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Human Rights

Civil Rights Advocates Call for Removal of Judge Mike Pitts



He Defended the Confederate Flag and Insulted Immigrants. Now He’s a Judge.

SOUTH CAROLINA (ProPublica) — When South Carolina lawmakers confirmed a batch of new magistrates this year, one nominee stood out from the pack: Mike Pitts.

The former state House member had made a name for himself in Columbia as a staunch defender of the Confederate flag, and on Facebook he has penned anti-immigration screeds and used racially charged language.

In May, for example, he posted a photo of New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker, an African American Democrat running for president. His caption: “Cory Booker alway [sic] looks like he just hit crack real hard.”

None of this, however, prompted any discussion in June, when the state Senate confirmed Pitts along with 33 other nominees for the lower courts.

Unlike South Carolina’s felony and appellate court judges, magistrates are not subjected to legislative hearings before lawmakers sign off on their appointments. In fact, there’s rarely any public debate at all. Nominations typically sail through the upper chamber with a single voice vote.

Although magistrates oversee mostly misdemeanor matters, their authority is substantial; each year, they decide hundreds of thousands of cases, including criminal ones that can send someone to prison for months or saddle them with thousands of dollars in fines.

But the confirmation process allows new recruits to escape public scrutiny and sitting magistrates to remain on the bench even after they’ve been disciplined for misconduct, an investigation by The Post and Courier and ProPublica found.

Some appointees have gone on to make racist and sexist comments from the bench.

Magistrate Willie Bethune in Clarendon County, for example, said a defendant was attractive and asked her to show off her bellybutton. He was later accused of pressuring that woman into giving him sexual favors. While he denied the charges, he resigned amid an investigation by the Office of Disciplinary Counsel, which polices judges and lawyers in the state.

Charleston Magistrate James Gosnell, who is white, used a racial slur during a bond hearing for an African American defendant and was reprimanded by the disciplinary office; he described it as an ill-considered attempt to get the man to change his path in life. The judge remains on the bench today, reappointed in May.

Beaufort County Magistrate Peter Lamb called crack cocaine “a black man’s disease” and later resigned. As part of an agreement with the state Supreme Court, he acknowledged misconduct in that instance — and in others — and promised to never seek judicial office again, without permission.

The Post and Courier and ProPublica found Pitts’ Facebook page while researching the backgrounds of all 319 magistrates in South Carolina. Like many magistrates, he doesn’t have a law license; to qualify for nomination to the lower courts, applicants need only to earn an undergraduate degree and pass a basic competency exam.

Pitts served as a police officer in South Carolina for a decade before retiring in 1987. Several of his posts appear at odds with key tenets of the state’s judicial code of conduct, which stresses impartiality and strict avoidance of words or actions that demonstrate bias or prejudice.

In a November 2017 post, he complained about people “from the Middle East” in Walmart and wrote, “after being subject to this incident I now support shutting down all immigration until we stop the demise of our culture.” And he has been recently photographed wearing a shirt reading, “Welcome to America Learn the Damn Language!”

In another post, Pitts criticized transgender people, saying “they aren’t sure what the hell they are.”

Pitts, a Republican who recently took the bench, didn’t respond to messages left by phone and email.

Civil rights advocates condemned Pitts’ remarks and called for his removal.

“A person with such racist and xenophobic views should not be placed in a position that will inevitably impact the lives of citizens in a diverse community,” said Ibrahim Hooper, national communications director for the Council on American-Islamic Relations. “Magistrate Pitts should be removed from his post in order to maintain the objectivity and impartiality of the South Carolina judicial system.”

Brenda Murphy, president of the South Carolina chapter of the NAACP, said her group is “totally against” the idea of Pitts donning the robe. “We would not want someone who has made those comments appointed as a magistrate in a local community,” she said.

Some state lawmakers also questioned Pitts’ fitness for the bench.

Republican state Rep. Gary Clary, a former state circuit judge, said the posts could be “grounds for recusal” in cases where people of color or transgender people appear before Pitts.

“That’s the reason judges don’t normally have Facebook and Twitter accounts,” Clary said. “You are supposed to be fair and impartial.”

State Sen. Dick Harpootlian, a Democrat, went further.“None of us were aware of these posts, or his ethnic and racially insensitive comments, which I think disqualify him as a fair or impartial judge,” Harpootlian, a longtime trial lawyer, said after The Post and Courier described Pitts’ posts.

“If I was Muslim or of Middle Eastern descent, I would be fearful of appearing in front of him.”

A spokesman for Gov. Henry McMaster said no one brought the posts to his attention before McMaster, a Republican, signed off on Pitts’ appointment this year. The governor declined to expand on the issue. ​

Chief Justice Donald Beatty of the South Carolina Supreme Court, who oversees all of the state’s court officials, also declined to comment.

