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March 31 2015 1:41 PM

Nigeria May Be Set for First Peaceful, Democratic Transfer of Power Between Parties

Former military dictator Muhammadu Buhari has defeated current President Goodluck Jonathan—whose regime has been unable to prevent the Boko Haram terrorist group from perpetrating repeated massacres and kidnappings—in Nigerian elections. If power is transferred successfully, it will mark the first democratic transition between parties in Nigeria, and the BBC reports that Jonathan has in fact called Buhari to concede defeat. From the New York Times:

With all but one of Nigeria’s 36 states counted, the former military ruler, Muhammadu Buhari, held a lead of more than two million votes over President Goodluck Jonathan.
The remaining state is in the north, where Mr. Buhari enjoys broad support and the government has been widely condemned for allowing the Boko Haram militant group to sweep through villages and towns, killing thousands of civilians.

Some election-related killings, attributed to Boko Haram, have been reported, but no large-scale partisan violence or vote-rigging appears to have taken place.

Nigerian forces, aided by troops from other African countries, have made some recent progress in recapturing territory held by Boko Haram militants, but the group still controls a significant area in the country’s northeast.

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March 31 2015 12:18 PM

Indiana Governor Backs Anti-Discrimination Fix in Self-Pitying Speech About “Religious Freedom” Law

In a press conference that repeatedly blamed the media for “mischaracterization” of the state’s Religious Freedom Restoration Act, Indiana Gov. Mike Pence said he now supports reforming the law in a way that prohibits businesses from denying service to LGBT individuals.

Legal experts have said that the law is in fact written to allow businesses to claim the religious right to deny service, and Pence had said previously that he was not interested in adding anti-discrimination language to the bill. Today, though, he supported such new language and called the suggestion that RFRA enables denials of service a “smear” that is “so offensive to me as a Hoosier.”

Pence repeatedly said that the law is not a “license to discriminate,” blaming the press for asserting otherwise—but during a Sunday appearance on This Week With George Stephanopoulos, it was Pence himself who refused multiple opportunities to dispute the claim that, for example, a florist could cite the law in refusing to work a gay couple’s wedding.

Here’s a transcript of the governor’s prepared remarks on Tuesday:

Thank you all for coming. It's been a tough week here in the Hoosier State. But we're gonna move forward. Because as governor I have the great privilege of serving the greatest people on Earth. The people of Indiana.

Let me say first and foremost I was proud to sign the Religious Freedom Restoration Act last week. I believe religious liberty, as President Clinton said when he signed the federal law in 1993, religious liberty is our first freedom. And it is vital to millions of Americans who cherish faith as I and my family do. But it's also vital to the framework of freedom in our nation, and this legislation was designed to ensure the vitality of religious liberty in the Hoosier State. I believe Hoosiers are entitled to the same protections that have been in place in our federal courts for the last 20-plus years and are the law in 30 other states. But clearly, clearly there's been misunderstanding and confusion and mischaracterization of this law. And I come before you today to say how we're going to address that. We've been working over the last several days literally around the clock, and talking with people across the state of Indiana, talking to business leaders, talking to organizations across the country. And we have spent time in Indiana, enjoyed the hospitality of the people of Indiana, and we've been listening.

Let me say first and foremost, as I've said to them, the Religious Freedom Restoration Act is about religious liberty, not about discrimination. As I said last week, had this law been about legalizing discrimination I would have vetoed it. This law does not give anyone a license to discriminate. The Religious Freedom Restoration Act in Indiana does not give anyone the right to deny services to anyone in this state. It is simply a balancing test used by our federal courts and jurisdictions across the country for more than two decades.

Now let me say on the subject of the bill itself, I don't believe for a minute that it was the intention of the General Assembly to create a license to discriminate or a right to deny services to gays, lesbians, or anyone else in this state. And it certainly wasn't my intent. But I can appreciate that that's become the perception not just here in Indiana but all across this country, and we need to confront that, and confront it boldly in a way that respects the interests of all involved.

A personal reflection for a moment if I can. I abhor discrimination. The way I was raised was like most Hoosiers, with the golden rule, that you should do unto others what you'd have them do unto you. And I believe in my heart of hearts that no one should be harassed or mistreated because of who they are, who they love, or what they believe. And I believe that every Hoosier shares that conviction. But as I've said we've got a perception problem here because some people have a different view. And we intend to correct that.

After much reflection and in consultation with leadership of the general assembly, I've come to the conclusion that it would be helpful to move legislation this week that makes it clear that this law does not give businesses the right to deny service to anyone. Let me say that again. I think it would be helpful, and I'd like to see on my desk before the end of this week, legislation that is added to the Religious Freedom Restoration Act in Indiana that makes it clear that this law does not give businesses a right to deny services to anyone. We want to make it clear that Indiana's open for business. We want to make it clear that Hoosier hospitality is not a slogan, it's our way of life. It's the reason why people come here from around the world and they come back again and again. Because Hoosiers are the kindest, most generous, most decent people in the world.

