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The New Syrian Plan

September 15, 2013
Posted by Tyler Miksanek

The last couple months have seen a whirlwind of news stories concerning Syria, the Middle Eastern nation in the midst of a bloody civil war that has already killed over 100,000 according to U.N. estimates.  The impetus for this increased importance was the United States accusing Syrian President Bashar al-Assad of deploying chemical weapons against civilians, an abominable war crime.  The United States, along with a cohort of other Western nations, seemed ready to launch a military strike against Assad.  However, international support started to dry up when the British Parliament refused to approve British military involvement and Russia, a supporter of Assad and a critic of Western involvement in the Middle East, started to increase its rhetoric against international action.

Even with dwindling international support, President Barack Obama asked Congress to approve a military strike.  But when U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry said offhand that the only way the Obama administration would reconsider its position was if Assad handed over his supply of chemical weapons, Russia sensed an opportunity.  Still against any Western intervention, Russian President Vladimir Putin orchestrated a deal where Assad would give up his supply of chemical weapons in exchange for the U.S. to agree to withhold the use of military force.  Suddenly, possible violence turned into diplomacy, and it appears that all sides so far are happy with the arrangement.

But the real question remains to be answered, what does this mean going forward?  For the United States, the fact that Russia was able to engineer a diplomatic solution and prevent a likely American military strike is a little bit of an embarrassment.  Conversely, Russia gets to walk away from the deal knowing it was able to successfully assert its foreign policy, making it seem stronger on the international stage.  But while the Syrian plan was an interesting show of Russia’s power and perhaps a small diplomatic retreat by the United States, this one data point hardly provides convincing evidence that America’s power on the world stage is diminishing.  A more simple explanation is that America, having learned its lessons from its unilateral intervention in Iraq, is more willing to accept diplomacy in 2013 than it was a decade ago.  And even if American exceptionalism is on its way out, the original goal of military intervention in Syria was to prevent Assad from using chemical weapons again, and this compromise with Russia aims to do that without violence.  America’s actions can be construed as weak, but they can also be interpreted as using better means to reach the same end.

It is important to point out that the ‘better means to reach the same end’ hypothesis depends on Assad actually giving up all of his chemical weapons.  The only time crunch Assad faces right now is to submit an inventory of his weapons; they don’t have to be handed over until the middle of next year.  Of course, the agreement does allow the UN Security Council to vote on military action against Syria if Assad fails to fully comply.  But questions are still present even with this stipulation in place.  What happens if Assad only appears to relinquish all his weapons but actually keeps some hidden? What happens if the U.S. tries to bring up a later vote in the Security Council that is vetoed by Russia?

Clearly, the civil war in Syria, and the international diplomatic conundrum it presents, are far from being solved.  However, the move to rid Assad of chemical weapons without resorting to violence is a victory for diplomats around the world.  America was wise to accept what may be perceived as weakness now for what is hopefully a better international environment in the future.

Filed under International

Egypt’s Transition: International Perspectives

September 8, 2013
Posted by mjdudak

Halfway through the summer, it looked as if Egyptian democracy was turning towards failure. At that point in time, the Supreme Council of Armed Forces (SCAF) had recently removed former president Morsi from office, and instated interim president Adlay Mansour. Since then, the situation has only worsened. After several weeks on being in power, a combined effort of the police and military stormed a mosque and a university where supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood, Morsi’s party, were camped. The Muslim Brotherhood, meanwhile, remains adamant about getting Morsi reinstated and refuses to compromise.

The situation in Egypt is a mess, however, the international approach to the situation is rather interesting. Having a foothold in Egypt is essentially a current balance of power battle. On one side, the United States and some Western allies (though many Western countries remain indifferent) are still used to having a foothold in the country. During the Mubarak days, the United States had a very close relationship with the Mubarak regime. And while Mubarak is gone, the relationship has largely persisted because of one entity: the military. The US gives Egypt billions of dollars in aid, but much if this aid is meant for the military of Egypt. Additionally, this miltiary aid is given with the stipulation that any arms aquired must be bought from the United States. And when it comes to training the Egyptian military to use these arms, the best people to train are of course the United States military. The US and Egyptian militaries have very strong ties, which have led to very strong ties and persistent ties between the US and Egypt.

