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  • Bobby Jindal: "I'm Not an Evolutionary Biologist"

    At a breakfast event today, a journalist reportedly questioned Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal about whether he believes in evolution. This is pretty pertinent. Several years ago Jindal signed into law the so-called Louisiana Science Education Act. The law, according to the National Center for Science Education, "invites lessons in creationism and climate change denial." Jindal himself has said in the past that he has "no problem" if school boards want to teach creationism or intelligent design.

    Jindal's response to today's question (as reported by TPM) was all too familiar. "The reality is I'm not an evolutionary biologist," he said. Jindal went on to say that while "as a father, I want my kids to be taught about evolution in their schools," he also believes that "local school districts should make decisions about what should be taught in their classroom."

    The reply brings to mind numerous other Republicans saying "I'm not a scientist" (or Marco Rubio's "I'm not a scientist, man") to dodge uncomfortable questions about scientific topics like evolution and climate change. It looks an awful lot like somebody wrote a memo, doesn't it?

    Here's why this "I'm not a scientist" patter represents such an indefensible dodge. Nobody expects our politicians to be scientists. With a few exceptions, like Rush Holt, we know they won't be. But it is precisely because they are not experts that we expect them to heed the consensus of experts in, er, areas in which they are not experts.

    When politicians fail to do this, claiming a lack of scientific expertise is no excuse. Rather, it's the opposite: A condemnation.

  • This GOP Benghazi Hearing Is Actually Worth Having

    Benghazi! It's back. On Wednesday, the select committee on Benghazi set up by House Speaker John Boehner—who yanked this conservative crusade from Rep. Darrell Issa (R-Calif.) and handed it to Rep. Trey Gowdy (R-S.C.)—will stage its first public hearing. In a surprising move that might disappoint right-wingers yearning for proof that Benghazi is Obama's Watergate (or worse!), the session will not focus on whether the White House purposefully misled the public about the attacks on the US diplomatic compound in that Libyan city that claimed the lives of Ambassador Chris Stevens and three other Americans. Nor will it probe the favorite right-wing talking point that President Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton, for God-knows-what reasons, ordered US forces to stand down and not respond to the murderous assault. Instead, the committee will examine the State Department's implementation of the recommendations made by the Accountability Review Board, an independent outfit that investigated the attack and in late 2012 issued proposals for improving security for American diplomats and US diplomatic facilities overseas. And the idea for this first hearing came from…a Democrat.

    After Boehner in May announced the formation of a special committee—after various GOP-led congressional panels had already investigated the Benghazi tragedy—the House Democrats considered not participating in the new inquiry, which seemed not much more than an attempt by Boehner to placate tea partiers and conservatives for whom the Benghazi affair had become a top priority. But the House Dems eventually decided to join the committee—which was budgeted a whopping $3.3 million—and Rep. Adam Schiff (D-Calif.) was one of the Ds placed on the committee by House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi. Schiff scoffed at the need for further investigation of the attack. But, as he said in early August on Rachel Maddow's MSNBC show, there was something productive the committee could do: review how the State Department has handled those ARB recommendations. Gowdy agreed. Presto, a hearing on substance, not conspiracy theories.

    Continue Reading »

  • GOP Moderates' Secret Confession: We Were Afraid to Vote Against Extreme Abortion Bill

    In the hours before Missouri Republicans overrode Democratic Gov. Jay Nixon's veto and passed one of the harshest abortion bills in the country, a handful of Republican women—party activists, a local officeholder, and operatives who support abortion rights—drove to Jefferson City and begged lawmakers to reconsider. When cornered, some GOP lawmakers made a confession. "They said, 'I don't actually want to vote for this bill,'" recalls Linda Rallo, an alderwoman who led the team that buttonholed Republicans. "'But if it comes to the floor, I'm going to vote for it.'"

    Republican state Rep. Chris Molendorp, who opposed the bill, heard similar admissions from his GOP colleagues. In a closed-door meeting of the Republican caucus before the vote, Molendorp argued that the bill most of his colleagues were about to vote for was unreasonably cruel. The bill creates a three-day abortion waiting period, the longest in the country, with no exception for rape or incest victims.

