The Dallas Morning News. Dec. 14, 2012.
Affirm gays' right to marry
This newspaper applauds the Supreme Court's recent decision to hear arguments in two same-sex marriage cases - one on California's Proposition 8, which bans such marriages, and one regarding the Defense of Marriage Act, which denies federal benefits to legally married same-sex couples.
Same-sex marriage has been percolating at the state level for several years, leading to a patchwork of laws that create more confusion than clarity. The court can undo that confusion by determining the constitutional parameters of this issue.
We urge the Supreme Court to affirm the right of gay couples to marry based upon the fundamental American ideal of equality before the law. It is critical that the court also make clear that such a ruling won't require churches whose doctrines oppose same-sex marriage to perform such ceremonies.
Debating the reversal of centuries of views about the institution of marriage cannot be considered without upheaval, and we recognize that the notion of gays and lesbians marrying can divide families, friends and, especially, generations. But the growing support for same-sex marriage, including within families whose gay members have changed the way these unions are seen, makes the embrace of gay marriage less of a radical shift.
Polls show that American attitudes have shifted dramatically on the subject. Surveys by organizations such as Gallup reveal that half or more of Americans support the concept of gay marriage. Equality in marriage laws is particularly embraced by younger Americans, including some younger evangelicals.
Even leading conservatives favor gay marriage. Former Vice President Dick Cheney is among the most notable. So, too, is former Bush solicitor general Ted Olson, who will lead the team arguing in favor of the constitutionality of same-sex marriage.
Olson contends that the federal government lacks the right to deny gay couples the opportunity to marry. He also will argue that the ban denies gay couples the right to due process. As the Republican wrote in Newsweek, "This bedrock principle of equality is central to the political and legal convictions of Republicans, Democrats, liberals and conservatives alike."
We respect that some religious traditions see same-sex unions as an affront to their canons, scriptures and traditions. The First Amendment protects such places of worship from being compelled to conduct same-sex marriages. Additionally, the justices should take care to carve out strong and significant protections so that the institutions' religious liberties, for instance their tax-exempt status, are not circumscribed.
In 2004, this newspaper opposed a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage. We have backed efforts to outlaw discrimination against employees based on sexual orientation. Now, we believe that the Supreme Court should conclude that equality under the law includes the right of gay couples to wed.
What's at stake before the Supreme Court is how a secular society should respond to the growing demand for same-sex marriage. That is where Olson's arguments seem so persuasive. How can a secular government grant marriage rights to some but not others?
Austin American-Statesman. Dec. 13, 2012.
Digging for truth in growing research scandal
The Texas Cancer Registry predicts that before the year is out, 39,072 Texans will die of cancer. The registry also predicts that 110,135 new cases of the disease will upend the lives of those diagnosed as well as their families in 2012.
Cancer is an enemy - a ruthless one that Texans have pledged to fight. Now, the Travis County district attorney is investigating whether people entrusted to manage money intended for cancer research abused trust. District Attorney Rosemary Lehmberg said investigators for the Travis County Public Integrity Unit are gathering information generated by the Cancer Prevention and Research Institute on how decisions about grants were made. While unfortunate and uncomfortable, such an investigation is necessary to restore the agency's damaged credibility.
The agency was formed after Texas voters approved $3 billion in bonds to fund a 10-year program looking for cures for cancer in 2007. The agency dispenses money in loans and grants for cancer research and was formed in 2009. Augmenting the investment of money was the investment of hope - hope that the money would lead to cures.
It was a big dream, but a worthy one.
Three years later, the agency is in turmoil and its activities the subject of an investigation both by the district attorney and the Texas attorney general.
It is said that the road to hell is paved with good intentions, and agency executives as well as the elected officials who oversee it are going to step on every cobblestone on that road before the investigations are concluded. An uncomfortable journey to be sure, but a necessary one.
Restoring the public trust the agency squandered is going to be a tall order. In announcing his resignation, agency Executive Director Bill Gimson said the agency had "wasted efforts expended in low value activities during the past eight months."
The agency has been under mounting criticism since the disclosure that an $11 million award to a private company never was reviewed. The agency's chief science officer and several out-of-state scientists who review grant applications resigned because a grant for a Houston incubator didn't get a scientific review.
The lax oversight was far from the noble promise that the money would be awarded on scientific merit after review by some of the top scientists in the field. As the exodus of top-name reviewers indicates, that promise has been broken.
The $11 million grant that escaped review went to a Dallas-based biotech firm. Allegations that the decisions on grants were driven by politics rather than science have dogged the agency since the departure of top scientists who were supposed to review applications.
The state's reputation has been sullied and money that was intended to fight cancer has been tossed at - as Gimson put it - "low value activities."
Accountability is a word modern politicians love, and an investigation like this is a splendid opportunity for the state's elected officials to show constituents just how they love it - by holding people accountable for their actions and not just talking about it.
Dealings between the agency and a related private foundation have also come under review.
The foundation's undisclosed donors underwrite the agency's operations, including salary supplements for the agency's top two executives and helping to pay for scientific review of grant applications.
"You can't avoid looking at the foundation if you are looking at the agency," State Auditor John Keel said of his pending audit of the agency.
The agency has thus far spent just over $800,000 in tax-payer approved bonds.
Lehmberg stressed that the investigation is in its early stages. It is way too early to jump to conclusions. It will be an expensive investigation in more ways than one.
Texans need to know, however, that their trust is respected by the public officials who asked for it when campaigning for approval of the bonds.
