Supreme Court

Supreme Court building, Washington, DC. Photo by Callen Harty.

On the news this morning I repeatedly heard the argument from talking heads and Republicans that there is a 40-year tradition of no Supreme Court justices nominated and confirmed during an election year. According to these people it just doesn’t happen. For some reason this argument only goes back 40 years rather than looking at our entire history to determine what is tradition. Understood, traditions do change over time, so perhaps they simply selected a random number of years to determine what should be considered tradition. Whatever their reason for the time span selected they were all talking about it as if it were some kind of definitive guide for nominating and confirming justices—that it is just not done in the year before an election.

But let’s look at that 40-year “tradition” just a little closer. Remember, the argument is that justices are not nominated and confirmed in an election year.

Let’s go back exactly 40 years, which was the election year of 1976. There were no nominations to the Supreme Court in that year. However, John Paul Stevens had been nominated by Gerald Ford on November 28, 1975. The election in 1976 was on November 2, so the nomination was less than a year before the election date. According to the “tradition” that supposedly started that year Ford should not have nominated Stevens and the Senate should not have confirmed him because it was less than a year before an election. Bucking the “tradition” that supposedly started that year the Senate, which was controlled by Democrats, confirmed the Republican President’s nominee by a vote of 98-0 on December 17 of 1975.

This was hardly a repudiation of the idea of selecting a Supreme Court justice with an election looming. One would think there must be an incredible number of hotly contested nominations in election years since that time that helped cement this “tradition”. One would be wrong. It is simply not the case.

Since John Paul Stevens there have only been a couple of opportunities for a President to nominate a Supreme Court justice in the year of or within a year before an election.

Ronald Reagan nominated five justices during his Presidency, four of whom were confirmed. His first was Sandra Day O’Connor in 1981, his first year in office. William Rehnquist and Antonin Scalia were nominated in 1986, two years on either side of an election. Robert Bork was put forth in July of 1987, more than a year before the 1988 election. He was the only one of Reagan’s choices who was rejected, joining nine others in history that the Senate had outright rejected. Reagan’s last appointment was Anthony Kennedy, submitted to the Senate on November 30, 1987. The 1988 election was on November 8, just under a year after the nomination, so the tradition would dictate that he should not have been nominated and confirmed. The Senate, controlled by Democrats at the time, confirmed the nomination 97-0.

Until today, Ford’s nomination of Stevens and Reagan’s nomination of Kennedy were the only two Supreme Court justices nominated with less than a year before an election in the last 40 years.

The elder George Bush appointed two justices, David Souter and Clarence Thomas. Souter was nominated in 1990, between election years. Clarence Thomas was nominated more than a year before the next election.

Bill Clinton also appointed two justices. Ruth Bader Ginsburg was nominated in June of 1993 and Stephen Breyer in May of 1994. Both of these were between the election years of 1992 and 1996.

George W. Bush submitted three names in four nominations to the Senate, all of them within the first year after the election of 2004. He submitted John Roberts’ name on July 29, 2005 and that was withdrawn and then resubmitted on September 6 of the same year. Harriet Miers’ was submitted in October of 2005 and also withdrawn. Samuel Alito was then submitted in November and he was approved in early 2006.

Finally, Barack Obama has now put forth three nominees with the announcement today of his nomination of Merrick Garland. His first was Sonia Sotomayor, nominated in June of 2009, Obama’s first year in office. His second was Elena Kagan, nominated in 2010, two years after the 2008 election and two years before the 2012 election.

Merrick Garland is only the third nominee in the last 40 years submitted by a President with a year or less to go before an election. The first two were nominated by Republican Presidents and approved unanimously by Democratic-controlled Senates. This one looks to be a nominee who is not even going to be looked at by the Republican-controlled Senate. Whether that is right or wrong is being argued all over the press and social media, but to say it’s because of a 40-year tradition is an outright lie.

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(In) Justice Bradley

Wisconsin Constitution in ShadowEarlier this week One Wisconsin Now, in a press conference with People for the American Way, released quotations from a column and two editorials written by Wisconsin Supreme Court Justice Rebecca Bradley. They were written when she was a student at Marquette University in Milwaukee and expressed strongly held negative beliefs about LGBT people, drug addicts, AIDS, and the election of Bill Clinton as President of the United States.

