Editorials from around New York
Recent editorials of statewide and national interest from New York’s newspapers:
The New York Times on reconsidering an inmate’s death sentence
In a series of rulings over the past several decades interpreting the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition on cruel and unusual punishment, the Supreme Court has prohibited the execution of some of the most helpless people in the nation, including children and people with intellectual disabilities.
On Wednesday, the court spared from execution Vernon Madison, who cannot remember the circumstances surrounding his 1985 conviction in Alabama for the murder of a police officer. Mr. Madison suffered at least two severe strokes after his conviction, and his lawyers had told the justices that he had vascular dementia and attendant cognitive decline.
As Justice Elena Kagan explained in a 5-to-3 decision siding with Mr. Madison, a faulty memory alone does not trigger the protections of the Eighth Amendment, just as the diagnosis of a mental illness alone would not. Instead, Justice Kagan wrote, what’s relevant is whether the person possesses a “rational understanding” of why the state wants to impose the ultimate punishment. (Justice Brett Kavanaugh, who hadn’t yet been confirmed when the court first heard the dispute, did not participate in Mr. Madison’s case.)
In prior cases laying the foundation for this principle, the Supreme Court justices have reasoned that executing someone who can’t rationally understand his crime or punishment “simply offends humanity” and would serve no “retributive value.” Which is to say: If a man condemned to die can’t comprehend the true meaning of society’s judgment against him, what is the value of that condemnation?
“Do you have an independent recollection of the Civil War?” asked Justice Kagan in her opinion in Madison v. Alabama. “Obviously not. But you may still be able to reach a rational — indeed, a sophisticated — understanding of that conflict and its consequences.”
The justice went on: “Do you recall your first day of school? Probably not. But if your mother told you years later that you were sent home for hitting a classmate, you would have no trouble grasping the story.”
The same goes for a person who blacks out before committing a crime: She may still come to appreciate why a prosecutor seeks to punish her.
In Mr. Madison’s case, the Supreme Court recognized that the Alabama court that weighed his mental capacities offered a cursory ruling, with “only one sentence of explanation” that didn’t take into account the “sole question” that matters: “whether he can reach a ‘rational understanding’ of why the State wants to execute him.”
The high court sent the case back to the lower courts for what Justice Kagan called a “do-over.”
The lower courts may again conclude, based on the Supreme Court’s guidance and expert medical testimony, that executing Mr. Madison doesn’t qualify as cruel and unusual. But until then, the Supreme Court’s decision — joined by the rest of the liberal bloc and Chief Justice John Roberts Jr. — provides hope that officials may yet realize that it’s inhumane to put to death someone too impaired to remember the crime he committed or comprehend the punishment he is facing.
The Observer-Dispatch on a proposal to split the state
Finding a way to create more parity for New York state taxpayers is certainly something worth exploring - and several possibilities surfaced last week that suggest that we study the idea.
One — proposed by Republican state Sen. Daphne Jordan of Halfmoon — would split the state into separate upstate and downstate entities. Her definition of downstate is all five New York City boroughs, Long Island’s Nassau and Suffolk counties, and Westchester and Rockland counties. Upstate would be the state’s 53 other counties.
The other idea was proposed through legislation by state Sen. Joseph Griffo, R-I-C-Rome, and state Assemblyman Mark Walczyk, R-C-I-Ref-Watertown. Griffo’s bill — S2047 — would amend the state Constitution and award each county in the state a single senator to represent it in the Legislature. It would decrease the number of Senate districts by one — from 63 to 62. Representation in the state Assembly would continue to be population based.
Griffo said the model follows the system of the federal government where congressional districts are determined by population, but each state has two senators. This allows all 50 states to have an equal voice regardless of the size of their population.
While no idea should be summarily dismissed, Sen. Jordan’s proposal to split the state would be a short study. Dividing the state would create absolute chaos, particularly upstate.
Frustrated as upstaters may become when we see oodles of tax dollars being sent to the Big Apple for things like the MTA, there’s no denying the fact that we benefit significantly from state funding - much of which is due to downstate dollars. Remember, New York City folks pay dearly in state taxes, and collectively, the city pays much more than it gets back. If upstate were to break away, we’d be biting the hand that feeds us.
This idea to split comes up every now and then, and soon goes away. This one should, too.
Re-tooling state Senate representation is another story.
During an Albany press conference last week, Griffo explained that since the New York City metropolitan area has such a disproportionate amount of the state’s population, it effectively disempowers state residents outside of the immediate metro area. This frustrates upstaters, whose voices are drowned out by New York City politicians.
“Just like our federal government sought a system that would give each state a guaranteed two seats in the United States Senate chamber, we’re seeking a voice that will make sure each county of New York has a seat in our state Senate,” said Assemblyman Walczyk.
The Griffo-Walczyk plan would help establish balance by creating a more equitable distribution of legislative representatives, leading to a better and less parochial government. The change would require a constitutional amendment. That means it’d have to be passed by two consecutive legislatures and then go before voters. So the earliest it could get on ballot would be November 2021.
Maybe it wouldn’t work. But it’s worked for the federal government for well over two centuries. It’s at least worth considering in Albany.
The Syracuse Post-Standard on the power of Congress
President Donald Trump’s fake emergency at the southern border with Mexico presents a real emergency for Congress. If Congress lets stand the president’s emergency declaration diverting money from the Pentagon to build a border wall, it will have ceded the power of the purse to the executive branch.
