Tuesday, January 23, 2007

Is George Bush a Troll?

In the Internet community, a "troll" is a person (or a message) that does nothing but annoy, disrupt, or provoke an online discussion. Trolls are not interested in sharing points of view, convincing others of their point of view, or even providing factual information, but simply want to send out messages that are deliberately annoying or insulting in order to provoke flame wars, disrupt conversations, or simply for the pleasure of seeing what kind of disruptions they can cause. Although the origin of the usage might lie in a way of catching fish, trolls are also like the hairy, ugly creatures of fairy tales because they are mischievous at best and malicious at worst.

In President Bush's most recent radio address (1/20/2007), and in the State of the Union Address he is expected to give tonight (1/23/2007), he has proposed (or is about to propose) to address the problem of health care in the United States through (a) income tax deductions for health insurance premiums and (b) imposing income taxes on "excessive" health insurance benefits. The first proposal is largely meaningless except as a tax break for the rich, but the second proposal is simply ridiculous and, taken together, the two proposals look like a troll.

The first proposal is largely meaningless because most of the people who now have no health insurance also pay no income tax because their incomes are within the standard deduction and personal exemptions. Giving them a tax incentive is buy health insurance shows a total disconnect from reality. So the only people helped by the proposal are the upper middle class who are already paying for health insurance and will benefit from the tax deduction.

The second proposal is ridiculous, because it is based on the idea that it is possible to have too much health insurance. One of the bizarre delusions of a handful of conservatives is that health care costs are rising in part because health insurance encourages people to use more of the health care system resources than they really need, and that there really are people who go to the hospital, or go to the doctor, just for fun and not because of any real illness or medical condition.

The worst thing about the second proposal is that it would probably not affect the wealthy, who don't really need health insurance because they can pay for health care needs out of their own funds, but union workers who have been able to negotiate generous health care benefits through collective bargaining. It is, therefore, not a tax increase for the wealthy, but a tax increase for the working class.

Given the present control of both houses of Congress by the Democratic Party, the odds of these proposals being enacted as law are only slightly more than zero. So why propose them? Because Bush is a troll.

The war in a Iraq is a continuing disaster for the United States, and Bush's approval ratings continue downward toward record lows. What better way to distract Congress and the American People than by trying to change the subject.

And an even better distraction is one that might help to inflame idealogical and party differences. If Bush can get Republicans and Democrats (or moderate and conservative Republicans, or moderate and liberal Democrats) fighting over a domestic issue, all the better.

If this were an isolated instance of what looks like a troll, I would agree that I might have become somewhat paranoid. But the Bush administration has often changed the subject, or made what seemed like antagonistic proposals, that seemed to serve no purpose other than creating disruptions. Why talk about a surge in troops in Iraq when the American people have voted to end the war? Why talk about sending a Democratic Congress re-nominations of federal judges who have already been blocked by a Democratic minority? Why talk about more tax cuts when Congress and the voters are expressing concern about enormous deficits?

There may be complicated political reasons for these actions, but it sure looks like plain and simple trolling.

Saturday, January 13, 2007

Guantanamo and Legal Ethics

Has the top Pentagon official in charge of the treatment of detainees at Guantanamo committed a breach of legal ethics in his comments on the lawyers representing the detainees?

On Jan. 11, Charles D. "Cully" Stimson, Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense, Office of Detainee Affairs, was interviewed on "Federal News Radio," during which he made some remarkable statements:

I think the news story that you’re really going to start seeing in the next couple of weeks is this: As a result of a FOIA request through a major news organization, somebody asked, ‘Who are the lawyers around this country representing detainees down there?’ and you know what, it’s shocking.

Mr. Stimson then rattled off the names of some of the top law firms in the United States, concluding with:
I think, quite honestly, when corporate C.E.O.’s see that those firms are representing the very terrorists who hit their bottom line back in 2001, those C.E.O.’s are going to make those law firms choose between representing terrorists or representing reputable firms, and I think that is going to have major play in the next few weeks. And we want to watch that play out.

"We want to watch that play out"? He wants to watch lawyers being pressured to withdraw from representing detainees? He wants to watch lawyers suffer financially for opposing his detention policies?

And it gets worse. He was then asked who might be paying these lawyers, and he replied:

It’s not clear, is it? Some will maintain that they are doing it out of the goodness of their heart, that they’re doing it pro bono, and I suspect they are; others are receiving moneys from who knows where, and I’d be curious to have them explain that.

The insinuation is that many of these lawyers are being funded by terrorists (or terrorist sympathizers) and are either hiding the source of their funding or lying about whether or not they are being paid.

But there is no reason whatsoever to believe that any of these high-priced lawyers have any motive to represent detainees other than their belief in the value of constitutional civil liberties and their professional obligations to the public.

Stimson is a member of the Maryland bar, and the Maryland Rules of Professional Conduct for lawyers say that every lawyer has a "professional responsibility to render pro bono publico legal service." (Md. RPC Rule 6.1(a).) And "pro bono publico legal service" is defined to include the representation of "individuals, groups, or organizations seeking to secure or protect civil rights, civil liberties, or public rights." (Md. RPC Rule 6.1(b)(1)(C).) Similar provisions appear in the Model Rules of Professional Conduct of the American Bar Association and in the rules adopted by most states. In casting aspersions on the lawyers representing the detainees, Stimson was not only displaying any appalling lack of professional courtesy; he was also disparaging lawyers who were actually complying with the rules of professional ethics and adhering to some of the highest aspirations of the profession, which is to guarantee equal access to justice for all.

Was Stimson trying to embarrass or intimidate the lawyers who are opposing the government in court? If he was, then he may have committed a violation of professional ethics. Rule 4.4(a) of the Maryland Rules of Professional Conduct (which are, once again, similar to the ABA Model Rules) reads in relevant part as follows:

In representing a client, a lawyer shall not use means that have no substantial purpose other than to embarrass, delay, or burden a third person, ...

Stimson has therefore not only embarrassed himself and the Bush administration, but he has probably violated the rules of his profession as well. (There is a technical issue as to whether Stimson is "representing a client" in his employment by the federal government, and it would be ironic for him to avoid the application of an ethical rule by what amounts to a technicality.)

I hope that one of the lawyers for the detainees files an appropriate complaint with the Maryland Office of Lawyer Discipline. I would want to watch that play out.

(For more information on this story, see The New York Times.)