The next day the Capital Times ran an article with quotations from another article that expressed strongly held anti-abortion views, along with snippets from a later article she wrote less than ten years ago in which she expressed her belief that pharmacists should be allowed not to fulfill prescriptions for moral reasons. The language was not as venomous in the abortion articles, but was just as strident.

This is the language of a person who has incredibly strong personal opinions that do not match the majority of the voting public and who may cast deciding Supreme Court votes on important issues around all of those topics. Calling gay people queers and AIDS patients degenerates is not the kind of language one might expect for a woman appointed to fill the remainder of a Supreme Court justice’s term, nor the language of a woman running for election to that seat. It is not the kind of language most of us find acceptable in either an appointed or elected officeholder.

Bradley’s supporters claim that the articles were written when she was 20 and that people change. They are correct. People do, or at least can change, but there is no indication that Bradley has done so in the time that has passed since the articles were written and she will not respond to any questions that would give voters an idea of where she stands on LGBT rights or abortion. Voters do know where Scott Walker stands on these issues, though, and the fact that he appointed her to fill the remainder of Patrick Crook’s term is telling.

Most of us change and grow in our lives–though there are those who remain morally stunted throughout–but most of us do not start from a place of vitriol and hatred, and Bradley’s words are definitely filled with vitriol and hatred. Haters tend to remain haters. Conversely, lovers tend to remain lovers. Bullies tend to continue bullying. Peaceful people tend to continue living a life of peace. Those who detest gay people tend to hold onto those feelings. This doesn’t mean that change can’t happen to anyone, but that kind of significant shift is rare. Most of us remain true to our core selves. It is difficult to believe that Bradley’s core values and beliefs, as expressed in those articles, has changed in the intervening years.

One has to ask not whether one can forgive her for her words, but whether they should be forgotten. They seem to be a reflection of her nature and character and without any evidence to suggest that there has been a monumental shift in her thinking one has to wonder whether she can be an impartial jurist. This is not to pretend that there is such a thing as a completely objective judge. The word itself suggests subjectivity. But most judges are careful not to express extreme positions about anything. They may lean one way or another, but the best of them try to set aside their personal viewpoints and look at the underlying Constitutional issues, not their own underlying moral convictions. It seems difficult to believe that someone whose views are as extreme as those that Bradley expressed in her youth could be an impartial judge on those issues. She may not resign as One Wisconsin Now has asked her to do, but the citizens of the state are naïve if they vote her into the position for the next ten years.

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91 and a Day

Mom and meYesterday my mother turned 91 years old. Today I am driving down to my hometown to see her. Every time I go I wonder, “Will this be the last time I see her? If so, what will my last memory be? Will she know who I am today, or just be glad that some man came to visit?”

She has survived a lot, so maybe I shouldn’t worry. She was given last rites by the priest more than two years ago. She was on hospice and then kicked off of it because she was doing so well. She is tough. But she is also frail, and I worry.

Yesterday my sister called–she was calling all the siblings–just to verify that she should not call an ambulance or do anything out of the ordinary if things worsen. Mom never wanted to be put into a nursing home, did not want to be resuscitated if it came to that, and expressed often that she wanted to be in her home when the time comes for her to go. So of course I said that we should honor her wishes. She has been at home for the entire duration of her decline and she will be there to the end.

The reason it became a question yesterday is because a nurse was there for her regular visit and mentioned that my mother’s body may be starting the process of shutting down. She said that if that were the case it could be five minutes, five hours, days, weeks, or even months. There is no way to tell. What she related was that Mom’s pulse was erratic, her breathing seemed shallow, she couldn’t find Mom’s blood pressure because the heartbeat was so faint, she thought she saw some darkening of the skin, and a couple other things that might be signs.

My mother has been bedridden for several years now. All of us should have had plenty of time to prepare for the inevitable, but she has miraculously survived so many times when we thought it might be near the end that it seems that she may go on forever. She hss been magical that way. She recently told my sister that she planned to live to 110, and that may yet be true.

Still, I am nervous about this visit. For the last week or so I’ve had an uneasy feeling about this 91st birthday. I wanted to be there for it yesterday, but couldn’t so I was planning on going today anyway. I don’t know if I want to be there when the times comes for her to leave this plane. I don’t know if I want to be away from her when that happens either. Either way I don’t feel ready for her not to be in my life, even when she may not know who I am anymore.

