Samuel AlitoIt’s hard to believe, but the big week is finally here. The confirmation hearings for Samuel Alito will begin today at noon EST. For years, many political commentators have predicted that this particular Senate hearing—the one discussing the replacement for swing Justice Sandra Day O’Connor—will be an unprecedented showdown between the political left and right.
But what, exactly, is behind the furor?
To hear political commentators speak, all sides seem to be espousing the same idea: Good judges should neutrally apply the law to situations before them. Liberal Democratic politicians will say it, as will conservative Republicans. But each side will then identify different judges as their "ideal" candidate for the bench. "Neutrally apply the law" seems to mean something different to each side of the aisle. But what?
The difference is in judicial philosophy. Each side differs in their preferred method of interpreting the law.
Some judges exercise a philosophy of restraint. They are originalists. They seek to find and apply the original meaning of a text, believing that new textual meanings, when needed, should be added by elected legislators. They recognize that the Constitution has one meaning that does not change over time. They are likely to say that shifting political or cultural considerations should be reflected in the legislature, not in judicial opinions. These judges see themselves as the umpires of the legal arena, doing their bests to call balls and strikes within a pre-determined strike zone.
Other judges, by contrast, maintain a more activist judicial philosophy. These judges tend to speak of the Constitution as a "living" document with a meaning that changes over time. Such a statement is as ridiculous as believing that an umpire can unilaterally change the strike zone over the course of several games, months, or years. A formal rule change is needed before an umpire can start calling balls thrown at ankle height a "strike." In the same way, if and when an amendment to the Constitution or laws is needed, it is the job of lawmakers, not judges, to begin this process.
After all, legislators who misread the political tealeaves can be voted out of office. Judges cannot.
The President has chosen to nominate Alito because he believes that Alito will exercise a philosophy of restraint. All evidence indicates that his confidence in Alito is well-founded. Alito will do his best to apply a pre-existing strike zone to the situation before him. He will not create new strike zones as he perceives that the Constitution is "growing" or "changing" over time.
Such a situation is healthy for our country. Judges who exercise a philosophy of restraint allow the voters to govern themselves. By contrast, activist judges undermine the democratic principles in our Constitution, instead setting themselves up as the ultimate arbiters of what is good and bad, right or wrong.
When Senators argue about Alito’s fitness this week, remember that they are saying the same words, but with different meanings. Some Senators want judges who are restrained. Others like the world in which activist judges can use a "living" Constitution to deliver political results.
Athletics has always played a key role in the civil rights movement. Because of the unique relationship between whites in power and Black super star football player, for a brief moment in history, Texas Longhorn quarterback, Vince Young, was the next Martin Luther King, Jr. In the glare of the world’s sports media spotlight, just a week and a few days before the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday, Vince Young became a shining example of what Dr. King wished for in his “I Have A Dream “speech. I don’t mean to overstate the magnitude of a college football game, but Vince Young showed the world that white folks who have talented Black folks in their midst are better off then those whites who have not taken advantage of one of our country’s greatest assets.
Dr. King’s memorable “I Have A Dream” speech was all about seeing doors open for African-Americans allowing us to compete and succeed in a world that was dominated by Anglos. Throughout the 2005 college football season, Vince Young set out to lead a team and a state like no other Black man has ever been allowed to do. This quest was even more significant when you consider the University of Texas held the dubious distinction of being the last all white team to win the national collegiate football championship.
Let’s be clear here. There have been several Black quarterbacks who have excelled in college football on white teams before Vince Young. Florida State’s Charlie Ward won the Heisman and gave legendary coach, Bobby Bowden, his first national championship. Texas has even been led by a Black quarterback in the past. Several Black quarterbacks currently hold starting jobs in the NFL. So, what makes Vince Young a momentary incantation of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.?
After Hurricane Katrina and the horrific images of Black Americans being treated like third world refugees, Black communities all over America are nervous about the state of race relations. The current Republican administration with a president that has the lowest approval rating among African-Americans then any president in recent memory does not ease Black America’s concerns that maybe race relations have been put on the political back burner. The University of Texas ironically is considered by many South of the Trinity as far more racist then the rural dwelling, Texas A&M, even though Austin is considered an urbane yuppie oasis for many whites.
With all of that on the table, here comes Vince Young. All week leading up to the big game, UT past greats were praising Young for his leadership qualities. The pundits talked of how a young Black kid from the Houston ghetto was able to change a white coach’s style enabling the coach and his staff to better relate in a positive way to the young Black urban males who made up the nucleus of the Texas Longhorn football team.
