Thursday, February 16, 2012

Citizen's Rights, State's Right, and Vermont

The Term States Rights Used to be Inflammatory

In April, Entergy sued the State of Vermont: the State was attempting to shut down Vermont Yankee, using illegal grounds and illegal tactics.

The Entergy case included federal pre-emption issues, derived from the Supremacy Clause of the Constitution. The Entergy case also described how the state had interfered with the Commerce Clause of the Constitution. In other words, the Entergy case depended on the Constitution.

Vermont's response to the lawsuit depended on the state's assertion of State's Rights. I blogged about this at ANS Nuclear Cafe, shortly after the lawsuit was filed. My April post was titled States's Rights and the NRC.

I caught an earful about that post. The first person to comment on the post didn't like it, and he ended his comment with what he thought was a real zinger of a criticism. Tom Murphy finished his remarks with the statement: Finally the use of the term “States Rights” has such a negative connotation it is almost inflammatory.

Defending State's Rights

I guess it used to be inflammatory. Times have changed in Vermont! It looks like the term "States' Rights" is no longer a term that liberals will avoid.

In January, when the judge's ruling supported Vermont Yankee, the Seven Days blog reported the reaction in the Vermont Statehouse.
  • The Senate President Pro Tempore, John Campbell, was quoted as follows: I think it is a deterioration of states' rights.
  • The Speaker of the House, Shap Smith, said: There are some concerns about whether states' rights have been constricted.
  • Tony Klein, a long-time Vermont Yankee opponent who chairs the House Natural Resources and Energy Committee said: "It's a sad day for state's rights and a sad day for America."
  • Margaret Cheney, a member of the House Natural Resources Committee has impeccable liberal credentials. She was quoted in my local paper: The court ruling is a step backward for state rights, she said, but it left an opening for Vermont to regulate its sole nuclear plant.
"A sad day for state's rights is a sad day for America." That statement makes me feel ill, and I don't care if my comment is inflammatory! (In an earlier version of this post, I put up a Confederate flag. It was too inflammatory. I have taken it down.) Do these people know what they are talking about?

I am a person who was alive during the days when Martin Luther King Jr. was active. I am a person whose husband lived in Florida and went to a segregated school (the only kind there were in Florida at the time). I don't think that a "Sad Day for State's Rights is a Sad Day for America." Quite the opposite, as a matter of fact. A Sad Day for State's Rights is a Good Day for America. In my opinion, champions of State's Rights are rarely champions of individual rights. And that hasn't changed since the days of the Freedom Riders.

The Vermont AG and the Vermont Citizen

I can just hear some of my readers groaning. "Oh for Pete's sake, Meredith! This was a lawsuit between a company and a state. No fire hoses or police dogs were involved! What on earth are you talking about? You insult the entire civil rights movement with this comparison."

Okay, my friends. I live in Vermont, and I am talking about the Vermont Attorney General and his disrespect for the rights of citizens. Lots of people are talking about him in my township, and it has nothing to do with Vermont Yankee. His actions are an important part my contention that states that begin challenging the Constitution are states that think they are a law unto themselves. These states see nothing wrong with trampling on the rights of their citizens, as Hume and Hamilton predicted.

(I describe the background of smaller versus larger jurisdictions in the previous post: Vermont and State's Rights, the Fundamental Problem.)

The Hartford Police and the Attorney General

In recent months, there have been three incidents where the police in my township trampled on the rights of citizens. They also trampled on the actual citizens, by beating them up. None of the citizens was even charged with any crime. In all three cases, the Vermont AG cleared the police of any wrong-doing.

Now, in many jurisdictions, police occasionally behave badly. This is no surprise. However, it is shocking to me (and to many people in my township) that the state Attorney General took no action, not even the mildest hand-slap, about these egregious beatings by the police.

My conclusion: State's rights count for a lot in Vermont. Citizen's rights don't count for very much.

Three Cases and How the Attorney General Dismissed Them

Burrell case: In the first case, the Burrell case, the police did not have to reveal their records, because they said they hadn't made an arrest. Oh yeah. They pepper sprayed a homeowner in his own home, put handcuffs on him that cut his wrists, and then discovered they were wrong and took him to the hospital. No arrest, no records revealed. The Attorney General was fine with this.