Nevertheless I will go today. I will kiss her. I will tell her I love her. And I will hope that if this does prove to the last visit that it will be a good one.

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An Open Letter to Speaker Vos

Wisconsin State Capitol, Madison. Photo by Callen Harty.

Wisconsin State Capitol, Madison. Photo by Callen Harty.

Dear Representative Vos,

As the Speaker of the Wisconsin State Assembly you are in a  position to push certain bills or your entire agenda forward if you wish. That is the nature of the job you hold. You can also ensure that proposals that are not to your liking do not get a chance to be voted on by the legislature. As the leader of the Assembly you wield a great deal of power.

As I’m sure you know that power should not be taken lightly. Throughout history Speakers have used their authority to advance their causes and it is understood that will happen to an extent. There are scant few people in the world who would not take at least some advantage of the opportunity afforded by the position. However, there are some issues that should transcend partisan politics and personal goals. Most politicians and other citizens would agree that the safety and protection of our children are among those critical issues. As Speaker there are times when you do not just represent your district, your campaign donors, or your party.

There are two bills currently being circulated that it seems you do not believe are a high priority, but which are of vital importance to the safety and well-being of children across this great state. I would like to be proven wrong about this and see them introduced in session, but I am not hopeful at this time.

The first is commonly known as Erin’s Law (Assembly Bill 691). This law has been enacted in 26 states. Until now Wisconsin was one of only seven states that had not even introduced it. Under the law, all public schools would be required to provide a prevention-oriented program on child sex abuse to children through grade six. In addition, it would also provide information on sexual abuse to parents of young children.

As a child sex abuse survivor who just published a book on surviving that harrowing childhood experience (Empty Playground: A Survivor’s Story) I can tell you that this bill is badly needed. One in four girls and one in six boys is sexually abused before the age of 18. Most do not tell anyone about it because of shame, confusion, or threats. If these children are taught how to recognize these sexual violations, what to do to protect themselves, and how to report what happened to them to a safe adult I can guarantee you that countless lives will be saved, countless men and women will not turn to alcohol and drug abuse to escape their memories, and countless innocent children will be spared devastating abuse and years of its aftereffects. Providing parents with information on child sex abuse will also help responsible adults recognize signs that will enable them to get their children much-needed help. Studies have shown that the sooner a child gets into therapy after sexual abuse and the less abuse that has occurred the greater their prospects for recovery and healing.

The other bill in question is the Healthy Relationships bill (AB692) which would require schools to provide teen dating violence prevention education. I work with 13-18 year old students in a youth theater program and have seen the shattering effects of dating violence on some of them. As young people who may not yet be fully mature, educational materials that help them recognize early what constitutes a healthy and safe relationship will prevent possible emotional and physical violence and lead to a safer environment for our students.

I understand that some bills may have priority for you over others, especially when you are working to push through laws that are important to you and your fellow Republicans. Again, it’s the way things work. But I beseech you to listen to the needs of Wisconsinites who don’t care about party loyalty when the safety of their children is at stake. Both of these bills are critically important for Wisconsin’s children and families. They are also both bipartisan bills sponsored by members of both the Democratic and Republican parties. There should be no question about the bills reaching the floor and being supported by members on both sides of the aisle. You can help make that happen.

As a survivor of child sex abuse and someone who works with youth I urge you to do everything in your power to get these bills through this session, which is quickly running out. You cannot tell me that a law that would have helped me when I was a boy and that will help countless other children now, along with a bill that will help teenagers stay safe, can be less important than allowing pink blazers during the hunting season, allowing children younger than ten to hunt, or several other bills that some people may want but that were never clearly a priority for the majority of the citizens of this state. I would be happy to meet with you and share my personal story as to why these bills are of far more importance and why they need to be enacted into law now.

Thank you for your consideration.

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After Creation


Cover of Empty Playground: A Survivor’s Story. Cover photo and design by Callen Harty.

Writing, or any kind of creative action, can be hell sometimes, and it can even be worse after the creative act is completed and out into the world.

Sometimes people think of writers, actors, or other artists as living glamorous lives. They don’t think of it as hard work but as doing something you like and spending most of the time reaping the rewards of it, partying, and enjoying the fame and fortune.

If only.