    "My fear that I expressed is that we have gone beyond concern for the life of the unborn and we've become punitive against the expectant mother," he says. Molendorp, who has an 85 percent approval rating from Missouri Right to Life, says that several women legislators who represent Missouri's suburbs approached him privately to say they agreed with him—but they felt they had no choice but to vote for the bill.

    The waiting period became law on Wednesday. Nearly every Republican and many Democrats in both houses of the state Legislature voted to overturn Nixon's veto. But Republicans' private apprehensions about the bill show that in a state like Missouri—which has more abortion restrictions on the books than almost any other state—not every legislator who votes for bills like these necessarily votes his or her conscience.

    Rallo fears this bill identifies the GOP with a "Todd Akin agenda." "It makes it harder for moderate candidates to get broad, statewide support," she says. "And a lot of women like me are feeling like there's not place for them in the Republican Party…They take our money and our time but they don't want our opinion."

    Rallo, an alderwoman in the St. Louis suburb of Town and Country, has Republican bona fides. She served for six years as legislative assistant to a House Republican, ran a Republican's statewide campaign for treasurer, hosts fundraisers for Republicans running for the Legislature, and has donated thousands of dollars to state GOP candidates.

    She wasn't alone in her effort to change GOP lawmakers' minds before the vote—Christine Doyle Luhnow, another Missouri Republican activist, came to the state capital to help Rallo lobby. Doyle Luhnow previously ran media relations for the Missouri chapter of the Republican Leadership Council, a defunct political action committee for moderate Republicans founded by former Missouri Sen. John Danforth and former New Jersey Gov. Christine Todd Whitman. Both women have long-standing connections and fundraising ties to many of the lawmakers they met. "They're not bad guys," Doyle Luhnow says.

    But the women didn't find much success. Rallo recounts their conversation with state Sen. Kurt Schaefer, a Republican who represents the college town of Columbia: "He said, 'Listen, I am voting for that bill.' I said, 'Do you want to vote for that bill?' He said, 'I am voting for that bill. And what you're trying to do, you're not going to have any success.' He just kind of shut that down."

    "Kurt gives the appearance of a forward-thinking man," Rallo continues. "But he wants to run for attorney general and he's worried about that primary." Schaefer did not reply to requests for comment.

    The day of the vote, Rallo recalls, she and Doyle Luhnow asked state Sen. Eric Schmitt, the majority caucus chair, if he would at least permit a symbolic filibuster. He smiled and breezed by. That night, Republicans invoked a procedural rule that hadn't been used in years to stop Democratic state Sen. Jolie Justus from staging a filibuster.

    "At least Wendy Davis was allowed to talk," Doyle Luhnow says, referring to the Texas state legislator who mounted an all-night filibuster against an abortion bill before it eventually passed. Schmitt did not reply to requests for comment.

    In May, after the GOP-controlled Legislature passed the three-day waiting period for the first time, Rallo met privately with two House representatives and a senator from St. Louis County, all Republicans. All three legislators said they understood her concerns, Rallo recalls, but that laws like this are necessary to help certain members of their caucus win primaries. "Every single one of them said to me, 'I'm pro-life, but I didn't come to Jefferson City to advance this style of legislation," Rallo says. "'These aren't the bills I like voting for, but I have to.'"

    Missouri joins Utah and South Dakota as the only states to mandate an abortion waiting period of 72 hours. Republican Rep. Kevin Elmer, who sponsored the bill in the House, told Mother Jones last week that he didn't feel a waiting period of three days was a burden on women.

    But Molendorp, who is leaving the Legislature this year to run a small health care nonprofit, says any reasonable person would see the bill is over the top—and that piling on abortion restrictions would eventually backfire for Republicans.

    "We've gotten to a situation in a lot of state legislatures where Republicans are being accused of not being pro-life enough," says Molendorp. "It's almost as if we've got a competition going: 'I'm more pro-life than you are.' 'Nuh-uh, I'm more pro-life than you are.' The only way one of us can eventually win is if we pass a nine-month waiting bill."

