Jane Fonda's 'Just Transition' protest for climate change action

Close to 100 activists spent a rainy day with actresses Jane Fonda and Sally Field on the Capitol lawn to protest climate change as part of Fonda’s weekly “Fire Drill Friday” demonstrations. Read more: https://www.eenews.net/stories/106180…

One state's 'magical' tool to fight erosion: Christmas trees

Three decades ago, a Louisiana community had an idea to combat shoreline erosion and wetland loss using the most common holiday decoration: a Christmas tree.

“It was just magical” to see people in St. Charles Parish so willing to give their trees that first year to save coastal Louisiana, said Robert Thomas, who helped come up with the idea over coffee.

He was sharing that coffee with coastal science professor John Day and Allan Ensminger, former head of refuges with Louisiana’s Department of Wildlife and Fisheries.

At the end of the fall 1988 semester at Louisiana State University, they were chatting about Day’s research project. Inspired by a practice in the Netherlands of interweaving fences to trap sediment for marsh restoration, he wanted to try something similar in Louisiana.

The project was showing good results, Day said, but it was hard to interweave the fences over long periods of time in the bitter cold winter.

Then someone had an idea.

“None of us have a recollection of who it was, [but] somebody said, ‘What if you could get something that is already clumped up like Christmas trees that you don’t have to do any weaving, you can just drop them into a cage or something like that?'” said Thomas, director of the Center for Environmental Communication at Loyola University in New Orleans.

“I remember John saying, ‘I think that would work, but I could never get enough trees to do that.'”

Thomas recalled that three days later he was telling the public on a morning television show to gather their Christmas trees. They gathered about 10,000 trees the first year and 25,000 trees the next, he said.

He remembers a girl about 7 years old and her dad pulling up with a Christmas tree in the trunk of their car. “I went over to help and the little girl started tugging on the tree,” Thomas remembered. “I said, ‘What are you doing?’ and she said, ‘I’m trying to get the tree out of here because I’m saving the wetlands.'”

3 decades and 800,000 trees later

Jefferson Parish workers load trees into wooden “cribs” placed along the shoreline. Jefferson Parish Coastal Management Department

St. Charles Parish’s program was the pilot for placing recycled trees in the marsh for coastal restoration. Despite a lack of state funding for the project today, the parish still collects about 2,000 to 3,000 Christmas trees and puts them in marshland each year, according to Earl Matherne from the parish’s planning and zoning department.

Neighboring communities like Jefferson Parish also started collecting Christmas trees and placing them along the shoreline.

Today Jefferson Parish is still running its Christmas tree recycling program, with over 800,000 trees collected over the past 30 years.

In recent years, the parish’s Coastal Management Department has run the program from December until February. Last year, an estimated 5,000 trees were recycled with the help of 125 volunteers.

Lauren Averill, the department’s director, said Jefferson Parish has lost 30% of its land since the 1960s, “and so any ways that we can maintain the land that we have is super important.”

Averill explained that two-by-four wooden boards are placed along the shoreline to create “cribs” where trees are placed. The trees help increase the creation of sediment, reduce marsh loss and improve fish habitat.

“You get two benefits out of the Christmas trees: One, you get to enjoy it during the holidays. And two, it is actually helping to save land loss and prevent land loss within Jefferson Parish,” Averill said.

In 1997, the parish received 70 Christmas trees from the White House for recycling, but Averill said the collaboration ended.

‘This is a national issue’

The 2017 Rockefeller Center Christmas tree was milled into lumber that Habitat for Humanity used to remodel a Newburgh, N.Y., home. Habitat for Humanity International

Between 1996 and 2010, Louisiana lost 309 square miles of wetlands, according to NOAA, and the land loss increased the damage the state sustained from 2005’s Hurricane Katrina.

The U.S. government’s Climate Resilience Toolkit estimated that average erosion rates are 25 feet annually along barrier islands in the Southeast and 50 feet along the Great Lakes.

“This is not a Louisiana issue,” Thomas said. “This is a national issue.”

Christmas trees are recycled in locations across the country like Nevada, California, Florida and Washington, D.C. Recycled trees can help prevent erosion, restore dunes or enhance hiking trails with mulch.