Even those who are incredibly successful get there through a lot of hard work, and they are few and far between. The reality is that most artists in this country–which does not do very well at supporting its artists–are not rich and famous and they are also not the stereotypical starving artists either. Most are regular folks who have something to say and need to say it in a creative way, but who are only moderately successful at what they do. There are millions of writers in this country who have published books, stories, poems, and more, but only a handful of authors like Stephen King or J. K. Rowling who can live off of their royalties and movie deals. Most painters, musicians, and others work full-time jobs and create their art whenever and however they can with limited time and energy.

But the call is there. Artists have to create and doing so can sometimes be a long, arduous, and painful process. My second book, Empty Playground: A Survivor’s Story, was incredibly difficult to write. To do so I had to relive painful memories from childhood and throughout my life. I had to be vulnerable and put that vulnerability out there for all the world to see (or at least what small part of the world might buy and read the book). I had to honestly tell my story in such a way that after it was published I worried that people would dislike me or at the very least think less of me for some of the things I revealed that I had done. I didn’t have a choice, though. To be true to my story and to my art I had to write it the way I did, and that was scary and hard.

The creation of a work of art can take months, if not years, and can be physically and emotionally draining. Then, after it is done, comes the really frightening part. What will people think? Will anyone buy it or come to see it? Will critics tear it apart? Will they even bother to notice it? How do I get people interested enough to give it a chance? The thing is, most writers are writers but to be successful they either have to pay someone to help with marketing or do it themselves. Most are probably like me and can’t afford to have someone do it for them, but also find the concept of marketing and selling oneself and one’s work a foreign concept. So we do what we can and then we wait and worry.

I find myself often checking to see if any books have sold since the last time I checked which, especially early on, can be several times (or more) a day. You do whatever you can to get the word out and even then it may not matter. After Empty Playground was released I was interviewed on Wisconsin Public Radio’s “Central Time”. They probably have tens of thousands of listeners, but I didn’t see any appreciable bump in sales after that interview. I have two more radio interviews coming up, but have no way of knowing whether those will impact sales or not. I was interviewed for an article in the Isthmus, which should appear this week, but again do not know if anyone will seek out the book after reading the article. I understand with the subject of my book I can’t expect thousands of people to suddenly decide they need to read it, but still I hope.

Most authors who are not famous do not get radio interviews and articles. I’m lucky because I’ve made so many media connections over a more than thirty year span in the Madison theater scene that at least the local media will pay attention to some degree. If the media in this city didn’t already know me I might not get any coverage, and that would make promoting the book even more difficult than it already is.

I also have been pushing the book in places where I figured there might be a natural interest. I have posted a notice about it on a couple hundred Facebook pages and websites that are about child sex abuse, sex assault, pages geared toward survivors, and the like. Those pages have more than half a million likes and yet I have not sold half a million books (or anywhere close to it). A good number of those posts have garnered likes and shares. Still, the impact of my attempts at targeted marketing has seemed to be minimal.

This is the hard part. While the creation can be painful and difficult there is also a reward. There is joy in creating something. There is a sense of accomplishment. The hard part is wondering whether your work will be accepted and whether it will impact the world in the way you had hoped. I don’t need to sell a million copies (though I wouldn’t complain if I did), but I want to know that the work had meaning, that it maybe helped at least a few people or that someone truly thought it was worthwhile. Because most of us are insecure underneath it all we tend to focus on the fact that several days may have passed without a sale instead of on the person who thanked you for writing something that they identified with or the person who sent a note saying that your book was meaningful to them.

I need to do better on focusing on those good things–the stranger who rates the book a five on Amazon or Goodreads rather than the readers who rate it a three or don’t rate it at all; the woman who takes time out of her day to write an e-mail detailing how thankful she was that she read the book rather than the three hundred twenty million in this country who have never even heard of it; the person who shares it with someone else rather than the ones who hear about it and pass on it. I need to take pride in the fact that I wrote a book that was important for me to write and that there are people for whom it has made a difference. That should be enough–although I admit I’ll still keep checking regularly to see if I made any more sales.



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American Resolution

FlagEvery year we are supposed to make New Year’s resolutions and every year most of us fail to keep those resolutions. We commit to losing weight, being kinder to others, sticking to some plan or another. Resolutions are generally ways that we want to better ourselves and they are also generally ways we shame ourselves when we don’t live up to the promise. I am as guilty as the next person in this annual charade. So this year I thought that instead of making resolutions I couldn’t keep maybe I could make some for my country. Unfortunately I expect America may be as bad as its citizens about keeping the promises.

