Category Archives: U.S. Judiciary

Fun with facts

U.S. Supreme Court, with the Library of Congress While tourism to Washington is a year-round phenomenon, visitor numbers always spike dramatically and very noticeably as the city explodes into the exuberance of spring. It is no surprise that people want to visit Washington in spring—the city is simply gorgeous now, with splashes of colour reemerging everywhere after the drab monotones of winter.

At any time of year, visitors to Washington head to the National Mall to experience the nation’s treasured monuments, memorials, statues, and museums. In spring, visitors especially flock to the Tidal Basin to exult in the luxurious blossoms of the cherry trees famously encircling it. Even cynical Washington hacks and jaded longtime residents can surely not help but be stirred by the magnificence of these scores of trees in their glorious, annual bloom.

Those who live in the Washington metro area do become blasé about their proximity to the many world-famous attractions. Those who grow up here can be particularly nonchalant about the renowned sights or symbols of U.S. power in their midst.

So how would one excite a bunch of local, middle-class school children about a field trip to Capitol Hill? More likely than not, most would probably have been there before, and many perhaps a few times. Some would have parents or other family members working there, so they may be especially familiar with the place. How could one inspire such students for this school trip? Well, one could turn the trip into a treasure hunt, that’s how!

A four-hour “scavenger” or treasure hunt was the novel formula that my daughter’s school used earlier this month to experience the grandeur and history of some Washington institutions. The hunt was part of the students’ U.S. civics class. And what a fun way to engage with the civics curriculum! Dozens of parent volunteers were sought to escort the students in small groups for the hunt, and I stepped forward too to help.

This scavenger hunt was not a race to complete the pages-long questionnaire given to each small group. The questionnaire provided the context for interacting with our surroundings. It was the means through which to enjoy the experience, rather than the questionnaire’s completion being the end itself. Indeed, it would not have been possible to fill it all in the allotted four hours. Looking for the details suggested by the questions led to observing minutiae about the various buildings and appreciating aspects of their architecture and history. The constitutional roles of the institutions had clearly been deliberated in class in the preceding months.

The questionnaire sent groups to the U.S. Supreme Court, the office buildings of members of the U.S. House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate, the U.S. Capitol and its visitors’ center, the Library of Congress, as well as a nearby park and some statues. With the exception of a suggested time slot for the U.S. Capitol Visitors’ Center (for crowd control purposes), each group could tailor its own experience and explore the particular interests of its members.

The questions were sufficiently detailed that one wouldn’t realistically know most of the answers without physically going to that specific location. For example, the section on Virginia’s two senators asked questions about items hanging on the walls of their offices. Without going to his actual office, how would one possibly know what is portrayed on at least one of the two Virginia maps in Senator Tim Kaine’s office?* Or with which British Royal family member he is photographed?** His office staff was fabulously good-natured and friendly when the group I was chaperoning stopped by. I imagine they were that way with all the other troops of teenagers who traipsed through their office that morning. But it must have been testing and disruptive too. This dynamic was repeated across the offices of many Virginia legislators on Capitol Hill that day.

There were, of course, security checkpoints to enter each building, which slowed the pace a bit. Students were forewarned to avoid wearing belts and jewelry that day to facilitate passage through these chokepoints. Overall though, I was surprised by the ease with which we could move from building to building. American politicians do have to be accessible to their constituents.

Our group passed by the U.S. Senate as a cluster of Democratic senators was holding a press event on the Senate’s steps to support President Barack Obama’s efforts to raise the federal minimum wage to $10.10 an hour from its present $7.25. Security personnel prevented us from getting too close to the gathering, but it was an unexpected thrill for the students to see this event.

And we came upon this scene on the Senate steps right after the showstopper of the day—watching the nine justices of the U.S. Supreme Court in session. It was breathtaking that members of the public could walk off the street into the Court, like we did, for three hallowed minutes to experience the aura of the Court. Admittedly, we waited in line for well over an hour and went through a few rounds of security to get in. It was a controversial day too for the Court, as they offered their 5-4 verdict in McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission, the new campaign finance decision whereby aggregate limits are lifted on individual donors. What an exhilarating civics class!

As the deluge of tourists continues these weeks, I wonder if those shepherding school groups from around the United States through Washington’s many attractions will also be conducting scavenger hunts. The treasure hunt I experienced was an exemplary, creative, and inspiring way to examine aspects of U.S. federal institutions in this era of stalemated, cynical politics, especially for Washington teenagers. Similar treasure hunts would undoubtedly capture the imaginations of any student groups visiting Washington, this spring and beyond. Yet for many, merely being in Washington and seeing its sights in person is thrilling enough.

* One was of Virginia’s canals, the other of Virginia’s roadways.
** Queen Elizabeth


What fencing says about you

The general lack of fences or any kind of barrier between suburban American homes is breathtaking. After living in Johannesburg, where gravity-defying tall walls with razor wire, broken glass, and electrical wiring atop are the rule, this aspect of life in American middle-class suburbia is an amazing revelation.

