Roundtable: Alito Hearings, New Orleans Recovery

Ed Gordon is joined by Mary Frances Berry, professor of history at the University of Pennsylvania; Eric Deggans, media critic for The St. Petersburg Times; and Michael Meyers, executive director of the New York Civil Rights Coalition. The group talks about the first day of Judge Samuel Alito's confirmation hearings and the latest news regarding New Orleans and the city's displaced Hurricane Katrina survivors.

ED GORDON, host:

This is NPR News. I'm Ed Gordon.

On today's Roundtable, the opening statements are done and today senators began what promises to be days of tough questioning for Supreme Court nominee Alito. And a federal court overturns the state schools voucher program, a move that disproportionately affects black and Latino students. Joining us today to discuss these topics: from AudioWorks in New Orleans, Mary Frances Berry, professor of history at the University of Pennsylvania; at the Poynter Institute in St. Petersburg, Florida, Eric Deggans, media critic for The St. Petersburg Times; and in our New York bureau, Michael Meyers, executive director of the New York Civil Rights Coalition.

Thank you all for joining us.

Mary, let me start with you. We saw yesterday the senators in their opening statements, often just an opportunity for them to "shine," quote, unquote. But what do you expect to see and hear in the next few days? We're hearing that Democrats want to be strong in their defiance.

Professor MARY FRANCES BERRY (University of Pennsylvania): Well, that'll be an interesting thing if we can see that for a change, strong defiance from the Democrats. But in any case, I think they'll be asking a lot of questions about whether President Bush has the authority to wiretap or his broad statements about his authority as commander in chief. There will be questions about abortion. One of the interesting things is that--the whole area of civil rights, whether it's voting rights or affirmative action or some of the issues involving people who are accused of crimes. I haven't heard much about those issues that are of particular interest in the African-American community. But I think that the Democratic questioning will be as sharp as they're able to make it so that they can end up with the result of showing their constituency that they fought a good fight.

GORDON: Fought a good fight, indeed.

All right, let me ask you, Eric, the idea of contentious hearings, we keep hearing that. We, quite frankly, heard it talked about during the Roberts' confirmation, but what we really didn't see of the fight that a lot of people want to see. It is almost the idea that this is a formality that has to happen, and that if the votes are there--and we know how carefully they can count the votes--it's going to happen outside of the nominee tripping over themselves. Do you believe that to be the case in this instance?

Mr. ERIC DEGGANS (The St. Petersburg Times): Well, I don't know that these are necessarily a formality, but I do think that by the time we get to the hearings a nominee has been so scrubbed and vetted by the press, by the public and by previous meetings with legislators that we pretty much know their background, we know the controversial items in their past and we know whether or not those controversial items are enough to derail their nomination. That's one reason why the Harriet Miers nomination never made it to hearings. It was obvious, as that date was growing closer, that she was going to face significant opposition and that those hearings might not go the way the president wanted.

This is an interesting two-step that we're seeing here because Alito, on the one hand, is presenting himself as a jurist who will be impartial and will judge according to the law, but his supporters are also touting his conservative credentials and his conservative background as sort of a wink and a nod to the more conservative elements in the Senate to say, `He's going to vote the way you want.' And then there's a different message to moderates, to sort of say, `Well, he's gonna be impartial.' And I just wonder, you know, how can both of those things exist at the same time?

GORDON: Hey, Mary, let me go back to you and ask you this.

Prof. BERRY: Sure.

GORDON: I heard--and I'm not quoting here--but I'm paraphrasing columnist and journalist Bob Novak speak on the Alito question yesterday, and the question of civil rights was raised. He suggested that, `Yes, that could be a thorn, but no one is really going to worry about that,' i.e., the senators and the like, and that they will be looking at the question of presidential authority and abortion, his views that have been well-documented during his writings for the Reagan administration in memo form.

Prof. BERRY: Right.

GORDON: Talk to me about whether or not you think affirmative action, civil rights is getting lost in the shuffle and how important it is to continue to keep it out front.

Prof. BERRY: Well, I think it is getting lost, and that was a point I was feebly trying to make, that I don't even think the Democratic senators up there have the courage to point out that Alito not only opposed affirmative action vigorously when he was a lawyer in the Reagan administration and said he was proud of it, everything in his record as a judge since indicates that he's still against it. Voting rights--the only case he's ever decided since he's been a judge, he handed down a decision that diluted the power of blacks to elect the people that they wanted to elect. On all of these issues, there's nothing in his record that shows that he's someone that we should do more than be frightened of if we care about civil rights.

