David Shepherd: News Blog

Journalist's Notebook

Kagan Confirmation – Day 1: Set-Up For An Inside-The-Beltway Bitch Slap?

By: David Shepherd [dshepherd@wtwo.com] – Monday, June 28, 2010

I’m sure President Obama’s appointee to the United States Supreme Court, Elena Kagan, has had worse days in her career but Monday’s confirmation hearings certainly had to make her somewhat uncomfortable.  Hell, if it were me, I’d be taking deep breaths into a brown lunch bag before the session was called to order.

Kagan sat in the chambers on Capitol Hill for the first the first day of, what is expected to be, a grueling confirmation process, surprisingly calm.

Imagine sitting in a room full of people who are itching to take swings at you like a piñata at a kid’s birthday party; and all you can do is sit there silently and do your best not to let the cameras catch a glimpse of you showing emotion of any sort.

That’s exactly what Kagan endured for hours Monday.  And, like her or not, she did it with poise, professionalism and an obvious sense of the great honor that’s been bestowed upon her by the President of the United States.

If Monday’s opening statements are an accurate barometer of what the rest of the week may bring, those looking for a good ol’ fashioned Inside-the-Beltway bitch-slap may get their wish.

Opening statements in Kagan’s first day of confirmation hearings set a harsh tone as Senators from both sides took stabs at the appointee’s “lack of experience” and decisions she made as dean of Harvard Law School.

Just after 12:30 ET, Republican Jeff Sessions, who will lead the GOP’s arguments against Kagan, promised a fair and respectful hearing.

Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images

But moments later, Sessions’ tone changed as he reminded Kagan that her confirmation hearings would be a tough process: “It’s not a coronation but a confirmation process.”

He then raised concerns about Kagan’s lack of judicial experience and expressed “serious concerns” about her ability to serve impartially on the court.

The highlight of the day came as Kagan prepared to take center-stage with her opening statements.  As she spoke, I blogged up-to-the-minute highlights on the David Shepherd: News Blog.

3:37 PM (eastern):  Senators Kerry and Brown will introduce Elena Kagan within the next few minutes.  She will then be able to make her opening statement.

3:50 PM (eastern):  Kagan has been sworn in and begins her opening statements at her confirmation hearing.

Alex Brandon / AP

4:00 PM (eastern) Kagan says, “The Supreme Court, of course, has the responsibility of ensuring that our government never oversteps its proper bounds or violates the rights of individuals.”

4:05 PM (eastern) Kagan says, “The joy of my life has been to teach thousands of students about the law, and had the sense to realize they had much to teach me.  I’ve led a school whose faculty and students examine and discuss and debate every aspect of our law and legal system.  And what I’ve learned most is that no one has a monopoly on truth or wisdom.”

4:10 PM (eastern) Kagan says, “I will make no pledges this week other than this one; that, if confirmed, I will remember and abide by all these lessons.  I will listen hard to every party before the court and to each of my colleagues.  I will work hard and I will do my best to consider every case impartially, modestly; with commitment with principal and in accordance with the law.”

After Kagan’s statement, the committee chair called the hearing to recess until Tuesday morning.  If you thought Monday’s hearing was tough, just wait!  Now, the same Senators who sliced and diced Kagan in their opening statements Monday get the chance to ask her extensive questions about her publications, previous media statements, advice and counsel she’s given as a Supreme Court clerk and Clinton administration adviser; and that will just be the beginning.

The members of the Judiciary Committee are sure to hit all of the political “G-Spots” from gay marriage to “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell;” and abortion to illegal immigration.

It appears Christmas comes early this year for political nerds (like me) who love nothing more than watching democracy in action; after all, it’s moments like these that make the United States the best country in the world.

Check back every day this week for my day-by-day political analysis of the Kagan confirmation hearings.

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June 29, 2010 Posted by | News & Current Events | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Kagan’s Confirmation Hearings Begin Today; Expect It To Get Ugly

By: David Shepherd [dshepherd@wtwo.com] – Monday, June 28, 2010

When President Obama’s nominee for the United States Supreme Court, Elena Kagan, begins her confirmation hearings on Capitol Hill around noon Monday, she will be thrust into the middle of a battle; as she defends her ability to sit on the high court against a long list of republicans who say she’s not up for the job.