A Republican who served 13 years in the legislature, Pitts has long stoked controversy. When state leaders pressed to remove the Confederate flag from Statehouse grounds in 2015 after the mass shooting at Charleston’s Emanuel AME Church, Pitts was a chief opponent.

This article was produced in partnership with The Post and Courier, which is a member of the ProPublica Local Reporting Network. ProPublica is a nonprofit newsroom that investigates abuses of power.

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Human Rights

Border Patrol Officials Dodged Congress’ Questions About Migrant Children’s Deaths



Border Patrol Officials Dodged Congress’ Questions About Migrant Children’s Deaths

by Robert Moore for ProPublica

WASHINGTON D.C. — The Trump administration sought to “conceal information” about the death of a 16-year-old Guatemalan boy in Border Patrol custody, a House subcommittee chairwoman said at a hearing Tuesday.

Rep. Kathleen Rice, D-N.Y., said the Department of Homeland Security has “consistently failed to maintain transparency by stymieing congressional inquiries. This raises concerns that they are hiding serious issues with management, in addition to the leadership vacancies at the top of the department. One example of this is the department’s decision to conceal information on the death of Carlos Hernandez Vasquez.”

Rice chairs the House Homeland Security Subcommittee on Border Security, Facilitation and Operations, which had a Tuesday hearing to examine DHS efforts to prevent child deaths in custody. Six migrant children died in government custody between September 2018 and May 2019, the first such deaths in a decade.

Much of the hearing focused on Carlos, who died on May 20 in a Border Patrol cell in Weslaco, Texas. A ProPublica investigation in December, which included video of Carlos’ last hours and death, raised questions about his treatment by Border Patrol agents and contracted medical workers as his condition deteriorated.

“Despite information requests by this committee, it was not until a ProPublica report was released seven months later that Congress and the public learned more about what happened to Carlos, that his death may have been caused by the failure to provide urgently needed medical care and the failure to follow the most basic procedures to simply check on a sick child,” Rice said in her opening statement.

Two high-ranking Homeland Security officials testified at the hearing, but neither responded to Rice’s criticism. The two officials — Border Patrol Chief of Law Enforcement Operations Brian Hastings and DHS Senior Medical Officer Dr. Alex Eastman — used their opening statements to stress the unprecedented nature of the surge of families and unaccompanied children at the border last year.

They said DHS quickly scaled up medical care for migrants at the border following the deaths of two children in December 2018, using medical professionals from the Coast Guard, Public Health Service and private contractors. Eastman said the surge of migrant families and children was “an unconventional problem that required an unconventional solution.”

Under questioning from Rice, Hastings said the video of Carlos’ death revealed by ProPublica was “troubling” but sidestepped questions about his death because of an ongoing investigation by the DHS Office of Inspector General.

Hastings described one change in “welfare checks” made in the wake of Carlos’ death. Records obtained by ProPublica showed that a Border Patrol agent logged three welfare checks on Carlos in the four hours he was lying on the floor of his cell, dying or dead. The medical examiner who performed an autopsy on Carlos told ProPublica that the agent looked through a window but didn’t enter the cell.

In July, then-Acting Customs and Border Protection Commissioner John Sanders ordered that “any subject in our custody” receive welfare checks every 15 minutes and be documented in the system, Hastings said.

Hastings’ word choice drew a sharp rebuke from Rice.

“You mean person, not subject, in your custody. Because that’s what they are. They’re people, not subjects,” Rice said.

“Person, yes ma’am,” Hastings said.

Inside the Cell Where a Sick 16-Year-Old Boy Died in Border Patrol Care

Rice and other Democrats criticized reports released last month by the DHS inspector general into the deaths of two Guatemalan children in Border Patrol custody in December 2018. The reports found no wrongdoing by agents in the deaths of Jakelin Caal Maquin, 7, and Felipe Gomez Alonzo, 8.

“Publicly available summaries of these investigations are extraordinarily narrow in scope. They focus only on whether DHS personnel committed malfeasance and not whether the department’s policies and resources could properly protect the children in its care,” Rice said. She criticized the inspector general for declining an invitation to testify before the subcommittee.

Rep. Xochitl Torres Small, D-N.M., also criticized the inspector general for taking a year to complete investigations of the two deaths. Jakelin and Felipe were both held by Border Patrol agents in her district.

“Even more concerning, the OIG limited its investigation scope to only determine whether there was malfeasance by personnel and did not consider whether CBP’s policies and procedures are adequate to prevent migrant child deaths,” Torres Small said. “As I’ve said from the beginning, the reason for these investigations is not to punish people, it’s to keep this from happening again. It’s to make sure that we have the protocols in place in case we’re faced with this challenge again.”

The DHS Office of Inspector General did not immediately respond to requests from ProPublica a hearing about the scope of the investigation or the reason for not testifying at Tuesday’s hearing.