America, here are my resolutions for you. Do your best. This will be the year that:

  • we adopt peace first and no longer engage in endless wars in places all over the globe.
  • we stop shooting unarmed black men in urban areas.
  • our citizens put down their guns and stop killing each other.
  • even the Republicans accept climate change as a real threat to the planet.
  • mentally deficient candidates are no longer taken seriously or allowed to run for office.
  • the rich people in this country accept their fair share of taxes so that others can get some relief.
  • homelessness and poverty are ended.
  • drug companies quit peddling chemical happiness.
  • we end the War on Drugs (the ones that aren’t from drug companies) once and for all.
  • news organizations start to act like news organizations again instead of entertainment outlets.
  • minorities are accepted as equal members of society and the promises of our founding fathers are realized.
  • we quit lionizing famous people who are famous only for being famous and who contribute nothing to our collective culture.
  • the arts are elevated to a level of appreciation equal to football.
  • queer citizens are no longer killed for simply being and no longer commit suicide simply for being.
  • we go 365 days without a single mass shooting.
  • money is taken out of politics and legislators can no longer be bought by large corporations.

America, the majority of these resolutions are things that the majority of Americans can get behind. This list should be so easy with the support you can get. Likely there are several others that I forgot, but let’s start here. We can work on more next year. My hope is simply that you don’t fail as quickly as most of us once the new year starts.


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Bo Ryan at Christmas

Bo Ryan. Photo by Callen Harty.

Bo Ryan. Photo by Callen Harty.

When Bo Ryan announced his retirement I was as surprised as everyone. I watched his last game (and win) on television and there was no indication of the impending announcement during that game. Exactly one week before the announcement I had been invited to watch a Badger basketball practice at the Kohl Center the night before their game against UW-Milwaukee. The practice was followed by a brief meet and greet/question and answer session with the coach, so I got to see him up close for the first time and came away deeply impressed–but not because of his basketball expertise.

I have always admired Bo Ryan as a coach. I watched his UW-Platteville Pioneers when I lived there. In his tenure at Platteville his teams won four national championships. He then moved to UW-Milwaukee where he turned the Panthers into contenders. His last fourteen years were spent at the University of Wisconsin in Madison where he finished his career with the highest winning percentage in Big Ten conference history. He really was one of the greatest coaches in college basketball history.

But you could also tell that Ryan was a down-to-earth good guy. He had a great sense of humor during interviews and he just seemed like he cared deeply about his young players and their success–not only in basketball, but in life. While winning was clearly important to him you never felt that winning was the only thing or everything.

The question and answer session I got to attend showed me the human side of Bo Ryan that I had always felt. He answered questions about basketball that day, but that is not what impressed me. He was upbeat, generous with his time, and came across as very human. The first question that was asked of him was, “What do you want for Christmas?” I expect that the questioner thought he would answer a Big Ten or national championship.

Instead he took a deep breath and said something along the lines of, “I don’t really think about it in that way, what I want. That’s not what it’s about.” He then got very real and went on to talk about growing up in a poor family in Pennsylvania and described how when he was a child they didn’t have much and they were lucky if they got one or two small presents at Christmas. He said that he passed that on to his children, that they would get a couple things for the holiday but that he didn’t want them to feel privileged or that the world owed them something.

A little later in the program a man asked a question and then told Ryan that he had gone to a Bo Ryan basketball camp a couple summers when he was a youngster. The man turned out to be Lawrence Petty, the son of former basketball player Larry Petty who was with the Badgers when Ryan was an assistant coach in the late 70s. Larry Petty has been homeless and in and out of prison since his playing days ended. When Ryan realized that the man was Larry Petty, Jr. his eyes lit up and he went over and gave him a big hug.

These are the two moments that stand out to me from my brief time with Bo Ryan–two small moments that showed a man of deep reflection, compassion, and caring. Not everyone can coach, but any coach can teach the basics of a game and diagram plays. Not every coach can bring the intangibles. Not every coach can live life in such a way that their players learn how to be decent human beings by the example. I believe Coach Ryan was one of the rare ones who could win on the court while also winning in the game of life. This is what I saw a week before his retirement and this is what Wisconsin basketball will miss most about Bo Ryan.


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