Wednesday, November 25, 2015

The rest of our KC trip

“No one ever forgets a toy that made him or her supremely happy as a child, even if that toy is replaced by one like it that is much nicer.” — Stephen King, The Eyes of the Dragon

ONE OF the BAC Music guys recommended a little restaurant in Overland Park, KS called Pad Thai for lunch on Friday. We weren't expecting anything as good as it turned out to be. Delicious food, wonderful presentation at a modest price. If you pass through the area, it's worth taking in.

Friday night we went to the #1 rated barbecue in the area, Joe's Kansas City Bar-B-Que. Here's what the USA Today had to say about it:

Here's the thing, though, both Paul and I kinda feel — assuming it's not awful, barbecue is barbecue. We found their baked beans too vinegary and the rest of the food unremarkable. The description of the restaurant's location is inaccurate in one way: it's in an old gas station, yes, but it's still a working gas station!

Saturday we went to The National Museum of Toys and Miniatures. We thought we'd buzz through, but we spent three and a half hours there. The miniatures are so incredible. Everything is to scale, for heaven's sake. Trust me, you want to go to this.

Saturday night we ate at the #4 best restaurant in the USA Today list of the 10 best restaurants in Kansas City, a place called Story. The halibut I had as my entree was to die, but let's be honest: you almost have to work at it to screw up halibut. It was good, it was expensive, but as Paul said, all the food was rather expected. Nothing surprised us or took our breath away.

Besides BAC Music, the hits of the trip were Justus Drug Store, Pad Thai and The National Museum of Toys and Miniatures. Below find examples of the fantastic world of miniatures from The NMT&M. So worth a visit.

Sunday, November 22, 2015

BAC: Best American Craftsman Music

“The only thing that ultimately matters is to eat an ice-cream cone, play a slide trombone, plant a small tree, good God, now you're free.” — Ray Manzarek, founding member of The Doors

FOR OUR anniversary, I planned a trip to BAC Music in Kansas City so that Paul could geek out over trombones. That's how we came to settle upon KC as our celebration destination. 

Best American Craftsman (BAC) is a custom brass instrument maker. Established by Michael Corrigan, his company's goal is melding old world craftsmanship with modern musical science. Mike used to work at S.E. Shires Company, a custom brass instrument maker near Boston owned by Steve Shires. Paul and Steve were trombone players together at the University of Iowa, and I'm sure Paul would ave liked to have gone there, but with Paul's current schedule, Kansas City was much more doable.

At BAC craftsmen make trumpets and trombones instruments by hand. They also customize existing instruments, however, which was why we were there. Paul brought three of his trombones along to be looked at, with a view to having his King 3B tweaked with custom modifications.

Mike is a gracious and engaging host. He filled us in on the history of BAC and gave us a tour of the "factory" — and by factory, I mean individual workers step-by-step hand-making instruments. I wouldn't have believed it if I hadn't seen it in person.

Below are some pictures from our tour.

A roll of brass. This is how a handmade trumpet or trombone starts out. If look closely at the inside of the roll, you can see that a trombone bell shape has been cut out of the roll.

There's the shape cut out of the roll.

The flat shapes are bent into cones.
A closeup.
They're fired and worked.
It's hard to believe the crude things on the right will become
the beautiful instrument on the left.
Paul getting the tour from company owner, Mike Corrigan.
Fired and hammered and fired and hammered.
Looking more like a trombone.
The engraver adds beautiful filigree designs to the horns.
Almost a finished horn. I never would have believed it, if I hadn't witnessed the process.

Paul gets his customized 3B back mid-December. He's so excited!!

Saturday, November 21, 2015

Something there is that doesn't love a wall

“Before I built a wall I'd ask to know what I was walling in or walling out, and to whom I was like to give offence.” — Robert Frost, Mending Wall, 1914

ROBERT FROST knew what he was talking about. I have a friend on Facebook who, although I believe him to be in many ways a kind person, is a rabid anti-immigrationist. Build the wall, he shouts!! Send the Mexicans back to Mexico!

The hypocrisy of this by-product of immigrants (he's a distant relative, so I know something about his lineage) railing about the "immigrant problem" is oxymoronic. It's as if because his immigrant forebears arrived on these shores longer ago than the current crop — that somehow makes his antecedents (and him) American royalty as opposed to the latest arrivals who are unwelcome trash. 

