; you don’t have to do much math to realize that reproductive rights are disappearing across the U.S.

We’ve been here before:

On one side is a woman. On another side is pregnancy tissue which is, in Greenhouse’s apt description, the size of a pencil eraser. Some of us believe the woman should have the right to choose what happens to that tissue within her body. Others of us believe it is already a life which must be protected at all costs and the woman be damned. Unfortunately, if access to safe abortion is again denied, women will again be damned. Damned to dangerous attempts to end unwanted pregnancies, or to “forced birth.” That “forced birth” phrase was used by a woman attending a recent reading of Perilous Times, who added, “We used to call that slavery.”

Whatever you call it, that tiny bit of pregnancy tissue is the real focus of Cline v Oklahoma Coalition for Reproductive Justice, not the drug which can be used to cause its removal. The anti-abortion forces who value that bit of tissue over the woman carrying it have absolutely no concern for the woman. What they do have are political clout, irrational zeal, unscientific arguments, religious fervor and a Supreme Court likely to lean their way.

It’s a case to watch.

Supreme Court leaves 'Healthy San Francisco' program to its own success

Healthy San Francisco, the city’s healthcare-for-all program, remains firmly in place after the Supreme Court’s dismissal of a suit by the Golden Gate Restaurant Association last week. It may or may not be the model for everywhere else, but a lot of reassured folks here are happy with it. Many are also healthier in the bargain. PBS NewsHour correspondent Spencer Michels talked with several Healthy SF participants for last night’s report, while outlining how the program is working.

Until recently, San Francisco, a diverse city with a population of nearly 800,000, had more than 60,000 adult residents with no health insurance. They were not poor enough for Medicaid, nor old enough for Medicare.

While the nation struggled with reforming health care, this city began a program of its own that so far has enrolled more than three-quarters of its uninsured. It’s called Healthy San Francisco, and it is not, strictly speaking, health insurance. Rather, it’s a way to provide health care, but only within the city limits.

The plan was not particularly radical. It used mostly existing resources, like city clinics and nonprofit hospitals, to supply and coordinate care. Instead of flitting from one clinic or emergency room to another, enrollees choose a medical home, one of 30 public or private health centers in the city, where they go for low- or no-cost health care.

Once you choose your “medical home,” you can’t walk into another and get treatment. But the two Healthy San Francisco participants this writer asked (along with the patients and clinic directors Michel featured on the PBS show) indicate that customer satisfaction with the system — and with their one medical home — is high.

As to the costs, and who covers them, most San Franciscans other than the restaurant owners are fine with the plan. Restaurant-goers have gotten used to the friendly, small-print message at the bottom of the menu that lets them know an amount added to the tab goes to help pay for Healthy SF.

Each patient in Healthy San Francisco costs the city about $300 per month. That’s in line with insurance costs. It totals $126 million a year.

Depending on their income — and most are below the poverty level — enrollees pay nothing or from $20 a month up to about $200, plus co-payments. But that doesn’t pay for it all. The city has mandated that businesses with 20 to 100 employees spend at least $1.23 an hour per worker for health care, and that larger companies pay more.

That money can be used to reimburse employees for health care costs, to buy them health insurance, or it can go to Healthy San Francisco.

The Restaurant Association’s argument before the Supreme Court was not on Constitutional grounds, but rather that the city’s mandate that employers pay into the program violated federal law. The Court declined to deal with it all; the mandate stays. Susan Currin, CEO at San Francisco General, says emergency room use is slightly down. Director Hali Hammer of San Francisco General Hospital Family Health Center (one of the more popular medical homes) says they have hired new providers and expanded hours. The number of participants is growing at about 700 per week, and the Kaiser Family Foundation recently found that 94 percent of those participants are satisfied with the program. Paying that small extra amount for dinner out makes at least a few of us occasional diners-out feel a slight good-citizen glow. Something’s working.

San Francisco Ramps Up Care for City’s Uninsured | PBS NewsHour | Oct. 12, 2009 | PBS.

Marriage = procreation, Prop 8 backers say

It’s all about procreation, the Proposition 8 lawyers said; marriage between a man and a woman who produce babies to be raised by their biological parents, and thus insure the survival of the human race. Those arguments were the closing of an historic case that went to a federal judge in San Francisco yesterday.

During more than two hours of intense and sometimes skeptical questioning by Chief U.S. District Judge Vaughn Walker, attorney Charles Cooper maintained that society is entitled to reserve its approval of marriage for those who can naturally conceive children.”The marital relationship is fundamental to the existence and survival of the race,” Cooper said in closing arguments before a packed San Francisco courtroom. The reason the state regulates marriage, he said, is to steer “procreative sexual relationships” into a stable family environment so that children can be raised by their biological parents.