  • Could Bitcoin Become Scotland?s Official Currency?

    With Thursday's Scottish independence referendum too close to call, opponents of an independent Scotland have been stressing the would-be country's lack of a reliable currency. An independent Scotland could either keep using the British pound and lose control of its monetary policy, join the eurozone's well-known squabbles, or create a new national currency that's almost certain to be weak. But there's an intriguing fourth option: adopting an online crypto-currency such as Bitcoin.

    Scotland actually has some historical experience with this sort of thing: Instead of relying exclusively on the British pound in the 18th and 19th centuries, many Scottish banks issued their own currencies—a fact noted by Guy Debelle, the assistant governor of Australia's central bank, at a recent conference on digital currencies in London. Here's Debelle in the Guardian:

    "The Scots can go back to experimenting with a multitude of currencies, Bitcoin and the like, and we can just sit back and see how it goes. A nice natural experiment about the future of money in Scotland—again. Because, as I said, they tried this in the 18th and 19th centuries. It worked for awhile, but eventually fell apart."

    In the ensuing discussion, David Birch, the director of the digital currency consultancy Hyperion, argued that Scotland's currency experiment was more successful than one might think. From the Guardian:

    "The economic research shows that in Scotland, the bank failures were fewer, and less disruptive, than the bank failures in England at the time," he said. "Competing note issue in Scotland didn't end because it collapsed: it ended because of an outrageous extension of the Bank Act of 1844, which extended the Bank of England's monopoly over note issue north of the border."

    But ending the Bank of England's monopoly might not be the biggest problem with Bitcoin. A national Bitcoin-based currency would, practically speaking, resemble one based on gold: Bitcoins are designed to function as a limited commodity that becomes harder to acquire over time. In either case, the result is a highly inflexible national currency that often can't keep pace with economic growth. As Felix Martin points out in the New Statesman, one of the first people to identify this problem was a Scotsman: The economist John Law of Lauriston emigrated to France, became that country's minister of finance, and in 1719 replaced the gold standard with paper money printed at the discretion of the government.

    No matter: Edinburgh-based venture capitalist Derek Nisbet recently launched Scotcoin, which is offering 1,000 free Scotcoins to every resident adult. "Our motivation is to empower the Scottish people with an alternative digital currency opportunity," he told the Guardian, "which may be used as a medium of exchange, should the need or wish arise."

    For now, at least, it seems like Bitcoin's biggest use in Scotland is as a marketing gimmick. In May, the London electronics retailer CeX got a load of free press when it introduced Scotland's first Bitcoin ATM and briefly turned its Glasgow store into a "pound free zone": For a few days, it only accepted Bitcoin payments. "The trial is turning the Scottish High Street [location] into a Bitcoin laboratory," a CeX spokesman told the website CoinDesk, "highlighting alternative forms of currency should Scotland vote 'yes' in the forthcoming referendum."

  • Why March in the Biggest Climate Change Demonstration Ever?

    This story first appeared on the TomDispatch website.

    On Sunday, September 21st, a huge crowd will march through the middle of Manhattan. It will almost certainly be the largest rally about climate change in human history, and one of the largest political protests in many years in New York. More than 1,000 groups are coordinating the march—environmental justice groups, faith groups, labor groups—which means there's no one policy ask. Instead, it's designed to serve as a loud and pointed reminder to our leaders, gathering that week at the United Nations to discuss global warming, that the next great movement of the planet's citizens centers on our survival and their pathetic inaction.

    Read Bill McKibben's story on Obama's fracking gamble here. Obama: Charles Dharapak/AP; Methane: Michelangelus/Shutterstock

    As a few of the march's organizers, though, we can give some sense of why we, at least, are marching, words we think represent many of those who will gather at Columbus Circle for the walk through midtown Manhattan.