On the otherside in the battle for a foothold in Egypt, are regional players, such as Kuwait, the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia. Since the coup in Egypt, all three of these countries, and others, have stepped up their aid in Egypt, trying to ensure that whatever happens after SCAF creates a real government, they have close ties with Egypt. Yet while these nations understand the importance of Egypt, the US often seems indifferent about Egypt and is losing sight of this importance.

In the end, the struggle to get a strong foothold in Egypt, and influence their future direction will continue. However, the United States should realize that Egypt could help promote important foreign policy goals. Not only is Egypt is a strategic location for military deployments, but improved relations could potentially establish Egypt as a permanent broker for the United States in the region. Additionally, if the United States plays it right, they could use their partnership with the military to help smooth over the transition for Egypt to true democracy. Recently, the United States has approached Egypt pretty apathetically, however policymakers need to realize the foothold that the US has, the advantages of strengthening it, and the potential detriment if it continues its apathetic approach.

Filed under International

Chemical Weapons in Syria – A Potential Turning Point

August 27, 2013
Posted by Tyler Miksanek

Believe it or not, the bloody conflict now known as the Syrian Civil War started out in 2011 with a glimmer of hope.  It was originally viewed as an expansion of the Arab Spring protests and had the laudable goal of wresting power from autocratic Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.  Unfortunately, Assad’s government responded with violence, refusing to acquiesce to the demands of the rebels, and rebel groups have been fighting government-led forces ever since.  The resulting violence has led to a estimated death toll of over 100,000.  Even in the face of this devastating statistic, world leaders have still been hesitant to support the rebels, largely due to the influence of al-Qaeda among certain rebel factions.  While the rebels have received some assistance over the course of the two year conflict, it has been extremely limited.

Although Assad has been able to count on minimal interference from Western nations in Syria’s conflict in the past, the situation is changing rapidly, and he may have pushed his luck too far.  Evidence has been stacking up that Assad’s government not only has been using chemical weapons, but also that these weapons have been used against innocent civilians.  These actions are grievous violations of international law.  With these new revelations about Assad’s likely war crimes, rhetoric against Assad’s government has been increasing.  President Obama has previously stated that the use of chemical weapons in Syria would cross a red line and trigger foreign intervention.  It is unclear exactly what that foreign intervention will be, although the fear of becoming entangled in yet another drawn out conflict in the Middle East will likely pressure the U.S. to favor strategies like missile strikes over more direct military combat.

This backlash against Assad’s regime goes beyond the borders of the U.S., and international support seems to be lining up for military intervention.  One country, however, is withholding support for any intervention.  Russia, which has been vociferously arguing for Western powers to stay away from the Syrian conflict over the past two years, still has yet to change its position.  Increased tensions with Russia will have to be a risk factored into any intervention plan in Syria, but it does appear that the vast majority of Western nations, including the permanent U.N. Security Council members France, the U.K. and the U.S., are advocates of some form of intervention.

Even if a limited missile strike is the ultimate intervention these allies (among other nations) decide on, extreme caution still needs to be exercised.  Assad’s government may be committing grievous atrocities, but that doesn’t mean the rebels are saints.  Western nations are sure to fear creating a power vacuum that could allow al-Qaeda affiliated groups to seize more power in the midst of the destruction the war has caused.  Syria is currently a breeding ground for terrorism and, as we all now know, also has chemical weapons.  These weapons are bad enough in the hands of Assad, but they could be even worse in the hands of extremists.

Syria is an extremely delicate situation, but many world leaders have finally decided a line has been crossed that calls for intervention.  Let’s all hope that whatever intervention actually occurs is a success.  Thousands of lives, and stability in an increasingly unstable Middle East, depend on it.

Update: World leaders have avoided a direct military strike on Syria in favor of a deal that allows chemical weapons to be confiscated and taken out of Assad’s control.  Follow this link for more information.

Filed under International

Bo Xilai’s Trial: Opened Windows Into China

August 20, 2013
Posted by mjdudak

In the United States, we tend to think that party politics run the government. While a bit true, the real masterminds behind the parties (RNC Chairman Reince Priebus and DNC Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Shultz) are often behind the scenes. And with names like those, it is no surprise they stay veiled. Yet in China, party politics truly do run everything as the Communist Party and the Chinese government are not two separate entities. Between the end of 2012 and the beginning of 2013, China experienced its rare transition of power, as the President changed from Hu Jintao to Xi Jinping and the Premier changed from Wen Jiabao to Li Keqiang. In addition, seven of the nine members of the Politburo Standing Committee, the key decision-making entity in the Chinese Communist Party were replaced. This staged transition, which only occurs once every decade, was undermined by a scandal that rocked the party.