That would undermine the separation of powers the Founders set out in the Constitution. It would embolden this unpredictable president to do it again the next time he doesn’t get his way. And it would invite future presidents of either party to do the same.
Congress opened this Pandora’s Box in 1976 when it passed the National Emergencies Act. Lawmakers intended to rein in the president’s emergency powers, which were so vast, according to a congressional research report, the president could “rule the country without reference to normal constitutional process.”
That is, he could become a king.
To prevent that from happening, the 1976 law set out a process by which Congress would revisit presidential emergency declarations every six months, and could vote to cancel an emergency declaration over the president’s objection.
The trouble is, Congress never followed through on its oversight.
As a result, the nation is currently under 31 emergency declarations, according to a running list kept by the Brennan Center for Justice. Most have to do with placing sanctions on other countries, including the first (and oldest) signed by President Jimmy Carter in 1979 to sanction Iran for taking U.S. hostages. Other declarations responded to real national emergencies, like the 9/11 terror attacks and Hurricane Katrina.
There plainly is no national emergency at the southern border — though there is a humanitarian crisis created by the president’s cruel detention and family separation policies against asylum-seekers. In a rare burst of honesty, Trump even admitted the emergency declaration was a strategy to get the wall built faster. The gambit also allowed him to save face after losing the government shutdown battle with House Democrats.
The House of Representatives took the first step Tuesday to puncture this fiction, voting 245-182 to disapprove of the emergency declaration. We applaud Rep. Elise Stefanik, R-Schuylerville, for crossing party lines to vote for the resolution. Rep. John Katko, R-Camillus, missed the vote due to his father’s death, but put a statement on the record in support of the resolution. It should have been unanimous.
Now the Republican-led Senate must take it up within the next couple of weeks. Three Republicans have signaled their intention to disapprove the emergency declaration; only one more is needed for the resolution to pass. But it would not be enough votes to override a promised presidential veto.
So Trump is likely to get his wall, but the cost will be far greater than $5.7 billion. It will cost constitutional principles that once were deeply held by our leaders, but now are easily cast aside for political expediency.
Come to your senses, Congress.
No matter how much you may want a border wall, your duty to the Constitution comes first. Over the past few decades, you have allowed the executive branch to usurp your constitutional authority to declare war, to regulate trade with foreign governments, and now to appropriate money.
Stop Trump’s border emergency declaration. Rewrite the emergency declaration law to narrow the president’s powers. Fulfill your obligation to cancel emergency declarations that are no longer necessary.
The alternative is an even more imperial presidency.
Newsday on a proposed state tax on prescription medications
New York does not levy sales tax on either over-the-counter or prescription medication, and it shouldn’t. The people who most need such drugs are often the ones least able to afford them.
But a bill imposing such a tax and signed last year by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo did try to take that into account. The law said the $100 million to be raised annually from manufacturers of opioids could not be passed on to consumers. But in December, a federal district court judge in Manhattan said the state law could unconstitutionally shift the burden of the cost to out-of-state consumers.
The law likely wasn’t going to be nearly as helpful in funding addiction treatment and prevention programs as many hoped. It designated only $20 million of that $100 million to address drug addiction, with no plan for deploying it. The rest would have gone to the general fund.
Cuomo is trying it again, with a new bill in this year’s budget, and it’s worse. This time the tax can be passed on to the consumer, making the law more likely to survive a legal challenge but worse for New Yorkers.
The state has done a good job of cracking down on a number of painkiller prescriptions for people who shouldn’t have them because of its I-STOP oversight system. As dangerous and powerful as opioids are, most people getting them legally need them and shouldn’t have to pay a surcharge on top of their out-of-pocket costs. And since users only pay a fraction of a drug’s costs, the higher tax on manufacturers means insurance premiums for all New Yorkers would climb.
Drug companies that were complicit in fueling opioid addiction must be made to pay to address that problem. But New York already is seeking that remedy in the courts. Increasing costs for all New Yorkers will only make the high cost of health care even worse.
The Post-Journal on the Vatican’s plan to address sexual abuse
Pope Francis said all the right things during an extraordinary conference to discuss sexual abuse by Roman Catholic priests and cover-ups by their superiors. But what he did not say has some observers, both inside the church and out of it, upset.
Francis summoned 190 Catholic bishops and many other high-ranking church officials to Vatican City to discuss the scandal, which dates back generations. On Sunday, the pope vowed to confront abusers with “the wrath of God.”
For the faithful, that goes without saying and is beyond the influence of any mortal, of course. But it is earthly punishment that concerns those unsatisfied with the pope’s actions during the meeting.
He failed to present a detailed, concrete plan to deal with abuse in the past and prevent it in the future, critics have said.
Some church officials have taken harsh action, of course. Lists of names of priests, even bishops, “credibly accused” of misdeeds have been released. Sadly, the lists are long.
Some priests and even bishops have been kicked out of the church. Law enforcement authorities will be aided, if appropriate, church officials vow.
And there will be no more cover-ups, the Catholic hierarchy insists.
In truth, what Francis needs to accomplish is not some new written strategy but rather, an end to the seemingly endless revelations of new outrages.
One is in the news now. The Associated Press has reported that an Argentine bishop, Gustavo Zanchetta, was given breaks by the church during recent years — despite evidence he had abused seminarians. Some of that proof was obtained in 2015, the AP noted.
And in 2017, when Zanchetta resigned as bishop, he was given a high-ranking position in the Vatican — by Francis.
Yes, 2017. No plan for dealing with predators and their protectors will be enough to placate many Catholics, as long as new reports of sickening outrages continue to surface.