Insanity, Execution, and the US Supreme Court

The Story:

The US Supreme Court will begin hearing arguments again on the first Monday in October. This year that falls on October 7.  Some fascinating and politically sensitive cases sit on the docket for the forthcoming session, including a controversy over the constitutional status of the insanity defense, which the Justices will hear on that first day back from their break.


The 14th amendment to the US Constitution provides that “no state shall … deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law.”

The Supreme Court has long held that the due process requirement is most stringent for the first of those threats, a proposed deprivation of life: that is, there is a “super due process” required for application of the death penalty.

In a matter that the Court will hear Monday, lawyers for a death row inmate will argue that a Kansas law abolishing the insanity defense in a capital matter deprived their client of this necessary super due process of law, and they will ask that his sentence be overturned.

The Thing to Know: 

The Supreme Court’s capital-punishment jurisprudence has always been unpredictable, and the addition of two Donald Trump nominees to the bench over the last two years has not by any means made this case a ‘slam dunk’ for Kansas.

US-Ukraine Relations and Renewed Impeachment Talk

Joe Biden receives flak for controversial comments about 'the hood'

The Story:

President Donald Trump has acknowledged that, in a conversation with the President of the Ukraine, Volodymyr Selenskiy, in July,  he asked Selenskiy  about former Vice President Joseph Biden and about his son Hunter, who has business interests in Ukraine. The acknowledgement has fueled demands for more information about that conversation and has racketed up expectations of an impeachment move in the House of Representatives.

Why It Matters:

Bribery is quite explicitly listed in the US Constitution as a grounds for the impeachment of a President of the United States.

Trump has said that earlier this year he withheld nearly $400 million in aid to the Ukraine.

The Thing to Know:

It has been suggested that there was at least an implicit quid-pro-quo here: Trump might have been suggesting that he would allow the $400 million to go through to the Ukraine if Zelenskiy would help him undermine a likely Democratic Party nominee for President by way of an investigation into the Bidens, father and son.  Such a deal would seem to meet the meaning of the word “bribery.”

Accordingly, on September 25, 2019, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi announced a formal impeachment inquiry that will involve several House Committees.

Intramural Republican Deliberations on Gun Control

The Story:

There is some sentiment within the Republican Party for supporting certain new gun control measures, even at the expense of alienating important interest groups such as the National Rifle Association.

Making the Case: 

Senator Pat Toomey, of Pennsylvania, is one of the Republicans making the case for a change in course on this issue. Toomey believes that background checks should be extended to all commercial sales of guns, including those that occur online or at gun shows, an extention the NRA has long successfully opposed.

Toomey has spoken to President Donald Trump on background checks, and he says Trump has displayed “a very constructive willingness to engage on this issue.” Nonetheless, Trump has avoided any unequivocal commitment, and he retains close ties to the NRA.

The Thing to Know: 

It is still the dominant view of the Republican caucus that any willingness to compromise on this issue will unleash a process that Republicans could not control. Senator Ted Cruz (R – Tx), speaking recently at a breakfast hosted by the Christian Science Monitor, suggested that any compromise could demoralize conservatives, help energize the opposition’s base, and even “go a long way to electing a President Elizabeth Warren.”

Changes at Fox News: The President is Unhappy

Judge Jeanine: Dems have turned into an angry, unreasonable mob

The Story:

Fox News, part of the Murdoch publishing empire, has long been considered friendly to Donald Trump — first as a candidate and later as a President. Now, though, the times may be a-changing.


Just four days after his inauguration, President Trump took time off from mastering his new duties to tweet congratulations to Fox News for having gotten the highest television ratings in its coverage of inauguration events. Fox ratings, he said, were “many times higher” than CNN’s, because the “public is smart.”  Since then (January 24, 2017) there has been a lot of mutual admiration between POTUS and Fox.

On August 28, 2019, though, the President tweeted about Fox with a very different tone. He wrote, “The News @FoxNews is letting millions of GREAT people down! We have to start looking for a new news outlet. Fox isn’t working for us anymore!” This prompted responses from various Fox personalities along the lines of, “we aren’t supposed to work for him — we cover him.”