As anyone who has ever had to live with the dreaded diagnosis of cancer can tell you, cancer invades not only the body, but the psyche and the soul. It is a cruel disease that has the capacity to disappear and reappear with uninhibited caprice.
The money was intended to wage a war on cancer. Texans need to be assured that public officials weren't giving aid and comfort to the enemy.
Beaumont Enterprise. Dec. 13, 2012.
Tar sands pipeline must survive questionable lawsuits
People like Michael Bishop don't have to like the Keystone XL pipeline and have every right to oppose it. But the pipeline will benefit Texas and the nation, and the sooner it is built, the better.
Unfortunately, "sooner" just got pushed back about a week. A county court-at-law judge granted Bishop a temporary restraining order that halts work on the pipeline until a hearing Dec. 19.
Bishop owns 20 acres near Douglass, a town about 160 miles north of Houston. He doesn't want the pipeline coming through his property, claiming that the tar sands oil to be transmitted in it is too thick to be defined as crude oil.
Bishop had even agreed earlier to let the pipeline cross his land but now says that decision was made under "duress." He wants to stop it in the courts as an environmental threat.
If the pipeline keeps encountering quirky legal challenges like this - or judges who grant temporary restraining orders - it might not become operational next year as planned.
President Obama already slowed things down by opposing the northern leg of it, from Canada to Oklahoma. Yet that move was widely seen as a temporary nod to environmentalists that will be reversed now that the election is over. The president should finally indicate which way he really stands on this important issue.
The bottom line remains that Canada will either sell its tar sands oil to China or the United States.
The latter option is by far the better one, and any public officials involved with it should help that process along instead of hindering it.
San Antonio Express-News. Dec. 13, 2012.
Forms help Texans do it themselves
The Texas Supreme Court did the right thing in approving standardized do-it-yourself divorce forms for use by couples who have no children or real estate and want to legally end their marriages.
While boilerplate forms are available online for pro se litigants who want to go at it alone in court, they do not meet the specific needs of Texas courts and sometimes are not accepted by the courts.
The new standardized forms will simplify the process for the do-it-yourself litigants and make the judicial process more efficient.
The forms will be an asset to the growing number of pro se litigants trying to navigate their way through the justice system and who cannot afford a lawyer. The average hourly rate for a family lawyer in Texas is around $203 which prices most minimum wage earners out of the market.
Last year, about 58,000 family law cases were filed by pro se litigants in Texas courts. Thousands of lawyers offer pro bono services, but the need far outpaces the available resources.
Getting the forms approved for use has not been easy. Only 6 of the nine justices on the state's high court approved the proposal, and it does not have the support of the State Bar.
The Texas Supreme Court acknowledges the forms are not perfect and will not work in every circumstance, but the justices believe they are necessary to help indigent litigants.
"While the Court recognizes that obtaining legal representation, pro bono or otherwise, for every pro se litigant would be ideal, the resources to meet the demand are simply not available," the justices wrote in the order approving the standardized forms.
The forms are available on Texas Supreme Court website.
They mark progress toward providing access to the civil justice system to many Texans who might not otherwise be able to afford it.
San Angelo Standard-Times. Dec. 15, 2012.
Altering filibuster rules difficult, but necessary
In a listing of the best examples of Washington's dysfunction, the filibuster belongs near the top.
While it has existed in roughly its current form as a tactic for blocking legislation in the U.S. Senate for nearly 100 years, it has been used more times in the last six years than through most of its entire previous history.
Where it once was a legislative scalpel, it's now a blunt instrument.
Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid is threatening a simple-majority vote to overhaul filibuster rules, and Minority Leader Mitch McConnell has pledged to grind Senate business to a halt in retaliation. It's the exact reversal of the Democratic and Republican roles at the time of the last such threat in 2005.
Today's filibuster is the opposite of what comes to mind when most Americans hear the word - talking on and on and on, as Jimmy Stewart did in "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington."
Now it's a mere signal of intent that stops legislation.
One result is that the current Congress has passed fewer laws than any in modern times.
While surely every senator recognizes that the filibuster has become abused, there's never a "right" time to fix it because someone always is in a position to lose power.
And in the current hyper-partisan environment, reaching a reasonable solution seems nearly impossible.
Nonetheless, wise observers have been offering good ideas that preserve the principle of allowing the minority to avoid being steamrolled while eliminating the filibuster's use as just another arrow in an obstructionist quiver.
One proposal would give the minority just one bite at the apple, allowing filibusters at only one point in the process instead of the six or seven opportunities now.
That at least would stop the minority from blocking debate and would allow Americans to better understand the issue under consideration and decide which side is right.
Another would shift the burden of obstructing legislation where it belongs.
As it stands now, the minority merely needs to signal a filibuster and it's up to the majority to mount 60 votes to end it. The proposed change would put the onus on the minority to gather 40 votes to sustain the filibuster.
The change least likely to happen is restoring the actual talking part of the filibuster - requiring the minority to send speaker after speaker to the podium to say why legislation must not pass. And that's a shame.
Because the filibuster has become such a routine, antiseptic exercise, it has been robbed of 1 of its most valuable aspects - the ability to put important public policy issues in the national spotlight.
Eliminating the theater of talking filibusters means fewer Americans become aware that an important law is being considered.
It also means fewer of them understand, and take a stake in, legislation that senators regard as so intolerable that they're willing to take extreme steps to stop it.
The spirit of the filibuster is laudable. It theoretically impels senators to reach across the aisle to fashion bills in such a way that they become acceptable to the minority.
But extreme partisanship has severely wounded that notion, to the extent the filibuster is a shining example of why government doesn't work.