    We march because the world has left the Holocene behind: scientists tell us that we've already raised the planet's temperature almost one degree Celsius, and are on track for four or five by century's end. We march because Hurricane Sandy filled the New York City subway system with salt water, reminding us that even one of the most powerful cities in the world is already vulnerable to slowly rising ocean levels.

    We march because we know that climate change affects everyone, but its impacts are not equally felt: those who have contributed the least to causing the crisis are hit hardest, here and around the world. Communities on the frontlines of global warming are already paying a heavy price, in some cases losing the very land on which they live. This isn't just about polar bears any more.

    But since polar bears can't march, we march for them, too, and for the rest of creation now poised on the verge of what biologists say will be the planet's sixth great extinction event, one unequalled since the last time a huge asteroid struck the Earth 66 million years ago.

    And we march for generations yet to come, our children, grandchildren, and their children, whose lives will be systematically impoverished and degraded. It's the first time one century has wrecked the prospects of the millennia to come, and it makes us mad enough to march.

    We march with hope, too. We see a few great examples around the world of how quickly we could make the transition to renewable energy. We know that if there were days this summer when Germany generated nearly 75% of its power from renewable sources of energy, the rest of us could, too—especially in poorer nations around the equator that desperately need more energy. And we know that labor-intensive renewables would provide far more jobs than capital-intensive coal, gas, and oil.

    And we march with some frustration: why haven't our societies responded to 25 years of dire warnings from scientists? We're not naïve; we know that the fossil fuel industry is the 1% of the 1%. But sometimes we think we shouldn't have to march. If our system worked the way it should, the world would long ago have taken the obvious actions economists and policy gurus have recommended—from taxing carbon to reflect the damage it causes to funding a massive World War II-scale transition to clean energy.

    Marching is not all, or even most, of what we do. We advocate; we work to install solar panels; we push for sustainable transit. We know, though, that history shows marching is usually required, that reason rarely prevails on its own. (And we know that sometimes even marching isn't enough; we've been to jail and we'll likely be back.)

    We're tired of winning the argument and losing the fight. And so we march. We march for the beaches and the barrios. We march for summers when the cool breeze still comes down in the evening. We march because Exxon spends $100 million every day looking for more hydrocarbons, even though scientists tell us we already have far more in our reserves than we can safely burn. We march for those too weak from dengue fever and malaria to make the journey. We march because California has lost 63 trillion gallons of groundwater to the fierce drought that won't end, and because the glaciers at the roof of Asia are disappearing. We march because researchers told the world in April that the West Antarctic ice sheet has begun to melt "irrevocably"; Greenland's ice shield may soon follow suit; and the waters from those, as rising seas, will sooner or later drown the world's coastlines and many of its great cities.

    We don't march because there's any guarantee it will work. If you were a betting person, perhaps you'd say we have only modest hope of beating the financial might of the oil and gas barons and the governments in their thrall. It's obviously too late to stop global warming entirely, but not too late to slow it down—and it's not too late, either, to simply pay witness to what we're losing, a world of great beauty and complexity and stability that has nurtured humanity for thousands of years.

    There's a world to march for—and a future, too. The only real question is why anyone wouldn't march.

    Eddie Bautista is executive director of the New York City Environmental Justice Alliance. LaTonya Crisp-Sauray is the recording secretary for the Transport Workers Union Local 100. Bill McKibben is the founder of and a TomDispatch regular. To stay on top of important articles like these, sign up to receive the latest updates from here.

  • The Demise of a US Group Backing Moderate Syrian Rebels Is a Bad Sign for Obama's Anti-ISIS Campaign