It’s an argument that has worked before, but supporters of same-sex marriage hope this time might be different.

Walker, who presided over the nation’s first federal trial on the issue, sounded dubious. He noted that the state allows couples unable or unwilling to have children to marry, suggesting that the institution has a broader purpose that same-sex partners might equally fulfill.

“Marriage is a right which extends fundamentally to all persons, whether they’re capable of producing children, incarcerated or behind in their child-support payments,” Walker said, citing Supreme Court rulings that allow people in all those situations to marry.

People marry not to benefit the state, but because they believe that “I’m going to get a life partner, who I’m going to share my life with and maybe have children,” the judge said. “Why don’t those same values apply to gay couples and lesbian couples loving one another?”

Cooper replied that same-sex couples are incapable of “irresponsible procreation,” which he said marriage laws are designed to discourage.

He also said California has provided equal treatment for all couples in its domestic-partner laws. But even a discriminatory marriage law would be valid, Cooper said, because the U.S. Constitution offers no special protection to gays and lesbians and “we don’t have to submit evidence” to justify treating them differently.Theodore Olson, lawyer for two same-sex couples who sued for the right to marry, responded indignantly. Prop. 8, he said, “takes a group of people who have been victims of discrimination” historically and prevents them from “participating in the most fundamental relationship in life.”

Gays and lesbians, Olson said, seek to wed for the same reasons as everyone else, to be in a committed, socially accepted family relationship with the one they love. “Tell me how it helps the rest of the citizens of California to keep them out of the club,” he said.

Walker’s decision, in whichever direction, is certain to be appealed.

Prop. 8 backers: Marriage promotes procreation.

Judge to rule on same-sex marriage

Can gay marriage be a fundamental right, when all legal protection has been denied until recently? In a state that treats domestic partners the same as spouses, “what purpose is served by differentiating – in name only – between same-sex and opposite-sex unions?”

These are two of the questions sent to opposing lawyers by U.S. District Judge Vaughn Walker, who will hear their closing arguments next Wednesday in the San Francisco case being watched for broader implications. Supporters of gay rights are seeking to overturn Proposition 8, California’s voter-approved ban on gay marriage.

The closing arguments won’t be watched by just anybody. Judge Walker ruled late this week that arguments may not be televised beyond the closed circuit of the courthouse. So you’ll have to be on site to follow the proceedings up close and personal. Media organizations had sought to have the session, which is expected to last all day, televised; proponents of Prop 8 argued against the idea.

The denial means “the public will again only hear about this case second-hand,” said Thomas Burke, the media groups’ lawyer.

Andrew Pugno, a lawyer for sponsors of the ballot measure that banned same-sex marriage, countered that “the purpose of the court is not to entertain or educate the public, but to protect the right to a fair and impartial trial.” The sponsors had opposed televising any trial proceedings.

Two same-sex couples and the city of San Francisco have sued to overturn Proposition 8, the November 2008 initiative that amended the California Constitution to define marriage as the union of a man and a woman.

Walker presided over the non-jury trial in January. He had proposed to televise the trial live to several federal courthouses around the nation and record the proceedings for a delayed Internet posting on YouTube.

The telecast, which would have been the first for a federal court in California, was blocked by the U.S. Supreme Court just before the trial started.

In a 5-4 ruling, the court said Walker hadn’t given the public enough time to comment on the proposed change in court rules. The court also cited claims by Prop. 8’s sponsors that showing the proceedings outside the courthouse might intimidate witnesses.

Media organizations asked Walker last month to approve televising the closing arguments. They said that airing a hearing that included only lawyers and the judge couldn’t affect witnesses or the fairness of the trial.

Prop 8 supporters argued, though, that cameras in the courtroom could prompt “grandstanding and avoidance of unpopular decisions or positions.” Whatever the judge’s decision, it is guaranteed to be widely unpopular.

No TV for closing arguments in Prop. 8 trial.

Gun buffs push 'Open Carry' agenda

Whatever those framers of the Constitution meant, their second amendment writing seems to have kept us all up in arms, so to speak, since about 1791. The latest battleground has gun buffs lining up in California to take aim at AB1934, a bill now pending in the state legislature which would make it illegal to carry an unloaded gun in plain view.

On one side are the “Open Carry” folks. They have taken offense at the fact that everyone who applies for a permit to carry a concealed weapon is not immediately granted that permit, even if he or she is a law-abiding citizen. You want to pack heat? The Open Carry folks think nothing should stop you. And since it is quite legal to carry an unloaded gun anywhere, any way you want, they have taken to strolling around with pistols tucked in their belts in protest. AB 1934 would interfere with this pleasant activity.

