Excerpts from recent editorials in newspapers in the United States and abroad:
Los Angeles Times on illegal possession of a gun being a "violent felony":
Twice recently the Supreme Court has chastised the U.S. Department of Justice for stretching criminal laws beyond their rational application in order to secure a conviction. Beyond their consequences for individual defendants, these decisions sent a welcome message to prosecutors that they must not uproot a statute from its clear context in order to get their man (or woman).
Sometimes, however, prosecutors are aided in their overreach by laws that are so vaguely written that it's not clear exactly what conduct is being targeted. On Monday, the Supreme Court heard a challenge to one such law, which allowed the government to define illegal possession of a gun as a "violent felony" justifying an extended prison term.
The exceedingly unattractive defendant in this case, Samuel Johnson, is a white supremacist from Minnesota who pleaded guilty in 2012 to being a felon in possession of a firearm. Under the Armed Career Criminal Act, he was sentenced to a 15-year prison term because he had three prior "violent felonies" on his record. Johnson conceded that two of his previous convictions, for robbery and attempted robbery, were violent felonies. But he disputed the government's decision to classify a third conviction, for possessing a short-barreled shotgun, as a "violent felony."
The notion that the mere possession of an illegal firearm is a violent act defies the dictionary and common understanding, and Johnson initially argued — plausibly — that it was not. But Monday's arguments focused on a broader issue: whether the violent felony provision in the Armed Career Criminal Act was unconstitutionally vague. The answer is clearly yes.
The law provides a list of crimes that qualify as violent felonies: burglary, arson, extortion or the use of explosives. So far so good. But it also contains a general definition of "conduct that presents a serious potential risk of physical injury to another." The question of which crimes are covered by this amorphous provision — drunk driving? fleeing from police? — has long bedeviled the Supreme Court and lower courts, and will continue to do so unless the provision is declared unconstitutional. Meanwhile, as Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. noted, the vagueness of the law makes it hard for defense lawyers to advise their clients about whether they should enter a plea bargain.
As Johnson's lawyer told the court, the law's vagueness "is proven by this court's inability after repeated efforts to discern a meaningful and replicable interpretive framework that will guide lower courts." It's time for the court to send Congress back to the drawing board.
New York Times on Egypt sentencing an American translator to life in prison:
In the summer of 2013, shortly after Mohamed Morsi, Egypt's first democratically elected president, had been deposed by the military, thousands of Egyptians took to the streets to protest the coup. They were hopeful that the popular uprising in 2011 had shattered a psychological barrier in a nation long governed as a police state. People on the street, many believed at the time, had earned the right to challenge those in the presidential palace. Among the protesters was Mohamed Soltan, an American citizen.
The protesters were tragically wrong. Egyptian security forces executed hundreds of Islamists who had taken over a public square and then rounded up thousands of suspected supporters of the Muslim Brotherhood, the Islamist movement that propelled Mr. Morsi to power.
Soltan, 27, an Ohio State University graduate who volunteered as a translator for foreign journalists covering the turmoil that followed Morsi's ouster, was among those arrested and imprisoned. Earlier this month, an Egyptian judge sentenced him to life in prison. Mr. Soltan joined the growing ranks of victims of a judicial dragnet that has branded all suspected Islamists as terrorists. (On Tuesday, Morsi was sentenced to 20 years over the killing of protesters while he was in power in 2012.)
Soltan's father, Salah Soltan, was sentenced to death in the same case. Mohamed Soltan was not a supporter of the Muslim Brotherhood, but he condemned the coup as undemocratic. He has been on hunger strike for more than a year to protest his detention. American officials warned in a letter to his family that the hunger strike "is a significant threat to his life."
President Obama brought up the case with President Abdel Fattah el-Sisi last year to no avail. Cairo's intransigence is particularly galling considering the Obama administration's decision to continue giving Egypt $1.3 billion annually in military aid despite its abysmal human rights record. Soltan's best hope is that Sisi would order him deported, as he did recently with an Australian journalist whose detention sparked a global uproar. That would effectively overturn his sentence, but it would do nothing for the thousands of Egyptians who have unfairly been sentenced to life in prison, or death, for exercising their right to denounce their authoritarian rulers.