The Rockefeller Center Christmas tree in New York is recycled each year. Since 2007, the lumber from the iconic tree has been donated to build a Habitat for Humanity house.

In Louisiana parishes, the recycling program helped people understand how wetlands loss affects their state and local community, Thomas said.

“It gave the average citizen who cares about the environment a chance to do something,” he said. “They could bring their Christmas tree and drop it off. They knew that would in some way help the wetlands.”

For Averill, outreach is a key component of Jefferson Parish’s program because it teaches people why the project is so important to Louisiana’s future. Volunteers get a firsthand look at the wetlands.

“If you don’t get out into that coastal marsh, then you don’t see the loss and you don’t appreciate it for what it is,” Averill said.

Making a case for real trees

The National Christmas Tree Association represents the Christmas tree industry in the United States and also selects the White House Christmas tree each year.

The group encourages people to opt for a real tree rather than an artificial one.

“It’s endless what you can do with them,” spokesman Doug Hundley said. “They will decompose on their own, and fortunately, they can serve a purpose while they’re doing that.”

Hundley said 99% of the trees are grown on Christmas tree production farms, and after one tree is cut down, another is immediately replanted in its place.

Recycling used Christmas trees saves on landfill costs.

“Landfills are expensive — county and state expense for managing, building and maintaining and capping landfills is a big part of governmental expenses,” Hundley said.

Thomas also supports keeping trees out of the trash.

“All landfills are supported by tax dollars, so that means we’re actually paying tax dollars to fill them up after Christmas with Christmas trees,” he said.

Hundley hopes Christmas tree recycling will expand to more communities as they recognize the environmental and cost-saving benefits.

“Any county that’s not doing it will wake up and smell the coffee one day, I’m sure,” he said.

Published in conjunction with E&E News

Boomer grandmas take up protesting for the planet

It’s not just millennials leading climate change protests — grandmothers, including film star Jane Fonda, are getting in on the action, worried about the planet becoming uninhabitable for their grandchildren.

As Fonda, 81, holds her next “Fire Drill Fridays” demonstration on Capitol Hill today, other grandmothers across the country are also taking a stand.

“If my last breath on this earth is working to make their lives better, that’s what I do,” said 74-year-old Dorothy Brandt of Washington, D.C., a climate activist who has two granddaughters, a 6-year-old and a 3-year-old.

Brandt maintains a busy schedule as a climate change advocate. She attended Fonda’s rally last Friday and then testified to the EPA this past Wednesday about her experiences with smog in Los Angeles and toxic waste in Tacoma, Wash.

Brandt is not alone in her fight. She belongs to Moms Clean Air Force, which has drawn over 1.2 million members since it was established in 2011.

One of its co-founders, Dominique Browning, 64, of New York City, has a 3-year-old grandson, who will turn 4 on Earth Day. As a grandmother, Browning said the projected impact of climate change is “completely 150% motivating” and that many of her peers feel obligated to protect the next generation.

“I think what a lot of older people really respond to [is] a feeling of moral responsibility and handing on a world that is as good as it possibly can be,” Browning said.

Geri Freedman, 68, of central Florida, couldn’t agree more. Freedman is the co-chair of Elders Climate Action, an 8,000-member organization that mobilizes older people to speak up and take action on climate change. The group has chapters across the country as well as internationally in Canada, India, New Zealand and Australia.

“I have two grandchildren ages 10 and 8,” Freedman said. “I look into their eyes and I know that I have to do everything that I possibly can to make sure that their generation inherits a planet that’s habitable.”

The planet’s future habitability is a major concern for Jean Cummings, 71, of Acton, Mass. Cummings belongs to Mothers Out Front, a nonprofit with 35,000 supporters in nine states. She has prioritized her activism on the effects that the fossil fuel industry has on the future of her grandsons, ages 8 and 11.

“I think about what their life is apt to be like unless some major institutional changes are made to get us off of fossil fuels in an accelerated fashion,” Cummings said.

‘What do we have to lose?’

Dorothy Brandt (right), 74, attended last week’s Fonda rally in Washington. A member of Moms Clean Air Force, she says she wants to make her grandchildren’s lives better. Moms Clean Air Force

Fonda’s weekly protests have inspired people of all ages to voice their outrage on climate change in the streets and halls of government.

