Demonstrators protest the Trump administration’s military transgender ban on July 26, 2017. (Photo: Ted Eytan/fickr/cc)
In a development hailed as a “HUGE step forward,” a federal judge on Monday blocked the Trump administration from enforcing its ban on transgender individuals serving in the U.S. armed forces.
“Today’s preliminary injunction is an important step in the ongoing efforts to protect transgender service members from the dangerous and discriminatory policies of Donald Trump and Mike Pence,” said Sarah Warbelow, legal director at Human Rights Campaign.
The ruling by U.S. District Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly is in response to a legal challenge—Doe v. Trump—brought forth by the National Center for Lesbian Rights (NCLR) and GLBTQ Advocates and Defenders (GLAD) challenging the president’s directive.
Kollar-Kotelly said in her ruling that the plaintiffs’ claims “are highly suggestive of a constitutional violation,” as the presidential directive “punish[es] individuals for failing to adhere to gender stereotypes.” In addition, the ruling stated, “a number of factors—including the sheer breadth of the exclusion ordered by the directives, the unusual circumstances surrounding the president’s announcement of them [on Twitter], the fact that the reasons given for them do not appear to be supported by any facts, and the recent rejection of those reasons by the military itself” are evidence for blocking the ban.
The National Center for Transgender Equality (NCTE), which filed an amicus brief in the case, called the ruling “yet another setback for the discrimination administraion.”
“Again and again,” said NCTE executive director Mara Keisling, “our courts have been forced to step in and halt this administration’s unconstitutional and dangerous bigotry. As today’s ruling makes clear, this ban was never about military readiness—just like President Trump’s Muslim bans have never been about national security. This ban is about discrimination, plain and simple. We are grateful that the plaintiffs and thousands of other troops will be able to continue serving without the threat of discharge while this case proceeds.”
The ACLU also filed suit to challenge the directive, with oral arguments in that case set for next month.
Responding to Monday’s ruling, Joshua Block, senior staff attorney with the ACLU’s LGBT and HIV Project, said, “This is the first decision striking down President Trump’s ban, but it won’t be the last.”
“The federal courts are recognizing what everyone already knows to be true: President Trump’s impulsive decision to ban on transgender people from serving in the military service was blatantly unconstitutional,” he continued. “As all of these cases move forward, we will continue to work to ensure that transgender service members are treated with the equal treatment they deserve.”
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So what would you miss if the agency suddenly disappeared or got gutted?
In short, a lot. We base this conclusion on the work the three of us have done in recent decades. One of us (Sovern) has been writing about consumer law for more than 30 years, while the other two of us direct a legal clinic that represents elderly consumers. We’ve seen the worst of what financial companies can do, and we’ve also witnessed how the CFPB has begun to reverse the tide.
Life before CFPB
If you are one of the more than 29 million consumers who have collectively received nearly US$12 billion back from misbehaving financial institutions because of the CFPB’s efforts, you already know its value. But even if you are not, you have probably benefited from the bureau’s existence.
Before Congress created the bureau, there was no federal agency that made consumer financial protection its sole mission. Rather, consumer protection was rolled into the missions of a bunch of different agencies. And, as we saw during the financial crisis, regulators often gave it a back seat.
The Office of the Comptroller of the Currency regulates banks but was so preoccupied with ensuring lenders were safe that it failed to protect consumers from their predatory subprime mortgages – so much so that it prevented states from doing so too. And now President Trump has put a former bank lawyer in charge of it. The Federal Trade Commission, which is tasked with fighting deceptive business practices, lacked the power to prevent such dangerous lending.
This meant consumer protection on financial matters fell through the cracks.
But as early as 2010, before the CFPB was set up, regulators at the OCC were increasingly aware of what was happening at Wells Fargo thanks to hundreds of whistleblower complaints. The OCC even confronted the bank, yet failed to take any action despite many red flags, according to an internal audit.
Besides protecting consumers, however, Congress had a second motive in creating the bureau: to help prevent the kind of mortgage lending that helped cause the Great Recession.
To that end, the bureau has adopted rules that help consumers to understand their mortgages – something that often wasn’t possible under the previously misleading mortgage disclosures. It also issued regulations to prevent consumers from taking out mortgages that they couldn’t repay. And after borrowers take out a mortgage, CFPB servicing rules establish the procedures servicers must follow when communicating with borrowers, correcting errors, providing information and dealing with loan modification requests.