The Thing to Know:

It may be one sign of the shift in the winds at Fox that one of the most staunchly pro-Trump commentators there, Judge Jeanine Pirro, was briefly suspended from the air in March of this year, for a blatantly anti-Moslem comment. More recently, (September 3) Pirro complained to the host of a webcast that Fox might fire her, “You know I’m worried that that suspension was the basis to tee up for anything I’m doing wrong, they’ll fire me.”


Who is Joe Walsh?

Joe Walsh explains how he was pranked by Sasha Baron Cohen

The Story:

Joe Walsh, a former US Congressman from Illinois, now a radio talk show host, is running for the Republican nomination for President, against incumbent Donald Trump. On ABC’s news-talk program Sunday morning, Walsh said, “Somebody needs to step up and there needs to be an alternative. The country is sick of this guy’s tantrum.”

The Background:

Throughout the Trump presidency, there has been an anti-Trump faction within the Republican Party, which sometimes uses the moniker “NeverTrump.” Yet whether that faction is going to be in a position to mount a credible challenge to President Trump’s renomination is an open question.

Whether, even if NeverTrump sentiment is sufficient for such a challenge, Walsh is the best available vessel for it, is another open question.

Walsh supported Trump in 2016. He seems to have been disenchanted, though, by the President’s chumminess with Russia’s Vladimir Putin at the notorious joint press conference the two men held in Helsinki in July 2018.

The Thing to Know:

George Conway, the husband of Trump adviser Kellyanne Conway, supports Walsh’s effort. “I think Walsh’s plan to attack Trump for his dishonesty, amorality, instability, and incompetence is absolutely the right approach, and I’ll do whatever I can to help,” Conway said in a statement.

No Easy Fallback for Governor Hickenlooper

The Story:

After two rounds of debates, and with the tightening of requirements for entry into the third (September) round, the Democratic party’s field of Presidential aspirants may be due for a winnowing. One of the marginal candidates, former Colorado Governor Hickenlooper, is said to have his eye on a fall-back office: he may run for the Senate seat now held by Republican Cory Gardner.

Gardner’s Vulnerability:

The website Roll Call says that Gardner is “the most vulnerable Republican Senator” looking for re-election in 2020. He looks so vulnerable because he won the seat six years ago running as a moderate independent-minded sort of Republican, which is the type of GOP candidate who does best in the Centennial State.

But in the last three years Gardner has been a loyal soldier for President Trump, and he chaired the National Republican Senate Committee in 2018. This may have weakened his ‘independent’ cred.

The Thing to Know:

Should Hickenlooper despair of a Presidential nomination, he might want to seek the nomination of the Democratic Party for Gardner’s seat instead. But it is not obvious that he could get that. There are at least a dozen other Democrats interested in challenging Gardner, and few of them, if any, would step aside in Hickenlooper’s favor.

Korea: How Many Parties in the Talks?

President Trump, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un open to third summit

The Story:

For many decades, US policy with regard to talks about the Korean peninsula was simple: the US would not engage in one-on-one talks with the North Korean government. There would have to be representatives of our ally, South Korea, in the room. Furthermore, since such talks would naturally also include North Korea’s ally, the People’s Republic of China, US policy was in effect a rejection of two-party talks in favor of four-party talks. The Presidency of Donald Trump has decisively broken with this.

The Debate:

On July 30, ten of the candidates for the Presidential nomination of the Democratic Party met in debate, the first half of a two night event. Only hours before, the North had fired off missiles, in violation of UN Security Council resolutions, so naturally the subject of the Trump administration’s policy toward the North was discussed.

The Thing to Know:

Nobody involved in the Democratic debate made a case for insisting on the presence of South Korea (or for four-party talks in general). Representative Ryan made the case that Trump has helped boost the prestige of the northern regime, and he clearly thought this a bad thing, but he gave no indication that a larger number of participants in the talks would have changed his view.

