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Recent editorials published in Nebraska newspapers

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News,Science and Technology

Omaha World-Herald. May 19, 2013.

Separation of powers

It's called "separation of powers," and there's a good reason for it. The legislative branch makes laws. The executive branch carries them out. The judicial branch interprets the law and applies it to the facts of cases brought to the courts.

That is why it raises concerns to learn that some Nebraska judges may have advocated positions about a proposed state law that those judges might one day be called upon to interpret.

Regardless of the pros and cons of State Sen. Russ Karpisek's bill, which would change how custody of children is awarded in divorce cases, the senator is right to raise a red flag about judicial lobbying. Judges need to exercise restraint when tempted to insert themselves into the lawmaking process.

The Nebraska Constitution gives the Legislature the power to make law. State senators can, and sometimes do, solicit input from the separate-but-equal executive and judicial branches of government.

The governor and his executive branch, by virtue of proposing budgets and veto power, have necessary and proper roles in that lawmaking process.

The independent judiciary does not, beyond a handful of instances when the judicial branch's budget is being considered or lawmakers are weighing significant structural changes to the court system.

That principled stance doesn't preclude lawmakers from calling on judges to testify about a bill's impacts or prevent judges from sharing their experience. Such counsel has great value. It recently helped lawmakers address how the state handles the sentencing of juvenile murderers.

But there's a difference between lawmakers asking judges for input and judges actively lobbying for specific legislative action.

The general rule for the judiciary should be to refrain when it comes to matters of politics and policy. Lawmaking is not their role in our government, nor should it be.

There is potential for conflicts of interest. Were Karpisek's bill to become law, how many fathers might be able to raise legal questions about impartiality if a judge who had lobbied for the law subsequently denied that father shared custody of a child after a divorce?

Admittedly, even judicial standards are unclear on proper engagement of lawmakers.

Supreme Court Chief Justice Mike Heavican pointed to a provision of the Nebraska Revised Code of Judicial Conduct, which prohibits judges from consulting with members of the Legislature "except in connection with matters concerning the law, the legal system or the administration of justice." It could be argued that Karpisek's bill fits those guidelines.

But does this bill affect how judges do their jobs any more than a change to the sentencing ranges for cocaine possession or rape or murder? Should judges be lobbying on those questions as well, or should they wait to be asked?

Unless it directly impacts the way their job is carried out — the number of judges, the number of secretaries, the condition of courtrooms — judges should be cautious.

Our court system is built on trust, and the polarization of modern-day politics has only magnified the public scrutiny of the independent judiciary. The court system does not need an albatross around its neck.

Members of the judicial branch have much wisdom to share with lawmakers. When they do so, it should be in the context of fact-finding, not lobbying legislators. Their decisions on matters of law need to be divorced from the politics of the day.

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Lincoln Journal Star. May 20, 2013.

Wrong priority on road safety

The recommendation from federal officials to lower the legal limit for drunken driving by almost half is too extreme.

The resources required to enforce the change from 0.08 percent blood alcohol content to 0.05 could be used more effectively by promoting other needed changes in driver behavior.

Multiple studies have shown that texting while driving is more dangerous than driving while over the current legal limit of 0.08 percent blood alcohol content. For example, a study by the Texas A&M Transportation Institute showed that texting drivers had reaction times twice as slow as drunken drivers.

Just last week, the Cohen Children's Medical Center in New York released a national study showing that texting while driving kills more teens every year than drunken driving. The center estimated that 3,000 teens are killed every year in crashes caused by texting, compared to 2,700 killed by drunken driving.

In making its recommendation, the National Transportation Safety Board cited the 10,000 people killed every year in alcohol-related crashes.

It's important to keep in mind, however, that the vast majority of those crashes involved drivers who had blood alcohol levels that exceed the current limit.

In Nebraska, 77 percent of the 84 alcohol-related fatal crashes in 2012 involved drivers with blood alcohol levels above the current limit of 0.08 percent.

Only 6.5 percent of the crashes involved drivers with blood alcohol levels between 0.08 percent and 0.05 percent, according to the Nebraska Office of Highway Safety. (In the remaining crashes the driver's alcohol level was either below 0.05 or unknown.)

A woman weighing 120 pounds would reach the legal limit of 0.05 percent after a single glass of wine. A 160-pound man would reach the limit after two glasses.

In other words, a couple out for dinner could find themselves unable to legally drive home.

No wonder Chad Withers of the Berry Law Firm called the proposal "ludicrous."

Nonetheless, the NTSB proposal must be taken seriously because it has succeeded in the past persuading states to lowering the legal blood alcohol level from 0.10 to 0.08. More than 100 countries have adopted the lower limit of 0.05, although actual enforcement varies widely.

Members of Nebraska's congressional delegation should use their influence in Washington to turn back proposals to use the promise of federal funding — or the punitive tool of taking away federal highway funding — to strong arm states into adopting the lower limit.

A better approach would be for the federal government to give states incentives to come up with ways to more successfully discourage texting while driving and to enforce the current alcohol limit more effectively. Pursuing those options would do more to make the roads safer than lowering the blood alcohol content limit.