Paris (Tennessee) Post-Intelligencer on blocking Iranian arms shipments to Yemen:
Does it amount to sword-rattling if the United States moves a powerful aircraft carrier into position to block prohibited arms transfers in the Middle East?
If so, it's certainly a lot less provocative than calling in air strikes.
Moving a ship into a chessboard position of authority doesn't carry with it the hatred-inspiring effect of an exploding bomb, but it can have a similar diplomatic result.
Nobody dies when an aircraft carrier changes location, but arms dealers will have to think twice.
The carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt has moved to a position off the coast of Yemen, where it could intercept Iranian weapons shipments to rebels fighting the U.S.-backed government of Yemen.
With the Roosevelt, the United States now has nine warships off Yemen, including the guided missile cruiser USS Normandy.
The Navy has intercepted Iranian arm shipments to terror groups like Hamas and Hezbollah in the past.
"It's easier for us to operate against a group like that if we have the cooperation of a stable government, as was the case in the past," Defense Secretary Ashton Carter said.
"But if we don't have a stable government, as is the case in the current circumstance, we have to use other means to protect ourselves, and that's what we're doing."
Northeast Mississippi Journal, Tupelo, Mississippi, on BP's Gulf oil spill disaster:
Five years ago this week Mississippians and millions of other people in the states of the Gulf South began watching as flames soared and oil gushed from broken pipes deep underneath the Deepwater Horizon production platform operated and leased by BP, the giant energy company.
Eleven people were killed by the explosion, and in months following the oil gushing from the well's infrastructure spilled 4.25 million barrels (200 million gallons over 87 days) into the Gulf of Mexico. It became the biggest marine oil spill in American history.
Billions have been spent on cleaning up the Gulf, the shoreline and every other place touched by the raw, toxic oil, but even a $14 billion cleanup effort was unable to prevent long-term environmental damage.
In all, 16,000 miles of coastline was affected from Texas to Florida.
Virtually everything that could be adversely affected by the oil spill sustained damage or harm in some form. Tourism suffered, because prospective vacationers afraid of the possibility of oil washing onshore stayed away in droves. The shrimp harvest dropped by as much as 90 percent. The already reduced tuna population's spawning grounds were deeply polluted.
BP has been held responsible for close to $40 billion in fines with an additional $16 billion due under provisions of the Clean Water Act.
Mississippi specifically, although not as close to the platform as parts of Louisiana, has significant registrations and claims: 37,423 completed claims and 32,329 registrations in progress.
In addition, a second BP oil spill settlement covers individuals with medical claims related to the Gulf disaster, and provides periodic medical consultations for the next 21 years.
Innovative laws to help people who lost their jobs because of the spill have been passed in Mississippi and Louisiana.
Most of the claims and registrations and probably a large majority of the damage will have been acknowledged in the Gulf counties or in a tier of counties above the adjacent counties, but the whole state of Mississippi is in the claim-eligible zone.
So far, almost $5 billion has been paid in the damage process.
June 8 is the final deadline to file any claim forms for claims other than Seafood Compensation Program.
Mississippi, once again, has been generously dealt with by a private-sector entity responsible for damage and by the federal government's determination to help make recovery possible.
Pittsburgh Post-Gazette on payday loans:
Payday lending is based on a business model that earns profit from making high-interest loans to poor Americans who often can't pay them back. A new plan from the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau offers promising ideas to make the industry more humane and accountable.
But only Congress, not regulators, has the power to limit loan interest rates and impose other rules on an industry that too often is predatory.
The bureau's proposal would require payday lenders to make sure consumers can pay back any loan made to them, by preconfirming a borrower's ability to pay or by offering affordable payment plans.
Payday lenders say such rules defeat the purpose of the loans, which is to provide credit to people who can't borrow from traditional lenders.
Yet studies found that the loans often create more problems for borrowers. The majority of them must get additional loans just to pay back their initial ones. Many end up owing more in interest rates and fees than the original value of their loans.
This month, 57 leaders of foundations, including The Pittsburgh Foundation, signed a letter urging the consumer bureau to get tough on payday lenders. If the lenders sincerely desire to help, not exploit, struggling consumers, they should not fight reasonable regulation.