Here's the case: an African-American man was very sick, naked and sitting on the toilet in his own home. He had knocked over a lamp, and the police got a call that there was a burglary at the home. The man was then "subdued" by the police who thought the home had been burglarized. (And the burglar had decided to sit naked and sweating on the toilet?) The man was muscular, sweating profusely, and did not respond to police orders. Pepper spray time!

Here's a link to the incident as Anne Galloway and the ACLU filed suit about it. Here's a link to Attorney General Sorrell's final disposition of the case against the police. In the AG's opinion, the police did nothing wrong and no harm done.

Thierren: Monica Thierren is not a homeowner. At the time of the incident, she was living in an inexpensive motel with her boyfriend, and had called in a domestic violence situation to the police. When the police arrived, Ms. Thierren was very drunk and the officers found no evidence of domestic violence. At that point, the police said that they attempted to "grab her shoulder in an attempt to place her in protective custody" but she fell and suffered a head injury. Three witnesses at the motel said that the police slammed her to the ground.

The AG investigated for 13 months (supposedly) but didn't interview the witnesses. As my local paper wrote in Missing Witnesses: That's a pretty long time, so it is puzzling to learn that during those 13 months, only one of the three civilian witnesses to this encounter was interviewed and her statement was essentially ignored. Granted, the attorney general's office had other things to do during this time, like losing the Vermont Yankee case in federal court, but it doesn't seem too much to ask to at least talk to the witnesses and address the contradictions between their account and the official Hartford police version.

Daoust case: The third case is that of Derek Daoust. This man is a resident of Quechee, an upscale village in my township. He drove his car into the ditch on the way home one night. He sensibly got out of the car and walked home, deciding to get the car towed in the morning. The police found his car and went to his house. That is when the fun began.

The police didn't have a warrant for an arrest or search, but they came to Daoust's door and insisted that he step outside to talk with him. He refused, since they had no warrant and he was committing no crime by being at his own house. They pulled him out of his house and once again "subdued" him, this time beating him with their flashlights. The local paper wrote about this in Without Warrant or Consent.

The Attorney General again found no wrong-doing by police, though he did suggest that the Hartford police should be trained to obtain either a consent or a search warrant in order to enter a residence.

The AG was supposed to decide if the police committed a crime. Instead, he decided they needed "more training." Really? As the local paper concluded: The bad news is that the narrative of Darrek Daoust's encounter with Hartford police ought to chill to the bone anyone who believes that the Fourth Amendment means what it says about the people's right to be free from unreasonable searches and seizures, and the requirement for authorities to obtain warrants.

This violation of the most clear aspects of the Constitution didn't bother our Attorney General. He decided to act as an authority on police training, rather than an authority on the law.

Disrespect for the Constitution is Disrespect for the Constitution

In my opinion, disrespect for the Constitution and insistence on State's Rights cuts two ways. Yes, it leads to lawsuits in federal court. It also leads to disrespect for the rights of citizens, especially if they are African-American, poor and drunk, or even well-off but insisting on their constitutional rights. I don't like the cry of "state's rights" and I don't mind saying so. I like the Constitution.

As one of my local friends (who is against Vermont Yankee) put it: "I wouldn't open my door to the Hartford police. And we have got to do something about that Attorney General!"

Hume from Wikipedia


Unknown said...

Thank you for saying this.

While police brutality is usually a condoned by the right (seeing the police as the "thin blue line" between us and anarchy) and nuclear power is usually demonized by the left (seeing it as one eyelash away from total nuclear destruction), there is a connection: moral certainty. Those who will not even question the police and those who will not even listen to the engineers both share a certainty that they are right, and a moral sense that allows almost any action.

Given that, Meredith, I am sorry to say that in neither of these cases will rational argument work. For police accountability, we need video evidence of heinous actions, so those defending it have to defend it against serious revulsion (Rodney King, anyone?). For nuclear power, we may have to just shut down Vermont Yankee, and then let everybody see what happens. Shivering does tend to make one a believer.

My point is that as citizens and voters do not have a rational basis for their position, then rational argument will not reach them.

And Meredith, I once again thank you for making these posts. These things need to be said, even though the complainers will complain.

Meredith Angwin said...

The comment above contained a link to a New York Times article on moral certainty, but the link did not come through when the comment was posted. Here's the link so you can put it in your browser.