The scandal began in November 2011, when Neil Heywood, a British expatriate was found dead in his hotel room. In February 2012, Wang Lijun, a former police chief in the region where Heywood was found dead came forward, claiming that Heywood was murdered. After further investigation, the murder was pinned on Bo Gu Kailai, wife of rising Communist Party start Bo Xilai. Soon after, for unrelated reasons (which will be discussed later), Bo was sacked from one after another of his political posts until he was finally kicked out of the Communist Party altogether. Now, Bo is awaiting a trial for corruption, embezzlement and abuse of power. The trial has been scheduled for Thursday, and is really largely a ceremonious event. In reality, the shear indictment of Bo means that he will be convicted as the Communist Party leaders have likely already made up their mind about the case. Bo’s case will likely simply join the other 98% of trials which turn into convictions in China. However, while speculating about the trial is pointless, and thus cannot be made sport, like it often is with US trials, the implications of the trial are important to understand. From our liberal, Western perspective, the trial seems to represent one step forward and one step backward.

First, the step backward. The trial reveals to the world just how tightly controlled everything is in China by the Party. Technically, China has an independent judiciary, but in reality, the judiciary is simply an extension of the Party. The likely conviction demonstrates the breadth of political repression in China. The sacking of Bo demonstrates the lack of room for dissenters within the Party. The list goes on. But in all, Bo’s case truly represents the human rights side of China has continued to remain the same, and has barely liberalized at all.

Yet if you cannot change the system, it is a step forward to see the new policies the system seems to be adopting. In order to understand why Bo was sacked, it is imperative to understand his views and his past. The single most influential factor on Bo is his father- Bo Yibo- a key figure in Chinese politics throughout the 80s and 90s, referred to as one of the Eight Elders who greatly shaped modern-day China. This meant that Bo Xilai’s rise to power was largely due to his association with his father, and his status as a “princeling” of Chinese politics. However, with this, Bo Xilai felt a level of commitment to old traditions, and for this reason was a strong supporter of Maoism and “red culture.” However these extreme Maoist views are largely outdated, and the modern-day Communist Party has moved passed these. President Xi Jinping, Premier Li Keqiang and previous Premier Wen Jiabao are all liberal reformers within the Party. Their views of primarily economic liberalization (not to the point of capitalism, but to at least allow further economic growth) have become dominant within the party, so naturally when Bo actively opposed these views, he was sacked. While the reason for his sacking, as previously discussed, represents a kind of human rights stagnation, the Party’s incentive is demonstrative of something that the citizens of China and the West can look fondly upon. Even though China continues to work within the same repressive system as always, at least their economy is beginning to open up and liberalize. The hope is that eventually, a liberal economy naturally brings a liberal political system.

In the end, Bo’ s case is nothing too extraordinary, however, the attention it has received allows it to act as a rare window into the devices at play in China. This case allows us to realize that while China continues to remain as oppressive as ever, and thus has stagnated in this arena, by economic liberalization becoming a prominent policy in China, there is hope that China will continue to make progress economically and this could lead to further cultural and social progress in the future. The fate of Bo has been sealed, but the fate of the Chinese system has not.

Filed under International

A Disputed Election in Zimbabwe… Again

August 9, 2013
Posted by Tyler Miksanek
Zimbabwe's hyperinflation in 2008 forced the nation to print a 100 trillion dollar denomination of its currency.  While Zimbabwe's currency has since been abandoned, the country has hardly improved.

Zimbabwe’s hyperinflation in 2008 forced the nation to print a 100 trillion dollar denomination of its currency. While Zimbabwe’s currency has since been abandoned, the country has hardly improved.

Zimbabwe has had a rough recent history.  Back in 2008, hyperinflation ruined the country’s monetary system, devastating the economy and leaving a poor country even worse off than it was before.  Unfortunately, little has improved in the years since.  The country has ditched its flawed currency and now uses the U.S. dollar, among other currencies, as de facto modes of trade.  But while this has largely solved Zimbabwe’s inflationary woes, the country has plenty of additional problems that are hindering its progress.