Dr. Martin Luther King was not able to fulfill his dream and lead a color blind America into the Promised Land where race is no longer a factor. And Vince Young did not fulfill King’s dream either. But for one shining moment in the course of a college football season, Vince Young made some white folks wonder if maybe they needed to loosen up and listen to what some African-American are saying about the state of our great nation. There was one other thing Vince Young, an urban Black male brought up almost entirely by Black women, did accomplish. He opened up “the eyes of Texas” and that’s how we see it South of the Trinity.
In the early 80s I attended an Austin party and met a young state rep from Houston by the name of Tom DeLay. As I recall we chatted for nearly half-an-hour and to the extent he made any impression at all the memory is mostly of a not terribly bright, amiable, even slightly goofy good-time-Charlie. During the days I covered the Texas Legislature I cannot recall anyone ever mentioning Tom DeLay except in relation to party antics.
In 1990 I again met Tom DeLay for lunch in Washington DC. It was an off-the-record lunch with a man I was told was fast becoming one of the most powerful GOP politicians around. Huh? Hot Tub Tom? Surely someone was pulling my leg. But no this Tom DeLay bore no relation to the man I had met years before. That Tom DeLay was ready to rock. This Tom DeLay was ready to fight.
On a personal level I took an instant and total dislike to him. He was openly irritated his staff has arranged a meeting with a member of the press, even one reasonably philosophically in tune with his views. He clearly considered anyone working for a mainstream media organization to be an enemy and his way of dealing with enemies was to get in their face. What I remember most about this Tom DeLay was that he was only too happy to make enemies – looked forward to it. Friends, he told me, were fickle but you could count on enemies. See who a man’s enemies were and you would know instantly if you could trust him, he advised.
On a political level I found DeLay fascinating. One of my personal political heroes has always been Sam Rayburn. Mr. Sam was a man who knew how to accumulate and use power. My favorite Rayburn story had Mr. Sam calling a committee chairman from Maryland to demand he cut lose a bill Rayburn wanted passed. He told the chairman he had 24-hours to report the bill favorably, or he, Rayburn, would move Annapolis to Galveston. The bill was duly reported out.
DeLay at this point was nobody. Newt Gingrich was just a rabble rousing backbencher. Dick Armey was just a nutty professor sleeping under his desk. But the new Tom DeLay was clearly in the thick of planning an overthrow of the regime ancient in Congress. Enough Mr. Nice Guy, he said. Republicans had to stop thinking like they were a “constitutionally ordained minority.” The time had come to get in some face and kick some butt. Yes, you needed “media smoothies” (I think he meant Gingrich) and “pointy heads” (I think he meant Dick Armey), but what you really needed was somebody who could get people elected and break heads. He clearly meant DeLay.
I have never seen or spoken with Tom DeLay since. But that meeting encouraged me to watch carefully and with interest. Personal distaste aside the idea of someone who was willing to seek and use power to create party discipline was an idea I liked. Political parties needed to stand for something and their members shouldn’t be able to take party money and then become free agents. DeLay I believed could never be Speaker; he was too unpolished to be a public spokesperson, and too hard-line right to be out front; he wasn’t made for the media age. But boy if he was willing to operate in the shadows - look out.
In 1994 the hero of the mainstream media, Bill Clinton, handed control of Congress to the GOP and “Hot Tub Tom” became the “Hammer.” The Hammer rose quickly to become the most powerful party master since Rayburn. But he wasn’t Mr. Sam. Mr. Sam understood when to hold them and when to fold them. He never gave his enemies any more reason to hate him than they already had. He allowed his defeated foes their dignity. Mr. Sam knew today’s foe could be tomorrow’s friend and he didn’t want to make the trip back more difficult. Finally, Mr. Sam knew that there was a legal limit and an ethical limit. He never crossed either line.
Personally, I believe that Tom DeLay did what Ronnie Earle says he did; I just don’t think it was illegal. Personally, I don’t believe that Tom DeLay played ball any harder than Democrats in years gone by when he manipulated the redrawing of Texas Congressional lines; he just did it at the wrong time. He saw that the key to a Republican Congress and his own power was raising money just like Mr. Sam whose power was largely built on oil money flowing into Democratic campaigns across the country. But just as Mr. Sam had a blind spot for Lyndon Johnson, the Hammer apparently had one for Jack Abramoff. The problem was that Lyndon was bound for the White House and Abramoff for the jail house.