During her Oct. 25 rally, Fonda encouraged the crowd to “put your body on the line, especially us grandmas, what do we have to lose?”(E&E News PM, Oct. 25).

Kathleen Rall, 72, of Frederick County, Md., attended Fonda’s protest that day because she worried that her daughter and 9-year-old grandson might one day experience an intense warming of the Earth.

“We actually might be destroyed by fire if we don’t cut the emissions quickly,” Rall said. “We have 10 years to cut them dramatically.”

After attending the Nov. 1 demonstration, Brandt said Fonda inspired her, and she got goose bumps listening to the speakers’ words (E&E News PM, Nov. 1).

“I’m proud to see Jane Fonda step up, and she stepped up, as far as I can tell, for all the same reasons that I did,” Brandt said.

Browning thought Fonda’s protests were fantastic, and she wished “more celebrities had their hair on fire about climate change.” Although she noted that you don’t have to be arrested to make a difference.

“I think we have to be very careful about checking our privilege,” Browning said. “There are not very many people who can afford to get arrested, who can afford to not show up at the end of the day to feed the children, who can afford to take a day off.”

Freedman noted that Fonda’s protests are connecting all generations to climate change.

“It’s hopefully making the point that it’s all generations that care about climate change,” Freedman said. “It’s elders. It’s youth. It’s everybody. It’s not one generation.”

‘My generation messed it up’

Kathleen Rall, 72, showed her support for teen climate activist Greta Thunberg at Fonda’s Oct. 25 rally. Rall worries about how warming will affect her daughter and grandson. “We actually might be destroyed by fire if we don’t cut the emissions quickly,” she said. Bev Banks/E&E News

Millennials and members of Generation Z (born 1982-1996 and 1997-on, respectively) have often blamed older generations for creating the current climate crisis.

Brandt said that while everyone should take some personal responsibility for the environment, her generation has made mistakes that led to climate change.

“My generation messed it up good,” Brandt said. “I think we owe it to this new generation and the generations to come to clean it up.”

On the other hand, Browning said that her generation should not be the scapegoat for all of the effects and that young people are not alone in saving the planet.

“I’m excited about how the movement has grown,” Browning said. “I’m not particularly excited at this trope that baby boomers, my generation, have ruined the planet and it’s up to young people to save it.”

Browning explained that although civil disobedience is important, boomers have “been in the trenches” and engaged with legislators to change regulations.

In March, Gallup released a poll that showed demographic differences on global warming opinions. In the 18- to 29-year-old subgroups, 67% were concerned believers in contrast to 43% in the 50 to 64 age group and 47% of those 65 and older.

A joint survey released in June 2019 between Yale University and George Mason University explained that while younger generations are more likely to engage in climate activism, they are no more likely than baby boomers (born 1946-1964) or the silent generation (born roughly 1925-1945) to contact government officials about global warming.

A grandmother’s act of love

A sense of hope is central to Cummings’ mission to ensure her grandchildren have a livable climate when they’re adults.

“I think all of us would like to give the future generations the chance to experience our amazing natural world in the way that we were able to do it,” Cummings said.

For Browning, thinking about the age of her children and grandchildren helped her frame the immediacy and urgency to act with climate projections for 2050 and 2100.

“We’re talking about when my son is my age, when my grandson will be his father’s age,” Browning said. “He will be a young adult as this catastrophe deepens.”

After Swedish teenage climate activist Greta Thunberg came out “speaking truth to power” for the next generation, Brandt decided that she couldn’t sit at home and read during her retirement.

“I’m never too tired. I’m never too sick,” Brandt said. “I’m never too old.”

Published in conjunction with E&E News

Dinosaur-Killing Meteorite Caused Acidification That Led to Mass Extinction

Fossils from 66 million years ago have pointed to a potential link between mass extinction of marine life and ocean acidification.

A study published yesterday by the National Academy of Sciences revealed how the collapse of marine species occurred following a meteorite’s impact that wiped out the dinosaurs. The meteorite increased carbon levels in the atmosphere and altered the chemistry of the Earth’s oceans over time.

Researchers studied marine animals with shells, known as foraminifera, to determine how a spike in carbon levels increased ocean acidification.