Foremost among these roadblocks to Zimbabwe’s general welfare is an ongoing scuffle over the nation’s presidency.  A strongman who has ruled the country since 1987, Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe found himself in danger of losing the 2008 elections to opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai.  However, a skewed first round result and violence against his supporters leading up to the runoff cheated Tsvangirai out of the presidency and forced him to end his candidacy.  But another twist of fate occurred when Mugabe, facing increased scrutiny from his neighbors over the contested election and rampant hyperinflation, was coerced into accepting a power sharing agreement with Tsvangirai.

In fairness, the power sharing agreement actually allowed for a relative period of calm in Zimbabwe’s politics, even though it was far short from helping spur democratic change.  Mugabe kept his role as president, but Tsvangirai was placed as the nation’s prime minister.  Zimbabwe’s politics were far from ideal, but at least there was stability and some semblance of legitimacy.

But power-hungry Mugabe was apparently not satiated by the agreement and being in the uncomfortable position of having his political rival as Prime Minister.  In a surprise move earlier this year, he called for a new round of presidential elections with a rushed election date that would not give his opponents, including Tsvangirai, much time to prepare.  With a rushed date and voter rolls skewed in his favor, its no surprise that Mugabe re-won the presidency.  Tsvangirai’s party is unlikely to continue working with Mugabe, meaning what little success the power sharing agreement brought is probably over.

A rigged election in a nation like Zimbabwe is hardly an unexpected occurrence.  However, the surprising side of the story is that, while the election was clearly unfair, entities including South Africa and the African Union appeared to accept the results with some degree of legitimacy.  This represents the first step to what could be a dangerous trend, as even a begrudgingly condoning attitude towards Mugabe’s power grabbing demonstrates that two of the African continent’s most important institutions – the regional power of South Africa and the international community of the A.U. – are unwilling to tackle some of the continent’s most blatant abuses of authority.  If Africa wants to move forward to a better, more democratic future, it needs to be willing to at least recognize its own problems.

The A.U.’s blind eye is one thing.  While the African Union has accomplished a lot of good for the continent, some leaders of its member nations have the same power-grabbing, election-rigging biographies as Mugabe.  Criticizing Mugabe would not only be hypocritical but also against their own interests.  However, the rest of the international community, including regional powers and functioning democracies like South Africa, need to step up their pressure on unfair elections like Zimbabwe’s.  International pressure has previously persuaded Mugabe to back off, even if it was just a little, from his tyranny.  And no matter what, if international pressure can’t help Zimbabwe’s politics, it sure can’t make them much worse.


Filed under International

Palestinian Disunity: Major Roadblocks

July 24, 2013
Posted by mjdudak

Politics in Palestine can get a bit tricky. Start with the fact that they are not globally recognized as a soviergn state and pile on their disunity of political powers, and you are left with one of the trickiest political situations around. The basic thing to understand about Palestine is that there are three very different regions, with three very different political climates. The Gaza Strip is the region that has the least freedom, and in turn an extremist group Hamas has come to power. In the Golan Heights, which is more Syrian and Lebanese than Palestinian, the primary power is Hezbollah which is the radical Islamist militia from Lebanon. In the West Bank, the power is the Palestinian Authority, lead by the party Fatah. The PA is the entity which the international community recognizes, and the entity recognized by the United Nations as a observer state. Hezbollah basically stays out of Palestinian affairs as they would rather be a part of Syria or Lebanon (like the Golan Heights was prior to 1967) than a separate Palestinian state. Meanwhile, the PA are trying to make ammends to present a unified front for Palestine. However, along the way, the PA is running into many roadblocks in the process of trying to create a sense of unity.

The first roadblock along the way is that Hamas is having trouble to unify the Gazan people in the first place. If the PA wants to have any hope of creating unity, they would have no way of getting most Gazan people as a whole on their side; instead, the PA needs to try to get Hamas as a whole on the side of the PA. But of course, this is a problem if Hamas does not have the support of the Gazan people. Earlier this year, there was a volley of rocketfire between the Gaza Strip (led by Hamas) and Israel. They signed a ceasefire to stop it, but recently, it appeared as if the ceasefire was at risk of collapse. An independent militant who had no association with Hamas fired a rocket from the Gaza Strip to Israel. This meant that Hamas, which was previously thought to be the unifying force in the Gaza Strip, has not actually unifed the Gaza Strip, and if Hamas cannot unify the Gaza Strip, then even if the PA can get Hamas on their side, the PA has no hope of unifying disparate groups in Palestine.