Let me say I believe this is a clarification, but it's also a fix—it's a fix of a bill that through mischaracterization and confusion has come to be greatly misunderstood. And I'm determined to address this this week. And to move forward as a state. And I know we will. Indiana has come under the harsh clare of criticism from around the country. And some of us get paid to be under that harsh glare and that criticism, so we don't complain about it. But the things that have been said about our state have been at times deeply offensive to me. And I will continue to use every effort to defend the good and decent people of Indiana. I think it's important that we take this action this week. I've spoken to legislative leaders all the way through the last hour and we're going to be working to make that happen.

With that I'll be happy to take questions.

(That’s seven uses of Hoosier in the speech.)

Pence also added, echoing earlier comments on Fox News, that he was upset to be accused of fostering intolerance because he is a longtime supporter of civil rights who, as he said on Fox, once “walked the Edmund Pettus Bridge with John Lewis” during “the pilgrimage to mark the 45th anniversary of Bloody Sunday.”

March 31 2015 9:18 AM

“Fix This Now,” Indiana’s Largest Newspaper Demands in Huge Front-Page RFRA Headline

Update, 9:55 a.m.: Indiana Gov. Mike Pence indicated Tuesday in a Fox News appearance that he would be open to legislation preventing the RFRA from being used to discriminate against LGBT individuals. From the Hill:

Pence seemed more open than before to allowing debate over passing a statewide non-discrimination law that protects lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender individuals, which would likely mitigate what critics say are the negative effects of the religious freedom law.
“Let me say, that’s not been my position — that’s not been the position of the state of Indiana — but If the legislature brought that up, they can certainly have that debate,” Pence said.

In an ABC appearance Sunday, Pence had said a nondiscrimination law was “not on my agenda” and “doesn’t have anything to do with [the RFRA].”

Original post, 9:18 a.m.: Joining a number of other individuals, groups, and businesses from across the political spectrum, Indiana’s largest newspaper called Tuesday in a front-page editorial for legislation guaranteeing that LGBT individuals cannot be discriminated against under the state’s new Religious Freedom Restoration Act. (For more on the way Indiana’s RFRA enables discrimination, you can read this Monday Slate piece.) From the Indianapolis Star’s article:

Gov. Mike Pence and the General Assembly need to enact a state law to prohibit discrimination in employment, housing, education and public accommodations on the basis of a person's sexual orientation or gender identity.
Those protections and RFRA can co-exist. They do elsewhere.

On Monday a number of potential 2016 Republican presidential candidates said, with varying levels of equivocation, that they support Indiana’s RFRA. Jeb Bush’s unambiguous take was perhaps most notable given that he’s seen as a relative moderate. (Marco Rubio and Scott Walker, two other “electable” candidates, were relatively noncomittal in their statements on the law.)

“I think Gov. [Mike] Pence has done the right thing,” former Florida governor and likely 2016 contender Jeb Bush said in a Monday interview. “I think once the facts are established, people aren’t going to see this as discriminatory at all.”

Ted Cruz, Bobby Jindal, and Ben Carson also praised Indiana’s legislation.

March 30 2015 10:27 PM

Indianapolis’ Republican Mayor Calls for Repeal of Indiana “Religious Freedom” Law

Indianapolis Mayor Greg Ballard reiterated his opposition to Indiana’s recently passed Religious Freedom Restoration Act on Monday and went one step farther calling for the repeal of the measure that was signed into law last week by Indiana Gov. Mike Pence, if explicit protections for sexual orientation aren't included. The Republican mayor of the state’s capital city, and host of this week’s Final Four, also issued an executive order “that anyone who receives money from the city government must abide by its human rights ordinance, which has had [sexual orientation and gender identity] protections in place for a decade,” the Indianapolis Star reports.

The RFRA law allows for religious conservatives to refuse to serve gay individuals if it conflicts with their religious beliefs on homosexuality. “Although the law is similar to a federal one and those in 19 other states, sexual orientation is not a protected class in Indiana, leaving the door open for discrimination, critics say,” according to NPR.

Since Pence signed the bill, the state has faced an avalanche of criticism, and is facing potential boycotts. On Monday, “flanked by business leaders, Ballard denounced the law not only as a threat to the city's economic interests, but as a serious concern for residents and visitors who fear that they could be subjected to discrimination for religious reasons,” according to the Indy Star. “The backlash has come fast and furious, with publicly traded companies such as Angie's List and Salesforce threatening to reduce their investment in the city, and celebrities such as George Takei and Charles Barkley calling for a boycott of Indiana.” The rock band Wilco also announced on Monday it is cancelling an upcoming concert in the state in protest of the new law.

