Washington, DC, murals, courtesy of Google.org, commemorate the ADA's 30th anniversary. (And yes, they're on stairs.)

Washington, DC, murals, courtesy of Google.org, commemorate the ADA’s 30th anniversary. (And yes, they’re on stairs.)

Yesterday marked a significant anniversary of the passage of the Americans With Disabilities Act. Reaching 30 years is definitely momentous, so I’ll probably cover it a few times this week. Today, some positive news about the ADA, and a troubling sign of how far we have to go.

As the Washington Post reports:

“Take a walk around D.C. this weekend, and you may stumble across some newly installed murals honoring leaders in the fight for equality for people with disabilities. This Sunday marks the 25th anniversary of the passage of the Americans with Disability Act—landmark legislation signed into law in 1990 that prohibits discrimination on the basis of someone’s disability.”

“Google.org—the philanthropic arm of Google—is celebrating the anniversary and the start of the Special Olympics this weekend with these installations throughout the city. There are 10 temporary pieces at six locations in the city. The murals are stickers, illustrated by Darren Booth, and will be removed Sunday.”

You can read the whole story here. But as a friend, disability advocate Jennifer Longdon, mused, the ADA-celebration murals are on stairs? Really? Ya really do have to wonder.

And lest we get too high-falutin’ in our self-praise as a nation, you really should read a companion piece from the Post. It describes the ultimately unsuccessful efforts by another advocate to travel around Washington during the celebrations. Thirty years later, public accommodations are too often that in name only.

Here’s the story about Professor Dot Nary.

Professor Dot Nary in the Washington Post.

Professor Dot Nary in the Washington Post.

And as long as I’m mentioning self-praise, it’s worth noting, WaPo, that terms like “wheelchair-bound” are no longer acceptable, even in journo style guides.

Center for Plain Language logoHere is an annual story I always enjoy: the award for plainness in writing emanating from the federal government.

Thanks to the Center for Plain Language, we now know which government departments wrote cleanly and crisply in the past year—and which ones fell far short.

As reporter Lisa Rein describes the results in the Washington Post, those that did well included Homeland Security (I know; I can’t believe it either), the Social Security Administration, and the Securities and Exchange Commission. But:

“The poor performers landing at the bottom of the 2014 Federal Plain Language Report Card were the Interior, State and Education departments. Interior and State didn’t submit writing samples, and their programs are anemic, the report said, while Education earned passing grades for writing and design but a “D” in compliance with the law.”

The Post story also provides the following example of muddy writing, this one coming from the U.S. Coast Guard:

The Coast Guard's at sea: The opposite of plain writing.

The Coast Guard’s at sea: The opposite of plain writing.

Oy. Maybe I should send the Coast Guard a copy of one of many great writing books I’ve re-read over the years, The Craft of Clarity by Robert Knight.

See the Center’s complete report card here.

The Craft of Clarity by Robert Knight book coverAlways on the hunt for simplification and clarity in our little corner of the world, I just conducted a small experiment on an online “readability calculator,” using our own written copy from Arizona Attorney Magazine.

This website will give you all kinds of data about the writing of you or others. Just paste in a sample of the writing and it will tell you the grade level the piece might best “reach.”

Using content from the upcoming March issue of the magazine, I pasted in exemplars from a few lawyer-written articles. I was pleased to see they came in at the range of 10th grade through 12th grade. (No, you really don’t want your language to reach exactly the grade level most of your readers have achieved. Readers are busy, and a readability score of 19, based on the average years of schooling of an attorney, is simply a recipe for disaster and obfuscation. A modest 10-12 is just fine.)

And then I pasted in my own editor’s column from the same issue. That’s when I saw it yielded a readability score of 7.0. That is 7th grade.

Sounds about right.

The good news: Time-stressed readers will not be overly taxed by giving my column a quick read.

The bad news: It looks like I’ll never get into the Coast Guard.

Have a wonderful—and rigorously disentangled—weekend.

je_suis_charlie The terror attack and murders of Charlie Hebdo staffers galvanized people around the globe.