My grandpa, born in 1889, told me stories about how hated Irish immigrants were when they came to America in great numbers. "Dirty Irish" was a common epithet, and "No Irish Need Apply" signs were abundant. At first they could only get the lowliest work: cleaners, launderers, servants, coal miners, railroad builders, mockers, manual laborers — jobs that no one else wanted, but gradually they worked their way up the ladder and into the fabric of society.

Now descendants of those same immigrants and those from other countries want to keep today's immigrants out. 

What is it about human beings that once having been included, we turn right around and seek to exclude others? What is this need to feel better than someone else? I don't get it!!

I don't know lots of immigrants well, a handful perhaps. I know three from Vietnam. One works seven days a week, nine hours a day, as a manicurist. Another started her own business as a seamstress and works six days a week. Her husband worked full time as a printer until kidney disease forced him to retire. He now assists her in her shop as best he can. 

Two Bosnian immigrants I know both started businesses, one as an electrical contractor, the other started a pizza restaurant. The thing they have in common besides their country of origin? Working literally day and night seven days a week. The Mexican immigrant I know also started his own company as a builder and remodeler, willing to do dirtier work for lower wages than others will accept just to be able to earn a living.

Paul and I got to know two young men from Ukraine who immigrated to Chicago  and went to work in a pizza restaurant. They worked hard, saved their money, and when a franchise became available in Des Moines because someone else failed at it, they bought it. Working seven days a week, they turned it around, and when another failing location became available elsewhere, they bought it too. 

Imagine leaving your home and family right now, going to a country where you don't speak the language, and through grit, persistence and long, long hours managing to work your way up from delivering pizzas to owning two businesses. Think of the fortitude and moxie that takes. 

And so I ask, what is it about these smart, industrious people that American doesn't want? Collectively, they work much harder than most born-and-bred Americans I know, doing useful work and adding value to the economy.

And for those who want to build a wall between the US and Mexico, consider this. You may be keeping Mexicans in instead of keeping them out because more of them are leaving the US than are coming in! The below article is from ABC News. Robert Frosts poem, Mending Wall, follows it.

Study Finds More Mexicans Leaving the US Than Coming

By Elliot Spagat, Associated Press

November 19, 2015

More Mexicans are leaving than moving into the United States, reversing the flow of a half-century of mass migration, according to a study published Thursday.

The Pew Research Center found that slightly more than 1 million Mexicans and their families, including American-born children, left the U.S. for Mexico from 2009 to 2014. During the same five years, 870,000 Mexicans came to the U.S., resulting in a net flow to Mexico of 140,000.

The desire to reunite families is the main reason more Mexicans are moving south than north, Pew found. The sluggish U.S. economic recovery and tougher border enforcement are other key factors.

The era of mass migration from Mexico is "at an end," declared Mark Hugo Lopez, Pew's director of Hispanic research.

The finding follows a Pew study in 2012 that found net migration between the two countries was near zero, so this represents a turning point in one of the largest mass migrations in U.S. history. More than 16 million Mexicans moved to the United States from 1965 to 2015, more than from any other country.

"This is something that we've seen coming," Lopez said. "It's been almost 10 years that migration from Mexico has really slowed down."

The findings counter the narrative of an out-of-control border that has figured prominently in U.S. presidential campaigns, with Republican Donald Trump calling for Mexico to pay for a fence to run the entire length of the 1,954-mile frontier. Pew said there were 11.7 million Mexicans living in the U.S. last year, down from a peak of 12.8 million in 2007. That includes 5.6 million living in the U.S. illegally, down from 6.9 million in 2007.

In another first, the Border Patrol arrested more non-Mexicans than Mexicans in the 2014 fiscal year, as more Central Americans came to the U.S., mostly through South Texas, and many of them turned themselves in to authorities.

The authors analyzed U.S. and Mexican census data and a 2014 survey by Mexico's National Institute of Statistics and Geography. The Mexican questionnaire asked about residential history, and found that 61 percent of those who reported living in the U.S. in 2009 but were back in Mexico last year had returned to join or start a family. An additional 14 percent had been deported, and 6 percent said they returned for jobs in Mexico.

