Last Word on Last Rights|States’ Rights|Senate Rites of Passage|Foreign Policy Roadblock

Last Word on Last Rights—When the Obama administration allowed extremists to seize control of the health-care-reform narrative during the summer, the debate over government funding for end-of-life legal processes was hijacked by right wingers and evangelicals. Senator John D. Rockefeller IV now argues that the issue is too important to be left to the “screamers.”

“They can break up our town meetings, but they can’t break up our proper decision-making,” Rockefeller said at a Senate committee hearing. The West Virginia Democrat went on to advance an argument most have avoided, observing that 40 percent to 60 percent of Medicare expenses an individual will incur are incurred in the last six months of life. Rockefeller referred to his own mother, whom he said was kept alive for twelve years after she became ill. “I think six or seven of those years were doing her harm.”

States’ Rights—Republican governors in the South (and Minnesota’s Tim Pawlenty) are standing on the 10th Amendment and threatening to block any health care reform that Congress imposes on their states. There’s a different states’ rights debate in Oregon, where John Kitzhaber, who served as governor from 1995-2003, is running again. Kitzhaber supports the health care reforms that are under attack by Southern governors, and in fact is looking to turn the Oregon Health Plan he helped create into a statewide “public option,” perhaps even entering into a regional project with Washington State. The 62-year-old former emergency room physician is an unabashed advocate of expanding government’s role in health care. He doesn’t avoid the topic that right wingers have turned into the third rail of health care politics: Medicare’s allocation of resources. Kitzhaber said that Medicare will sign off on hundreds of thousands of dollars for procedures and tests, yet it refused to pay $18 an hour for a non-hospice caregiver for his mother in the final days of her life. “The fundamental problem is that 1 percent of the population accounts for 35 percent of health care spending,” Kitzhaber told theNew York Times. “So the big question is not how we pay for health care, but what we are buying.”

In the May 2010 Democratic primary Kitzhaber will face Bill Bradbury, whom he appointed to a vacant secretary of state position in 1999.

Senate Rites of Passage—Nine months after President Obama nominated Indiana University law professor Dawn Johnsen to direct the Department of Justice Office of Legal Counsel, she’s still waiting for the Senate to confirm her. Johnsen served as Bill Clinton’s acting director of the OLC, then became a vocal critic of the office when George Bush used it to ratify torture. So Senate Republicans are using filibuster threats to keep her nomination off the floor. They are also using anonymous holds and filibuster threats to block Obama’s judicial appointments, confirming only three of 23 after nine months. The tactics are working despite a veto-proof 60-vote majority (assuming that Connecticut Independent Joe Lieberman votes with the Democrats).

Foreign Policy Roadblock—South Carolina Republican Senator Jim DeMint has placed holds on Obama nominees for secretary of state for the Western Hemisphere, Arturo Valenzuela, and ambassador to Brazil, Thomas A. Shannon Jr. DeMint, who also predicted that healthcare will be Obama’s Waterloo, objects to Obama’s policy in Honduras.

Justice in Texas—Since he was appointed to the federal bench by Lyndon Johnson until he became too ill to work several months ago, William Wayne Justice was an activist judge in a state that cried out for judicial activism. Over the course of four decades, Judge Justice desegregated public schools, public facilities, and county commissions in East Texas and Dallas. He forced one of the nation’s most brutal prison systems into federal receivership until it righted the worst of its wrongs. And he ruled that children of undocumented residents could not be barred from public schools. Judge Justice discouraged marshals from bringing defendants to court in prison-issue jumpsuits—to avoid influencing juries and because defendants were presumed innocent until convicted. He kept sport jackets, shirts, ties, and other dress clothes in the courtroom for individuals to wear when sentenced, to preserve what remained of their dignity. The judge spent much of his career in deeply conservative East Texas, on the bench of the Eastern District of Texas in Tyler. Over the course of a remarkable career he stood down death threats and endured social isolation. He died October 13 in Austin, where he had served as a senior status federal judge since 1998.