The DeLay era is over. We may never see his like again. That is both a good thing and a bad thing.
Tom DeLayThe Ronnie Earle indictment of Tom DeLay, along with the political pus oozing from the Abramoff scandal, is about to result in new leadership for congressional Republicans. Much to the dismay of the 11-term Texas congressman and many Democrats, DeLay will never re-assume his role as House Majority Leader.
What once was merely a trickle of Republican voices calling for the election of new, permanent house leadership to replace DeLay has suddenly become, if not a flood, then a river. Perhaps the clearest signs of this came from two sources. First, Republican Rep. Ray LaHood, who represents central Illinois, announced yesterday that he would not support DeLay’s return to the leadership role. "We need to clean up our House here very quickly or a year from now we'll be the minority party," LaHood said. This is significant because LaHood is close to House Speaker Dennis Hastert, who, until now, has bent over backwards to protect DeLay.
Second, the day before LaHood’s statement, The National Review urged DeLay to abandon his efforts to resume the Majority Leader’s job. Add to all this Newt Gingrich’s and other Republicans’ calls for DeLay to step aside and you can bet “The Hammer’s” fate is sealed.
Indeed, as The Washington Post reports today, there is already a backroom brawl about who will replace DeLay. Reportedly, Acting Majority Leader Roy Blunt of Missouri will seek the post on a permanent basis, with probable challenges from John Boehner of Ohio and others. You’ll remember Boehner. He’s the Bo Pilgrim of Washington who some years back passed out campaign checks from tobacco lobbyists on the House floor and is more recently connected to raising political funds from some of Abramoff’s clients. Blunt? He and DeLay are joined at the hip. DeLay’s ARMPAC and Blunt’s RYOB Fund were both at times run by DeLay’s chief lieutenant, the now-indicted Jim Ellis. The back-and-forth contributions are telling, to say the least. Meet the new boss; same as the old boss.
Will DeLay renounce his claims to the position he was forced to step down from last September, despite his steadfast assertions to the contrary yesterday? Sure he will. He’s toast and he knows it.
The new struggle for DeLay is not about House leadership. It’s about whether he can defeat Democrat Nick Lampson to retain his congressional seat at all.
I have a theory: If Santiago Calatrava designed every bridge in Dallas, if all our streets were paved with gold, and if both the crime and tax rates plummeted to zero, the middle class with kids would still be fleeing to the suburbs.
Why? Dallas schools would still be awful. And that is something the Dallas City Council cannot be blamed for - although it can play a major role in correcting it.
Before revealing the secret sauce for a turn-around let me provide credit due. Progress has been made from a very few years ago when a changing cast of embarrassing characters paraded through the Superintendent’s office and the School Board itself was meeting under armed guard. Mike Mosley took big strides in bringing order from chaos and new Superintendent, Michael Hinojosa, brings a sterling reputation from the Spring ISD near Houston. So far he has talked the talk and seems to be a man who listens and then acts. (It is a sad commentary that this alone can be taken for great progress.)
Let’s also give DISD’s some credit. Many elementary schools are racially mixed and have their share of poor kids and succeed nicely. Elementary Schools like Stonewall Jackson, Nathan Adams, Walnut Hill and others have students that score well on tests across all demographic segments. Indeed, some of the city’s highest achieving elementary schools are in the worst parts of town because Texas Instruments and other companies provide them enormous support for tutoring, after school programs and IT infrastructure.
Some high schools aren’t too bad either. Nearly all of the city’s “magnate schools” are good, and some like the Arts Magnate is outstanding. The city’s Talented and Gifted schools are racially mixed and magnificent. And some neighborhood high-schools are improving.
If this comes as a surprise to you I am not surprised. I only know because I have a five year old daughter and before I pile private school tuition on top of my considerable DISD taxes I wanted to see if we could use local elementary schools. We may not do so, but we surely can do so.
I will say that there are those prone to look for a conspiracy and believe DISD really doesn’t want a bunch of Anglo, or really middle-class kids of any type, attending these schools. The middle class brings pushy parents and neighborhood kids upset ethnic balances. I prefer to believe DISD doesn’t realize it needs to help neighborhood parents market these schools better.
Yet schools are still the primary obstacle to a Dallas renaissance. The challenge faced by DISD is daunting: 80% of its students are poor and one third speaks English as a second language – which means they don’t really speak English at all. (There are 88 first languages spoken within Dallas schools). Also, about half of all DISD kids have either one or no parent at home. There is also the problem of transience. Nearly one in four DISD students will not finish a school year in the school where they started. This means teachers hardly get to know a student and assess their needs before they are gone. The result is that nearly half of all DISD schools are considered non-performing. It is kind of hard to worry about bringing back the middle class when faced with such a tsunami of the poor.