    Last week, President Barack Obama outlined his plan for expanding military action against ISIS, the murderous Islamic extremist group that controls territory in Iraq and Syria. His beefed-up campaign includes increased funding previously announced (up to $500 million) to train and arm supposedly moderate rebels in Syria who are fighting the dictatorial regime of Bashar al-Assad and also at times battling ISIS. For the past few years, Washington has assisted Syrian opposition forces deemed non-extremist—even though they might be fighting alongside Al Qaeda-affiliated rebels. But the effort has not been a great success, with hawks accusing the Obama administration of not doing enough, and administration officials skeptical about the moderate opposition's cohesion and military effectiveness and wary of doling out weapons that could fall into the wrong hands. In February, the leader of the moderate Free Syrian Army—who was the conduit for US aid to the rebels—was removed by his own council, partly because the FSA had been taking a beating from the regime and Islamist forces. Now Obama intends to boost the US effort to support these moderate fighters in Syria. But this move comes just weeks after the collapse of the Syrian Support Group, a US-based nonprofit backed by the State Department that boasted it delivered millions in dollars of nonlethal supplies to the FSA. According to former officials of the group, it shut down because of funding problems and divisions among rebel forces.

    Working with the rebels in Syria will be a daunting task for the Obama administration. There are hundreds of anti-Assad militias, each with its own agenda. Some moderate bands have no interest in taking on ISIS. Some fighters shift allegiances between secular outfits and Islamic extremist groups. Neither the FSA nor the Syrian National Coalition, a political group representing the opposition, control or even coordinate all the various non-extremist fighters. And the dissolution of the Syrian Support Group in the United States—just at the time when Washington is ramping up its investment in the Syrian opposition—could be a troubling sign.

    Continue Reading »

  • Great Photos of High Life and Low Life in the American Desert

    Three recent photo books offer very different perspectives on life in the American desert. Vacancy: The Gateway to Death Valley (Kehrer), by Pamela Littky, documents scenes in Beatty, Nevada, and Baker, California. In The Good Life: Palm Springs (Kehrer) Nancy Baron delivers on its title, giving a taste of the upper-crust desert lifestyle.

    Vacancy–a little shabby and weathered, yet resilient—represents what some would consider real life. It's an honest look at two hardscrabble desert towns separated by Death Valley. Vacancy isn't without it's oddly still moments. Even the portraits carry a hint of Errol Morris' 1981 documentary Vernon, Florida–everyday people captured plainly in their environment. A little too real, maybe. In addition to the portraits, Littky takes us out around town, showing a burnt out trailer, a lonely country store, deer statues, trailers, and empty pools.

    Tony and Sam at the Atomic Inn (Beatty, Nevada) From Vacancy by Pamela Littky


    Pool at Wills Fargo Motel (Baker, California) From Vacancy by Pamela Littky


    Lawn Deer, Baker (California) From Vacancy by Pamela Littky


    Sharon and Arie (Beatty, Nevada) From Vacancy by Pamela Littky


    Burned Out Truck (Baker, California) From Vacancy by Pamela Littky


    Country Store (Baker, California) From Vacancy by Pamela Littky


    Bingo (Beatty, Nevada) From Vacancy by Pamela Littky


    Liquor Snacks Soda (Baker, California) From Vacancy by Pamela Littky

    The communities Littky shoots fulfill our stereotypes of salt-of-the-earth desert living—unless the first thing you think of when you hear "desert life" is Palm Springs. While her pools might contain just a couple of feet of dark, murky water, those in The Good Life, Palm Springs are blue gems surrounded by sparkling white concrete. Everything is in place—perfect in a showroom kind of way. The desert without the dust. Some people have strong feelings about Palm Springs, seeing it as a veneer of life, at best, or as a sort of utopia. The Good Life shows us the idealized, almost stage-crafted lifestyle that has come to epitomize Palm Springs.

    Bob's Red Car From The Good Life: Palm Springs by Nancy Baron


    Pink Shoes From The Good Life: Palm Springs by Nancy Baron


    Mike and Bob From The Good Life: Palm Springs by Nancy Baron


    Blue Wall From The Good Life: Palm Springs by Nancy Baron


    Mighty Joe From The Good Life: Palm Springs by Nancy Baron


    Golf Course Plane From The Good Life: Palm Springs by Nancy Baron

    Depending on where you come from you're likely to favor one of these books over the other. Or at least one is least more likely to evoke The Twilight Zone.