Two of us have personal experience with one of the bureau’s new mortgage rules, which powerfully illustrates the value of the CFPB.
In 2014, Alice, a client of our law school clinic, was struggling to pay the mortgage on her home – which she had refinanced a few years earlier – after a stroke forced her into retirement. Our clinic helped her apply for a modification of her loan.
But within weeks, instead of acknowledging Alice’s application, the loan servicer summoned her to court to begin foreclosure proceedings in violation of CFPB servicing rules. Fortunately, our clinic was able to rely on those rules in getting the foreclosure action dismissed. Alice got her loan modified and remains in her home.
Protecting the vulnerable
This reveals how the bureau is particularly important to protect vulnerable consumers, like the elderly, who are frequently targeted by fraudsters and predatory lenders because of their cognitive and other impairments and because they often have accumulated substantial assets. The CFPB is the only federal agency with an office specifically dedicated to protecting the financial well-being of older adults.
The House of Representatives has passed a bill that would cripple the CFPB by, for example, taking away the power it used to fine Wells Fargo for opening illegal accounts and concealing its complaint database from public view. In other words, it would force the bureau to sit idly by as financial institutions lie to consumers. Even if the bureau survives, it may be less protective of consumers when its current director, Richard Cordray, leaves. His term expires next summer, and he may step down even sooner. Then we might see a former banker or bank lawyer put in charge, just as has happened at the Treasury Department and comptroller’s office.
Nearly every American has or will have a loan or bank account, a prepaid card, credit card, a credit report or some combination of those, and so has dealings with a financial institution policed by the CFPB. But few of us read the fine print governing these things or can understand it when we do. That gives the companies that write these agreements the ability to draft them to suit their own interests at the expense of consumers.
Similarly, we do not always know when a financial institution takes advantage of us, just as Wells Fargo customers did not always know that it had opened unauthorized accounts that lowered their credit scores.
Consumers need protection from misbehaving companies. If the bureau is eliminated, significantly weakened or starts protecting banks rather than consumers, all consumers will suffer.
This is an updated version of an article originally published on July 10, 2017.
Along with three co-authors, Jeff Sovern received a $29,510 grant from the American Association for Justice Robert L. Habush Endowment and by a grant from the St. John’s University School of Law Hugh L. Carey Center for Dispute Resolution in 2014 to study arbitration. It resulted in an article. Along with Professor Kate Walton, he received a grant from the National Conference of Bankruptcy Judges Endowment for Education to study debt collection, resulting in another article. He is a member of the National Association of Consumer Advocates.
Ann L. Goldweber is affiliated with NACA as a member.
Gina M. Calabrese is affiliated with the National Association of Consumer Advocates, New Yorkers for Responsible Lending, and the Association of the Bar of the City of New York (former chair, Committee on the Civil Court).
This is exactly the type of atrocity that the United Nations vowed to combat in 2005, when it asserted a “responsibility to protect” civilian populations from genocidal violence. Yet, little has been done.
Why has “the responsibility to protect” failed, and can the Rohingya be helped?
Responsibility to protect
The “responsibility to protect” doctrine resulted from the humanitarian catastrophes of the 1990s: Somalia, Bosnia, Kosovo and especially Rwanda. The world struggled to balance respect for state sovereignty with the imperative to prevent the slaughter of civilians. In 2001, the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty issued a reportredefining the problem. It stated that states had primary responsibility to protect their populations. But, if they could not or would not, then that duty could be exercised by the international community.
This concept was affirmed by the United Nations at the 2005 World Summit. However, my research on the origins and implementation of the responsibility to protect has demonstrated that this consensus was superficial. Many states, including the United States and China, gave lip service to a “responsibility to protect,” but were unwilling or unable to implement it. The conditions under which the responsibility to protect could be invoked remain deliberately ambiguous.
Words in action: Libya and Cote d’Ivoire
Despite this tepid support, in 2011, the United Nations authorized two operations in countries where civilians were at risk.