The Japan Times on U.S. foreign policy moves and an "Obama doctrine":
According to the conventional wisdom, the power and influence of the U.S. president begin to diminish almost from the date of his second inauguration. Ever-lengthening election cycles mean that both the U.S. Congress and public are focusing on the next campaign from the day the president takes the oath of office. The Republican Party victories in the 2014 midterm-election — which gave the GOP control of the Senate, and thus both houses of Congress — was supposed to put a stake through the heart of the Obama presidency, forcing him to compromise on his agenda and shift to the right to accommodate the new mood in America and a shift in power in Washington.
Instead, President Barack Obama has doubled down, pushing through a series of action items on topics ranging from immigration to climate change. He has been especially aggressive in foreign policy, announcing the opening of relations with Cuba after 18 months of secret talks and, most recently, producing a framework deal for Iran's nuclear program that has the potential to transform ties with that country.
Those bold foreign policy moves have sparked talk of an Obama doctrine, one that Obama himself attempted to articulate in a recent interview. In that conversation, he explained that such engagement is a two-step process. First, the United States ensures that its vital strategic concerns are addressed. Then, and only then, Washington attempts to engage former adversaries to create "different outcomes that are unpredictable in advance." That would seem like a risky endeavor, but — and this is the key point — the U.S. is strong enough to test those propositions without putting the country at risk.
So, for example, in negotiations with Iran, the U.S. and the other five Western governments at the table put limits that American scientists believe are strong and credible on Tehran's ability to create the fissile material that it would need to make a bomb. Then, the U.S. tests Iranian readiness to honor that deal, knowing that it will take more than a year to achieve nuclear breakout. Meanwhile, the U.S. retains superior military strength so that it can both defend U.S. assets and interests and deter Iranian misbehavior.
Similarly, there is no evidence that opening diplomatic relations with the communist island 150 km (93 miles) off the coast of Florida entails any risks to the U.S. Some critics charge that Washington is giving up leverage to bring about change in Cuba by dropping economic sanctions, but the evidence of half a century clearly indicates that those measures have had no positive effect on the country, have contributed to the impoverishment of the population and given the government in Havana a ready excuse for its own failures. As Obama said, "There aren't that many risks for us. It's a tiny little country. It's not one that threatens our core security interests, and so (there's no reason not) to test the proposition. And if it turns out that it doesn't lead to better outcomes, we can adjust our policies."
In his first inaugural address, Obama offered "To those who cling to power through corruption and deceit and the silencing of dissent, know that you are on the wrong side of history, but that we will extend a hand if you are willing to unclench your fist." That view was dismissed as naive, but it is smart diplomacy. It opens the door to dialogue and in so doing, Washington puts the burden on other governments to prove that they are serious and prepared to meet the U.S. halfway. The idea that the mere readiness to talk is a sign of weakness is mistaken. No government loses anything by discussing issues with adversaries.
The flip side of this readiness to engage is a profound skepticism about the use of force to solve international disputes. The U.S. may have the biggest military in the world, but that does not make it the solution of first resort for diplomatic problems. The most important question for a national decision maker is not how or when to intervene in a conflict, but how to end one, how to exit and ensure that national interests are met. It is a lesson that Obama has been forced to focus upon because his predecessors did not take it to heart.
During his presidency, Obama has aimed to reset relations with Russia, attempted to forge a more durable relationship with China and has now reached out to Iran and Cuba. The one significant omission from this list is North Korea. In fact, however, the Obama administration reached out to Pyongyang and even appeared to have succeeded with the Leap Day agreement of February 2012. That deal collapsed within two weeks, however, after the North violated its terms by launching a satellite. Pyongyang was clearly not ready to moderate its behavior, a critical prerequisite to sustained progress in building relations with the U.S. Washington has signaled that it is ready to resume a dialogue with North Korea, but a long history of talks means that, unlike the dealings with Tehran and Havana, there is little need for preliminaries.
Each country's demands are clear and it is action, not mere words, that is required. Hopefully success with Iran and Cuba will remind Pyongyang of the possibilities if it honors its promises.