Their findings argued that the disappearance of the organisms occurred after pH levels dropped 0.25 unit between 100 and 1,000 years after the meteorite hit. Acidification then intensified.

One of the study’s authors, Ellen Thomas, a senior research scientist in Yale University’s geology and geophysics department, noted how increased ocean acidity raised the risk for extinction of marine organisms with shells.

“If we have more acidic oceans, then on the one hand, it is more difficult, it takes more energy for organisms to make a calcium carbonate shell,” Thomas said.

As chemical changes occur when salt water reacts with carbon dioxide, the pH level falls and ocean acidity levels rise.

NOAA reported that following the Industrial Revolution, the pH levels in oceans dropped by 0.11 unit. That translates to a 30% hike in acidity levels.

NOAA launched its Ocean Acidification Program in 2011 as part of a larger effort to monitor, research and educate the public on the impacts of the changing chemistry of the oceans.

The program has funded multiple research projects along the Gulf of Mexico, in coral ecosystems and in the Southeast.

Emily Osborne, a University Corporation for Atmospheric Research visiting scientist with the NOAA Ocean Acidification Program, explained how the study’s findings coincided with NOAA’s modern-day research on ocean acidification.

“Model projections suggest that if business-as-usual scenarios continue into the future, we might see pH decline on the scale that was observed in this study as a result of that [meteorite] impact,” Osborne said.

Ocean acidification is reversible, but Thomas pointed out that changes in chemistry cannot be altered for thousands of years.

“They are reversible on time scales that are so long that humans are not really interested in that,” Thomas said. “We’re talking reversible on time scales of 10,000 to 100,000 years.”

Published in conjunction with E&E News and Scientific American

Meet ‘The Bee Lady’ Of Capitol Hill

WASHINGTON — On an evening in late March, Jan Day is standing outside her red brick rowhouse in Capitol Hill holding a white helmet fastened with black netting. Day’s 8-year-old airedale terrier, Echo, barks as she strolls past the garden, toward the back of her house.

Neighbors driving by in a white car wave and yell, “Jan and her bees!”

Day beams with pride.

“We used to be known on our block as Echo’s mom and dad, but now I’m also the bee lady,” she says.

By day, Jan Day is the director of client success for Starfish Retention Solutions by Hobsons, an educational technology company. But it’s her after-hours hobby that’s earned her the nickname, and plenty of new friends in her neighborhood.

“People are moving in all the time,” Day said. “It’s amazing how, as soon as someone hears, ‘Oh have you met the bee lady on our block?’ suddenly people are just like ‘Oh I’ve got questions for her.’”

Day’s wooden front door opens up to reveal a flight of hardwood steps that creak as she climbs upstairs to her porch, which is attached to her bedroom. A blue patterned quilt lays neatly on the bed. Outside, nearly 100,000 bees await.

Day throws on a white puffy jacket and zips the hood with a black screen around her face and neck before stepping out onto the porch.

A rusted container billows smoke as Day squeezes the accordion-like handle eight times. The smoke inhibits the communication pheromones that bees use to alert the hive of danger. Then she opens the hives for the first time this spring.

Day slowly pulls out a wooden frame. Bees crawl over the cells with golden honey inside.

When she first started beekeeping, Day wondered if the honey would have “diesel overtones” from the urban environment. She was surprised to find it tastes wonderful.

“Because of the mix of the variety of flowering plants—from tulip poplar to basswood or linden to japanese scholar trees—the quality and quantity of nectar in the city is amazing,” she says.

A few years ago, a longtime Washingtonian beekeeper explained to DCist:


“The foraging material in urban context seems to be a lot more plentiful and diverse than it is in the rural areas. In the District specifically, we have a very green canopy that includes a lot of trees, on the streets and in parks. Trees are great for bees. As the season wanes, a lot of non-native species are here that extend the nectar flow—the nectar availability season. Plus there’s a lack of competition in the urban environment. We don’t have a lot of other competing pollinators, so it makes for a smorgasbord for the bees.”


Beekeeping in the District wasn’t always so straightforward.

While the practice was technically legal, the law was ambiguous enough that many people kept their hives in secret. That changed in 2012, when an omnibus bill more widely legalized the practice.