When fences do exist, they are usually more decorative than obstacles to passage. If present, their function is largely to delineate property lines. Fences may also provide privacy if one lives on a busy road or junction, but this is atypical. Indeed, neighbours can frown upon fences being erected. We know of someone who still resents previous neighbours of hers for putting up a fence to keep in their dogs. Instead of fences for this purpose, many use “invisible fences” that administer gentle shocks when their collar-wearing pets meander beyond a certain perimeter.

No burglar bars on windows are another joy of middle-class suburban life here. Those residing in American cities are more likely to have such essentials of Johannesburg city or suburban life (and most other South African population centers, for that matter). But such home protection measures are unusual in the middle-class suburbs here. Having an alarm system—and then using it on a regular basis—is not the suburban norm here either. I’m learning too that some do not even regularly lock up their homes when no one is present. Wow!

The gathering and releasing of crime statistics to the public is controversial in South Africa. Released figures reflect broad trends in crime categories, and are viewed skeptically as inaccurate and misleading. In contrast, the extent of detail in the notification of criminal activity here in Northern Virginia fascinates and stuns me. From one local newspaper, I learnt that a backpack was stolen from a parked car on our block last week, while two streets away, tools were taken from an open garage. The neighbourhood papers also reveal titillating details like an after-hours argument between an employer and employee at a nearby restaurant that resulted in police being summoned. Imagine details such as these, of seemingly petty incidents, making it into South African crime reports…

My personal favourite anecdote about the remarkable rarity of crime in our local area comes from the afternoon my son called from school to say that the school bus could not drive into the neighbourhood because of police activity. It turns out someone had seen a person throwing something into a basement window three houses over and had reported this to the police. Five or so police cars drove into the suburb, and a police helicopter hovered overhead, to apprehend this criminal. We learned later that the window breaker was in fact the homeowner who had locked himself out of his own home! I was totally impressed at the swift response and speechless at its overwhelming nature.

In a sad reflection of people’s desperation in the strained economy, bank robberies occur with unexpected frequency in the area. However, the robbers are typically apprehended quickly.

I should reiterate that what I’m describing here is very much an American middle-class suburban experience. Life in working-class suburbs and in cities themselves is profoundly different. The United States is hardly without crime, it has appallingly high gun ownership, and it has one of the highest incarceration rates in the world. But it also has incredible policing. U.S. police are very well trained, and they have remarkably sophisticated technology at their disposal. Life for traditional criminals must be very difficult indeed.

So middle-class Americans in the suburbs surrounding Washington, D.C., are fortunate with low overall rates of criminal activity. Yet I find a general skittishness and nervousness about any possible untoward or unexpected occurrence. In my experience, Americans in this part of Northern Virginia show a great sensitivity and suspiciousness about irregular behaviour. I don’t know if this can be attributed to our proximity to Washington and general security consciousness in the post–9/11 world.

I had a revealing personal experience of this a while ago: My visit to a self-service petrol or “gas” station to fill the car with petrol went a little awry, and I came away having spilt a little petrol on my trousers. My next stop was the post office. I did not realize how much I smelled of petrol, so I blithely stepped into the post office and joined the queue. A hushed silence came upon the others in line, with everyone anxiously looking around them. Two women notably dashed out of the store. Another softly ventured, “Can you smell that? What is that?” Others murmured their concern. I then realized the smell emanating from the spill was the source of the problem and said loudly, “No, it’s me! I spilt some petrol on myself!” Nervous laughter broke out, with a couple of people reassuringly offering that they too had similar incidents with air bubbles when pumping petrol. Most curiously, the envelope I mailed that day never arrived at its destination. I’ve often wondered if it was sidelined because it too may have smelled suspicious.

The free-flowing nature of American society masks many issues. The lack of fences is part of the narrative of openness and the expectation of transparency in the American soul. Minimal fencing also shows the enormous respect Americans have for private property. The present tax structure strongly encourages Americans to buy homes, so those fortunate enough to own their homes greatly value them. And they very much respect others’ property too.

Whither America?

The relative decline of the United States and imminent rise of China are exaggerated—if transparency and participation are the criteria for good governance. Two recent big news stories reflect core characteristics of governance in the two societies, highlighting their respective political strengths and weaknesses.

The U.S. Supreme Court’s possible rejection of the Affordable Care Act, the core legislative accomplishment of the Obama Administration, affirms the strengths of the contentious U.S. democratic model. Juxtaposed to this debate is the dark drama surrounding Chongqing Party Chief Bo Xilai, formerly a contender for promotion to China’s über-powerful Politburo Standing Committee. Bo was stripped of all Communist Party posts and his wife arrested in a murder investigation. This unfolding story underlines the limitations of the opaque Chinese Leninist model.