Here it is Change of Venue Friday already. In its honor, and with a long weekend ending with the MLK Holiday, I urge you take a few minutes with a moving video.

Part of a New York Times series, it lets us into the offices of Charlie Hebdo, the magazine that was the target of a deadly terror attack this past month.

As you can see in the video, the dangers that accrued to exercising free speech were very much on the staffers’ minds. But they were resolute—to the end, for many of them.

It is haunting to see the words on the screen indicating birth and death dates of the speakers. Here is the video:

And here is a terrific cartoon by Tom Toles of the Washington Post that asserts an essential truth about terror and the power of the pen.

Washington Post Tom Toles on Charlie Hebdo murders

Have a great weekend. And if you get the chance, honor those First Amendment rights not just by standing with Charlie, but by seeing Selma, a film that explores the strategies and sacrifices of Martin Luther King, Jr., and many of his fellow civil rights compatriots.

The Academy may have largely (and distressingly) overlooked the film; that doesn’t mean you have to.

David Taylor, Seismic Sensor, Texas, 2007. From the series “Working the Line,” 2007 – 2010. Pigment print on aluminum, 29 ½ x 36 ⅜ inches. Courtesy of the artist and James Kelly Contemporary, Santa Fe, New Mexico. © David Taylor

David Taylor, Seismic Sensor, Texas, 2007. From the series “Working the Line,” 2007 – 2010. Pigment print on aluminum, 29 ½ x 36 ⅜ inches. Courtesy of the artist and James Kelly Contemporary, Santa Fe, New Mexico. © David Taylor

This Saturday, a symposium examines challenging and timely issues of privacy and security. Coupled with an art exhibition, the panel discussion will include Washington Post journalist Dana Priest, who will deliver the keynote address. Priest is a two-time winner of the Pulitzer Prize.

Organizers say Priest will offer “an incisive appraisal of national security, counter-terrorism and the U.S. intelligence industry since 9/11.” Also appearing will be artists Hasan Elahi, David Gurman and David Taylor; their work probes “electronic surveillance, terrorist profiling and classified government programs.” SMoCA Curator Claire C. Carter and Sandra S. Phillips, Curator of Photography at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, will also speak.

The symposium is titled “Stop Asking and Start Questioning: Information, Secrecy and Surveillance Since 9/11.” It is paired with the exhibition “Covert Operations: Investigating the Known Unknowns.” As organizers say, the show:

“considers a generation of artists working in the violent and uncertain decade following the 9/11 terrorist attacks to collect and reveal previously unreported information. Using traditional research methods—such as the Freedom of Information Act, government archives, field research and insider connections—these artists tackle subjects ranging from classi­fied surveillance to terrorist profiling, narcotics traffi­cking to ghost detainees and nuclear weapons to drone strikes. The thirty-seven artworks included in Covert Operations employ the tools of democracy to bear witness to attacks on liberty and to embrace democratic ideals, open government and civil rights.”

More detail on the symposium is here.

Jenny Holzer, Ribs, 2010. Eleven LED signs with blue, red and white diodes, text: US government documents, 58 1/4 x 5 1/4 x 5 3/4 inches each. Courtesy of the artist and Cheim & Read, New York. © 2010 Jenny Holzer, member Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Photo: Richard-Max Tremblay.

Jenny Holzer, Ribs, 2010. Eleven LED signs with blue, red and white diodes, text: US government documents, 58 1/4 x 5 1/4 x 5 3/4 inches each. Courtesy of the artist and Cheim & Read, New York. © 2010 Jenny Holzer, member Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York. Photo: Richard-Max Tremblay.

Radley Balko

Radley Balko

“Are cops constitutional?”

With that opening and follow-up sentences just as damning, Radley Balko has caused a furor among U.S. experts in policing and the Constitution. And this Friday, Balko will be in Arizona to make his controversial arguments.

That opening sentence was the first line in an impressive ABA Journal article last July. Titled “How did America’s police become a military force on the streets?” it is definitely worth your time. I know, I know, it’s crazy long, and we’ve all been trained (said the blogger) to read little snippets of thought and snark. Well, get over it. Pour yourself a cup of coffee, tea, wine or whisky (depending on the time and your inclination) and settle in. It will reward your time investment.

What Balko does is deconstruct the path of military dollars as it has been funneled into many police agencies, probably in your very own community. And the trickle-down effect of the global war on drugs (which is where this money is targeted) has been to transform your local constables into a highly trained, armed-to-the-teeth platoon of peace-keepers—who to the casual observer may be indistinguishable from U.S. military.

We are used to noting in politics that money has a certain corrupting influence, but many folks resist observing the same effect when it comes to our police departments. Balko has no such hesitation.

Example of policing monies, from Radley Balko ABA Journal article.

Example of policing monies, from Radley Balko ABA Journal article.

So why is the well-known Washington Post journalist coming to Arizona? To debate Maricopa County Attorney Bill Montgomery.

Having read a fair amount of Balko’s work, I have to admire Bill’s willingness to jump into this fight. I look forward to seeing the two men spar.

The event will be on Friday, February 21, at 11:30. The sponsor is the Phoenix Federalist Society Lawyers Chapter. The debate will be at Kincaid’s, 2 S. 3rd St., Phoenix 85004.

Here is how they describe the combatants—I mean speakers:

militarization of police - Federalist Society debateRadley Balko is a senior writer and investigative reporter for the Huffington Post and a former senior editor for Reason magazine. He is the author of Rise of the Warrior Cop, which argues that politicians’ ill-considered policies and relentless declarations of war against vague enemies like crime, drugs, and terror have blurred the distinction between cop and soldier.”

“Maricopa County Attorney Bill Montgomery was first elected to his position in a Special Election in 2010 and re-elected in 2012 on a pledge to fight crime, honor victims’ rights, and protect and strengthen our community. As a West Point Graduate, decorated Gulf War Veteran, former Deputy County Attorney and a professional prosecutor, he has dedicated his personal and professional life to serving others.”

Interested? You should be. Register here.

I may write a follow-up post. But if you’re moved to do the same, contact me about a possible guest post.

Two days ago, I wrote about a Mesa school district program that gets truant students in front of a justice of the peace. The goal is to get them on the straight and narrow. But the outcome is, necessarily, more misdemeanor convictions.

Last night, I read a disturbing Washington Post article that analyzed data from schools in that city and its suburbs. It found that African American students are disciplined far more often than other children.

Read the whole story here.

The story, by reporter Donna St. George, opens:

“Across the Washington area, black students are suspended and expelled two to five times as often as white students, creating disparities in discipline that experts say reflect a growing national problem. … Experts say disparities appear to have complex causes. A disproportionate number of black students live below the poverty line or with a single parent, factors that affect disciplinary patterns. But experts say those factors do not fully explain racial differences in discipline. Other contributing factors could include unintended bias, unequal access to highly effective teachers and differences in school leadership styles.”

Daniel J. Losen

As the story indicates, the challenge of equalizing discipline is a national one. So much so that a joint effort of the Departments of Justice and Education was announced last July to combat the school-to-prison pipeline.

According to the Department of Education press release:

“Secretary of Education Arne Duncan and Attorney General Eric Holder today announced the launch of the Supportive School Discipline Initiative, a collaborative project between the Departments of Justice and Education that will address the ‘school-to-prison pipeline’ and the disciplinary policies and practices that can push students out of school and into the justice system. The initiative aims to support good discipline practices to foster safe and productive learning environments in every classroom.”

The Post story explains the problematic nature of many of the suspendable offenses, which are labeled “soft” infractions—disrespect, defiance, insubordination, disruption and foul language. Some offenses, the reporter notes, allow administrators “significant latitude in how they respond.”

Discipline rates in DC schools (click for larger version)

And things really have changed in schools since many of us were kids: “Suspensions have surged nationally since the 1970s, fueled in part by a zero-tolerance culture.”

“‘We associate getting kicked out of school with something really really bad, but there has been a sea change in recent years in what kids get suspended for and how often we use suspension,’ said researcher Daniel J. Losen, who recently authored a report on suspension and disparities for the National Education Policy Center at the University of Colorado.”

Russell Skiba

The disparities are troubling, the reporter says, especially for parents who may already be suspicious of an unbalanced ledger in school administration:

“Lea Collins-Lee, an African American parent in Prince George’s [County], said her eldest son was first suspended a decade ago for placing an extra dessert on his cafeteria tray. Last month, her youngest son, now 18, was suspended for five days after a tussle that she said he did not start.

“‘I really do think it’s harder for black kids,’ she said. ‘If they get into a fight, it’s a gang fight. If white kids get into a fight, it’s a disagreement.’”

For those who suggest a suspension may be no big deal, a recent Texas study drew a stark line between school discipline and the likelihood of dropping out and ending up in the juvenile justice system. And as I noted Tuesday, a criminal record may be forever. (Here is another study examining disparities in the Virginia schools.)

In the Post article, a researcher answered in advance one of the questions many may have:

“‘It is not just a matter of kids coming from poverty,’ [Indiana University’s Russell] Skiba said. ‘Poor kids do get suspended more. But that does not explain why poor black kids get suspended more than poor white kids and why affluent black kids get suspended more than affluent white kids.’”

Angela Ciolfi

Donna St. George quotes another researcher, Angela Ciolfi of the Legal Aid Justice Center, which published the study of Virginia schools:

“I think people assume it has to be this way. [But], when schools pay attention to who gets in trouble and why, they find they are able to reduce misbehavior overall and also address the discipline gap.”

What do you think of this discipline gap? Do you see it in Arizona? And for those in the juvenile justice system, what do you think of the notion that wielding too much discipline in schools provides a gateway to the courthouse?

Do you feel safer seeing security guards in public places? Or do you get more of a sense of safety when you see uniformed, sworn police officers?

That was one of the questions posed in a news story earlier this week (from the Washington Post and posted on the Arizona Attorney Magazine News Center). The story explains how there has been a huge proliferation in the number of security guards nationwide since 9-11. But is that a good thing?

As if on cue, an Arizona Republic story yesterday reported that it appears Phoenix will soon join other cities in replacing sworn police officers on Metro Light Rail duty. Instead, security guards will provide safety—and ticket-checking—duties.

The article also went to some lengths to explain that the change would cost no additional public money. That would be a real trick—getting something additional for nothing—so it took only a little more reading to see that it would actually cost us something:

“The switch to G4S for passenger monitoring won’t cost the city any extra money. It won’t save Phoenix any money, either, but it will improve oversight of passengers.

“[Cmdr. Jeff Alexander of the Phoenix Public Transit Police Bureau] said that with the change, the bureau would shift $770,000 to Metro light rail to pay for the private-security service. That money would otherwise have paid for filling several vacancies at the bureau: two sergeants, four police assistants and two municipal security guards.”

G4S Security guard

So public monies—and police positions—would be transferred to a private entity, albeit for a public purpose. Given the realities of City budget politics, those are dollars and police positions that we are unlikely to ever see return.

Of course, if the service the public receives from the guards is at least as good as that of the police, it may be a good deal that is being executed (assuming, of course, that a formal RFP and weighing of private options was done, and this was not a single-vendor contract with no analysis of alternatives).

But much of what police and security provide is peace of mind and a deterrent effect, so public impressions about this change in service matter a lot.

Where do you stand on the privatization of security services? Does it have its place? Is it appropriate in some scenarios but not others? Is this national shift an improvement, a detriment, or of little moment one way or the other?

Post your thoughts below, or write to me at arizona.attorney@azbar.org.

OK, I am willing to admit that I take the whole Watergate scandal rather personally. But for me and many others, Watergate was a watershed. And for some of us, it hit pretty close to home.

As the surreal nature of 1973 devolved into the constitutional crisis of 1974, I was but a wee lad in upstate New York. When the news of a mundane break-in came in the newspapers (young people, ask the old people what those were), no one in my family (and few in the news media) had an inkling that it would eventually bring down a presidency.

Whenever the Watergate hearings were televised, they were on in my house. And so powerful was the testimony and so compelling the questioners, it occurred to a young me that it would be honorable to be a United States Senator (thanks a lot, Sam Ervin). It took fully three more decades to understand the folly of that estimation.

But by the time the hearings had done their work and shown the Nixon presidency to be the hollow criminal enterprise that it was, the summer of 1974 was over, and we all awaited what we thought would be the inevitable.

Until my 12th birthday on September 8. On that fateful day, President Gerald Ford pardoned his predecessor of all crimes. It was over—but so incomplete.

“He can’t do that!” I insisted to my dad, who stared, ashen, at the TV.

I look happy, but a constitutional crisis gnawed at a nation.

“Well, yes, yes, I think he can,” gulped a man who had spent the summer telling his sons that we were witnessing the wheels of democracy working toward a just conclusion.

The rest of that birthday holds no memories for me. The TV was blissfully turned off, and the house, myself included, sank into a lethargy of mourning. For at least one 12-year-old, President Ford had exercised his first and last decision of any import, and it was cast in infamy.

Looking back, of course, I can see I was a dramatic young man. But it’s hard to shake the notion that a nation’s cynicism was poured in lead by Nixon and hardened in a steaming bath by Ford.

And that’s why this week’s little news item about a DC parking garage cheered me, just a little.

At long last, a historic marker has been erected outside the garage where Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward met with FBI deputy director Mark Felt (code-named “Deep Throat” by a Post editor who could be pretty dramatic himself). There, amid the screech of tires and the odor of gasoline, Felt provided valuable information about the obstruction of the FBI’s Watergate investigation. That information, and what the Post did with it, underscored the belief that we are a nation of laws, and not of men.

As the nearly interminable 18-month presidential campaign rouses itself into an extended exercise in obstreperous obscurity and oppressive obloquy, I would invite each of the candidates to stop by the garage. Pause between the dog-walkers and the valet-parkers. Block out the taxi honks, and read the sign.

And then ask yourself if you aspire to the greatness that two men demonstrated in a dark, dank garage. Ask whether you care enough about a country and its institutions that you would take real risks to expose the crimes and misdemeanors of the nation’s most powerful people. Ask whether you would pursue justice doggedly and with a conviction that a democratic people deserve nothing less.

And then—and only then—return to the campaign trail.

Here’s what a former disillusioned Cub Scout thinks: A visit like that would have to make every one of the candidates more qualified for the job of President.

Hell, it’s worth a shot.

Artist's depiction of the Civil War's opening bombardment on April 12, 1861, during which Confederate forces fired on Fort Sumter for 34 hours from James Island, Sullivan's Island, Mount Pleasant and Morris Island. (Currier and Ives/ Library of Congress)

A solemn and bloody and poignant anniversary comes our way today. For it was 150 years ago that the Civil War’s opening bombardment was launched. As we all learned in school, it was aimed at Fort Sumter in Charleston, S.C. But its true target was a unified nation.

We know how that battle and that war ended. But today, enjoy a well-wrought story about the remarkable Sumter, a fortification that sat in the cross-hairs of a harbor–and that remains a central part of American history.

The tale is told by Michael Ruane, of the Washington Post. Near his tale’s opening, he relates:

“The bells of white-steepled St. Michael’s church strike 4 a.m. The minutes pass. At 4:30, there is the distant flash of James’s gun. A delayed boom, like a firework on the Fourth of July.

“And the single shell fired by the fledgling Confederacy is lofted toward the Union garrison holed up in the brick fort. The last few seconds of the old America seem suspended for an instant before the shell explodes, changing the nation forever.”

Read the complete story here.

David Broder in front of his Washington Post

Like most everyone who ever uses a pen to communicate with others, I was struck by the death in March of Washington Post reporter David Broder, known as the “Dean of the Washington press corps.” He was a remarkable journalist, and colorful, to boot.

That color comes out vividly in a story in his own newspaper earlier this week. Among the gems is the opening lede about a postcard Broder once sent to his 5-year-old son. But just as valuable are the insights the reporter shares about Broder’s views of the world and of his chosen profession.

Read the complete story here. (And be sure to click on the story’s opening photo, which will take you to a slide show of photos of and about Broder.)