The other major roadblock that the PA is facing is the fact that Hamas sets back peace talks. Israel only recognizes Hamas as a terrorist group, not as any sort of political power, thus Israel has remained adamant about not having Hamas present at any peace negotiations. This past Saturday, US Secretary of State John Kerry announced that Israel ad Palestine has both agreed to sit down at the negotiating table once again. While this is a huge step forward, as the PA prepares to come to peace talks, they will struggle with this issue of how to deal with Hamas. If Hamas is present, no doubt Israel will be less likely to give into any demands and thus Hamas will have no reason to unite since peace talks will fall through; but if Hamas is not, the PA will be unable to garner true popularity for the peace talks, once again meaning Hamas and the PA are disunited. Meaning that as of right now, the PA is stuck between a rock and a hard place. Since Hamas refuses to support anything for which they are not present, the PA will struggle to unite Hamas and the PA because it leaves the PA will essentially no way to unite Palestine.

Going forward, the continuing struggle to create a single front for Palestine is a major roadblock towards any progress in peace negotiations. In order for Palestine to unite its disparate groups, they must first control their own people, and ensure that there are two major powers with full support before moving forward.  The most logical way for the PA to treat the peace talks are to simply sit down themselves and either hope that they can convince Israel to allow Hamas to sit down as well or convince Hamas to support their actions at the peace talks. Either way, the PA has a very long road ahead of them on uniting Palestinian groups.


Filed under International

The Snowden Question

July 13, 2013
Posted by Tyler Miksanek

Edward Snowden, the man behind the NSA leaks, has found himself in quite a precarious position.  Holed up inside a Moscow Airport and lacking a valid passport to travel anywhere else, Snowden is desperately hoping to obtain political asylum, but has yet to receive a viable way out of his fix.

Why is Snowden having so much trouble?  The answer lies in the fact that Snowden is not the only one in a difficult situation at present.  Many world leaders face a multifaceted array of diplomatic pressures they must consider before deciding whether or not Snowden can take refuge in their country.

Vladimir Putin’s Russia, where Snowden flew to after leaving Hong Kong several weeks ago, might be in the most interesting position.  Putin has taken an apparently neutral stance on Snowden’s presence in his country, not cooperating with American requests to hand him over but also refusing to grant Snowden the freedom to leave the airport.  In doing so, he has taken a middle ground, annoying American officials by refusing to extradite Snowden back to the United States but not infuriating the U.S. by allowing Snowden freedom to leave the airport and find refuge in Russia.

Putin’s choice is emblematic of a larger diplomatic schism between Russia and the U.S.  Neither country wants to alienate the other due to needed cooperation in the United Nations Security Council (where both nations have veto power) as well as on issues like nuclear arms reductions.  However, relations between the two nations have a long history of tension, as Russia and the U.S. often have opposing foreign policy goals, a phenomeon currently seen in their differing attitudes towards the Syrian Civil War.  So Putin’s plan, at present, is to avoid appearing inferior to the U.S. by complying to American demands and handing over Snowden, but also to refrain from dramatically increasing tensions with an offer for asylum.

However, the Latin American countries of Venezuela, Bolivia and Nicaragua have gone one step further than Russia and actually offered Snowden asylum.  Since Snowden currently has no means of safely travelling to any of countries, he has not been able to capitalize on their offers.  Still, the fact that these countries have even offered asylum in the first place shows that Latin America, which used to be heavily swayed by American interests, is beginning to have confidence to act in opposition to American policies.

Of course, Snowden still faces giant hurdles in actually making it to one of these countries, and the U.S. is likely to continue its attempts to apprehend him.  But while Snowden’s fate is up in the air, the diplomatic manifestations of his actions are already beginning to affect international relations.  Russia is once again playing the middle ground in its testy relations with the U.S. while many Latin American countries are continuing their recent trend of asserting their own policies over those of the U.S.  But until Snowden’s odyssey is complete, no matter where it ends up, the relations between involved countries are likely to be just as interesting as Snowden’s predicament itself.