Also, Mexico's population is aging, meaning there's less competition for young people looking for work. That's a big change from the 1990s, when many people entering the workforce felt they had no choice but to migrate north of the border.

While the U.S. economic recovery is sluggish, Mexico has been free in recent years from the economic tailspins that drove earlier generations north in the 1980s and 1990s. While many parts of Mexico suffer grinding poverty and violence, others have become thriving manufacturing centers under the North American Free Trade Agreement.

Automakers including Volkswagen AG, Ford Motor Co. and General Motors Corp. have built plants across central and northern Mexico that employ thousands, spawning auto-parts plants and other ripple effects. Highways and rail lines that connect to the world's largest economy north of the border have attracted more investors.

Mending Wall

By Robert Frost

Something there is that doesn't love a wall,
That sends the frozen-ground-swell under it,
And spills the upper boulders in the sun;
And makes gaps even two can pass abreast.
The work of hunters is another thing:
I have come after them and made repair
Where they have left not one stone on a stone,
But they would have the rabbit out of hiding,
To please the yelping dogs. The gaps I mean,
No one has seen them made or heard them made,
But at spring mending-time we find them there.
I let my neighbour know beyond the hill;
And on a day we meet to walk the line
And set the wall between us once again.
We keep the wall between us as we go.
To each the boulders that have fallen to each.
And some are loaves and some so nearly balls
We have to use a spell to make them balance:
"Stay where you are until our backs are turned!"
We wear our fingers rough with handling them.
Oh, just another kind of out-door game,
One on a side. It comes to little more:
There where it is we do not need the wall:
He is all pine and I am apple orchard.
My apple trees will never get across
And eat the cones under his pines, I tell him.
He only says, "Good fences make good neighbours."
Spring is the mischief in me, and I wonder
If I could put a notion in his head:
"Why do they make good neighbours? Isn't it
Where there are cows? But here there are no cows.
Before I built a wall I'd ask to know
What I was walling in or walling out,
And to whom I was like to give offence.
Something there is that doesn't love a wall,
That wants it down." I could say "Elves" to him,
But it's not elves exactly, and I'd rather
He said it for himself. I see him there
Bringing a stone grasped firmly by the top
In each hand, like an old-stone savage armed.
He moves in darkness as it seems to me,
Not of woods only and the shade of trees.
He will not go behind his father's saying,
And he likes having thought of it so well

He says again, "Good fences make good neighbours."

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Friday the thirteenth

“Patience is the secret to good food.” — Gail Simmons, Canadian culinary expert, food writer and cookbook author

PAUL AND I are in Kansas City celebrating our wedding anniversary. Today, Friday the 13th, marks 22 years.

I always point out that we were together day and night for a year and a half before we got married, so it's really 23 and a half years. Paul said, "She did the time. She wants the credit." (True.) Made me laugh.

Last night we had an exquisite meal at Justus Drugstore. The name doesn't sound like a place to eat, I know, but it is — an award-winning one at that. Before we left on our trip, I found a list of the 10 best Kansas City restaurants compiled by USA Today and discovered that No. 3 on the list, Justus Drugstore, is located in Smithville, MO which would be on our way on the drive down.

Here's a screen capture of what the list had to say about Justus.

One of the things we particularly enjoyed aside from the food is that the kitchen is completely exposed. The dining area is in the front half of the building, the kitchen in the back half, with only a waist-high wall separating the two so that diners can watch all the food preparation. The most surprising thing about that to me was how silently and professionally the preparers went about their business. No yakking to each other or dillydallying — just wordless, methodical concentration on making us a perfect dinner.

The open kitchen.

We didn't arrive until 8:00, and because it was a relatively quiet night, we had the opportunity to visit with the owners Jonathan Justus and Camille Eklof. (We're dying to know if she's related to our good friend, drummer Jim Eklof!!)

What a hard-working, interesting duo, wholly committed to locally-sourced ingredients. But who knew that commitment extended to actually growing a good portion of the food themselves? Aside from running the restaurant, they have a little farm and raise as much produce as they can. 