March 30 2015 8:35 PM

Justice Department Sues University in Oklahoma for Discrimination Against Transgender Professor

The Justice Department filed suit on Monday against an Oklahoma university alleging the school discriminated against a transgender professor. “Rachel Tudor was hired as a tenure-track assistant professor in the English department at Southeastern Oklahoma State University in 2004, after applying as a man with a traditionally male name, according to the lawsuit filed Monday,” the Washington Post reports. “Then in 2007, Tudor told school officials that he would become a woman during that academic year, took the name Rachel, and began wearing women’s clothes and a traditionally female hairstyle.”

“The complaint said Tudor taught in the English department and was terminated from the university in 2011 after the school denied her tenure,” Reuters reports. “A lawyer for Tudor said it was the first time the university had denied an English professor's application for tenure and promotion after a favorable tenure recommendation from a promotion committee and the department chair.” The DOJ suit alleges that someone in the university’s human resources department told Tudor that the school’s vice president for academic affairs had inquired about whether Tudor could be fired because her gender transition offended his religious beliefs.

Southeastern Oklahoma State University said in a statement: “The University is confident in its legal position and its adherence to all applicable employment laws." 

March 30 2015 6:09 PM

A Short History of Presidents Being Defeated By Air Force One's Stairs

President Obama’s confidence in his own athleticism and general coordination can be a double-edged sword in the age of YouTube. Take his jump shot, for example: Sometimes it leads to some pretty cool moments, like when he nailed a three-pointer in front of a bunch of American troops in Kuwait. Sometimes it leads to some significantly less cool moments, like when the commander-in-chief went 2-for-22 in front a bunch of children attending a White House Easter event.

On Sunday, though, Obama managed to demonstrate both the risks and rewards of his unwavering belief in himself in one fell swoop. While exiting Air Force One after returning from a weekend golfing trip in Florida, Obama busted out what has become something of his de-boarding trademark: a quick wave a the top of the stairs, followed by a jog to the bottom. This time, however, things didn’t go exactly as planned:

March 30 2015 6:03 PM

Windsor Castle Staff Voting on Possible Strike Over “Appallingly” Low Pay From Royal Family

The staff at Windsor Castle will begin voting Tuesday on a potential strike, which would be the first such action in history for employees of Britain's royal family. Workers are protesting the extra duties that low-paid employees in the castle's kitchens and cloakrooms are expected to perform in order to accommodate the many visitors to the property. From the Telegraph:

Castle staff start on as little as £14,400 [$23,000] per year, meaning they earn less than the living wage, but are expected to carry out extra duties for no extra pay, such as giving guided tours to paying visitors and acting as interpreters and first-aiders.
The Public and Commercial Services Union, which represents 120 of the 200 staff at Windsor, says the Royal household has broken promises over giving the staff extra allowances for carrying out the extra duties.

The staff aren't threatening to walk out completely, just "work to rule" and perform only the tasks for which they're being paid. The workers' union says the action would have "a signifcant impact" on the flow of visitors (and revenue for the royal family) coming through the castle.

Ths dispute has the potential to leak out beyond the castle walls, coming just as a general election campaign is about to get started in Britain; if the workers decide to take action, it would begin right before the public heads to the polls. Such an event could be a headache for the Conservatives, since they are seen as the most loyal to the monarchy and most likely to excuse their extravagance. The Guardian quotes a union spokesperson as saying that the timing is "coincidental" but that the proximity of the election would be "nonetheless welcome if it helps to put some added focus on how badly paid royal household staff are."

Supporters of abolishing the monarchy are using the controversy to renew calls for an elected head of state, but Mark Serwotka, the general secretary of the union, says workers just want to be compensated properly for their contributions. Even better, he says, castle administration should be taken away from the royal family in favor of elected officials so employees can "call to account those who are paying them." 

"These workers are loyal to their employer and absolutely committed to ensuring visitors are given the royal treatment," Serwotka told the Guardian. "It is scandalous that staff are so appallingly paid and expected to do work for free that brings in money for the royal family.”

March 30 2015 5:27 PM

Aide to Missouri Politician Who Committed Suicide Is Found Dead in Apparent Suicide

An upsetting story out of Missouri: A former aide to a political figure named Tom Schweich—who died Feb. 26 in an apparent suicide—has been found dead in what is also thought to have been a suicide. Spence Jackson, 44, was the media director for Schweich, a former Bush administration official and state auditor who was "a frontrunner," per the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, to be the Republican party's nominee in the 2016 Missouri governor's race.

Schweich and Jackson were both recently involved in a strange scandal involving allegations of an "anti-Semitic 'whisper campaign'" against Schweich perpetrated by fellow Missouri Republican John Hancock. Schweich was not, in fact, Jewish.

