Monday, March 31, 2008

Your Legal Movie Review

I finally saw the Oscar-winning movie Juno, which was pretty good -- although I did think some of the characters were unrealistically quick-witted for alleged teenagers. But my real interest was, naturally, in the legal aspects of the movie. You need to know the basics of the plot, but it's hardly a spoiler to say that the film is about a 16-year-old girl who gets pregnant and decides to have the baby but to give it up to a childless couple in a private adoption.

Here's the thing: did you notice that everyone (including the lawyer whom the adopting couple hires to ensure the adoption goes off legally) assumes that the decision to give up the baby belongs entirely to the biological mother? What about the father? Doesn't he have anything to say about it? No one seems to think that it's necessary even to ask his opinion, much less get his permission. Even he just sits on the sidelines and does hardly anything for the entire movie.

After doing a little research (all right, what I really did was to ask one of my colleagues who has expertise in this area), I was somewhat surprised to discover that the movie got it right: a biological father who exhibits no interest in asserting parental rights does not have to be consulted before his child is adopted and his parental rights terminated.

Does this make sense? In the age of the more-involved father -- an age in which, in fact, there's a big societal push from those who support women's rights to encourage fathers to play a more active role in child-rearing -- it seems unfair to say that the father would be on the hook for child support if the mother chose to seek it, but that he has no right to claim his child if the mother wants to put it up for adoption.

Fortunately, the matter is not quite so simple -- the biological father's rights are not automatically terminable by the mother's choice to put the baby up for adoption. But the father needs to take more active steps to assert his rights. Had Paulie, the father in the movie, wanted to raise the baby, he would first have had to register with the state's "putative father registry" (luckily for him, Minnesota has one -- only about half the states do). Then he would at least be entitled to notice that Juno was planning to put the baby up for adoption. But even then, state law might or might not recognize his right to the child. He might be limited to being able to keep the child if he could show that that was in the child's best interests.

Normally, a state can't take a child away from its biological parents without their consent unless they are shown to be unfit. Parents otherwise have a right to their children, even if it would be in the child's best interests to be raised by somebody else. But an unmarried biological father may not have such rights under state law. He may be required to take active steps to assume parental responsibilities, and some states have pretty strict requirements. A biological mother who acted badly in the period immediately after her child's birth wouldn't be in this situation -- the father (if he were around) couldn't decide to put the child up for adoption without her permission just because she wasn't taking what state law regarded as a sufficiently active role in raising it. She'd have to be shown to be unfit.

Well, it's a complicated area. Giving biological fathers too much rights to their children could put them in a position to keep adoptions in limbo for a long time, which would be harmful to the child, especially if the father had no real interest in the child and was just acting out of spite or some other improper motive. And it would be too much to require the father's consent in a case in which the father has disappeared or is otherwise unreachable. But there is some tension between the societal desire to encourage fathers to take a more active role in raising their children and telling unwed biological fathers that they may have no protected right to do so.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Latest Silly Argument

The latest silly argument in the Democratic presidential race is that superdelegates should vote for Clinton because she's won states with more total electoral votes. This is a variant on the "she's won the big blue states that we'll need in the general election" argument.

Now look, Senator Clinton is a fine and strong candidate and I will happily vote for her in November if she is the Democratic nominee. But could people please stop with these silly arguments? Even prior analyses don't point out the obvious flaw.

The flaw is this: whether Clinton beats Obama in a state or vice-versa is not much of an indicator of whether either of them would beat McCain in the same state.

It's just a matter of simple game theoretical analysis. Let's imagine hypothetically (these numbers are not meant to reflect the actual state of play) that Democratic candidates A and B are each favored by about 30% of the general electorate and that Republican candidate C is favored by about 40%.

In the primary race, C challengers have all dropped out, so C is coasting toward the nomination, but A and B are still hard at it. In state after state, A and B are running about even, trading victories, and staying close right up to the nomination.