But I don't see--and it tells us where we are as a country--that these issues can be there and that most of the people who are involved in making the decisions don't really care enough to raise them or don't think that the public does. It may have something to do with the earlier discussion you had with the youth, with Jeff and Jehmu. If the black African-American public does not assert its interest in these issues and its concerns about them strongly enough, then the Democratic senators who--you know, these are--we are--their constituency, more or less--they may think they can get away with not raising them. So that they--I do--I agree with Novak this time. I'm surprised that I agree with something he said. They will not get the kind of attention I think that they ought to get.

GORDON: Michael Meyers, I'm not going to ask you to read the tea leaves in one real sense, but there is this, from the liberal side, the idea that if Alito gets in, we will see a court to which that many have complained and suggested concern that it would be far too right-leaning, that we have lost the swing vote of Justice O'Connor, etc., etc. How much do you believe, based on what we have heard the pundits talk about and read in the historical perspective of the writings and the like from Alito that this is a fair concern?

Mr. MICHAEL MEYERS (Executive Director, New York Civil Rights Commission): Well, this is the whole ball game. I like what Senator Russell Feingold said. He said that we need judges who see themselves as custodians of the rights and freedoms that the Constitution guarantees. I would substitute the word `guardian' as opposed to custodian, a guardian of rights and freedoms. If you are a judge who regards yourself as a guardian of the rights and freedoms that the Constitution guarantees, that's an agenda. And I don't see why a judge should not have an agenda. The Constitution is there to protect all people, the liberty and the rights of all people. And so it does concern me when a lawyer goes to government in order to undo rights, in order to erode civil rights, in order to question abortion rights, in order to redefine civil rights.

So this is it with respect to the culture wars. It will decide civil rights, abortion rights, gay rights, same-sex marriage, affirmative action, capital punishment, abolition or continuation. This is the road. And I'm very concerned that Judge Alito rails against racial quotas. I would like one of those blowhard senators to stop talking about themselves and ask some decent questions. What does the judge mean with respect to being against racial quotas in the context of a history of pervasive, extensive discrimination against blacks, for example, in the workplace, when federal courts have been providing the remedies, including racial quotas, in order to undo discrimination and segregation? These are tough questions.

GORDON: All right. Well, it'll be interesting to see if, indeed, we hear any tough questions coming from these confirmation hearings, depending. Sometimes we have, and sometimes we haven't. We'll continue to watch this.

Let me move to a story that's coming out, and I'll start with you, Mary, since you're down there in New Orleans. And we are seeing that hotel evacuees in the fine city of New Orleans are now being, quote, "being kicked out of" some of these hotels to make room for tourists that the city is expecting during Mardi Gras. We're looking at about a hundred survivors, ranging, in some news accounts, from grandmothers to families with small children. There's been a temporary restraining order issued preventing these hotels from displacing them, but it seems as though that, in fact, is going to happen as we continue to see the ineptitude of trying to get many of these people on their feet.

Prof. BERRY: Well, several things have happened related to that. One is that Governor Blanco was moved--and I don't know what moved her--the other day to talk about and insist that the trailers that are down here and that are supposed to be occupied by people, yet there's a contention about where they can be located--`Not in my back yard'--has finally said, `No, you got to get these trailers out. You got to put these people in them. People need to be placed somewhere.' So that movement is taking place, and maybe that will help to relieve some of the need for space.

The other thing that's happening with Mardi Gras coming up, the hotels. You've got to an economy down here that needs to be sustained. And if tourists are going to come, the hotels need to have--you know, there needs to be some space for them, and the hotels need to make money. That's a countervailing pressure.

The other thing that's happening is--your first segment talked about the political activity on the part of youth. There's a remarkable organization down here called Uncommon Ground that's run by a guy named Malik Rahim that has all kinds of volunteer students of every race and background--some of them black students, Asians; I saw all kinds of students over there--who, in fact, were out the other day helping the evacuees to protest down--when they got the court injunction, and which has clinics and which has project--has been down here protesting bulldozers cleaning up neighborhoods without the permissions of the owners and so on. I just wanted to say that's a political activity.

I think what's going to happen is--and President Bush is coming here on Thursday. No one is quite sure what he's coming here for. The people on the street says, `Well, he's coming to get in our way,' but I don't really know what he's coming for. Maybe to take credit for something. But in any case, I

think that the trailers will be set up. I think a way will be found to have some space for these 100 people. But the hotel owners are not absolutely just being greedy--although we might say that--by pushing these people out. They're also saying, `We can't survive, the economy can't survive.' The mayor is saying, `The economy can't survive if you don't do something about tourism.' So there's a delicate balance in all of these things that are happening down here. But if someone wants to engage in political activity, and wants to engage in helping, they can come down here and go up and down the Gulf Coast and come to New Orleans.

GORDON: Yeah.

Mr. DEGGANS: I think...