The legislation established standards for keeping bees and required beekeepers to register their hives with the city’s Department of Energy and Environment. Since 2015, there have been 443 colonies registered with the city, and 104 people are currently keeping bees in the city, according to the department’s records.

Day and her husband, Charles, first attended a beekeepers’ group meeting on the recommendation of a friend, Del Voss, about a year before the law passed. In 2012, the group officially became known as the D.C. Beekeepers Alliance.

The organization now has almost 250 members that gather monthly to share advice about maintaining their hives and listen to experts talk.

Toni Burnham, the president of the D.C. Beekeepers Alliance, says she wants the public to see beekeeping as normal part of the community, rather than as an eccentric hobby.

“Beekeepers should be a little bit more boring than model railroad people and a little bit less boring than the composters,” Burnham said. “We should just be another one of those groups, a normal part of the city’s DNA.”

That seems to be happening. Day conducted a survey last year to figure out just how much honey is being collected. She found that local beekeepers had harvested about 6,190 pounds of honey—roughly the weight of a Ford Explorer.

Even Second Lady Karen Pence had hives installed at the Naval Observatory in 2017. The Obamas also kept bees at the White House for many years.

With her own hives thriving, Day started her own honey and candle making company, Second Story Honey, in 2017. She sells tea lights, honey jars, owl-shaped candles, and other products online. On nice days, she’ll bring out a card table and sell her products outside her house—just feet from the hives.

Seven years after becoming a beekeeper, Day has been instrumental in mentoring and encouraging other people to take up the hobby.

One of them is her co-worker, Amy Reitz, who enlisted Day’s help at a holiday party in convincing her wife to let her buy some bees.

Now she’s going into her third year of beekeeping. Day has been a support system through tough times, like when Reitz lost her hive.

“Jan was really helpful in being able to say, like, ‘everybody loses their bees,’ ‘I’ve lost bees,’ right? And it’s a learning process,” Reitz said. “I think talking through her kind of really helped me regain the confidence.”

But Day says one of the reasons she loves the hobby is because there’s still so much to learn.

“I find beekeeping ever fascinating because scientists are learning something almost every week about bee behavior, whether its a social aspect of their lives, biological aspects of their lives, an economic impact that they have,” she says. “There’s so much that we still haven’t learned about how this superorganism works and behaves, and I just love that.”

Day also serves on the D.C. Beekeepers Alliance Swarm Squad, which is on call in the spring when swarms of honey bees search for a new home. The trick is to capture them in a box that includes the queen.

On Sunday afternoon last year, she and Voss were called to Dupont Circle Day put a netted veil over her short brown hair and climbed into a white baggy suit that resembled something out of a “Ghostbusters” movie. She climbed 30 feet up a tree and retrieved a swarm of bees that had entranced the neighborhood.

Dozens of people gathered around Day and Voss as they put the honey bees into a copier paper box and shut the lid. People stuck around to chat with the pair about beekeeping and the significance of the swarm as the honey bees form a new colony.

Day describes it as “just a magical moment combination of saving the bees and being able to talk to all of these people who had lots of questions.”

Published in conjunction with Screen Shot 2019-04-24 at 11.05.06 PM.png

In speech to new U.S. governors, Gov. Tom Wolf shares Pa.’s experience fighting opioid abuse

WASHINGTON — Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf told officials from 33 states and territories Monday that his state’s efforts to reduce one of the highest opioid death rates in the country were built on creating 45 centers to address the mental health and behavioral issues that lead to addiction.

Although the data has not been fully reported from all counties, “It looks like 2018 might be the first year we actually see a decline in opioid deaths in Pennsylvania,” Wolf said in his address to the National Governors Association’s Opioid Summit for New Administrations, a two-day event for state governments and nonprofits across the U.S. to discuss solutions for reducing opioid use and death.

The most recent data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reported that in 2017, Pennsylvania had one of the highest rates of deaths related to drug overdose with around 44 deaths per 100,000 people.

Last year, Wolf established an Opioid Command Center comprised of six state agencies that collaborate on how to prevent and reduce opioid use. Wolf’s office also announced the success of 45 state-funded opioid use disorder treatment centers known as the Centers of Excellence.

In a 2018 report, the American Medical Association highlighted Pennsylvania’s success with these centers in addressing mental and behavioral health disorders related to addiction.

