Five & One: January 17, 2011

    Logo by Nina Lincoff / North by Northwestern

    This quarter, North by Northwestern is hosting weekly columns from Politics & Policy, a new undergraduate publication with a focus on — you guessed it — politics and policy at local, state, national and international levels. Five & One breaks down what news to read — and what news to ignore.

    5. Illinois legislature moves to ban death penalty

    Due in part to the efforts of organizations like NU’s Medill Innocence Project, which has exonerated five American death row inmates in twelve years, Illinois has had an official moratorium on the death penalty since January 2000. After the Illinois Senate’s 60-54 vote to pass Senate Bill 3539 on Tuesday (the state House passed a similar bill last week), Governor Pat Quinn’s signature could turn the moratorium into an outright ban.

    The possibility of the end of executions in Illinois reflects the continuation of a decade-long trend against capital punishment in the United States, the only major Western country that still practices it. Despite widespread public support for the death penalty (a 2009 Gallup poll found that 78% of Republicans and 52% of Democrats favor retaining the death sentence as a possibility for murderers), the number of executions in the United States has fallen precipitously, from 98 in 1999 to 46 in 2010. The move is also, at least in part, a recognition of the disastrous history and flawed implementation of capital punishment in Illinois. Since 1977, more Illinois death row inmates have been exonerated or had their sentences overturned than have actually been executed, and, as in several other states, Illinois’ death row population is disproportionately black, rural, and poor, leading to persistent allegations of discrimination in the state’s criminal justice system.

    Should Quinn sign the bill, Illinois would become the most populous state in the country to have repealed its death penalty statute by legislation. Thus, no matter what he does, Quinn will make a significant statement about the future of capital punishment in the United States.

    4. Arizona law bans funeral protests after shooting

    An unexpected outcome of the Tucson shooting is the passage of Arizona SB 1101, a bill that
    outlaws “picketing or engaging in other protest activities” during funerals. Both chambers of
    Arizona State Legislature passed the bill unanimously and Gov. Jan Brewer signed it into law
    within 36 hours of Westboro Baptist Church announcing its plan to protest the funeral of one of
    the shooting victims.

    The law bans protesting within 300 feet of a funeral during the service as well as an hour before
    and an hour after the funeral. It resembles a similar ban in Ohio which was challenged in 2008;
    the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the constitutionality of the law, citing Hill v. Colorado
    (2000)—a case which upheld the Colorado ban of protests near healthcare facilities. The court
    declared that the protest ban is an appropriate regulation based on time, place and manner of
    speech that is content neutral and narrowly tailored, serving an important governmental interest.

    The regulation is likely to remain effective regardless of the Supreme Court’s decision on
    Snyder v. Phelps—a case currently being debated which involves responsibility over emotional
    distress inflicted by funeral protests—unless a separate challenge makes its way to the Supreme
    Court. Considering the popularity of these laws, additional states may join Arizona in banning
    funeral protests; regardless of critics claims that such bans are unnecessary restrictions on First
    Amendment rights and excessively limit free speech.

    3. Illinois votes to raise income tax

    The Illinois legislature voted Tuesday for a 66 percent increase in the state income tax rate from 3% to 5%. This increase is expected to generate $7 billion in new revenue to help fix Illinois’ $15 billion budget deficit. Illinois will also increase the corporate tax rate from 7.3 percent to 9.5 percent under this measure. Business leaders in Illinois decry the tax increase as a job killer. They fear that companies will move their businesses to other nearby states with more favorable corporate tax rates.

    Governors Mitch Daniels of Indiana and Scott Walker of Wisconsin have stated they intend to take advantage of the increase in the tax rate in Illinois and will offer incentives for Illinois businesses to move to their states. However, Governor Pat Quinn of Illinois, feels this tax increase will appeal to businesses as it will raise their confidence in the fiscal stability of the state. This echoes the national debate on whether raising taxes to support government programs is good for the economy, the central debate about the extension of the Bush-era tax cuts.

    2. Lebanese government collapses

    The government of Lebanon collapsed last week as members of Hezbollah’s party and their supporters pulled out of the unity government. The resignation of 11 of the 30 cabinet ministers was prompted by the expected release of a UN Special Tribunal for Lebanon report investigating the assassination of Rafiz al-Hariri in 2005. Hezbollah is expected to be labeled responsible for the death of the former Prime Minister.

    This all too familiar scene in the Middle East underscores the inherent instability of the Lebanese political system. While many would link this to recent upheaval in Tunisia, it is more likely that the fractious political system of Lebanon is to blame. Based on guaranteed ethnic minority representation, Lebanon’s democracy institutionalizes sectarianism and has been relatively unstable for years. By creating an incentive structure in which leaders of one party have little impetus to make decisions that would benefit the country as a whole, the government is often at odds with itself. Other consociational systems such as Beligum, face similar difficulties mediating between ethnic parties own interests.

    1. Tunisia rocked by protests

    Last Friday, the strongman leader of Tunisia, Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, stepped down from the presidency and fled the country. His departure was the result of almost a month of protests throughout the country that had been steadily growing in scale. While originally focusing on discontent over Tunisia’s sky-high unemployment rate, the protests had shifted towards government corruption and ineffectiveness. Tunisian police forces added to the anger by using excessive force against dissidents, with images of bloodied protesters spreading throughout Tunisia via social networks such as Facebook.

    Tunisia will never carry much weight on the international stage due to its small size, but autocratic leaders around the world are already feeling the repercussions from Ben Ali’s departure. Ben Ali had was in office for over 23 years, making his rapid fall from power all the more concerning to long-serving rulers such as Hosni Mubarak of Egypt and the Saud family in Saudi Arabia. U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton recently warned Middle Eastern leaders that their states risked “sinking into the sand” if nothing was done about corruption and the lack of political and economic reforms. Mr. Ali’s fate in Tunisia seems to validate her claim.


    0. Media, politicians play blame game over AZ shootings

    The nation was stunned two weekends ago when a shooting in Tucson, AZ left six dead and 15 wounded. Among the victims were federal judge John Roll and Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, the alleged target. This attack spurred media criticism about the effects of the vitriolic rhetoric that has characterized the politics of recent years; which in turn has resulted in a backlash by those who were the targets of the criticism.

    But the rush to cite partisanship as a catalyst of violence has obscured many of the more salient issues surrounding the event. Regulation of firearms, security details of Congressmen, and treatment (or lack thereof) the mentally ill are all issues that should take precedence over media bickering and political finger pointing. While an evaluation of the state of our political rhetoric may be productive and necessary, the media commotion about destructive partisanship is overshadowing efforts at meaningful discussion.


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