The bill’s author, Assemblywoman Lori Saldaña, D-San Diego, is quoted as saying, “What I’m concerned about is people, who have no training, can carry a gun for no other purpose than to make a public statement.”

Ah, but according to Sam Paredes, Executive Director of Gun Owners of California, carrying an unloaded gun is just no problem at all.

Making public statements is an American activity. The “open carry movement” is driven by the inequities and unfair withholding of concealed-carry weapon permits.

The intimidation that the lawmaker, or others, may feel is no reason to make another law. Imagined fears are not justification for punishing laws that threaten innocent citizens. “Fears” were addressed by the U.S. Supreme Court in the 1960s when the court ruled that people’s “fears” were not justification to deny civil and constitutional rights.

Once California becomes a “shall issue” state, and all those who apply who are capable and law abiding are permitted to carry concealed weapons, the concern over empty guns carried in open view will fade.

Does this make sense? Perhaps as much as Paredes’ argument that since: “(w)e all know that the police cannot be on the spot immediately with every crime,” so let’s just let everyone pack a gun and be ready to take matters into his own hand.

Emeryville (CA) Police Chief Ken James is not so sure that’s a good idea.

Law enforcement officers are taught that guns are a dangerous and deadly threat to their safety and the safety of the public they serve. They understand that any encounter involving a gun is grave.

“Open carry,” the practice of carrying an unloaded handgun exposed in a belt holster, unnecessarily subjects our officers and the public to tense encounters that have unforeseeable consequences. The police officer who approaches an “open carry” subject must rapidly assess the subject’s behavior without knowing if the individual has a permit to carry a gun or a gun license. The officer knows only that he or she must detain the subject only long enough to determine whether the gun is unloaded.

An officer has more authority to check on whether a driver is legally driving a car than to stop an individual to verify if the individual has the right to carry a gun.

The officer doesn’t know if the individual is a law-abiding citizen or an individual prohibited from owning or carrying a gun. The officer does know that an unloaded weapon can become a loaded weapon in less than 1.3 seconds.

Paredes and James will face off in the company of University of California, Berkeley law professor Franklin E. Zimring next week, on a panel moderated by San Francisco Chronicle editorial page editor John Diaz at the Commonwealth Club of California, a local public affairs organization with national reach.

In the meantime, there seem to be people carrying guns — hey, it’s legal, probably — in public places, and the public hopes they’re not loaded.

SCOTUS animal cruelty ruling draws human ire

Film producers Chris Palmer and Peter Kimball take issue with the Supreme Court’s ruling in favor of animal cruelty film seller Robert Stevens a few days ago. In an op ed piece appearing in today’s San Francisco Chronicle, the two decidedly more respected and respectable members of the human community (Palmer heads the Center for Environmental Filmmaking at American University; Kimball is writer/director of the wildlife film Badger Insurance: The Plight of the North American Badger) argue that “videos of dog-fighting and animal mutilation — created not to educate or inform but merely to titillate — have no constitutional protection.”

The Court, Palmer and Kimball say, “has gone too far in protecting the free speech of those who would profit from films depicting wanton and malicious cruelty to animals solely for customers’ entertainment. We believe that these types of videos deserve no legal protection whatsoever.”

The case in question, United States vs. Stevens, centered on Robert Stevens, a purveyor of the video series “Dogs of Velvet and Steel.” Stevens produced and sold videos of pit bulls engaging in dogfights and viciously attacking other animals. These videos include graphic depictions of torture and brutality, including a pit bull mutilating the lower jaw of a live pig. In January 2005, Stevens was convicted of violating the Animal Cruelty Act (1999), which criminalized the trafficking of depictions of animal cruelty, except those with “serious religious, political, scientific, educational, journalistic, historical, or artistic value.” A federal appeals court overturned Stevens’ conviction and ruled that the animal cruelty law violated his First Amendment right to free speech. On Tuesday, the Supreme Court upheld the lower court’s ruling.

The fundamental question is this: Does the Animal Cruelty Act violate the First Amendment right of freedom of speech? Certainly, the right to free speech is one of the paramount freedoms in our society. Our country was founded on the principle that people should not be persecuted for voicing unpopular opinions. Naturally, in order to be effective, this freedom protects disturbing and offensive speech.

However, there are very specific types of speech that we, as a society, have deemed so despicable and so lacking in merit that they do not deserve protection, among them child pornography, obscenity, threats and incitement of violence. Animal cruelty should be one of these unprotected categories. As Wayne Pacelle, president of the Humane Society of the United States, wrote, “We wouldn’t allow the sale of videos of actual child abuse or murder staged for the express purpose of selling videos of such criminal acts.” There is no reason to ignore depictions of animal cruelty while rightfully criminalizing parallel depictions of child abuse.