March 30 2015 4:47 PM

Leaked Message Demonstrates How Email Scandal Could Get Worse for Hillary Clinton

The scandal around Hillary Clinton's use of a personal email account to conduct State Department business doesn't appear to have yet had a significant effect on her chances of becoming the Democratic party's 2016 presidential nominee, perhaps because up to this point it's been more about the violation of abstract principles than about specific unsavory acts. It's been about what Clinton could be hiding rather than what she's actually done.

That might no longer be the case. In 2013, a number of emails written to Hillary Clinton by D.C. operative Sidney Blumenthal were leaked online, and in recent days Gawker and ProPublica have been reexamining those emails in light of the controversy. A piece published Monday by Gawker's Sam Biddle quotes legal experts who say that Blumenthal may have violated the Foreign Agents Registration Act because he emailed Clinton on behalf of a foreign entity—specifically, on behalf of a Putin-friendly politican named Bidzina Ivanishvili who later became the prime minister of Georgia—even though Blumenthal hadn't notified the U.S. government that he was working on Ivanishvili's behalf. (The Foreign Agents Registration Act "requires persons acting as agents of foreign principals in a political or quasi-political capacity to make periodic public disclosure of their relationship with the foreign principal.")

Hillary Clinton isn't accused of doing anything illegal in the Gawker stories. And Blumenthal's advocacy appears to have been pretty tame, consisting of passing on the statements of a third individual who, it was acknowledged openly, worked for Ivanishvili. But the White House, as Gawker notes, had rejected Clinton's efforts to hire Blumenthal in an official capacity. So you have the Secretary of State using an off-books email account to discuss national policy with someone who wasn't a government employee, was known to be disliked by the president's staff, and who might have been violating an actual law by participating in the conversation. That's probably not something Clinton is going to brag about in campaign commercials. It's also exactly the kind of foreign entanglement that critics have warned she is susceptible to—of being unduly influenced by financial connections, via the Clinton Foundation, to foreign interests. Blumenthal is a longtime Clinton-family ally and appears to have described himself as an adviser to the Clinton Foundation on more than one occasion.

This could become an even stickier situation when the private emails Clinton handed over to the State Department are finally released. Clinton has so far asked the public to take her at her word that she gave State every private email that was work-related. So she'd better hope that her emails with Blumenthal about Georgia were included in that dump, or else she'll have walked into an actual smoking-gun example of having apparently used the private account to hide her involvement in dubious activities.

Now, given that the existence of Clinton-Blumenthal correspondence has actually been public knowledge since 2013, her camp definitely should have made sure to turn those emails over. But Clinton's handling of the private-email issue has not exactly been guided by thorough reasoning. At this point, who would be surprised if Hillary Clinton stepped into trouble by not being forthcoming enough?


March 30 2015 3:37 PM

Scalia Admits He’ll Never Read the Whole Record for a Life-and-Death Case He’s About to Decide

Today at an oral argument at the Supreme Court, in a case called Brumfield v. Cain, which probes the ongoing problem of executing criminals who may have been mentally disabled at the time of the crime, the justices clearly struggled to master a voluminous trial record. The issue before the court is pretty technical. As the high court chips away at the classes of people who can be executed—having determined in 2002 in Atkins v. Virginia that the Eighth Amendment ban on cruel and unusual punishment bars the execution of a person who is mentally disabled—the question today was simply how and when that mental disability is determined. Brumfield argued that it is wrong for the courts to decide the issue of his mental disability based only on evidence from the sentencing hearing following his murder conviction. Especially since that hearing happened before Atkins was decided. Brumfield’s lawyers argue that he should be given a separate hearing, to decide the question of mental disability.

As Lyle Denniston notes, in early coverage of oral argument, the trial record in the case was enormous, spanning “at least twenty volumes of a record compiled in a state court.” And as he also notes, many of the justices must find it understandably aggravating to have to reconstruct a long and murky factual record on appeal.  That said, there’s only one justice willing to go the extra mile and say all this out loud, and again today Justice Antonin Scalia was willing to be that guy. In a case that will mean the difference between life and death for petitioner, Justice Scalia announced as follows:

JUSTICE SCALIA: I haven't read the whole record, you know, and I doubt that I'm going to. And I doubt that this Court is going to read the whole record in all of these Atkins cases in the future. I mean, what you're saying is ... you don't think it's fantastical?

To be sure, 20 volumes is a big, big record. And probably lots and lots of reviewing judges don’t bother to read the record every single day across this great land. But it takes a certain kind of something-something to say it out loud, right there at the highest court in the land.

Or as a friend who was present quipped this morning: “This is why there will never be cameras at the Supreme Court.”