If she makes it through the processes, she will become the nation’s 112th Supreme Court Justice.

Many democrats are calling her a liberal lion; ready to take on opponents to her confirmation and be a key liberal voice on the court.

But for those of us who frequently watch Capitol Hill, we know these hearings can turn very ugly, very fast.

Republicans are ramping up their anti-Kagan rhetoric.  Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell told the media two weeks ago that he would not rule out a filibuster.

Ready More About Filibusters

If Kagan is confirmed, she would be the first Supreme Court Justice with no experience on the bench.  She has an impressive resume from dean of the Harvard Law School to United States Solicitor General.  But will that be enough to get her past the blockade conservatives hope to put up during her confirmation hearings.

Because Kagan hasn’t had a very public profile before her nomination, many lawmakers in Washington are expected to ask a lot of questions in the hopes of getting to know her better.

Kagan on Gun Rights

Members of the National Rifle Association (NRA) are nervous about Kagan’s confirmation.  As a clerk for Justice Marshall, Kagan wrote that she was “not sympathetic” to a constitutional challenge of Washington D.C.’s gun-control law which was overturned by the Supreme Court in 2008 in the hotly debated D.C. v Heller decision.

During her confirmation hearings for Solicitor General, Kagan said she would uphold the court’s ruling because the decision is “settled law.”

She’s expected to be grilled about a paper she wrote while working in the Clinton administration that led to an executive order banning a variety of semiautomatic weapons.  The White House argues Kagan’s role in the Clinton administration was primarily to give advice and counsel and that she played no part in creating policy.

Kagan to Be Grilled On Abortion

The country is so divided on the issue of abortion; it makes it a politically tricky topic to discuss.  It’s like the third rail in national politics, you step on it and you die.  But it wouldn’t be a Supreme Court confirmation hearing without talking about the hot button issue.

Many pro-lifers are worried about Kagan’s stance on abortion because they believe she’s pro-choice.  They point to a memo she authored while working in the Clinton White House.  The memo recommended the President support a ban on late-term abortions excluding cases where the mother’s life or physical health would be in danger by not having the abortion.

In a letter written to Senators by the National Right to Life Committee, the pro-life group argues, “The picture that emerges of Kagan is not that of a staffer who presented the President objective information and disinterested analysis but, rather, a staffer who sometimes presented selective and tendentious information and who employed a variety of legal and political arguments to achieve her overriding goal of defeating the legislation.”  This, to encourage lawmakers not to confirm Kagan to the high court.

Kagan Takes Conservative Heat on Gay Rights Issues

During her tenure as dean of Harvard Law School, Kagan raised eyebrows, and new much criticism, for temporarily barring military recruiters from the school’s resources office because of the military’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy; baring gay men and women from serving openly in the military.

She had little choice but to allow recruiters back on campus after the Federal Government threatened to revoke millions of dollars in aid to Harvard for not allowing the military recruiters to work on campus.

Republicans have portrayed Kagan as “anti-military” because of the decision to bar the recruiters in the first place.  But Democrats are standing up against Kagan’s opposition.  Democratic Senator John Kerry wrote, in an op-ed defending Kagan, “Like me, Kagan has never made it a secret that she opposes ‘Don’t ask, don’t tell’ – so, by the way, do [Defense] Secretary [Robert] Gates and [Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff] Admiral [Mike] Mullen.  But Elena Kagan’s actions as dean don’t speak to her political beliefs, they simply reflect current law.”

But some liberals are concerned about Kagan’s more conservative view on gay marriage.  During her Solicitor General Confirmation Hearing, she said, “There’s no federal constitutional right to same sex marriage.”  She also defended the Defense of Marriage Act, which says states don’t have to recognize same-sex marriages performed in other states.

Either way, it looks like Kagan’s future is far from settled.  Lawmakers will begin taking cracks at her Monday at noon (eastern) on Capitol Hill.

June 28, 2010 Posted by | News & Current Events | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Column: Do Gays Have It Better Today & Is It Enough?

Do Gays Have It Better Today & Is It Enough?

By: David Shepherd [dshepherd@wtwo.com]

Editor’s Note:  This column is one reporter’s opinion and do not necessarily reflect those of WTWO-TV, NBC Universal, Nexstar Broadcasting, or any of their sponsors.  This column contains strong language and sexual material that may not be appropriate for all readers.  Reader discretion is advised.