Chef Jonathan Justus and his wife, restaurant manager and baker,
Camille Eklof. This photo is from the NYT in 2009.
I took this photo Camille and Jonathan the night we were there. Chef was reluctant to have his picture taken without his whites on. That's because he was on dish duty; the dishwasher had called in sick. He insisted on being photographed in the "dish pit" so readers could get a sense of just how "glamorous" being an award-winning chef is.

Below is a New York Times article about Justus Restaurant from six years ago. From it I learned that Justus Drugstore was Jonathan's family's business. I assumed, wrongly, that he had bought and converted the building and then changed the name! Nope. It was Justus Drugstore, the drugstore, before it was Justus Drugstore, the restaurant. 

By now you may rightfully be wondering, "But how was the food?" Exquisite, inventive with subtle, complex flavor combinations. That's my utterly untrained, but not inexperienced opinion. 

First, we were brought an amuse-bouche that made our eyes roll back in our heads. It was a light, creamy carrot/leak mousse with bell pepper and other delicate, savory bits. I would have liked to have had a pint of that as my main course!

We both had a salad with apple mixed in that was sliced so thin that it was transparent, with candied pecans and little apple bits that had been caramelized into tiny, crunchy bites. Paul had the Drugstore bacon-wrapped chicken livers as a second course. I don't eat red meat, so I didn't sample it, but Paul said it was amazing. For his third course, Paul had pulled-chicken stew with potato, carrot, parsley and Shatto cheese. 

I had vegetable risotto with shaved Shatto 'Lily' cheese which I liked very much. For dessert we split the chocolate peanut butter delight: a dark chocolate brownie, with mocha creme, peanut candy ice cream and spiced caramel. And FYI, the bread Camille makes is scrumptious!

Table to Farm

By Christine Muhlke
February 25, 2009

It’s one thing to visit the farm where your salad was grown. It’s another to stand on the killing floor where that evening’s braised pork originated. But to interview the Missouri chef Jonathan Justus means starting at the beginning of the dish.

So after spending the morning with his butter maker and chicken and egg suppliers, we skipped to the main course and visited Paradise Locker Meats, a small-production slaughterhouse and meat-processing plant that works with Heritage Foods U.S.A. to supply top restaurants with meat from heirloom breeds.

As we parked in the muddy lot, visions of Upton Sinclair and immigration abuses flitted through my formerly vegetarian mind. But Paradise was spotless and calm, save for the man with a band saw bisecting a cow. The only other hints of the previous day’s slaughter — conducted, however oxymoronically, according to humane guidelines — were a cart brimming with pigs’ heads and boxes marked for Chez Panisse, Lupa, Bar Boulud and Fatted Calf. A few of those boxes would have a much shorter trip to the plate that day.

“What’s being served at Momofuku and Spotted Pig is what I’m serving,” he said of Justus Drugstore: A Restaurant, located 11 miles away in Smithville. “I’m just here at the source.”

Paradise had five employees in 2003, including the owner, Mario Fantasma, his wife and his son. Today they employ 25, with plans to expand to meet demand. The plant, it turns out, has created more than jobs in the community. “One of the reasons we decided we could do a restaurant is because of what Mario’s doing here,” said Justus, an intense, articulate man who mentions his O.C.D. personality and low self-esteem in fast-paced rotation, making him seem much younger than his 43 years. When his mother and sister approached him about opening a restaurant in the family drugstore — “the anti-plan,” as he saw it — the first thing that he looked at was agri-infrastructure. Fortunately, in the decades since he last lived back home, between stints as a bike messenger and butcher in San Francisco and a cook in the South of France, the farm had moved closer to the table. Now he could realize his goal to connect the region’s tables to its farms. “This is a big piece of the puzzle,” he said of Paradise. “It allows me to do a nose-to-tail menu.”

Fantasma beamed as Justus launched into a lecture on the genius of Paradise’s four-rib-bone country cut, which he serves both braised and smoked in one dish, topped with bacon-powder-flecked apple chantilly and tag-teamed with a corn flan, bacon-studded cabbage and apple sticks.

“This guy kills me,” Fantasma said, elbowing Justus. “He scares me.”