Rep. Amash Leaves Republican Party

GOP Representative Justin Amash Calls For Impeaching Donald Trump | The Last Word | MSNBC

The Story:

In an opinion piece in the Washington Post in July 4, a US Congressman from Michigan, Justin Amash, announced that he is leaving the Republican Party to become an Independent. He said that politics in the US at present is “trapped in a partisan death spiral” for which both Democrats and Republicans are to blame.


Before the announcement it was already clear that if Amash ran for re-election in his district, he would face one or more intra-party primary challengers. Tactically, the announcement may allow him to sidestep such a challenge and run for re-election as an independent.

At least one Amash admirer, Bonnie Kristian, speculates that such independence probably improves his chances for re-election: if that is what he wants. She isn’t sure that it is.

The Thing to Know:

Amash may fairly be described as a conservative, with libertarian leanings. He was a founding member of the House Freedom Caucus in 2015 precisely for members of the House of Representatives with such views. His departure from the Republican Party may serve as a symptom of how completely Trumpism has taken over that party and how inhospitable the environment has become for dissenting sorts of Republican.

Is Anything Left of the Iran Deal (JCPOA)?

The Story:

Iran this week announced that it has enriched more than 300 kilograms ((660 bs) of uranium. This indicates that it no longer considers itself bound by an agreement it reached with several industrial powers in Vienna, Austria in July 2015. Its breakout move comes at a time of increasing tensions between Iran and the United States (which was also part of the 2015 accord but withdrew from it last year.)

All Hands but One:

During the first night of the two-night Democratic debate last week, when ten candidates for that party’s nomination for President stood together on stage,  a moderator asked for a show of hands on who would support a return of the US to the Iran deal, formally known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA). Nine of the ten candidates on stage raised their hands. Representative Cory Booker was the only exception.

But when they were in a position to be more specific and less binary, the candidates did not indicate a willingness to return to the JCPOA in its precise condition when President Trump pulled the US out of it.

At the heart of the JCPOA lies a simple trade: the other signatories allowed Iran access to the world’s banking systems and oil export markets; in return, Iran agreed to keep a tight lid on the development of its nuclear facilities, keeping them well short of weapons-production potential, and it granted outside agencies the access necessary to verify the lid.

That lid is now off. What happens next is uncertain.

The Thing to Know:

During last week’s debate, Tulsi Gabbard, a candidate who is also an Iraq War veteran, expressed a broad US political consensus about the defunct deal thus: “We need to get back into the Iran nuclear agreement, and we need to negotiate how we can improve it.” But one must now doubt that there is any agreement left to improve.



Meet a Key Advisor to POTUS Candidate Buttigieg

The Story:

Swati Mylavarapu is the National Investment Chair of Pete for America, the Buttigieg campaign organization. This makes her a key advisor to the mayor of South Bend, Indiana, as he seeks to become the next President of the United States.


Buttigieg’s improbable campaign has gained attention and momentum in recent weeks. Just last week a venerable center-left policy-oriented publication, the Washington Monthly, ran a piece with the headline, “What Mayor Pete Gets Right About Foreign Policy.”

But campaigns still march on money, as armies march on their stomachs, and the key finance positions are critical.

What is especially notable about Mylavarapu is her affiliation with “Silicon Valley,” i.e. the whole Bay Area centered high-tech world. As a former partner of Kleiner Perkins and the founder of Incite Ventures, she has made her mark raising money for start-up companies in that world.

 The Thing to Know:

The role of Silicon Valley, and in general of the high-tech industries, in the United States at present has become a contentious political issue itself. Senator Elizabeth Warren vows to break up Amazon, Google, and Facebook; President Trump accuses Amazon of taking advantage of the US Postal Service, and conflates it with the editorial board at the Washington Post.

Mylavarapu’s role may signal that Buttigieg is willing to take the other side of that divide, to be the tech-friendly candidate both against the industry’s Democratic and its Republican foes.