Faggot, queer, homo:  they are words commonly used today to disparage and hurt others.  They are words that are used, not just targeting homosexuals, but anyone who is the target of bullying.  Ever hear someone say, “Oh, that’s so gay?”  But it seems America is turning a corner where, in many places, those words are no longer tolerated (much like the word nigger). 

Many Americans today, gay and straight, see those words as ignorant and closed minded.  But still, we hear it much too often on our streets, in our schools, and just about anywhere else we go in public.

 Looking back at it now, in 2010, it’s hard to believe there was a time in the United States where homosexuality was considered a mental disorder.  Gay men and women were institutionalized for the “perverted compulsions” and an employee could be fired if he or she were suspected of being homosexual.

For centuries, the gay stigma terrified so many people that coming out and living life openly gay was unsafe.  Those courageous enough to come out were often blackballed; thought of as deviants and mentally sick.  There were no laws protecting a homosexual’s rights to housing, employment, college acceptance, marriage or any other gay issue you can think of.

Matthew Shepard’s Brutal Killing Brings Gay Issues Front and Center

It wasn’t until the brutal killing of gay student Matthew Shepard in October of 1998 that gay rights issues took center stage, both in the national media and in Congress.  Shepard was kidnapped by two men in Laramie, Wyoming, tied to a fence and beaten to death because he was gay. 

Officers who responded to the crime scene later described the 21-year-old Shepard as beaten so badly; the only parts of his face not covered in blood were two streaks running down his cheeks from his eyes where he cried as he was left tied to the fence to die a long, painful death.

In the years following that horrific crime, lawmakers on both the state and federal level, have taken a more serious look at hate crime legislation as well as other gay rights issues.   

Many gay rights activists have praised the work that’s been done thus far, but many will still tell you more work must be done.

Lawrence v. Texas

Gay rights advocates claimed another victory in 2003 when the United States Supreme Court struck down Texas’ sodomy law in the landmark, Lawrence v. Texas case.  Before the high court made their ruling, 14 states still had anti-sodomy laws on the books.  Knowing they could no longer enforce those laws after the Supreme Court’s ruling, those states took the law off the books.

It all started on September 17, 1998.  Harris County police were called out to Lawrence’s home after a neighbor, who later admitted to police he lied, reported there was a weapon disturbance taking place there.  Sheriff’s Deputy Joseph Quinn entered the apartment, gun drawn, and caught the two men having consensual anal sex. 

They were arrested, not for the erroneous report of a weapon, but for violating the state’s Homosexual Conduct Law, which prohibited anal and oral sex among people of the same sex but did not apply to those, participating in the same sexual activity, if the participants were members of the opposite sex.

The two men were arrested and each posted $200 bail after spending the night in jail.  A judge fined the two $400 dollars for their crime and were forced to pay over $100 in court costs.

The case eventually made it to the United States Supreme Court.  Their ruling made it so no other same sex couple would ever have to face that kind of discrimination again.

The most frightening, and some would say sickening, part of this is that 14 states had similar laws on the books before the high court’s ruling.

Things Get Even Better For Gay Community

Many states have debated the issue of gay marriage in recent years.  Many states passed constitutional amendments “protecting the sanctity of marriage,” ensuring marriages there stay between one man and one woman.

But 5 states and the District of Columbia (Washington, D.C.) have legalized gay marriage as lawmakers in other states are hoping to do the same thing.  President Obama is against gay marriage, but believes in civil unions, which grant gay couples the same rights and benefits as “traditional marriage,” and equal rights for all Americans despite their sexual orientation.

Now, the Obama administration is renewing their vow to the gay community to pass more pro-gay laws including employment non-discrimination based on sexual orientation, and the controversial, “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy, baring gay men and women from serving openly in the military.

Allowing gays to serve openly will “hurt morale,” and “disrupt the unit,” according to many military officials.  The problem with that is that same rational was used to bar blacks from serving with whites in the early 1900’s.  The military officials were right.  It did hurt morale and disrupt the unit.  But the unit got over it and today, the thought of racially segregating the brave men and women who serve our country would be thought of as absurd and racist.