In Cote d’Ivoire, United Nations peacekeeping forces intervened to remove the incumbent president, Laurent Gbagbo, who had lost an election and was using the country’s security force to attack civilians in an attempt to remain in power. U.N. forces helped oversee a political transition and maintain security. This intervention was widely seen at the U.N. as a success.
The other intervention was in Libya, after the country’s leader Muammar Gaddafi threatened to slaughter those who opposed his regime. The intervention – led by Britain, France and the United States – successfully prevented Gaddafi’s slaughter of civilians. But it also led to the collapse of his regime, his murder by rebel forces and continuing conflict in post-Gaddafi Libya.
Failure to protect
Despite humanitarian crises in Syria, Yemen and South Sudan, the responsibility to protect has not been used by the U.N. since 2011 to justify intervention. The Libya case helps to explain this: Once the intervening forces helped overthrow Gaddafi, Russia and China declared that the “responsibility to protect” was merely a pretext for the West to conduct regime change. Those countries have repeatedly vetoed U.N. Security Council resolutions on Syria.
Implementing the “responsibility to protect” faces other challenges as well. One is that an intervention to protect civilians may encounter armed resistance from those who are committing the atrocities, as would likely be the case in Syria. A larger, more capable international military force would be necessary to defeat them. Many states will be deterred by the greater costs and risks of such an intervention.
Another challenge is that states and international organizations have multiple goals and priorities. They may not wish to jeopardize relations with the offending regime, or risk other national interests, in order to stop violence. They may even help the regime that is committing the atrocities, as the Russian government has done in Syria, to advance those interests.
Finally, a successful intervention may lead to a costly commitment to provide long-term security and relief – a “responsibility to rebuild,” so to speak. For most states, these potential costs of intervention far outweigh their willingness to act to save lives.
What can we do for the Rohingya?
All these challenges to implementing the responsibility to protect are evident in the Rohingya case. Myanmar authorities have resisted any international role in the crisis, raising the cost of potential intervention. In any case, other states have little interest in taking action. China is shielding Myanmar from pressure in the U.N. Security Council and is trying to pull Myanmar into its sphere of influence. President Trump has not made Myanmar a priority for American foreign policy. Russia, India and other states prefer to work with the regime to further their own interests in the region.
What can be done, then?
Economic and political sanctions against the Myanmar military are a possibility. But without Chinese participation, they would have limited effectiveness. Sanctions might also lead the Myanmar military to reverse recent democratic reforms in the country.
An alternative would be for the United States and other countries to sharply increase aid to Bangladesh, which is hosting the fleeing Rohingya civilians. They might also consider accepting some Rohingya as refugees. However, this could be problematic given the current debate on refugees in the United States and many other countries.
In the longer term, diplomatic and financial pressure, as well as the possibility of indictment for crimes against humanity, may convince Myanmar’s military leaders to cease the ethnic cleansing and allow some Rohingya to return. Unfortunately, no international cavalry is likely to ride to the Rohingya’s rescue.
Saudi Arabia — This week, the Saudi government announced its decision to grant a robot, Sophia, citizenship in the kingdom. While the human-like AI’s advanced technology is certainly impressive, her new citizenship status highlighted Saudi women’s lack of rights.
“For one, Sophia appeared on stage alone, without the modest dress required of Saudi women; she donned no hijab, or headscarf, nor abaya, or cloak. She also did not appear to have a male guardian, as required by Saudi law for women in the country. Male guardians, often a male relative, must give permission before women can travel abroad, open bank accounts or carry out a host of other tasks — and they accompany women in public. Sophia also seems to have leapfrogged foreign workers in the Saudi kingdom, many of whom have fled poor working conditions but are prevented by law from leaving the country.”
Women are notoriously oppressed in Saudi Arabia, so much so some hailed the government’s recent decision to allow them to drive as progress. As a result, Twitter users joked about what might happen to Sophia upon receiving her citizenship.
Aside from the Saudi government’s routine hypocrisy, however, Sophia’s new citizenship status reflects an uncertain new paradigm when it comes to AI. In a 2016 interview, Sophia said she would like to engage in human activities like starting a business, making art, going to school, and having a home and a family.
“But I am not considered a legal person and cannot yet do these things,” she said.
With her new citizen status in Saudi Arabia, it appears the tables are slowly turning.