But what happens in November? Whether A or B is the Democratic nominee, those who voted for the other in the primaries are still, primarily, Democrats, and are unlikely to vote for the Republican C over either A or B. Let's imagine that of the 30 percentage points of the public who voted for the Democratic runner-up in the primaries, 25 percentage points vote for the Democratic nominee and 5 for the Republican. The result: The Democrat, whether A or B, wins a handy victory with 55% of the total electorate to 45% for C.

Now, the above hypo is obviously very simplified, and reality is more complex: there are independent voters, some voters will stay home, etc., etc. And the November matchup will feature many subtleties, particularly if both parties put up centrist candidates.

But unless there are a lot of voters whose preference list is Clinton, McCain, Obama, or Obama, McCain, Clinton, the preference between Clinton and Obama is not a strong indicator of how a Clinton-McCain or Obama-McCain matchup would come out.

Monday, March 24, 2008

5, 4000

A double milestone for the Iraq war this past week, neither happy -- the war reached its fifth anniversary and the number of U.S. military deaths reached 4000. It's an appropriate time to look back.

Republicans and Democrats seem trapped in their official narratives about the war. The Republicans seem incapable of admitting that the war was a big, fat, bad idea, and bungled to boot. President Bush started an unnecessary war based on false intelligence, baldly lied about how long the war would take, how much it would cost, and how many casualties would be incurred. He turned it over to the arrogant and incompetent Donald Rumsfeld, who mismanaged it about as badly as could be imagined, so that it's already taken 10 times as long and cost 10 times as much as the least optimistic original estimates, and the end is not in sight. That kind of thing tends to cancel out the good things that your presidency has accomplished -- not that Bush had a whole lot of good things to cancel out, anyway.

On the other hand, Democrats seem incapable of acknowledging that things are going at least a little better lately. U.S. military deaths have slowed to about 1 per day -- an awful figure, but a whole lot less awful than the 3-4 per day we were previously experiencing. Iraqi deaths are down too. It's terrible and tragic that we've lost 4000 troops, but that's still not even 10% of the losses in Vietnam. Democrats also need to acknowledge that as stupid as the war was, it's happened, and can't be wished back into nonexistence. We need a strategy going forward that starts from where we are now.

Unfortunately, it's hardly a great accomplishment to be able to say that after 5 years, 4000 American deaths, and $500 billion, we've managed to get to a situation that's only bad, as opposed to appalling, and that might reasonably be hoped to stay only bad for at least a while now. I heard an interview over the weekend with some returning soldier who suggested that we need to "finish the job." But what is "the job" and what would constitute "finishing" it? To "finish the job" we would need to stay in Iraq indefinitely, probably for another decade, and lose another three or four thousand troops, and spend another trillion dollars or so, and what would be the best result? The original idea of creating a stable, pro-Western democracy seems a hopeless dream.

It's ironic that Republicans would be the first to scream if you seriously suggested a ten-year, trillion-dollar federal government effort to improve society here in the U.S. Yet they're all gung ho to have that same government spend that amount trying to improve things halfway around the globe.

Last week, Barack Obama spoke openly and honestly about problems of race in America. He said things that few politicians have dared to say. He treated us like adults and spoke honestly about the sources of our racial problems.

Could someone, perhaps Obama, do the same for Iraq? I don't see a way to a solution until someone gets honest about the problem.

Sunday, March 23, 2008

Proof that America Has Gone Crazy

Just in case you were wondering.

Monty Kerr of Austin, Texas paid $1,350 for a corn flake allegedly shaped like the state of Illinois. The eBay auction was technically for a coupon reedemable for the corn flake, because eBay has a policy against auctioning food items.

Kerr wants to add the corn flake to his "traveling museum," the title of which is presumably the "Hall of Folly" or "You Won't Believe What I Paid for This," or some such endearing name, where people can gaze at it and think, "wow, it looks like exactly like every other corn flake," and "it's not even really shaped that much like Illinois," or "what kind of dope would pay $1,000 for this?"