These processes are occurring at politically delicate times in both countries, with potentially profound implications for each.

The United States is, of course, caught up in the orderly tumult of presidential and congressional elections, to be held this November 6. China is gearing up for its usually carefully orchestrated transfer of power between Communist Party elites at the 18th Party Congress this October, and the allocation of government roles at the National People’s Congress next March.

The rough-and-tumble of Chinese elite politics usually takes place behind closed doors. Chinese society and the world learn the outcome of the cut-throat politicking of leadership shifts only when Chinese leaders emerge from behind the curtain at Party Congresses. Glimpses of factional politics have been seen this time due to Bo’s wife Gu Kailai being implicated in the deadly poisoning of British businessman Neil Heywood. If the victim of this conspiracy were a hapless Chinese businessman not a foreigner, the world would be none the wiser. However, the appearance at the U.S. consulate in Chengdu of Bo’s right-hand-man-turned-opponent, Chongqing Police Chief Wang Lijun, with documents suggesting fishy circumstances to Heywood’s death injected unwanted global interest in the case, leading to the dismissal and arrest.

The sad fact is the outside world is probably more aware of the evolving situation in China than its citizens. The Chinese government is trying hard to control debate within China about Bo’s campaigns in Chongqing, his recent purging, and its meaning for the political transition. Yet its ability to do so in the era of the Internet, social media, micro-blogging, and instant messaging is greatly complicated. China’s cyber security police are extremely busy behind its “Great Firewall”.

Meanwhile, the specter of the U.S. Supreme Court possibly throwing out President Barack Obama’s signature healthcare law has garnered enormous attention within the United States and internationally. President Obama himself incurred great disapproval for initial criticism of the Court. He said it would be “…an unprecedented, extraordinary step” to reject a law that was “passed by a strong majority of a democratically elected Congress.” The key critique of Obama was that a president should not comment on a case pending before the Court. The Court is duty-bound to void unconstitutional laws, and it has done so before.

Obama later stepped back from this, acknowledging, “…the Supreme Court [has] the final say on our Constitution and our laws… It’s precisely because of that extraordinary power that the Court has traditionally exercised significant restraint and deference to our duly elected legislature, our Congress.”

Spending a few hours outside the Supreme Court late last month when it was hearing arguments on the law was fascinating for this South African. I enjoyed listening to the cacophony of chants and calls by the equally well-represented proponents and opponents of the law. The good-natured back-and-forth between the two sides was delightful and inspiring.

The discourse included competing chants—delivered simultaneously—like: “Ho, Ho/Hey, Hey/Obamacare/Is Here to Stay” and “Hey, Hey/Ho, Ho/Obamacare/Has Got to Go”. Or it was: “We.Love.Obamacare/We.Need.Obamacare” and “The Constitution Matters/Protect the Constitution”. Songs included (sung to “This Little Light of Mine”) “This Healthcare of Mine/I’m Gonna Let It Shine…” and (sung to “Everywhere We Go, People Wanna Know”) “Everywhere We Go/There’s a New Tax There…” It was a highly memorable, albeit noisy, way to enjoy a spring morning.

Those in other industrial democracies both marvel and recoil at the prospect of politically appointed government officials rejecting a law passed by a majority of democratically elected representatives. They are also incredulous at the very debate on whether individual healthcare insurance should be “mandated” for all American citizens, and how such a mandate could be perceived as impinging on individual freedom.

The Supreme Court’s decision is expected in late June. In a recent opinion poll, Americans anticipate the justices’ political views will determine their ruling on the healthcare law—rather than a neutral interpretation of the law. Republican presidents nominated the five more conservative-leaning justices on the bench, while Democratic presidents nominated the four more liberal justices. Whether or not the Court casts out the healthcare law, either entirely or partly, the crucial point is that the U.S. public will also get to render their verdict on the law. When the U.S. public votes on November 6, they will be able to endorse Obama’s policy prescriptions for the nation—including on healthcare—or they can repudiate them.

The long-suffering Chinese people won’t be given a chance to express their views on subjects as wide ranging as the merits or demerits of Bo’s “Chongqing model” of development or who should ascend to the nine-member Standing Committee of the Politburo. These subjects will not even be debated in the Chinese press.

Comparing a U.S. constitutional issue and Chinese elite factional politics—tangled with a criminal case—seems incongruous and contrived. But the two cases project core truths about the two countries and their systems of governance. The United States, with its often perplexing division of government authority and its relentless expectation of transparency, allows vigorous participation of its people. China is characterised by dead-end, impenetrable opacity in choosing who governs and how they govern; minimal accountability; and unwillingness to hear and indeed heavy-handed suppression of the views of those who are governed.

The all-too-often gridlocked system of divided government in the United States is exasperating. But don’t discount the United States. Give me “too much” transparency and “too much” democracy any day over none.