When he opened the restaurant two years ago, Justus probably scared many of his 5,000 neighbors, and not just because he’s a Democrat. Missouri is more about barbecue than ginger-brined pork with apple foam. Living out their 15-year dream of opening a restaurant, he and his wife, Camille Eklof, transformed his family’s 1950s drugstore into a bit of the big city, albeit on “a microbudget.” The old soda fountain became the bar, where a local botanist and an environmental scientist were set to work concocting bitters, vermouth and infused liquors.

Locals can now drop by for a Manhattan made with date-infused bourbon and a bar snack of turkey fries (a k a testicles) with a morel-cream sauce. Instead of making the 20-minute drive to Kansas City for rib tips, they now stick around for Akaushi brisket from Paradise braised in homemade root-beer. (Justus uses the G.P.S. on his iPhone to forage for sassafras and other native plants.) Or maybe freshwater striper bass rendered baroque with egg-white gratin, persimmon paint, maple-sherry-ginger foam and caramel-mint dust.

Justus said the food is his version of Midwestern country cooking, “created in a vacuum.” Pride, and economic necessity, dictate that many things be made from scratch, like charcuterie, bacon and ham; bread is baked by Eklof, who waits on tables and works as the general manager; fish and meat are butchered in-house. Justus is always bargaining with purveyors for “off cuts” of meat. “All our cuts are off cuts,” he said with a laugh.

They live by their food politics, but Justus and Eklof don’t proselytize at the table. They let the menu do the talking: on the cover, a quote from Thomas Keller stating that good food takes time lets diners know they won’t make the 8 o’clock movie; the back lists 25 local purveyors, intended to open people’s eyes to the links a restaurant can have to its area — links that Justus wants to weave into an infrastructure for farmers, breeders, aquaculturists and food artisans that could eventually slow development as farmers reclaim land to meet demand from revolutionary restaurants like his.

While it took the couple a while to come around to coming home, Smithville seems to suit their goals. Justus recalled Eklof’s urging him to consider it: “She said: ‘Look, we can live in San Francisco forever, and we’re never going to change anyone’s mind because we’re going to be in our insular community. If we ever want to make any change, we’ve got to be the monkey wrench from the inside.’ ”

From the outside, the change is evident. Mark Ladner, the executive chef at Del Posto in New York, dined at Justus Drugstore last summer as part of Heritage Foods’ pork tour of the area. He was impressed with the “funky, positive” feel, both on the menu and in the dining room. “It felt like they were doing something important,” he said.

The satisfaction of building a community around food has been rewarding spiritually, if not yet financially. “This restaurant is completely and totally built on philosophy,” Justus said. “Cause it sure as [expletive] isn’t about money. It can’t be.” They live off of Eklof’s tips and are saving to be able to provide health insurance for their 16 employees — part of their plan to redefine what a restaurant can be.

“I hope what we’re doing is a forefront of a trend,” he said, looking out of the window they built onto Main Street. “I feel like, if we can do this here — really! — why can’t this be done anywhere?”

Thursday, November 12, 2015

Seriously? Seriously.

"Why don't people steal very often in Saudi Arabia? Obviously because the punishment is the amputation of one or more fingers. I would not advocate chopping off people's limbs, but there would be some very stiff penalties for this kind of fraud, such as loss of one's medical license for life, no less than 10 years in prison, and loss of all of one's personal possessions." — Ben Carson

HOW is it that this guy was ever considered in the first place?

Ben Carson Profits From Ties With Convicted Felon, AP Report Finds

By The Associated Press
November 12, 2015

WASHINGTON — Republican presidential contender Ben Carson has maintained a business relationship with a close friend convicted of defrauding insurance companies and testified on his behalf, even as the candidate has called for such crimes to be punished harshly.

Pittsburgh dentist Alfonso A. Costa pleaded guilty to a felony count of health care fraud after an FBI probe into his oral surgery practice found he had charged for procedures he never performed, according to court records.

Though the crime carries a potential sentence of up to 10 years in federal prison, Costa was able to avoid prison time after Carson helped petition a federal judge for leniency.

That's different from the position Carson took in 2013 as he prepared to launch his presidential campaign, saying those convicted of health care fraud should go to prison for at least a decade and be forced to forfeit "all of one's personal possessions."

At Costa's 2008 sentencing hearing, Carson described the dentist as "one my closest, if not my very closest friend."