Many advisers to governors across the country were in attendance for the opioid summit. Some of those representatives came from Alabama, Alaska, Kentucky, Ohio, Tennessee, New Mexico, Wyoming, and Wisconsin.

Jane Wishner, executive policy adviser for New Mexico’s Health and Human Services Department, asked Wolf what he would have done differently with his experience in expanding Pennsylvania’s opioid treatment services.

Wolf said he would have started his campaign against opioid use disorder sooner.

Lori Criss, director of the Ohio Department of Mental Health and Addiction Services, was grateful that Wolf used the term “substance use disorder suffered.”

“I’ve never heard that,” Criss said. “It’s very compassionate so I want to thank you for that.”

Wolf also noted that governments cannot celebrate the slowdown of the epidemic because other addictive drugs such as methamphetamine and crack cocaine are replacing opioids.

“This is a chronic illness. It’s not something you can take something for and you’re over it,” Wolf said. “It doesn’t work that way. This is a lifelong thing.”

The Democratic governor also said combating the opioid crisis “actually is not a very partisan issue.”

“Republicans and Democrats, liberals and conservatives, all seem to come around this issue in Pennsylvania,” he said.

Published in conjunction with Pennsylvania Capital Star

Zebrafish are making waves for limb regeneration research

WASHINGTON, April 3 — Could humans regrow their limbs? Researchers are considering this possibility as they study the regrowth of tail fins and other organs in zebrafish.

Zebrafish are a member of the minnow family that live in freshwater and are no bigger than two inches in length.

Despite their small size, this fish has changed how scientists and researchers understand treatments for cancer, spinal cord injuries, and potentially the regeneration of limbs in humans.The study of zebrafish heart regeneration has led to conclusions about preventative and reactive measures to tissue breakdown in the human heart.

In 2017, the National Institutes of Health (NIH) published its findings on how zebrafish research has influenced basic understandings of human scar tissue in the heart.

Dr. Jon Lorsch is the director of the National Institute of General Medical Sciences at NIH and he said zebrafish studies are shaping the future science of regenerative medicine. Lorsch said scientists and doctors are questioning the possibility of human limb regeneration through zebrafish studies.

“If we could figure out how to turn those pathways back on in a human could we actually allow someone who has lost a limb to eventually regenerate the limb?” Lorsch asked. “That’s the dream.”

According to NIH data published in 2016, grant funding applications for zebrafish studies have increased overall compared to other model organism research.

Dr. Eric Glasgow is a researcher and director of Georgetown University’s Zebrafish Shared Resource, a database of findings related to the study of zebrafish and human diseases. He has studied zebrafish for over 20 years and he didn’t think limb regeneration was a remote possibility until now.

Glasgow said the similarities in the cell types of zebrafish and humans have helped researchers test different treatments for diseases and focus on the regeneration of human tissues.

“When you give these guys drugs, or you manipulate a gene you actually get the effect on the whole organism that reflects what you see in humans,” Glasgow said.

Despite these new findings for human health, animal rights groups are concerned that zebrafish are harmed in the process of research.

Vice president of laboratory investigations cases at the People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, Dr. Alka Chandna, said that the overcrowding of zebrafish in tanks has a major impact on their social well-being and individual longevity.

“Zebrafishes are social animals and so this kind of overcrowding can make a fish depressed they can become aggressive, certainly any type of social cohesion entirely falls apart,” Chandna said.

Chandna also noted the lack of research dedicated to how zebrafish are impacted in regenerative studies. She said the similarities of human and zebrafish genes are not a sound basis for scientific research on these animals.

“The differences are so great in the physiology that you really have to question the scientific integrity of using these animals in the first place,” Chandna said.

For Glasgow, zebrafish are the future of this type of research and there are no alternatives to using them.

“It comes down to is it valuable to animal research,” Glasgow said. “My opinion is there’s absolutely no substitute to an organism.”

Published in conjunction with United Press International

Supreme Court hears arguments on alleged discrimination in jury selection

Supreme-Court-hears-arguments-on-alleged-discrimination-in-jury-selection

Supreme Court Justices John Roberts, Elena Kagan, Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh listen during President Donald Trump’s State of the Union address in February. The justices heard oral arguments Wednesday relating to a murder conviction in Mississippi. File Photo by Doug Mills/UPI | License Photo

 

 

March 20 (UPI) — WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court heard oral arguments Wednesday about racial discrimination in jury selection for a case that could reverse a conviction for a Mississippi man on death row.