Filed under International

Land of the Pharaohs, But Not of Democracy

July 5, 2013
Posted by Tyler Miksanek

The Great Pyramids at Giza still stand as testaments to Ancient Egypt’s role as a foundation for civilization. However, the foundation for democracy in modern Egypt appears unstable.
Picture Source: CIA World Factbook

Ever since the autocratic Hosni Mubarak was forced out of the presidency in 2011, political instability in Egypt has been as predictable as the annual flooding of the Nile River.  Mubarak’s ouster led to a period of military rule, and promises of a quick transition to democracy faded as the military clung to power for more than a year.  But then, in what appeared to be a sign of progress, Egypt successfully conducted it’s first democratic presidential elections in 2012, choosing Muhammed Morsi to be the country’s new leader.

Unfortunately, a successful election does not guarantee a successful presidency, and Morsi faced an uphill battle from the start.  Even after Morsi took office, the Egyptian army attempted to maintain control of the country, going as far as demanding that the newly elected Parliament be disbanded.  Morsi’s first few months were essentially a power struggle against army leaders, but since still Egypt lacked a Constitution, he had little legal legitimacy in his actions to wrest control from the army.

Morsi’s government managed to create a new Constitution, but many in Egypt were angered by his attempts to include Islamic law into the Egyptian legal code.  Morsi originally ran as a candidate of the Muslim Brotherhood, a moderate Islamist group, but his polarizing choices as president (often involving religious issues) began to hurt his popularity and led to fears that he would be no better than Mubarak.  Having only won 52% of the vote when he was originally elected, Morsi began to see a swift decline in his popularity after taking office.  Persistently high levels of both unemployment and inflation also hurt his public perception.

Simply put, Morsi’s first year in office was far from the return to normalcy and stability many Egyptians had hoped for, and the first anniversary of his inauguration sparked renewed protests in the streets.  These protests quickly became violent, prompting the still-powerful army to give Morsi an ultimatum.  Either Morsi would give some concessions to his opponents or the army would force him from office.  The result of this ultimatum has been front page news – Morsi refused to give in, and the army followed through on its threat, reclaiming political power for itself.

This means that, for now, the future of Egyptian democracy is in the hands of army generals.  Considering their reluctance to cede any authority the last time they were in power, Egypt may be wise to expect a long period before any elections are held.  However, the army justified their most recent takeover as being in the interests of the populace, who were increasingly against Morsi’s policies.  If the army feels they are now working as an agent of the people, they might be more inclined to promote a democratic transition than they were back in 2011 and 2012, when they appeared reluctant to hand over power.

Of course, given the army’s record, optimism about their willingness to promote democracy should be kept to a minimum.  And even if the army is willing to hold elections and cede authority to the victor, Egypt still faces polarizing political divisions that it must come to terms with.  Mubarak’s old autocratic government would often simply ignore dissenting opinions, but if Egypt wants to be a democracy, it must find a way to bridge the gap between supporters of secularism and Islamism as well as determine how powerful the nation’s executive should be.  Morsi’s actions in regard to both of these issues led to the public discontent that eventually forced him from office, and any new chief executive would be wise to learn from Morsi’s mistakes.

Muhammed Morsi was a controversial and divisive figure in Egypt.  But by ending his rule, Egypt’s army has created fertile ground for more controversy and division before Egypt can finally have a chance to reach the stability it has so desperately been seeking.


For another article that explains the underlying problems Arab Spring revolutions have faced, read “The Revolution Paradox“, which applies historical examples to modern revolutions.

Filed under International

SCOTUS: A Term In Review (Part 2 of 2)