It is hard to argue that resources are a problem. Dallas teachers are more experienced and paid better on average than any other major city school district, well above the state average, and even above the average for Highland Park. Dallas is also a high wealth district. Dallas area corporations such as Texas Instruments make enormous investments in Dallas schools.
It is also notable that good chunks of the City of Dallas lie outside of DISD and in wealthy districts such as Plano, Richardson, Irving, and even Highland Park. The Lake Highlands area of Dallas once boomed because it lay with the Richardson ISD. Alas, Richardson and other adjacent suburbs aren’t what they used to be any more than Dallas is. That is why the middle class exodus is now to the exurbs such as Melissa and Forney.
So is there a secret sauce? Yes: Charter schools.
What is a charter school? According to Texas law charter schools “are public schools that foster educational competition and offer parental choice in education. Charter schools have a significant amount of autonomy and are free to be innovative in educational and administrative practices.” Charter schools receive the same per pupil expenditure for maintenance and operations as other Texas public schools, but they do not receive capital funding .
What I am suggesting is that the City of Dallas create its own system of charter schools in partnership with a private foundation, and very likely with DISD itself (a school district can create charter schools). In effect, Dallas would develop a parallel system of public “charter” schools to supplement existing public schools.
Yes, the track record of charter schools is mixed, but a minority is outstanding. Others don’t get the job done. Usually, failing charter schools are the creation of educators who lack administrative ability. But there are stellar examples of achievement such as the North Hills School located in Irving. With more than 1200 students (grades 1 – 12) it has a waiting list of over 1000. It may be even more demographically mixed than the most DISD schools.
The advantage of a charter school is that while it must be open to all who want to enroll (assuming available space) those who do enroll do so by choice and must abide by a contract that establishes rules of discipline and unique educational programs that most regular schools cannot.
Now before DISD howls I should repeat that DISD might well be a partner in administering the schools as this would likely save money and make DISD a partner not an adversary.
The first City of Dallas Foundation Charter School should be an elementary school located in downtown Dallas. Probably, the next several schools should be the same. If you want to fill downtown office buildings put the best schools in North Texas in them so that office workers can bring their children to work with them and then have them an elevator ride away. Lord knows there is plenty of empty office space available. Wouldn’t it behoove many landlords to make tax deductible contributions of space for schools whose presence would help fill their buildings - largely at public expense?
What would the city’s role be? First, it would create and govern the Foundation and seek the charters. Next it would help line up land lords, possibly with an offer of additional tax breaks. The City would also provide money for limited capital funding. Then there is the matter of those downtown parks the city plans to build. It needs to make them kid friendly school playgrounds (it should do so anyway to attract young couples with kids). Finally, it should provide cops for security.
(Establishing a system of Charter Schools in downtown would have the added advantage of bringing some suburban tax dollars into the city as suburban parents chose to bring their kids to downtown Dallas Charter Schools.)
After the downtown system of elementary schools is complete (I would foresee about 10 such schools with around 4000 students) downtown middle schools and even a high school should be the next step. Beyond downtown the City should look at establishing special Charter Schools in particularly difficult neighborhoods such as Vickery in North Dallas as a supplement to the regular DISD schools. These schools would be aimed at addressing specific problems with special programs not and not at replacing existing schools.
And what of existing schools? First, DISD must do the job of educating the students it has. I have personally always thought schools should be community centers where police are present, where after school study halls and other activities offer a place away from violent neighborhoods or dysfunctional homes, and where there is interaction with people who live in the neighborhood. Clearly the City can do much to support after school programs and establish neighborhood watch programs operated from schools.
It also seems that there should be an expansion of summer school. As the Dallas News report noted, Chicago Mayor Richard Daily ordered 150,000 students to remedial summer school with considerable positive benefit. I never attended a summer school but I seem to recall that those who did often returned in the fall with a new focus on academics. The City should be able to play a complimentary roll in implementing such a program.
What the Mayor and City Council must realize is that all their other efforts are in vain if Dallas cannot provide an education system that the middle class is willing to use. It must realize that DISD is invisible to most residents of the City. If the turnout is low for City elections it is virtually non-existent for school board elections. The government of Dallas should take the lead in mobilizing the people of Dallas to establish a singular educational success among urban American cities.