Cut the President Some Slack

MSNBC Photo

But not all homosexuals are happy with the administration’s “lack of action.”  As an openly gay man, television journalist, active member of the Episcopal Church, and partner to a wonderful man, Shawn, the gay community needs to cut President Obama some slack.

Many are angry Mr. Obama hasn’t acted on gay rights issues sooner.  When he took office, President Obama was facing huge issues that were affecting millions of Americans.  Mothers couldn’t afford to put food on the table for their families, the job market tanked, and healthcare reform was needed to ensure all Americans have access to quality healthcare for themselves and their children.

The President adopted a national emergency from the previous administration and, in times of such an emergency, social issues need to take a backseat until the devastating problems plaguing our country improve.  Yes, Shawn and I would love to get married, but I can’t justify fast-tracking my social agenda while children are starving and can’t see a doctor because their parents can’t afford it.

As the economy improves and healthcare reform moves forward, Mr. Obama is now making gay rights a priority.  He’s fulfilling his promise and he started as soon as he was responsibly able.  If you expect anything else from the President of the United States, you are kidding yourself.

We are very lucky to have such a progressive President (whether you subscribe to his politics or not) and, quite frankly, he may be the most pro-gay person we will see in the White House for a long time.

Moving Forward and My Prayer

Americans are becoming more accepting of gay issues and homosexuals today have it much better than they did just a few years ago.  That said, yes, there is more work to do.  I’m not an activist by any means, I’m a journalist. 

It’s my hope and prayer that there will be a day where every couple is able to express their love for one another through marriage, gay or straight.  I pray to see a day where our schools crack down on bullying and harassment of all students, no matter what their sexual orientation. 

Progress comes in painfully slow increments.  The only thing we can do, as a society, is continue to love one another with all that we have, fight to ensure all Americans have equal rights, and pray the day will come when we can all join hands together, despite race, sexual orientation, gender or religion, as one people; all children of God.

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June 28, 2010 Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Utah Executes Man By Firing Squad; First in 14 Years

By: David Shepherd [dshepherd@wtwo.com]

Witnesses to the execution of Ronnie Lee Gardner say it happened very quick as four out of the five marksmen fired .30-caliber bullets into his chest shortly after midnight Friday, marking the first time an inmate has been executed by firing squad in Utah in 14 years.

Four of the guns used live ammo while one shot blanks so none of the marksmen knew who actually fired the fatal shot.  An unidentified journalist who witnessed the execution told NBC News he was expecting Gardner to flinch as he was executed.  Instead, he described the process as so quick that, for a split second, he wondered if it had actually happened.

The first thing witnesses saw when the warden pulled back the curtain of the execution chamber was the 49-year-old Gardner strapped to a metal chair; his head held in place by a strap across his forehead and straps across his chest.  A target was placed over his heart and his hands were handcuffed at his sides.

Moments before the shots were fired, Gardner’s thumbs twitched.  As the bullets pierced his chest, his fist clenched.  His blood pooled through his dark blue prison jumpsuit. At 12:20 a.m, Gardner was pronounced dead.

One witness said, “The silence was deafening.”

A Life Of Crime and Turmoil

Ronnie Lee Gardner’s life was filled with turmoil.  Most of his life was spent behind bars.  Court documents show Gardner became addicted to sniffing gasoline and glue when he was only 6-years-old.  By age 10, he was addicted to LSD and heroin.  Around the same time in his life, court documents revealed his stepfather used him as a lookout on robberies.

Gardner spent much of his teen life in a foster home where he says he was sexually abused.  At age 23, he spent 18 months in a state mental hospital.  Six months after his release, at the age of 24, he shot and killed a bartender.  In 1985, while on trial for the bartender’s murder, Gardner shot and killed attorney Michael Burdell using a gun smuggled to him in an attempt to escape.

O. Wallace Kasteler / AP

In 2004, Utah adopted lethal injection as the default method of execution.  Because Gardner was sentenced before the law changed, he was able to choose being executed by firing squad.  According to NBC News, Gardner told his lawyer he preferred to be executed by firing squad.  Though he made that choice, he spent the following years aggressively fighting his capital sentence.

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June 18, 2010 Posted by | News & Current Events, Polls, Uncategorized | , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment