Bill Cosby’s sex assault conviction overturned by Pa. Supreme Court

A photograph of Bill Cosby

Pennsylvania’s highest court overturned Bill Cosby’s sex assault conviction Wednesday after finding an agreement with a previous prosecutor prevented him from being charged in the case.

Cosby has served more than two years of a three- to 10-year sentence at a state prison near Philadelphia. He had vowed to serve all 10 years rather than acknowledge any remorse over the 2004 encounter with accuser Andrea Constand.

The 83-year-old Cosby, who was once beloved as “America’s Dad,” was convicted of drugging and molesting the Temple University employee at his suburban estate.

He was charged in late 2015, when a prosecutor armed with newly unsealed evidence — Cosby’s damaging deposition from her lawsuit — arrested him days before the 12-year statute of limitations expired.

The trial judge had allowed just one other accuser to testify at Cosby’s first trial, when the jury deadlocked. However, he then allowed five other accusers to testify at the retrial about their experiences with Cosby in the 1980s.

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court said that testimony tainted the trial, even though a lower appeals court had found it appropriate to show a signature pattern of drugging and molesting women.

Cosby was the first celebrity tried and convicted in the #MeToo era, so the reversal could make prosecutors wary of calling other accusers in similar cases. The law on prior bad act testimony varies by state, though, and the ruling only holds sway in Pennsylvania.

Prosecutors did not immediately say if they would appeal or seek to try Cosby for a third time.

The justices voiced concern not just about sex assault cases, but what they saw as the judiciary’s increasing tendency to allow testimony that crosses the line into character attacks. The law allows the testimony only in limited cases, including to show a crime pattern so specific it serves to identify the perpetrator.

In New York, the judge presiding over last year’s trial of movie mogul Harvey Weinstein, whose case had sparked the explosion of the #MeToo movement in 2017, let four other accusers testify. Weinstein was convicted and sentenced to 23 years in prison. He is now facing separate charges in California.

In Cosby’s case, one of his appellate lawyers said prosecutors put on vague evidence about the uncharged conduct, including Cosby’s own recollections in his deposition about giving women alcohol or quaaludes before sexual encounters.

“The presumption of innocence just didn’t exist for him,” Jennifer Bonjean, the lawyer, argued to the court in December.

In May, Cosby was denied paroled after refusing to participate in sex offender programs during his nearly three years in state prison. He has long said he would resist the treatment programs and refuse to acknowledge wrongdoing even if it means serving the full 10-year sentence.

This is the first year he was eligible for parole under the three- to 10-year sentence handed down after his 2018 conviction.

Cosby spokesperson Andrew Wyatt called the parole board decision “appalling.”

Prosecutors said Cosby repeatedly used his fame and “family man” persona to manipulate young women, holding himself out as a mentor before betraying them.

Cosby, a groundbreaking Black actor who grew up in public housing in Philadelphia, made a fortune estimated at $400 million during his 50 years in the entertainment industry. His trademark clean comedy and homespun wisdom fueled popular TV shows, books and standup acts.

He fell from favor in his later years as he lectured the Black community about family values, but was attempting a comeback when he was arrested.

“There was a built-in level of trust because of his status in the entertainment industry and because he held himself out as a public moralist,” Assistant District Attorney Adrienne Jappe, of suburban Montgomery County, argued to the justices.

Cosby had invited Constand to an estate he owns in Pennsylvania the night she said he drugged and sexually assaulted her.

Constand, a former professional basketball player who worked at his alma mater, went to police a year later. The other accusers knew Cosby through the entertainment industry and did not go to police.

The AP does not typically identify sexual assault victims without their permission, which Constand has granted.

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At Ohio rally, Trump knocks Biden on border, hints at 2024 plans

Official White House presidential portrait. Head shot of Trump smiling in front of the U.S. flag, wearing a dark blue suit jacket with American flag lapel pin, white shirt, and light blue necktie.

At his first rally since leaving the White House, former President Donald Trump on Saturday lambasted the Biden administration's immigration policies and sought to energize Republicans to take back majorities in Congress next year. 

  Appearing to relish being back in front of thousands of supporters, Trump repeated his false claim that his defeat in the November 2020 election was marred by fraud. 

  Trump left office in the aftermath of the deadly Jan. 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol by his supporters, shortly after a speech in which he urged a crowd to "fight" when then President-elect Joe Biden's victory was about to be certified by lawmakers. 

  Trump survived a second impeachment on a charge linked to the violence and has kept broad influence over the Republican Party, in part by leaving open the question of whether he will run for office again in 2024. 

  He dangled that possibility on Saturday to the crowd. 

  "We won the election twice and it's possible we'll have to win it a third time. It's possible," he said. 

  Trump won the 2016 election against former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. He lost in 2020. 

  Whether he runs again could be influenced by the outcome of various legal troubles. The Manhattan district attorney’s office has told Trump's lawyers it is considering filing criminal charges against his family business, the New York Times reported on Friday. 

  The former president highlighted parts of his regular grievance list at the rally, with particular focus on the rising number of immigrants crossing over the U.S. southern border, an issue Republicans have zeroed in on to rally their voters. 

  "You have millions of people coming into our country. We have no idea who they are. Joe Biden is doing the exact opposite as we did," Trump said. 

  Biden's White House has called Trump's immigration policies inhumane. 

  While keeping his political plans vague, the former president spoke forcefully in favor of getting his party back in control of the U.S. House of Representatives and Senate. 

  "We will take back the House, we will take back the Senate, and we will take back America, and we will do it soon," he said. 

  Democrats' razor-thin majorities in both chambers of Congress will be on the line in the 2022 midterm elections and history favors Republicans' chances of gaining seats in those contests. 

  While Trump has made speeches at Republican events since his defeat, the rally in Ohio, a state he won in 2020, marked a return to the freewheeling mass gatherings that have been critical to retaining the support of his enthusiastic base. 

  He campaigned for former White House aide Max Miller, who has launched a primary challenge against Representative Anthony Gonzalez, one of the 10 House Republicans https://www.reuters.com/article/usa-trump-republicans-impeachment-idINKBN29I1A8 who voted to impeach Trump on a charge of inciting the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol that left five dead, including a Capitol Police officer. 

  Trump has vowed to campaign against all 10. He endorsed a challenger to Senator Lisa Murkowski, the only one of the seven Senate Republicans https://www.reuters.com/article/us-usa-trump-impeachment-senators-factbo/factbox-seven-republicans-vote-to-convict-trump-in-impeachment-trial-idUSKBN2AD0AO who voted to convict him in his January impeachment trial who is up for re-election in 2022. 

  The Ohio event in Wellington, about 40 miles (64 km) southwest of Cleveland, was the first of three expected public appearances, followed by a trip to the U.S.-Mexico border with Texas Governor Greg Abbott on June 30 and a rally in Sarasota, Florida, on July 3. 

  Supporters said they hoped Trump would use such events to help unify the party behind like-minded candidates for Congress. 

  Trump repeatedly attacked what he called "woke generals," following an exchange this week in which the top U.S. military officer hit back https://www.reuters.com/world/us/top-us-general-hits-back-right-wing-uproar-over-racism-teachings-2021-06-23 against a growing conservative movement opposed to teaching certain theories about racism. 

  "Our generals and our admirals are now focused more on this nonsense than they are on our enemies," Trump said. 

  He criticized the media, a regular foil, and tried to co-opt the phrase "Big Lie," which critics have used to describe his efforts to discredit the 2020 results. 

  Trump's repeated false claims of election fraud have taken hold of Republican voters. Some 53% of Republicans believe Trump won the 2020 election and blame his loss on illegal voting, and one quarter of the overall public agreed that Trump won, a Reuters/Ipsos poll found. 

  Rally attendee Tyler Voyik, 64, said he came to the rally to show his support for Trump, who he voted for in 2016 and 2020. 

  Voyik lives in Ohio but spends a lot of time in Florida. He would support Trump if he got the nomination in 2024 but would prefer Florida Governor Ron DeSantis. 

  "I think he could do better by supporting somebody else, but if he runs I’ll support him," Voyik said. "If he wins the nomination I’ll support him all the way." 

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DOJ Sues Georgia, Says GOP-Backed Restrictions Unlawfully Target Black Voters

The crest of the United States Department of Justice (DOJ) is seen at their headquarters in Washington, D.C., U.S., May 10, 2021. REUTERS/Andrew Kelly/File Photo

The Justice Department has made its first move against one of the voting laws passed in the wake of Donald Trump’s lies about the 2020 election.

The Justice Department is suing the state of Georgia, it announced Friday, over a restrictive voting law passed in response to former President Donald Trump’s lies about mass voter fraud in the 2020 election.

The lawsuit, which was first reported by Mother Jones, will allege that the Georgia law was enacted with the purpose of denying or abridging the rights of Black voters in the state.

The Justice Department alleges that Georgia’s law was passed through a rushed process that departed from normal procedure, and contained provisions ― including limits on drop boxes for absentee ballots and on providing food and water to voters waiting in long lines ― that were passed with unlawful discriminatory intent.

A New York Times analysis of the law, which was signed by Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp (R), found 16 key provisions that limit ballot access in the state, particularly in urban and suburban counties that lean Democratic.

The lawsuit is being filed eight years to the day after the Supreme Court, in a majority opinion written by Chief Justice John Roberts, struck down key provisions of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Those provisions required states with a history of racist voting laws to get preclearance from the federal government before implementing new voting laws.

Three longtime voting rights advocates ― Associate Attorney General Vanita Gupta, Assistant Attorney General Kristen Clarke and Principal Deputy Assistant Attorney General Pam Karlan ― now hold key positions at the Justice Department.

Attorney General Merrick Garland said earlier this month that the Biden administration would “rededicate the resources of the Department of Justice to a critical part of its original mission: enforcing federal law to protect the franchise for all eligible voters.”

The department plans to hire additional staff to work on voting rights cases. Garland said the department would double its staff within 30 days.

“There are many things open to debate in America,” Garland said. “But the right of all eligible citizens to vote is not one of them. The right to vote is the cornerstone of our democracy, the right from which all other rights ultimately flow.”

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In pandemic, drug overdose deaths soar among Black Americans

She screamed and cried, banged on the dashboard, begging her husband to drive faster, faster, faster toward her brother lying face-down on his bedroom floor. 

Craig Elazer had struggled all his life with anxiety so bad his whole body would shake. But because he was Black, he was seen as unruly, she said, not as a person who needed help. Elazer, 56, had started taking drugs to numb his nerves before he was old enough to drive a car. 

Now his sister, Michelle Branch, was speeding toward his apartment in an impoverished, predominantly Black neighborhood in north St. Louis. His family had dreaded the day he would die of an overdose for so long that his mother had paid for his funeral in monthly installments. 

It was September, and as the COVID-19 pandemic intensified America’s opioid addiction crisis in nearly every corner of the country, many Black neighborhoods like this one suffered most acutely. The portrait of the opioid epidemic has long been painted as a rural white affliction, but the demographics have been shifting for years as deaths surged among Black Americans. The pandemic hastened the trend by further flooding the streets with fentanyl, a potent synthetic opioid, in communities with scant resources to deal with addiction. 

In the city of St. Louis, deaths among Black people increased last year at three times the rate of white people, skyrocketing more than 33%. Black men in Missouri are now four times more likely than a white person to die of an overdose. 

Dr. Kanika Turner, a local physician leading the charge to contain the crisis, describes the soaring death rate as a civil rights issue as pressing and profound as any other. The communities now being hit hardest are those already devastated by the war on drugs that demonized Black drug users, tore families apart and hollowed out neighborhoods by sending Black men to prison instead of treatment, she said. Even today, Black people in the United States are more likely to be in jail for drug crimes and less likely to access treatment. 

Last year, George Floyd died in Minneapolis under a police officer’s knee. He had fentanyl in his system and some of the officer’s defenders tried to blame the drugs for his death. The world exploded in rage. 

“That incident on top of the pandemic rocked the boat and shook all of us. It ripped the Band-Aid off a wound that has always been there,” said Turner, who grew in the same neighborhoods where Elazer lived, beset by addiction, poverty and one of the highest murder rates in America. “We’re undoing history of damage, history of trauma, history of racism.” 

Pastors are now marching into the city jail to train inmates how to survive once they get outside. They host mobile treatment centers in their parking lots. They make an appeal to their congregations: Do not numb the pain of violence and racism with drugs. Don’t let the next funeral be for you.

Branch for decades begged God to deliver her brother from addiction. She would lie awake at night imagining him dead in a ditch or dark alley, with nothing in the world but the clothes on his back. 

She was hysterical by the time she arrived at his apartment. 

The cousin who found him said he was sorry; Elazer had been alone and dead for hours. They tried to convince her not to go inside, but she wanted to see him. 

As Branch looked down at his body, she felt calm come over her. 

“Society failed him,” she said. “And I had a sense that he’d finally been set free.”

____ 

When the Rev. Burton Barr drives to the city jail, he passes a corner store with a sign painted on its side: “Drugs ... the new slavery!” 

“That’s true,” Barr said.

He calls himself “the hoodlum preacher” and he goes to the jail twice a week to try to save people from the addiction that consumed his life for 22 years. 

He was swept up when heroin inundated Black communities in the 1960s and transitioned to cocaine in the 1980s. The face of addiction then was inner-city Black people like him, and they were criminalized. Barr once tried to tally the number of times he went to jail, and he stopped counting at 30. 

“It was not a war on drugs. It was a war on us,” said Barr, in recovery since 1991. “It devastated our communities.”

Harsh sentencing laws passed in the 1980s were far more brutal on crack cocaine users, who were more likely to be Black, than they were for powder cocaine users, who were more likely to be white. A person convicted of possessing five grams of crack got the same sentence as someone with 100 times more powder. Black men went to prison by the tens of thousands. 

Addiction was not widely accepted as a public health crisis — with a focus on treatment instead of incarceration — until recent years, only once it started killing white teens in the suburbs, Barr said.

The timeline of the current opioid epidemic begins in the late 1990s, and unfolds in three waves. The first arrived when pharmaceutical companies campaigned to expand prescribing painkillers and addiction spread through struggling, predominantly-white communities like Appalachia. 

The second came when the government cracked down on prescriptions and many turned to heroin; then the third when fentanyl, 50 times more potent than heroin, was laced into opioids sold on the street. 

Some researchers believe the nation is entering a fourth wave. The drug supply is so messy and unpredictable that people overdosing have multiple drugs in their system: dangerous cocktails of fentanyl, a depressant, and stimulants like cocaine and methamphetamine.

A lot of illicit fentanyl is manufactured in Wuhan, China, where COVID-19 was first unleashed. Lockdowns initially disrupted the supply, said Vanda Felbab-Brown, a Brookings Institute fellow who studies trafficking. 

In St. Louis, the drug trade became even more chaotic: People who used to know where their drugs were coming from no longer did. Fentanyl for a time was hard to find, and some turned to less-potent heroin. 

But the Chinese laboratories rebounded and resumed shipping the chemicals to Mexico, where cartels process them, Felbab-Brown said. Pandemic border closures presented cartels with added incentive to traffic fentanyl: It is incredibly potent and profitable. The equivalent of a trunkful of heroin or cocaine can be carried across the border in a small suitcase. 

Mexican soldiers are finding people at checkpoints ferrying tens of thousands of fentanyl pills. Navy personnel caught two men on a boat on the Sea of Cortez trying to smuggle 100,000. Mexican authorities raided a fentanyl factory in Chalco, a slum on the outskirts of Mexico City, where the drug was processed by the tons, so much they needed a forklift to move it. 

In St. Louis, fentanyl flooded back to the streets. The death count exploded early last summer, said Rachel Winograd, a professor at the University of Missouri-St. Louis who tracks the state’s overdose data. In the first six months of 2020, deaths increased 64% among Black people from the same period the year before, and 40% among white people. 

Other cities saw a similar pattern. Doctors in Philadelphia found that in the first few months of the pandemic, overdoses increased more than 50% for Black people while decreasing for whites. In Massachusetts, health officials announced that overdose deaths among Black men soared in 2020 by nearly 70%. 

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that more than 92,000 Americans died of overdose in the 12 months ending in November, the highest number ever recorded. That data is not broken down by race. 

But researchers at the University of California, Los Angeles, analyzed emergency medical calls nationwide and found an overall increase of 42% in overdose deaths in 2020. The largest increase was for Black people, with a spike of more than 50%. 

One day last summer in St. Louis, Lynda Brooks went into a bathroom to smoke what she thought was crack. She felt strange, sat down and remembers only darkness. Once she was revived from a fentanyl overdose, she wondered if she’d been in hell. 

She was so scared that for days she kept the lights on to try to resist going to sleep. 

Brooks, a 55-year-old grandmother, had been addicted to crack for decades. She was often homeless and life out there was hard. She was assaulted, spit on, her husband died. So she took more drugs to escape feeling sad or scared or worthless. 

Soon after she overdosed, she went to a community center. She told them if she didn’t get help she knew she would die. 

Brooks has been in recovery now for seven months, and she prays to remain scared of the drugs. She got a job and an apartment, and proudly keeps her new keys dangling from a shoelace around her neck. Her family told her they are proud of her. She said that feels like heaven. 

Pastor Marsha Hawkins-Hourd smiled at Brooks from the sidewalk. 

“You make me so happy,” called Hawkins-Hourd, who runs the Child and Family Empowerment Center that helped Brooks find treatment and housing. “A lot of people fail. And it hurts when they fail. But you wipe all that away.” 

She is part of a network of faith leaders and grassroots activists trying to overcome the distrust people have for the systems that typically address addiction but are infested with systemic racism, she said. 

She looks at block after block of falling-down buildings in the north side of the city. She sees them as a symbol of her neighbors who were deeply traumatized, then abandoned with limited access to treatment. 

At some point, these houses were filled with hope and life, she said. Then society left them to crumble as men were sent to prison and families buckled. Now the windows are broken out, their roofs caving in, weeds choking their insides. 

“Mass incarceration and the war on drugs are the roots and all of this is the thorns,” she said. “It is a set-up for failure, a set-up to continue in the same cycle of poverty and death.” 

Jerry Simmons sometimes imagines himself lying in one of those vacant houses where he sleeps, dead for days from an overdose before anyone discovers him. 

He arrived in a church parking lot before dawn to be first in line for a mobile treatment van scheduled to arrive as part of a new state-funded effort to reach people like him. 

“I just want to be a normal person back in society, working, living, loving, playing with my grandkids, making my kids be proud of me,” said Simmons, 49, who’s been addicted for 30 years, homeless and in and out of prisons. 

When he climbed into the van, it had been about eight hours since he last snorted fentanyl, at 1:37 a.m. The crippling withdrawal symptoms would set in soon, he knew: aches down to the bone, diarrhea, shakes, insomnia. 

To give himself strength, he wore a T-shirt printed with the face of his friend, killed in a hail of bullets 30 years ago. Simmons grew up near this church on the most murderous mile of road in one of America’s most dangerous cities.

“There’s death all around here,” he said. Three friends have died in the last month, two to gun violence and one to overdose. The drugs, at first, helped him escape. 

He sat down across from a recovery coach from Hawkins-Hourd’s organization, which partnered with a treatment provider to usher people here. 

“In the past 30 days, have you experienced serious depression?” she asked him. 

“Yes.” 

“Have you neglected family because of your use of drugs?” 

“Yes.”

“Have you lost a job because of drug use?”

“Yes,” he said again. Addiction has taken everything from him.

“I’m tired.” 

He was there to enroll in a treatment program that includes a prescription for the medication buprenorphine, which has been found to greatly reduce the likelihood of overdose death. But researchers have found that white patients are far more likely than Black patients to receive it. Black people instead tend to be steered toward methadone, which is distributed in highly regulated programs that often require standing in line daily before dawn. 

“That is the worst form of segregation: one for the white, well-to-do people, one for the rest,” said Dr. Percy Menzies, president of Assisted Recovery Centers of America, the company stationing mobile units on street corners and church parking lots. “The tsunami of fentanyl is absolutely frightening, and they have virtually no safety net.” 

Addiction is treatable with medication and therapy, he said. But he knows they can’t expect to show up in white lab coats and ask people to trust them right away.

He started going to Black churches to bring pastors on board.

Minister Lacha Hughes heard him speak at her church on a Saturday, and the next day her niece, Natisha Stansberry, called her hysterical. Most of her life, Stansberry, 30, used drugs to self-medicate her mental distress. She was raped as a child and attempted suicide. In 2016, her 23-year-old brother was murdered. Stansberry wished it would have been her instead. 

“I wanted to be the best I could be, but I went down the drain,” she said. “I want to get myself together.” 

She was weeping into the phone that she was scared of dying; two of her friends had overdosed, one was dead and one in the hospital. Hughes ushered Stansberry into Menzies’ clinic. Until now, all she ever knew to do for her was pray. 

It had felt to her like they'd had no help. In a crisis, many here are even hesitant to call 911 because they fear the police. 

Now all over town, people walk around wearing little red backpacks, passed out by activists like Jerome Anderson, trying to saturate the streets with the overdose reversal medication Narcan so they can save each other. 

He calls at passers-by: “Hey, take some Narcan. Save a life. I’m tired of going to family funerals.” 

Anderson, in recovery for 26 years, sang at three cousins’ funerals in the last six months, all dead from overdose. He works for a grassroots public health group called Williams and Associates and his mission is to keep people alive so that one day they can find their way to recovery. 

He carries around a cover letter that lets people know he’s not a cop. Sometimes drug dealers let him stand next to them, to hand their customers his kits. 

Jamilia Allen has used Narcan to revive her friends, more than once. She’s terrified of fentanyl, but she’s tried and tried to shake her heroin and crack addiction. 

“It’s designed to kill us, and that’s what it’s going to do. It takes your soul. If it don’t kill you physically, it’s going to kill you emotionally, kill all your dreams,” she said. “I really want my life back, but I can’t grasp it.” 

Allen, 31, was once an honor roll student and the captain of her high school cheerleading squad, and back then she judged people desperate for drugs. 

She went to Walmart recently and was jealous of a woman buying a shower curtain. She wants a life that simple, and she fantasizes about someone sending her to a place like Malibu, where the rich white people go to kick addiction. 

She was for a long time ashamed of her life: prostitution, being raped, beaten, thrown out naked in the snow. But now, she said, she wants people to know. 

“I’m not going to let this kill me, and if I can help anyone else,” she said, "then that’s one less person like me.” 

___ 

All Michelle Branch has left of her brother fits into a little green shopping bag.

The Bible she bought him one time when he got sober and wrote “One Day at a Time” on the title page. 

There’s the baby book her mother put together, with so much hope when she taped a lock of his hair to the pages. There are report cards chronicling a bright child, loved by teachers but struggling to focus. 

By third grade, he could read as well as a sixth-grader. He and his mother, a teacher, would read the newspaper cover to cover. He liked cowboy stories. 

But he was anxious and jittery. Had he been diagnosed and treated, Branch believes he would be alive today. 

“But they didn’t catch hyperactivity or bipolar back then, especially not in little Black kids. We were just unruly, undisciplined, this much removed from being an animal,” Branch said, pinching her fingers so there was little space between them. 

Branch worked in the school system when the opioid epidemic began, white people were dying and pundits on TV said they needed to be saved from this public health tragedy. She wondered where they’d been when her brother was swirling into addiction. 

Drug Addiction: Different Types of Illegal Drugs

Their mother raised them alone and they didn’t have a lot of money. He told Branch he started drinking when he was 12, and soon progressed to drugs. He lived transiently, sleeping under overpasses, on dirty mattresses in dark alleys. 

She can’t count the number of times he tried to get sober. 

Their mother always worried he would die. She wrote on little slips of paper and left them all over the house: pinned to her bedroom lampshade, taped to the kitchen wall. “God is working this problem out for me,” they said. 

She got sick with cancer, but lingered for years. Her family believed she was holding on out of fear of what would happen to her son. 

She died worried about him. 

He was in and out of jail, mostly for petty offenses. But several years ago, an acquaintance alleged he sexually assaulted her while using drugs. His lawyer told them the odds were against him as a Black man accused of assaulting a white woman, Branch said. He pleaded guilty and spent three years in prison. 

He was released in May 2020, as the pandemic bore down. 

He couldn’t find a job. There were no recovery meetings in-person and he’d been so transient all his life he didn’t know how to use a smartphone. He was alone most of the time, with his 10-pound dog, Rico. 

One night they couldn’t reach him. His cousin, Carleton Smith, looked through the mail slot and saw him lying there. 

The first responders gathered over his body pointed to a paper plate on his bed with a pile of white powder. “Fentanyl,” they said. 

When Branch sat down to write his obituary, she decided to tell his truth. 

She wrote that he was a gentle soul but addiction destroyed him. 

“It would devastate his family, make him homeless, cause him to beg for money on the street, take his freedom, his sparkle and smile,” she wrote. 

“It would take and take and take until it took his life.” 

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Voting rights bill fails in Senate as focus shifts again to filibuster

US Capitol west side.JPG

The For the People Act, the sweeping voting rights bill championed by Democrats, was blocked in the Senate Tuesday as it failed to reach the 60-vote threshold needed to overcome a Republican filibuster in the evenly divided chamber.

The procedural vote to open debate on the bill was supported by all 50 Democrats and opposed by all 50 Republicans.

The legislation would have made it easier for people to vote by mandating 15 days of early voting and no-excuse absentee voting, allowing for same-day voter registration and unlimited ballot collection, enacting automatic registration for federal elections and lowering identification requirements.

President Joe Biden called the vote "the suppression of a bill to end voter suppression—another attack on voting rights that is sadly not unprecedented."

"This fight is far from over—far from over. I’ve been engaged in this work my whole career, and we are going to be ramping up our efforts to overcome again—for the people, for our very democracy," the president said in a statement.

It would also ban the practice of partisan gerrymandering, in which state legislatures redraw congressional districts in irregular shapes that are designed to give their party an advantage. Good-government advocates say that nonpartisan commissions should redraw the lines every 10 years, after each census.

Republicans, meanwhile, argue that the For the People Act is a sweeping federal power grab that includes numerous impractical provisions. Some election experts agree with this assessment.

The Democrats focused on securing a unified agreement among all 50 members of their party in the Senate, including centrists like Joe Manchin of West Virginia. Manchin last week released what he would like to see included, and he has been negotiating with other Senate Democrats to reach an agreement. On Tuesday afternoon, Manchin said he would vote in favor of moving forward with debate on the legislation, a win for Democrats.

Manchin would favor 15 days of early voting and making Election Day a public holiday, as well as automatic voter registration. But he also backs requiring voter ID and does not favor universal no-excuse absentee voting, two positions long embraced by many Republicans.

The Senate Democrats' unified front allowed them to approach Republican senators who might be open to supporting the bill, but also gives Democrats running for election in 2022 the ability to say that their party stood as one in favor of expanding voting access while Republicans would not even debate the issue. The odds of even Manchin’s proposal gaining the support of 10 Republicans are not at all high, and many see the demise of the effort as a fait accompli.

Two Republican senators who have voted with Democrats on some occasions — Susan Collins of Maine and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska — both panned the sweeping version of the bill favored by progressives. Murkowski called the original legislation “wholly partisan” and Collins criticized “over-the-top rhetoric” by Democrats.

But former President Barack Obama on Monday backed the Manchin effort and urged Republicans to join with Democrats in figuring out a way to increase both the security and the integrity of elections while also reducing barriers to voting.

“You’ve had President Obama come out,” Manchin told reporters in Washington, referring to the former president’s specific and unusual singling out of his compromise approach. “We’ve just got to keep working.”

If no agreement can be reached, the focus will shift to the filibuster rule, which has prevented Democrats from enacting key priorities without Republican support, like the elections bill overhaul.

Many progressives want Senate Democrats to vote to get rid of the legislative filibuster. Republicans eliminated the blocking procedure for Supreme Court nominations in 2017 in order to confirm Justice Neil Gorsuch, after Democrats got rid of it for judicial nominations other than the Supreme Court in 2013.

Democrats who want to do away with the legislative filibuster paint the current scenario in apocalyptic terms, saying that if the Senate does not pass the For the People Act, Republicans will be able to strong-arm and cheat their way to power in Congress, largely through voter suppression.

But that narrative doesn’t appear to have purchase with some number of Democrats, including possibly even President Biden.

It’s true that Republicans have supported legislation making it harder to vote for the last two decades, such as voter ID laws that allow gun permits but not college student IDs, limiting early voting and voting by mail, and removing people from voter rolls simply for not voting. They have also used dubious justification for doing so, claiming that serious fraud exists without ever providing evidence for their claims. On the other hand, studies suggest that turnout levels in elections do not have a partisan impact, and Democrats have not provided conclusive proof that voter suppression has kept their candidates from winning elections.

One of the most bitterly fought campaigns in which voter suppression became an issue was the 2018 Georgia gubernatorial election between Democrat Stacey Abrams and Republican Brian Kemp. Kemp oversaw the race in his capacity as secretary of state — essentially serving as referee in a game in which he was competing — and enacted a number of measures that clearly made it harder for minority and poor voters to cast ballots.

Kemp won and Abrams contested the result, refusing to say she lost a fair election. Since then she has become revered by Democrats and reviled by Republicans.

Many Democrats remain convinced not only that democracy is at stake but that their party cannot win elections in which turnout is lower, despite evidence to the contrary.

Critics say there is much to be concerned about regarding the direction of the GOP, as former President Donald Trump continues to spread lies about the 2020 election outcome, making wildly false claims that he somehow won despite the complete absence of any evidence. And many in his party continue to either spread these lies or go along with them.

In fact, Congress has not done anything yet to counter efforts in Republican-controlled states to make it easier for state legislatures to overturn, change or meddle with election results after Election Day. This is the issue, liberals and good-government activists argue, that has the capacity to truly bring down American democracy.

As for the voting rights bill, Biden has chosen to focus his administration until now on reaching a bipartisan infrastructure deal with Republicans. It’s a clear attempt, politically speaking, to create a Democratic brand that can appeal to centrists and moderates in national elections.

This is the central tension driving the drama inside the Democratic Party, between those who think the party can win only by driving up turnout and appealing to its base, and those who believe Democrats have to attract and maintain broader support. Data supports the latter group, showing that the electorate is fluid, not static, with tens of millions of low-information voters and many millions more who are eligible and could vote in future elections but have not yet done so.

Recent examinations of the last election by Democratic strategists have also shown that Latino voters in particular are not as locked into the Democratic fold as many in the party have believed.

The Senate’s failure to reach a bipartisan infrastructure deal could set the Biden White House and the Democratic Party on a path of building public support for reforming or abolishing the filibuster, or simply toward passing as much as they can through budget reconciliation, a limited tool but one that allows them to pass certain provisions with only 50 votes, with Vice President Kamala Harris playing the role of tiebreaker.

White House press secretary Jen Psaki on Tuesday vowed that Biden will not abandon the cause of voting rights, but is taking a somewhat longer view.

“This fight is not over no matter the outcome today,” Psaki told reporters. “It is going to continue."

She also said the White House believed that the vote would “prompt a new conversation” about the filibuster rule in Congress.

But the path to abolishing the legislative filibuster continues to look unlikely. Sen. Kyrsten Sinema, D-Ariz., reiterated her opposition to doing so in a Washington Post op-ed on Tuesday, and she and Manchin are just the two most outspoken Democrats in the Senate who do not want to get rid of the procedure.

In the meantime, Attorney General Merrick Garland has vowed to combat voter suppression laws with renewed vigor, doubling the number of lawyers in the Justice Department's civil rights division in response to a rash of laws that have made it harder to vote in many states.

The For the People Act passed the Democrat-controlled House in March on a near-party-line vote. Not one Republican voted for it.

Ahead of Tuesday’s vote, Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., excoriated his GOP colleagues over their opposition to expanding voting rights.

Schumer said there is a “rot at the center of the modern Republican Party” over efforts to restrict voting after Trump’s lies about the 2020 election.

An official statement of policy released by the Biden administration Tuesday warned that “democracy is in peril, here in America.”

“The right to vote — a sacred right in this country — is under assault with an intensity and an aggressiveness we have not seen in a long time,” the statement read. “This landmark legislation is needed to protect the right to vote, ensure the integrity of our elections, and repair and strengthen American democracy.”

 

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