GORDON: Eric, what this does--what this does show, Eric, is an illustration of the catch-22, as Mary just spelled out for us, and also personifies and illustrates the idea that there was so much love, concern and money that poured out the initial weeks following this disaster. But as we were saying, even then, for many, the disaster will continue, and America does not have the same klieg light on that city that we did and, therefore, there are these people being displaced and not, as I suggested earlier, being able to get back on their feet. How do you find, if you can, that fine balance of bringing the economy back but also servicing their needs?

Mr. DEGGANS: Well, I think one of the things we've seen is this breakdown in what to do with these people who need a medium- and long-term place to live while their homes are being rebuilt or while some other means are being sort of put together to house them long term. Putting then in hotels was always supposed to be a short-term solution. And this stay, their stay in hotels, has been extended three times now, and the hotels that are housing these folks have been told several times `OK, we're going to move them out on this day,' and then this day comes and it gets extended. So it's hard to blame the people who own the hotels because they have constantly been told that this was a short-term solution.

Once again, FEMA has failed us a bit in not realizing that they needed to create some sort of interim housing for these folks while their homes were being rebuilt or dealt with. And right now, because they took the program over from the Red Cross, they don't know much about these people. They don't know who they are. They don't know which of them are sex offenders or which of them might be convicted felons. They don't know whether they have been--have sought or denied other aid from FEMA. Their computer system is confusing and doesn't have a lot of detail on who these people are or what kind of aid they need. Once again, we have a failure in an organization and a failure to sort of plan for how to help these people get back on their feet.

GORDON: Mm-hmm. Michael Meyers, real quick for me, the reality here, though, is that these that remain are the poor and disenfranchised of a group that was already characterized as the poor and disenfranchised. One has to believe that this is the bottom rung of that. There is a real sense that many of these folks may be now, if they weren't already prior to Katrina, generationally handicapped because of this.

Mr. MEYERS: Well, this is not yet over, I mean, being thrown out of a hotel. I mean, it's just--there's legal strategies involved here and questions involved here. And, I mean, there are lodging laws in states. I don't know about Louisiana, but I know when I go into a hotel, the hotels generally ask me to sign an agreement that I'm going to leave at the time I'm going to leave. I never sign those things because I don't want to give the hotel any rights that they may not have. And so I think that the question of evicting people who need housing is going to be a legal question, so I'm not one to say that hotels have a right to throw these people out. I think we have to--the question for me is--we have to recapture that moment in American history when people actually identified with the poor and the powerless in this nation, and this is still a question of identity with the poor and the powerless and legal strategies must come to the fore.

GORDON: Mary, the idea--let me ask you this--with about two minutes to go--the idea of the nation identifying with the poor and the powerless. We keep saying that; we've talked about it. We said Katrina washed the poor and the powerless ashore, though we know better than that. Is this, to some degree, an idea of Pollyanna conversation, or do we really believe that the nation is going to take a real hard look at that?

Prof. BERRY: I don't think the nation will. I said this at the time that Katrina and Rita both happened, that we would get a short-term focus on this and that any progress that was going to be made would have to happen in terms of getting a national movement to do something in the short term. So I don't think that the whole nation is going to be energized by this, but there are large numbers of people who still are. I was telling you about the volunteers who were down here, the students and the people who have set up non-profits. And there are even political actors who want to do something. There has been an appropriation in the Congress. It's not enough, but it has happened. And there are some people...

Mr. MEYERS: But if the NAACP were to put a picket line up in front of those hotels and tell people to start boycotting those hotels that evict poor people and powerless people--Guess what?--the hotels would change their mind. Where is the NAACP?

Prof. BERRY: There is already--Michael, the NAACP is not the only organization...

GORDON: Thirty seconds, Mary.

Prof. BERRY: ...and I told you that there are students down here already who are out who are helping them to protest, which is one reason why they got the court decision. So it's a mixed bag, Ed.

GORDON: Yeah.

Prof. BERRY: There are some people who are still concerned, who are showing their concern and who are doing everything they can, but as far as the national laserlike focus, that national laserlike focus has moved on until the next hurricane happens and then people look back and say, `Gee, did they fix the levees?' Or, `Whatever happened to all those people?'

GORDON: Yeah. All right. Mary Frances Berry, Eric Deggans and Michael Meyers, I thank you all for a very spirited conversation today. Greatly appreciate it.

Prof. BERRY: Thank you.

Mr. DEGGANS: Thank you.

GORDON: Next on NEWS & NOTES, Mario Armstrong takes us inside the world's largest consumer electronics fair with the latest in high-tech gadgetry, and the president of Venezuela reaches out to the African-American community.

You're listening to NEWS & NOTES from NPR News.

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