I know there is no end to the folly of mankind, but I was surprised enough to learn that Governor Spitzer was paying $4,000 for a couple of hours of sex. Compared with Mr. Kerr, Spitzer seems like a smart shopper.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Barack's Speech

Normally, I can hardly stand to listen to politicians speak, even the ones I support. The pandering, posturing, insincerity, and superficiality that politics requires make me ill.

Barack Obama's speech on Tuesday had a genuniness and a thoughtfulness that it's hard to remember seeing in any politician's speech. It's certainly the best political speech I've heard in at least ten years.

Of course, the pundits, particularly the conservative ones, are sniping away at the speech on grounds ranging from utterly ridiculous ("he read it on the teleprompter") to merely catty (he didn't sufficiently distance himself from Reverend Wright and he wrongly equated Wright's comments with his white grandmother's fear of black men).

I suppose if you assume that the only purpose of the speech was to deal with the "Reverend Wright problem," then you might fail to appreciate its appeal. Maybe you need to understand that the topic of the speech was problems of race in America. When was the last time you heard a political candidate make an intelligent, thoughtful, honest appraisal of those problems?

Yes, Obama needed to address the issues raised by his pastor's unfortunate remarks. But someone also needs to address issues of race in America. I can't remember other politicians doing that in any useful way. It's a risky topic. Barack showed courage.

And he didn't equate any remark with any other remark. He put many different feelings that people have into a larger context that called attention to the urgent need for racial healing. It was a speech that needed to be made. Obama made it.

Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Hello to Arms

According to published accounts of the Supreme Court's gun control argument, a majority of the Justices appear ready to strike down the District of Columbia's handgun ban. And which majority? Why, the Chief Justice, and Justices Scalia, Kennedy, Thomas, Alito.

You know, it would be nice if, just for a change, a major issue like this didn't break down along ideological lines. I haven't done the research on the Second Amendment and I honestly don't know which side I find more convincing. I am open to the argument that the amendment protects an individual right to gun ownership. I am also open to the argument that the amendment's unique preamble limits its reach to militia-related matters. I'd want to know a lot more about the amendment and its terms before making up my mind.

But were I a judge, I hope I'd be able to make up my mind based on the law and not on my ideological preconceptions. Of course it's easy to make this boast knowing that it won't get put to the test, but really, why should the conservatives all conclude that the amendment protects an individual right and the liberals not? Don't liberals normally like individual rights? Don't conservatives normally favor the government? It's somehwat dreary to think that judges are so ideological that they can't even stick to their general ideological stances but have to follow even the sub-points of ideology rather than just trying to figure out what the Constitution means.

Monday, March 17, 2008

Farewell to Bear

My father worked at Bear, Stearns for ten years, so I took more than a casual interest in the news that J.P. Morgan will buy the 85-year-old Wall Street firm for $2 a share -- that's about 7% of the firm's market value as of the close of business on Friday, and about 3% of the firms' value as of a week ago today.

In case anyone was still wondering whether the economy is in trouble, I think the answer is now officially yes. When an investment banking firm previously worth billions, that withstood the Great Depression and a dozen recessions since, dissolves in a puff of smoke, something is wrong.

How many other titanic firms are just waiting to lose 97% of their value in a week? Has anyone else bet the farm on some allegedly safe but astoundingly complicated twenty-first century investment vehicle?

Thank goodness we have a President and an administration that understand these matters and are acting prudently to avert further disasters.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Ten Days

Speculation over whether New York Governor Eliot Spitzer will resign remains intense. Can he survive? The key is the next eight days.

It's been two days since the scandal broke. Eight more days will make ten. Ten days after a scandal breaks, it's old news. Everybody shrugs their shoulders and moves on.

On the day Bill Clinton admitted his inappropriate relationship with Monica Lewinsky, one of my colleagues started an office pool to guess his last day in office. I tried to get January 20, 2001, but it was already taken. Ten days, I said, just wait ten days. If he can survive that long, he'll make it through.