"We became friends about a decade ago because we discovered that we were so much alike and shared the same values and principles that govern our lives," Carson told the judge, adding that their families vacationed together and that they were involved in "joint projects."

"Next to my wife of 32 years, there is no one on this planet that I trust more than Al Costa," Carson said.

Costa has served on the board of Carson's charity, the Carson Scholars Fund, and continues to lead the charity's fundraising efforts in the Pittsburgh area to provide $1,000 college scholarships to children in need.

Before his criminal conviction and the revocation of his license to practice dentistry, Costa built a multimillion-dollar fortune through commercial real estate. Investments Carson and his wife made through Costa earn the couple between $200,000 and $2 million a year, according to financial records that Carson was required to file when he declared his candidacy.

Costa also continues to promote his involvement with Carson's charity as part of his real estate business, prominently featuring the logo of the Carson Scholars Fund on the company's website. His son has worked with Carson's presidential campaign and a political committee founded by the retired neurosurgeon.

Doug Watts, the campaign's spokesman, said Wednesday he was unable to immediately respond to specific questions about land deals involving Carson and Costa. The AP contacted Watts on Tuesday and again Wednesday.

"I will confirm they are best friends and that they do hold business investments together," Watts said.

Costa did not respond to messages seeking comment.

The breadth of the two men's business ties has not been previously reported, partly because details can be obscured in property and incorporation records. Costa's company and its affiliates own properties in at least five states and overseas.

In 2007, a few months before Costa was charged, records show that a pair of corporations was established in Pennsylvania called BenCan LLC, and INBS LLC. Carson and his wife are listed as the sole members of the companies. Though the Carsons live outside Baltimore, the mailing address on the incorporation forms was Costa's home address in Pittsburgh.

BenCan and INBS then paid more than $3 million to purchase an office building in suburban Pittsburgh. The mailing address for the corporations listed on the deed matches the office of Costa's real estate firm, Costa Land Co.

That September, federal prosecutors charged Costa, accusing him of fraud committed over a nearly five-year period, according to court records. Investigators determined that Costa's dental practice charged more than 50 patients for procedures that had not been performed, resulting in a loss of more than $40,000 to insurance companies.

After Costa pleaded guilty, 40 of his family members, friends and dental patients wrote letters to the judge as character witnesses. Carson was one of three people who also testified at Costa's 2008 sentencing hearing, stressing his friend's charitable works and vouching for his personal integrity. Also testifying on Costa's behalf was Jerome Bettis, a beloved former Pittsburgh Stealers running back who had helped bring home a Super Bowl trophy to the city two years earlier.

The government urged the judge to make an example of Costa.

"Reduction of a sentence based on good works by a wealthy person can create the appearance that a defendant's financial resources and prominent connections can skew the justice system in ways not available to persons of lesser means," a prosecutor told the judge.

In the end, Costa got no prison time. He was sentenced to one year of house arrest and 100 hours of community service, and ordered to pay more than $294,000 in fines and restitution. Costa later got 12 months shaved off his three-year probation.

Though Costa was assigned to serve his sentence in his 8,300-square-foot mansion in nearby Fox Chapel, his lawyers repeatedly returned to court to seek permission for him to travel. A few months after starting his sentence, Costa asked to travel to the White House as one of 10 invited guests at a June 2008 ceremony where President George W. Bush presented Carson with the Presidential Medal of Freedom.

The judge denied that request, though Costa was later allowed to take a month-long trip to the Italian coast while on probation to handle what his lawyer described as urgent business at a resort he owns.

Carson's appeal for leniency toward Costa contradicts the draconian criminal penalties he called for in his 2013 political treatise, "America the Beautiful." In his book, Carson wrote that anyone found guilty of health care fraud should face what he called the "Saudi Arabian Solution."

"Why don't people steal very often in Saudi Arabia?" Carson asked. "Obviously because the punishment is the amputation of one or more fingers. I would not advocate chopping off people's limbs, but there would be some very stiff penalties for this kind of fraud, such as loss of one's medical license for life, no less than 10 years in prison, and loss of all of one's personal possessions."