The Supreme Court is not in the habit of overturning itself, but in decisions such as Tuesday’s ruling one hopes for quick reversal of fortunes of the animal kingdom. As long as there are depraved people getting some sort of kicks out of the suffering of others, there will be shameless people like Robert Stevens ready to benefit.

True/Slant Contributor Rick Ungar makes a good point that First Amendment rights must be carefully protected. In a post immediately following the ruling he wrote:

While I am as disgusted by these videos as most, the majority does have a point. The law, as drafted, could result in unintended consequences – going so far as to ban the depiction of bullfights as graphically painted in Ernest Hemingway novels. When we’re talking about first amendment rights, Congress is obligated to be careful in constructing laws that can produce an unintended chilling effect on so important of a right.

Though I’m a Hemingway fan and occasional Spain-o-phile, I’d have as hard a time arguing for bullfights as for dog-fights. Went to one a few years back, had to leave before they dragged the bull out. Ungar and others suggest that the answer to this human rights v animal rights issue will lie in enactment of narrow laws banning specific cruelties such as the “crush videos” (women in high heels stomping small animals) cited by Justice Samuel Alito in his dissenting opinion.

This space hopes for a fast track on such legislation. One way or another, barbaric acts need to be banned. For my part, a ban on Robert Stevens wouldn’t be a bad idea either.

Supreme Court gets it wrong with animal cruelty ruling.

Animal rights & SCOTUS opinions

Finding oneself in agreement with Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito can be an alarming development in itself, but it’s hard not to agree at least in part with his dissenting statement in yesterday’s 8-to-1 Supreme Court decision.

In a major First Amendment ruling, the Supreme Court on Tuesday struck down a federal law that made it a crime to create or sell dogfight videos and other depictions of animal cruelty.

Justice Alito wrote, in his dissension, that the now-struck statute was enacted “not to suppress speech, but to prevent horrific acts of animal cruelty — and in particular, the creation and commercial exploitation of ‘crush videos,’ a form of depraved entertainment that has no social value.” I’ve never watched a crush video, and certainly have no plans to do so.  It is at least heartening to know that Justice Alito has this much heart. (It’s not been evident in some of his earlier rulings.)

The specific case that brought about yesterday’s ruling, exploitation of pit bull fights through sales of dog fight videos, is about a different form of cruelty to animals. Stepping back a little it’s possible to see what the court was protecting: not any right to commit barbaric acts, but too-broad application of First Amendment rights.

Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr., writing for the majority in the 8-to-1 decision, said that the law had created “a criminal prohibition of alarming breadth” and that the government’s aggressive defense of the law was “startling and dangerous.”

The decision left open the possibility that Congress could enact a narrower law that would pass constitutional muster. But the existing law, Chief Justice Roberts wrote, covered too much speech protected by the First Amendment.

Hopefully, a new and narrower law will come soon.

When President Bill Clinton signed the bill, he expressed reservations, prompted by the First Amendment, and instructed the Justice Department to limit prosecutions to “wanton cruelty to animals designed to appeal to a prurient interest in sex.”

The law, said Wayne Pacelle, the president of the Humane Society of the United States, “almost immediately dried up the crush video industry.”

But prosecutions under the law appear to have been pursued only against people accused of trafficking in dogfighting videos.

Chief Justice Roberts concluded his majority opinion by suggesting that a more focused law “limited to crush videos and other depictions of extreme animal cruelty” might survive First Amendment scrutiny.

Mr. Pacelle, of the Humane Society, called for a legislative response to Tuesday’s ruling. “Congress should within a week introduce narrowly crafted legislation,” he said, “to deal with animal crush videos and illegal animal fighting activities.”

Some years ago I was approached to do a story on cockfighting, then legal in a number of states. I knew the wife of the man who suggested the piece, the purpose of which was to explain what a fine and macho “sport” this was. Utterly amazed at the names of those cockfighting enthusiasts whom he had lined up for me to interview (after the fight) — and no way was I going to attend such an event — I sought out a number of them and asked for public comment on why cockfighting should be supported. The article, exposing a number of otherwise respectable men of the local community, brought widespread condemnation upon my head for spreading such trash. Nobody seemed to notice the names behind the trash. I thought it would embarrass the spokesmen. Sometimes free speech protects those who are beyond embarrassment.

I, for one, cannot quite understand why Robert Stevens, convicted of selling dog-fighting videos and now acquitted, is not embarrassed to have his picture and his business practices in the morning paper.

Supreme Court Rejects Ban on Animal Cruelty Videos – NYTimes.com.