The justices considered whether purposeful racial discrimination played a role in the exclusion of jurors for a murder trial in a Mississippi. The case, Flowers vs. Mississippi, centers on whether the prosecuting attorney intentionally eliminated jurors based on race and, as a result, created an unfair trial for defendant Curtis Flowers, who was eventually convicted and sentenced to death.

Wednesday’s oral arguments relied on the 1985 Supreme Court decision in Batson vs. Kentucky, which held excluding jurors based on race violates a person’s Sixth Amendment right to a fair trial and Fourteenth Amendment right to equal protection under the law.

“The history of this case is very troubling,” Justice Samuel Alito said.

Tried six times for his alleged role in a 1996 murder of four workers at a furniture company in Winona, Miss., Flowers was convicted in 2010 and sentenced to death. He still maintains his innocence.

Prosecutor Doug Evans, who is white, has led the case against Flowers, who is black, for all six trials. Evans has been accused of abusing his legal power of peremptory challenge to dismiss black jurors from having a seat in the sixth trial.

Flowers’ attorney, Sheri Lynn Johnson, argued that the history of this case has to be reconsidered because the aggressiveness of Evans’ questions toward black jurors indicated racial bias.

Chief Justice John Roberts noted that the “case is unusual because of the extensive history,” but he questioned whether there was any legal precedent that allows for limitations on considering history.

The four left-leaning justices on the court, Elena KaganSonia SotomayorRuth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen Breyer, focused on the distinction between a black and white juror in the case.

Evans struck Carolyn Wright, who is black, from the jury because she had been sued by the furniture company and worked with Flowers’ father at the Winona Walmart store. Pamela Chesteen, a white juror, was a bank teller in Winona where the Flowers family were customers.

“Isn’t the relationship of a bank teller different than someone who is a coworker?” Ginsburg asked.

Sotomayor said she was most interested in the comparison between Wright and Chesteen given their similarities in knowing the defendant’s family.

Kagan agreed and also pointed out that “the numbers themselves are staggering” when looking at the difference between the larger amount of questions posed to black jurors than white jurors.

This is the second time the Supreme Court has considered the Flowers case. In 2016, the justices granted the petition for a writ of certiorari and rejected the decision of the Mississippi State Supreme Court, ordering the lower court to re-examine the case based on the ruling in Foster vs. Chatman.

In Foster, the high court ruled that the defendant met the burden of proof established in Batson vs. Kentucky since there was physical evidence of the prosecutor’s notes about only striking black jurors.

Justice Brett Kavanaugh questioned how Batson would be applied given the history of the number of black jurors stricken from the trial court.

When the plaintiff’s attorney, Jason Davis, agreed that consideration of history is important to this case, Kavanaugh pointed to a prosecutor’s challenge to a juror’s partiality to the “defendant because of their shared race” as discussed in Batson.

In a rare move, Justice Clarence Thomas posed a question to the defense at the end of oral arguments. Thomas asked whether the defense had exercised any peremptory challenges that threw out white jurors in this case. The last time Thomas spoke during oral arguments was in 2016.

Even if the Supreme Court ruled in favor of Flowers, the defendant’s conviction would be reversed but he could still face a seventh trial for the murders in Mississippi.

Published in conjunction with UPI Logo

Biological and chemical weapons: the other threats from North Korea

 

When it comes to North Korea, all eyes are on nuclear weapons, but the lack of attention toward chemical and biological capabilities weakens defense against potential attacks, according to experts in the field.

 

After the breakdown of talks between the United States and Pyongyang last week, the future of not only nuclear weapons but biological and chemical weapons is uncertain.

 

“The real terrorists threats, primarily when you talk about weapons of mass destruction — nuclear, chemical and biological — are chemical weapons, biological diseases and radioactive materials,” said Paul Walker, vice chairman of the board of directors for the Arms Control Association.

Walker, who has worked in the international security field for more than 40 years, said chemical and biological agents are the biggest threats facing society today.