Despite the tough-on-crime message, Carson and his wife kept their investment with Costa in the years since his conviction. Tax bills for the Pittsburgh office building owned by the couple are mailed to Costa Land Co. A recent lease for a portion of the property was signed on the Carsons' behalf by the president of Costa's company. 

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Two friends recommend

“Friends are the siblings God never gave us.” — Mencius, Chinese philosopher born 372 BC

AH, you get a break today from my constant nagging. These two videos are well worth the watch. The first came to me from my excellent and wonderfully witty Facebook friend, Bill Thinnes, and the second from my equally excellent friend, Karl Schilling. And huzzah to veterans on this Veterans' Day.

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Racial discrimination vs. a fair trial

“Ending racial discrimination in jury selection can be accomplished only by eliminating peremptory challenges entirely.” — Thurgood Marshall, United States Supreme Court Justice 

I WONDER from time to time if you wonder why it is I keep hammering away on the subject of racial injustice. Here's the short, honest answer: because it makes me so damn mad. This from the Editorial Board of The New York Times.

Excluding Blacks From Juries

By The Editorial Board
November 2, 2015

One prospective juror did not make enough eye contact. Another appeared nervous and confused. A third had a son who was close in age to the defendant. A fourth was involved with the Head Start program.

These were just a few of the dozens of reasons Georgia prosecutors gave for eliminating people from sitting on the jury in the 1987 murder trial of Timothy Tyrone Foster, an 18-year-old black man charged with killing a 79-year-old white woman named Queen Madge White.

The one reason prosecutors did not give was the one thing those four potential jurors had in common: They were black.

A year before Mr. Foster’s trial, the Supreme Court, in the case of Batson v. Kentucky, reaffirmed that it is unconstitutional to exclude jurors because of their race — a practice with a long, odious history. It has survived thanks to the so-called peremptory challenge, which allows a juror to be excluded for no reason at all, as opposed to “for cause” challenges, in which a lawyer must give a reason for an exclusion, which the judge can accept or deny.

In requiring prosecutors to give a “race-neutral” reason for excluding black jurors, the court wrote that racial discrimination in jury selection “harms not only the accused whose life or liberty they are summoned to try,” but undermines “public confidence in the fairness of our system of justice.”

Mr. Foster was convicted by an all-white jury and sentenced to death. For nearly three decades since, state prosecutors have denied that race was a factor in their decision to strike all the black jurors from his trial. They have also steadfastly refused to turn over their jury-selection notes to defense lawyers.

Today, the Supreme Court will hear oral arguments in the case, Foster v. Chatman, to decide whether the prosecutors are telling the truth. The Georgia courts have all ruled in the state’s favor. But now those jury-selection notes are at the center of the case. Almost 20 years after Mr. Foster’s conviction, his lawyers finally got hold of them through the state’s open-records law.

The notes show that, contrary to prosecutors’ claims, race was indeed central to their decision to exclude certain jurors. Each black potential juror’s name is highlighted in green and marked with a “B”. The first four names on a handwritten list of “Definite NOs” are those of the black jurors who were struck. In a separate list, those jurors are ranked against one another, “in case it comes down to having to pick one of the black jurors.”

Prosecutors now claim, implausibly, that their notes show a concerted effort to keep diligent records in order to rebut expected charges of racial discrimination.

The Foster case may be an extreme example of how brazenly prosecutors will take advantage of peremptory challenges to create racially unrepresentative juries and win convictions. But it is far from unique. In 2012, a North Carolina court examined 173 capital cases and found that prosecutors removed more than half of all black potential jurors, but only a quarter of the rest. A 2003 study of eight years of trials in one Louisiana parish found a black-to-white strike rate of three-to-one. In 1986, one Philadelphia prosecutor recorded a trial-training film for his staff in which he said, “you don’t want those people on your jury.”

Over the years, some Supreme Court justices have expressed discomfort with peremptory challenges. Justice Stephen Breyer wrote in a 2005 case, “The right to a jury free of discriminatory taint is constitutionally protected — the right to use peremptory challenges is not.”

Peremptory challenges can, when used honestly, help both sides in a trial ensure a more impartial jury. But it is still far too common for prosecutors to exploit this tool for improper purposes. The justices should be particularly vigilant for such unconstitutional behavior, especially when it is dressed in “race-neutral” garb.