ProPublica is an independent, nonprofit newsroom that produces investigative journalism with moral force. We dig deep into important issues, shining a light on abuses of power and betrayals of public trust. Follow on Twitter at @ProPublica 

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Affordable Housing

LA Rent Up 65% Over The Past Decade, Way Higher Than National Average



L.A. rent rose 65% over the last decade, study shows

LOS ANGELES (Los Angeles Times) — On Jan. 1, a sweeping rent control bill will take effect in California, capping yearly rent increases at 5% plus inflation and requiring just cause for eviction.

But after the last decade for L.A. renters, the new protections appear akin to putting a Band-Aid on a bullet wound, according to a new study from listing service RentCafe.

The report — which synthesized data from PropertyShark, Yardi Matrix and the U.S. Census Bureau — found that the average rent in the city of L.A. has ballooned to $2,527, a whopping 65% increase since 2010. That’s significantly higher than the national average rent increase of 36%.

In Westwood, rent is nearly double that. The Westside neighborhood of UCLA students and young professionals has an average rent of [,,,]

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Human Rights

CA Fights HHS Plans to Eliminate LGBTQ Anti-Discrimination Language



SACRAMENTO – California Attorney General Xavier Becerra, Massachusetts Attorney General Maura Healey, and Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro today co-led a coalition of 19 attorneys general in filing a comment letter blasting the Trump Administration’s latest effort to undermine the healthcare rights of LGBTQ individuals and families.

Under a new federal proposal, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) is attempting to eliminate explicit anti-discrimination language used in regulations governing federal grants that guarantees equal access to programs administered across the country.

The proposal would apply to a broad range of HHS grant programs, including maternal and child health grants, federally-assisted health training programs, Head Start programs, and mental health and substance abuse grants. LGBTQ families who foster and adopt children are among the most likely to be harmed by potentially being excluded from participation in federally funded child-welfare programs.

“This is the latest move from the Trump Administration’s playbook of denying people their rights and access to care based on who they love, no matter who it hurts – including children in need of loving homes,” said Attorney General Becerra. “This proposal is harmful and will damage critical programs that help our children, seniors, women, and families. In California, we will keep moving forward on behalf of all of our communities and families in the fight to defend our nation’s anti-discrimination protections.”

Under the proposed rule, HHS would eliminate explicit protections for “age, disability, sex, race, color, national origin, religion, gender identity, or sexual orientation” and replace them with a generic prohibition based on federal statute. However, the Trump Administration is already moving the goalposts on how it defines who is eligible for anti-discrimination protections under federal statutes.

For instance, the Trump Administration is currently in the process of working to undermine Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, which protects against discrimination based on sexual orientation or transgender status, before the U.S. Supreme Court. In the comment letter, the coalition notes that this HHS proposal is arbitrary and capricious and that the agency failed to provide any adequate explanation for the proposed rule.

Our nation has many children in need of safe, loving homes. Hundreds of thousands of children across the country are already in the foster care system and the proposed rule will create unnecessary barriers that impede qualified LGBTQ families from caring for these vulnerable children. 

There are an estimated 27,000 same-sex couples raising 58,000 children through adoption and foster-care across the United States. By allowing the denial of federally funded services to LGBTQ families, HHS will potentially deprive prospective LGBTQ foster and adoptive parents of the opportunity to provide a loving home to children in need.

Additionally, ensuring nondiscrimination in the provision of care and services to LGBTQ foster youth who are greatly overrepresented in the foster care system is vitally important. In 2015, almost 20 percent of youth in foster care identified as LGBTQ as compared to an estimated 8.3 percent in the general population.

Leading medical experts and organizations, such as the American Psychological Association, have recognized that discrimination can have significant health consequences, including on mental health. This proposal marks only the latest step the Trump Administration has taken to deny LGBTQ individuals, youth, and families access to care and critical social services.

Attorney General Becerra is committed to protecting the rights of the LGBTQ community in California and across the country. In August, Attorney General Becerra led a coalition opposing a Trump Administration proposal that would undermine HHS’ anti-discrimination protections for federal healthcare programs, benefits, and services. In July, the Attorney General joined a coalition of attorneys general to defend Title VII’s anti-discrimination protections before the U.S. Supreme Court.

In May, Attorney General Becerra led a coalition of states in asserting that gender non-binary individuals deserve full legal recognition of their accurate gender identity on passports.

Attorney General Becerra has also fought against discriminatory actions by the federal government threatening safe and equitable access to healthcare and education for members of the LGBTQ community. Additionally, in accordance with California law, the California Department of Justice develops and maintains a list of states that are subject to state-sponsored travel restrictions because of laws that authorize or require discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, gender identity, or gender expression.

In submitting the comment letter, Attorney General Becerra is joined by the attorneys general of Massachusetts, Pennsylvania, Colorado, Delaware, Hawaii, Illinois, Iowa, Maryland, Minnesota, Nevada, New Jersey, New York, North Carolina, Rhode Island, Vermont, Virginia, Washington, and the District of Columbia. 

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