 

In the new Congress, lawmakers have paid particular attention to nuclear weapons. The House Armed Services Committee is holding a hearing on nuclear deterrence policies today and their counterparts on the Senate Armed Services Committee held a similar hearing on nukes last week. Neither panel plans to hold a hearing on chemical or biological weapons in the near future, according to committee staff members.

 

Jenifer Mackby, a senior fellow at the Federation for American Scientists, said that while the image of the mushroom cloud at Hiroshima and Nagasaki makes people fear the use of nuclear weapons, there is little public knowledge about biological weapons.

 

New GAO report evaluates climate change and cybersecurity policies at the federal level

Climate change, cyberinfrastructure, and personal security clearances dominated Wednesday’s House Oversight and Reform Committee hearing.

The Government Accountability Office on Wednesday released a biennial report assessing the waste, fraud, abuse and mismanagement of government operations. The 2019 report identified 35 areas inside the government that required reevaluation, more than half of which are unchanged since the 2017 report.

Chairman Elijah Cummings, D-Md., zeroed in on the $13.6 million in taxpayer money that President Trump has spent traveling to and from his vacation home in Mar-a-Lago.

Ranking member Jim Jordan, R-Ohio, said Trump’s behavior is not uncommon or unlike that of prior administrations.

“The perception is that this is the only time it’s happened that’s someone traveled to their home or vacation spot,” Jordan said. “But previous presidents have done this time and time again.”

Cummings also criticized the administration for the unusually contentious relationship between White House staffers and the GAO.

Democratic lawmakers focused most of their attention on a section of the report addressing personnel security clearances, in light of recent media reports about Trump taking the unusual step of demanding that his daughter and son-in-law receive clearances despite objections.

Specifically, the report found that “the percentage of executive branch agencies meeting established timeliness objectives for initial secret clearances, initial top secret clearances, and periodic reinvestigations decreased each year from fiscal years 2012 through 2018.”

Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, D-Fla., pressed GAO Director Gene Dodaro on how the president’s actions might endanger national security.

“Obviously, the White House is supposed to set an example for the rest of the government to follow and your report outlines ways in which the administration is already failing to ensure there is background quality,” she said.

Dodaro told lawmakers that background investigations are crucial to ensuring that the wrong information does not fall into the wrong hands.

“This is very important that only the right people in the government have access to the highest, most sensitive information,” Dodaro said.

Other than the White House, some of the most striking issues in the report were related to climate change and cybersecurity infrastructure.

Climate change was cited as a risk to U.S. economic and environmental systems such as disaster relief efforts. The report stated that recent hurricanes, forest fires, flooding and other natural disasters have increased total federal funding for disaster assistance since 2005 to almost $430 trillion.

Rep. Harley Rouda, D-Calif., asked Dodaro how climate change affects national security.

Dodaro said his group does rely on climate change assessments and “numerous studies” that have found that climate change “is producing an economic and environmental risk to the government.”

He said recent hurricanes such as Florence and Michael have cost billions of dollars in damage to military facilities.

“It is affecting DOD’s own operations both domestically and internationally,” Dodaro said. “A lot of their facilities are in coastal areas and with rising sea levels it poses difficulties.”

The report also cited inadequate federal strategy for cybersecurity as a high risk for national security.

When referring to challenges with cybersecurity, Rep. Jody Hice, R-Ga., asked, “What’s the holdup, what’s the issue?”

Dodaro responded that cybersecurity infrastructure is not being addressed by the federal government with a sense of urgency.

“I put cybersecurity on the government-wide high-risk list in 1997,” Dodaro said. “I’ve been on this quest for a long time.”

Other government operations such as the 2020 Census and the opioid crisis were also sighted as high risks in the report.

The GAO added the 2020 Census to the high-risk list in 2017 for escalating costs and inefficient IT systems. The Census Bureau spent $12.3 billion in 2010 and is projected to spend about $15.6 billion in 2020.

In response to the GAO’s suggestions, the Census Bureau has created an action plan to update their software systems to improve management of personal information.

The GAO also noted the agency’s close attention to the opioid crisis. The report detailed that drug overdoses are the leading cause of death in the nation and had an economic cost of more than $500 billion in 2015, according to the Council of Economic Advisors.

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