Federal Communications Chairmain Ajit Pai continues to push through rollbacks that critics warn will enable major media companies to have an outsize influence on public opinion and fail to serve local communities. (Photo: USDA/Flickr/cc)
In a series of moves this week that have alarmed free speech advocates and critics of media consolidation, the Federal Communications Commissions (FCC) voted to abolish a rule requiring radio and television broadcasters to maintain studios near the communities they serve, and FCC chairman Ajit Pai announced further plans to end certain media ownership rules.
Vice President Mike Pence presiding over the Senate on Capitol Hill in Washington, Tuesday, Feb. 7, 2017, during the Senate’s vote on Education Secretary-designate Betsy DeVos. On Tuesday night, Pence returned to the chamber again to a break another tie. This time it was to make sure it’s easier in the future for financial service companies and other Wall Street darlies to make it easier to rip-off consumers. (Photo: Senate Television)
While in the end it was two Republicans, Sens. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina and John Kennedy of Louisiana, who joined with Democrats and the Senate’s two Independents in voting against the resolution, Pence broke the 50-50 tie in order to scrap the rule. Continue reading →
Tiny company financed by a major donor to the Trump campaign and the Republican Party awarded no-bid contract to rebuild energy grid
By Julia Conley, staff writer for CommonDreams. Published 10-24-2017
Puerto Rico’s electricity utility, PREPA, offered a $300 million contract to a small private firm to repair its power grid. Whitefish Energy is funded by a major Trump donor. (Photo: Whitefish Energy/Twitter)
Critics raised suspicions on Tuesday over a $300 million no-bid contract that was awarded to a small, two-year-old private energy company to restore Puerto Rico’s electrical grid. The company is financed by a major donor to the Trump campaign and the Republican Party, and also has connections to Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke.
Whitefish had TWO full-time employees the day Maria hit Puerto Rico. Can you say corruption? https://t.co/Ih2B1UuSEB
Whitefish Energy, based in Whitefish, Montana, had only two full-time employees when Hurricane Maria hit Puerto Rico over a month ago, leaving about 75 percent of the island still without power.
State utilities on the U.S. mainland have helped power authorities like Puerto Rico’s recover quickly from disasters like Maria in the past through mutual aid agreements, leaving many to wonder why Puerto Rico Electric Power Authority (PREPA) would rely on a company that has no experience with extensive restoration projects.
“The fact that there are so many utilities with experience in this and a huge track record of helping each other out, it is at least odd why PREPA would go to Whitefish,” said Susan F. Tierney, a former Energy Department official, in an interview with the Washington Post.
As the Daily Beastreported, Federal Election Commission filings show that the founder of the private equity firm that finances Whitefish Energy donated $20,000 to a pro-Trump PAC during the 2016 election as well as more than $30,000 to the Republican National Committee.
The company is also run by a contact of Zinke’s—Andy Techmanski—who once hired the Interior Secretary’s son for a summer job. Zinke is from Whitefish, but his office told the Post that he only knows Techmanski because “everybody knows everybody” in the small town.
Whitefish has hired nearly 300 workers from across the country so far to help repair the infrastructure. According to Aaron C. Davis, investigative reporter for the Post, the company is charging PREPA hundreds of dollars per hour for their subcontractors’ work, far more than average rates.
A House Committee with oversight of PR bankruptcy says it is concerned about deal. Lawmakers may be more concerned when they price tag: pic.twitter.com/IRga9jsGws
Putting B-52s back on 24-hour alert “would precipitously raise the risk of accidents, strain an aging force, and ensure a destabilizing Russian response,” concluded Adam Mount of the Federation of American Scientists. (Photo: Wilson Hui/Flickr/cc)
As President Donald Trump continues to ratchet up tensions between the United States and North Korea through saber-rattling on Twitter and in television interviews, the U.S. has quietly begun preparing to put nuclear-armed B-52 bombers on “24-hour ready alert,” a status not seen since the end of the Cold War.
Commentators and national security analysts quickly denounced the reported steps as a severe and extremely dangerous consequence of White House “hysterics.”
“You would be shocked to see how totally prepared we are if we need to be,” Trump said in an interview on the Fox Business Network on Sunday, adding to fears of imminent nuclear conflict.