July 3, 2013
Posted by mjdudak
Last week, the Supreme Court of the United States (or SCOTUS) wrapped up. The 9 men and women that make up the highest court in the land ended their session with several landmark cases. RantAWeek breaks down four of them, these are the last two.
Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin
This case, in a surprising turn of SCOTUS-fate, broke down 7-1 (Kagan recused herself). The majority had both liberals (Sotomayer and Breyer) and conservatives (Kennedy, Alito, Thomas, Roberts and Scalia) leaving Ginsburg as the sole dissenter. The case began when Abigail Fisher, a young Texan woman, sued the University of Texas at Austin (therein referred to as UT) for admitting other students with lesser credentials because of their race allowing them to fit into an affirmative action plan. The lower courts that the case had gone through had sided with UT, meaning Fisher continued appealing until the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court ultimately took a fairly moderate approach (something Congress cannot seem to do well), deciding that Affirmative Action is constitutional and legal, but it must follow a tighter set of standards. The Court established a test, called “strict scrutiny.” Essentially, courts must establish that use of race to develop a diverse student body is absolutely necessary. That is to say that all other methods have or absolutely would fail. In all, the Court determined that affirmative action is almost a last ditch effort to develop diversity in universities.
Shelby County v. Holder
In this case, the Court went back to good-ole party lines. The majority was the conservatives (Scalia, Thomas, Alito and Roberts) and the swing (Kennedy), while the dissenters were the liberals (Ginsburg, Sotomayer, Kagan and Breyer). The case started with Shelby County, Alabama suing the Department of Justice for the Voting Rights Act (VRA), seeking a permanent injunction on the enforcement of that law. The district court sided with the DOJ, and it was appealed, where the appellate court affirmed the district court’s decision. As a bit of background, the VRA requires all state and local government with a history of discriminatory voting practices to get approval from the federal government before instituting any voting changes. The Supreme Court kept Section 5 of the VRA, which sets out the approval process, but struck down Section 4, which establishes which state and local government must follow Section 5. This effectively left that aspect of the VRA dead, but not impossible to resurrect. However, the key move was that the Court handed the job of determining which state and local governments apply over to Congress, which will pretty much kill it given that Congress will be very unlikely to agree on anything. Meaning that, without directly killing it, the Court killed it.
Filed under Domestic

SCOTUS: A Term In Review (Part 1 of 2)

June 29, 2013
Posted by mjdudak

This past week, the Supreme Court of the United States (or SCOTUS) wrapped up. The 9 men and women that make up the highest court in the land ended their session with several landmark cases, RantAWeek breaks down four of them, these are the first two, the next two will be coming up in the next few days.

United States v. Windsor

The court broke down in a 5-4 decision on Windsor, with the liberals (Ginsburg, Breyer, Sotomayer and Kagan) and the swing vote of Kennedy. Kennedy wrote the opinion. This case was a case regarding the Defense of Marriage Act (or DOMA). DOMA essentially defines marriage as the union between a man and a woman for the purposes of all federal law. This meant that same-sex couples could be legally married at the state level and get benefits (no inheritance taxes, joint tax filings etc.) on a state level, but not on a federal level. Ultimately, in an opinion written by Kennedy, the court decided that DOMA was unconstitutional. However Kennedy carefully worded this so that the opinion sets precedent for sure, but still dances around whether or not same-sex marriage itself is a constitutional right. Kennedy essentially wrote an opinion on federalism, not marriage. His opinion outlined only that in states that have legalized same-sex marriage, the federal government must recognize all those marriages as legal marriages.

Hollingsworth v. Perry

Instead of issuing a decisive decision on the constitutionality of same-sex marriage in this case, the court again got caught up on the issue of standing. The court again broke down 5-4, but this time, on anything but ideological lines. The majority consisted of two conservatives (Chief Justice Roberts, Scalia), and three liberals (Breyer, Ginsburg and Kagan). Very rarely is it that Scalia and Ginsburg are on the same side on any case, but once the actual reasoning behind the decision is revealed, it makes a little more sense. In no way is the court saying that same-sex marriage is a constitutional right, instead, they are making a decision based solely on the standing to appeal. The tricky thing about this case is that two same-sex couples sued the state for passing Proposition 8, which banned same-sex marriages. The federal district court ruled Proposition 8 unconstitutional. However, the government of California agreed with this decision and decided to not pursue any appeal of the case. So instead, proponents of Proposition 8 decided to appeal it. The Circuit Court of Appeals for the 9th District agreed with the district court on its unconstitutionality. However, the SCOTUS essentially said that the proponents of Proposition 8, because they have no investment in the case, they have no standing to appeal. Thus, the court essentially says that the district court’s ruling was the final ruling unless the government of California decided to support Proposition 8. The results of this case are essentially that Proposition 8 is dead in California, and the government can now issue same-sex marriage licenses.

In the following days, RantAWeek will give brief coverage of Fisher v. University of Texas at Austin and Shelby v. Holder on Affirmative Action and the Voting Rights Act, respectively.


Filed under Domestic

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