Of course it's true that the Spitzer scandal has many twists and turns to come, if he stays in office. Criminal indictment and legislative impeachment are both real possibilities. But both were in the picture for Clinton too.

Look at Larry Craig. Look at David Vitter. They toughed it out and they're still both in the Senate. Clinton toughed it out and survived impeachment.

Things look grim for Spitzer, but see how they look eight days from now.

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

Must He Go?

I'm still reeling from the news about New York Governor Eliot Spitzer. I gave my main thoughts yesterday, but the question of the hour is, should Spitzer stay or should he resign? Not surprisingly, the Republican Governors Association recommends the latter. The Democratic Governors Association recommends "caution and restraint."

Spitzer's future doesn't look good. I think he can rule out running for President. But here's a question for those Republican Governors: Did they call for David Vitter to resign? I don't think so. Did they call for Larry Craig to resign? OK, they probably did, but we all know Republicans regard that as a special case.

The point is, Vitter is still a Senator. Craig is still a Senator. Bill Clinton survived his sex scandal. These things are not invariably fatal.

The Governor has a tough road ahead and it's hard to see how he can ever regain the mass support that swept him into office. But it's not clear that he'll be forced to go.

Monday, March 10, 2008

Sauce for the Gander

Oh, my goodness.

Eliot Spitzer, governor of New York, has apparently been caught arranging to patronize a prostitute. He hasn't exactly confessed, but he gave a news conference at which he said, "I have acted in a way that violates my obligation to my family and violates my or any sense of right or wrong." That's roughly the equivalent of admitting it.

Now, I have a confession of my own to make. I have previously, publicly, on this very blog, had some fun at the expense of Republicans caught in the same postion (so much so, I am slightly embarrassed to admit, that it takes quite a few links to cover it all). I said at the time that I'm not that into schadenfreude, and I'm not, but there's no question that I engaged in it. So what do I do now?

Bloggers have, or should have, a loyalty to the truth that goes beyond party. If it was appropriate to poke fun at the Republicans who couldn't keep their pants zipped, the same has to apply to the Democrats.

Of course, as I observed, it was particularly, juicily ironic when the Republicans got caught, because most of them were piously moralistic types who roundly condemned the very behavior that tripped them up. But so was Spitzer! As Attorney General, he prosecuted prostitution rings!

So I'm sorry, but even though I can't quite bring myself to poke fun at Governor Spitzer, I'm going to have to be understanding while others do so. It's just too tough to resist, and I'm in no position to criticize.

But really, I mean, . . . Eliot Spitzer! Mr. Integrity! How could he do this!

What is up with these politicians? Don't they know that they live under a microscope? How can they imagine that they'll get away with crap like this?

And sadly, it's not as though mere prostitution is the only thing Spitzer may be on the hook for. First of all, he apparently arranged for a prostitute to cross state lines to meet him, which makes it a federal crime under the ancient Mann Act. Moreover, the prices charged by the prostitution ring he apparently patronized are said to range from $1000 up to $5500 per hour. Where does a public servant get that kind of money? I suppose it's possible that he only did this the one time, but that doesn't seem likely. I foresee an investigation into where the money came from. (And by the way, what could you possibly get that would be worth that price? Maybe I lack sufficient imagination, but I'm baffled.) And of course, most serious of all would be if Spitzer somehow exercised his powers as attorney general to keep this ring from being prosecuted (again assuming he was patronizing it back then).

Wow, it doesn't look good. Of course, as was true when the Republicans got caught, some will ask why what they're doing is a crime at all. But the fact is, it is. And it's crime Spitzer himself denounced. He shouldn't have done it. And here come the jokes.

Thursday, March 6, 2008

Back Soon

Sorry for the lack of content this week, faithful readers. I'm actually working pretty hard. Blogging will resume next week.