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The Grand Island Independent. May 16, 2013.

Justice Dept. tramples on Constitution by secretly seizing AP phone records

The U.S. Justice Department overreached its bounds when it secretly seized phone records from 20 different lines from The Associated Press and its journalists. Two months of phone records were gathered, covering telephone and fax lines used by more than 100 journalists.

Justice officials claimed they were doing it as part of an investigation into a leak of information that led to an AP story on a CIA operation in Yemen to stop an airliner bomb plot. The story ran on May 7, 2012.

As AP's top executive said, this amounted to a massive and unprecedented intrusion into a news-gathering operation.

Attorney General Eric Holder, although he was not involved in the case, said the action was warranted to investigate a grave national security leak. Holder is badly mistaken. There is no justification for trampling on the First Amendment and what in reality is an attempt to influence the media and keep it from reporting what may be negative stories on what the government is doing.

This coming just days after it was revealed that IRS officials improperly targeted tea party groups for extra scrutiny is especially troubling. Is there an attitude in the Obama administration that is seeking out "political enemies" or those who won't do what they want for extra scrutiny and secret examination of phone records?

President Obama spoke out forcefully against the IRS targeting, calling it "intolerable and inexcusable." The secret seizing of AP's phone records is just as egregious, but White House officials say the president can't speak on the subject because of the ongoing investigation. Well, there are plenty of other people who can, and we expect members of Congress to speak out against it.

Security leaks are certainly serious matters. However, government officials need to investigate those making the leaks, not news organizations that may report them. There is no evidence that Justice Department officials exhausted the investigation on the government side and the burden is on them to prove they have before going after media outlets. Even then, any release of information is usually negotiated, not grabbed secretly. Furthermore, the broad reach of the seizure of AP records collected was almost entirely information not related to the investigation. What does Justice plan to do with that information?

The government doing such intrusive seizures can have a chilling effect on what the media reports and on government workers being willing to talk with the media. Government has no right or place trampling on the media and its right to report on the government, which is responsible to the people. The public has a right to know what its government is doing at all levels. Freedom of the press must be protected so it can serve as a watchdog of government and prevent encroachment on individual liberties and rights.

What is ironic is that the story in question really had no impact on national security. In fact, AP says it delayed reporting the story at the request of government officials. It was only after government officials said that national security concerns were allayed that AP went with the story.

The Associated Press at least deserves an apology from the Justice Department. The officials who went on this fishing expedition need reprimanded. And the Obama administration must reconfirm its commitment to the freedom of the press.

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North Platte Telegraph. May 19, 2013.

Splitsville for Obama and the lapdog media?

Imagine the Pulitzer Prizes that would have been handed out had President George W. Bush failed to rescue an ambassador and three other Americans in an attack on a U.S. consulate, used the IRS to single out Democratic interest groups, and tapped the phones of The Associated Press.

Imagine the media firestorm that would have resulted had Bush been the president when those events ensued. The news media would have been on Bush like a duck on a June bug. Champagne corks would be popping in big city newsrooms over their brave, heroic investigative reporting.

It would have been like Woodward and Bernstein all over again.

While all eyes this week are on President Barack Obama as a trifecta of scandals hit his administration, we think the real story may be that the honeymoon between the president once hailed as the most liberal member of the U.S. Senate and the liberal-dominated mainstream news media is finally over. What media critic (and CBS News veteran reporter) Bernard Goldberg once termed the "slobbering love affair" between the president and the predominantly liberal mainstream media may be on the rocks.

And that's a good thing.

In recent weeks, the Benghazi story was in danger of being overshadowed by the refusal of the major television networks and big newspapers to even cover the story. Many in the media were buying the president's theory that "there's no there, there," and they had to be dragged grudgingly into covering it.

The much-maligned Fox News, however, had been on the story since the Sept. 11, 2012, attack that killed Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans. Still mind boggling is the fact that the attack went on for almost eight hours, and our country's "rapid response" assets were never deployed. The old image of the cavalry riding to the rescue is apparently out of style, despite the billions we spend on defense.

How we could have left those four Americans to fend for themselves is the real question of Benghazi. And how we have come to a point when rescuing Americans is a crazy notion is a complete mystery to us.

Add to this the truly Nixonesque aura of using the IRS to delay and discourage Tea Party and other groups (some of which simply wanted to make the country run better) from achieving tax exempt status, and the brazen wiretapping of Associated Press reporters in a leak investigation, and you have what looks a lot like a presidential perfect storm, something even his fawning fans in the media can no longer ignore.

It was a precious moment last week when Obama press secretary Jay Carney told reporters that the Benghazi attack happened "a long time ago." Even pugnacious Nixon press secretary Ron Ziegler didn't have the audacity to tell Woodward and Bernstein that Watergate happened "a long time ago," and was therefore unimportant.

Maybe the tireless defenders of the president in the media can find a way to kiss and make up. Maybe there's a chance that the slobbering love affair can be saved.

We hope not. The loving coverage apparently lulled our president into thinking that his administration could do just about anything it wanted. It can't.

And his remarkably tough week demonstrated that even an adoring media has its limits.

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