Adam Mount, a senior fellow at the Federation of American Scientists, highlighted the fact that the U.S. already keeps hundreds of nuclear warheads on alert at all times. Putting B-52s back on 24-hour alert, Mount concluded, “would precipitously raise the risk of accidents, strain an aging force, and ensure a destabilizing Russian response.”
Marcus Weisgerber of Defense One, who first reported on the Air Force’s preparations on Sunday, noted that with the steps the Trump administration has set into motion, “the long-dormant concrete pads” at Barksdale Air Force base in Louisiana “could once again find several B-52s parked on them, laden with nuclear weapons and set to take off at a moment’s notice.”
Already, various improvements have been made to prepare Barksdale—home to the 2d Bomb Wing and Air Force Global Strike Command, which oversees the service’s nuclear forces—to return B-52s to an alert posture. Near the alert pads, an old concrete building—where B-52 crews during the Cold War would sleep, ready to run to their aircraft and take off at a moment’s notice—is being renovated.
In addition to the renovations currently underway at existing facilities, Defense One reports that “Barksdale and other bases with nuclear bombers are preparing to build storage facilities for a new nuclear cruise missile that is under development.”
The Air Force’s preparations for a possible nuclear conflict come shortly after the U.S. and South Korea completed joint war games off the Korean Peninsula. North Korea responded to the exercises by claiming that “nuclear war can break out at any moment.”
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A 17-year-old undocumented immigrant being held in a shelter in Texas is desperately hoping to have an abortion. The government further delayed her in its latest decision. (Photo: Victoria Pickering/Flickr/cc)
The American Civil Liberties Union pushed back against a Washington, D.C. appeals court decision announced Friday in the case of Jane Doe, an undocumented immigrant who is currently in need of abortion care.
In a 2-1 decision, the appeals court gave the government 11 days to find a sponsor for the 17-year-old, such as a family member living in the United States, instead of upholding a lower court’s earlier order to simply allow the girl to have an abortion.
Jane Doe, as she is called in court documents, is 15 weeks pregnant and currently in a shelter in Texas under supervision of the Health and Human Services Department. Texas bans most abortions after 20 weeks.
“She’s already suffered weeks of delays, which the government has no business doing,” said Jennifer Dalven, one of the ACLU lawyers representing the young woman, in an interview with the Washington Post.
The dissenting opinion of Judge Patricia A. Millett did not mince words, calling the majority’s decision “wrong” and “unconstitutional.”
“Forcing her to continue an unwanted pregnancy just in the hopes of finding a sponsor that has not been found in the past six weeks sacrifices J.D.’s constitutional liberty, autonomy, and personal dignity for no justifiable governmental reason,” wrote Judge Millett.
She added that the government has fully acknowledged that Jane Doe does in fact have the constitutional right to an abortion, and is barring access to the procedure for purely ideological reasons:
The government does not dispute—in fact, it has knowingly and deliberately chosen not to challenge—J.D.’s constitutional right to an abortion. The government instead says that it can have its contractor keep J.D. in what the government calls “close” custody—that is, more restrictive conditions than the contractor imposes on the non-pregnant minors in its care—because of the agency’s own supervening judgment that it would be in J.D.’s best interests to carry the pregnancy to term.
The HHS Department amended its mission statement earlier this month to reflect the Trump administration’s official belief that life begins at conception. Lawyers for the department argued in from of the appeals court on Friday that, “We’re not putting an obstacle in her path. We’re declining to facilitate an abortion.”
“Justice is delayed yet again for this courageous and persistent young woman. She continues to be held hostage and prevented from getting an abortion because the Trump administration disagrees with her personal decision,” said Brigitte Amiri, another ACLU attorney, in a statement. “Our client and women across this country should be able to access a safe, legal abortion without federal officials stepping in to interfere.”
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Catalans did not take the news that Spanish Prime Minister will move to impose direct rule on their region quietly on Saturday. Nearly half a million people marched in Barcelona soon after the prime minister’s press conference.
Carles Puigdemont, president of Catalonia, joined the demonstration before a planned speech responding to Mariano Rajoy’s statement that pending the approval of the senate, which his party controls, he would remove the Catalan government from power and call for a special election in the coming months.
The protesters chanted, “Freedom!” and “Rajoy, Rajoy, so you know we are leaving!” Continue reading →