    Beyond their subjects, the look of the two books provides a notable contrast. Vacancy carries more brown and yellow tones, with almost a dusty, desaturated look. The Good Life pops with blues and greens and a bit of pink. Another small but important difference is the use of tighter shots in The Good Life. You get less exterior mess, less serendipity, more claustrophobia, and ultimately a sense of formality, of everything being in place. In Vacancy, the shots are medium to wide, which adds a feeling of openness but everything is also less tidy, probably a lot like life in Beatty and Baker.


    As an addendum, I should mention Mike Osborne's excellent Floating Island (Daylight), which documents life around Wendover, Utah, and West Wendover, Nevada—a military base-turned-casino destination that straddles the state line a few miles from the Bonneville Salt Flats. The Enola Gay pilots trained in Wendover. Of these three books on the desert, Osborne's is the smartest. He shot each of his 13 chapters with a very unique feel, based on the focus, give each of them a distinct point of view. His landscapes look otherworldly, more than they already do. Casinos feel like funhouses, more than they already do. Surveys of the towns and their people have a more plaintive, direct approach. It's easy to see how much thought went into the book's conceptualization, shooting, editing, and design.

    Floating Island, by Mike Osbourne

    If you want a good, rounded look at life in the American desert, you should look through all three books. The only thing that's missing, really, is the area's very active military presence. If there hasn't been a photo project on that yet, there's a good book there as well.

  • Texas Official Is Freaking Out About School "Meatless Monday"

    This story originally appeared in Huffington Post and is republished here as part of the Climate Desk collaboration.

    A top Texas official denounced school districts that have scaled back on serving meat one day a week, accusing them of succumbing to a "carefully orchestrated campaign" to force Americans to become vegetarians.

    Texas Agriculture Commissioner Todd Staples last week criticized districts that have adopted "meatless Monday" policies in an op-ed in the Austin American-Statesman. He specifically attacked Dripping Springs Independent School District, near Austin.

    "Restricting children's meal choice to not include meat is irresponsible and has no place in our schools," Staples wrote. "This activist movement called 'Meatless Monday' is a carefully orchestrated campaign that seeks to eliminate meat from Americans' diets seven days a week—starting with Mondays."

    The Dripping Springs district adopted meatless Monday to encourage healthy eating that is environmentally conscious, a local CBS affiliate reported. Industrial meat production is resource-intensive and contributes to greenhouse gas emissions.

    "Are we having a war on meat in Dripping Springs? Definitely not," John Crowley, head of nutrition services for the school district, told the CBS affiliate. "We're trying to think outside the box, and we serve a lot of Texas beef on our menus. We've had requests for more vegetarian options, and I thought, 'Why don't I give it a try and see how it's received by kids?'"

    Dripping Springs students are still allowed to bring meat lunches on Mondays. Last week, a district elementary school served options that included cheese pizza, black bean burritos, and vegetarian chili, reported KVUE-TV.

    "In no way are kids going deficient in protein by not having actual meat, fish or poultry products served today," Crowley told the station. "We hope that we're meeting the parents' and the kids' needs and serving things that they like and things that are healthy."

    Staples, however, wrote that he sees meatless Mondays as a way for activists "to mandate their lifestyles on others."

    Staples, who has received more than $100,000 in campaign contributions from beef producers and ranchers over the past few years, has lashed out against meatless Mondays in the past, according to the Austin-American Statesman. Staples branded as "treasonous" a U.S. Department of Agriculture suggestion in 2012 that its employees go green by participating in meatless Monday.

    Bryan Black, director of communications for the Texas Department of Agriculture, said campaign contributions are unrelated to Staples' position on meat-eating.

    "He's focused on this issue because children need the freedom to eat meat," Black told The Huffington Post. "I think it would be important to go back and look at all his contributions. He's received millions of dollars from Texans across our state. In this last election he received more than $3 million, so to try to pinpoint that he's doing this simply for farmers and ranchers who gave him money is untrue."

    School districts around the country have embraced meatless Monday in recent years. In 2009, a Baltimore district became the first in the country to adopt the initiative, according to Education Week. A district in Houston also participates.

  • The Supreme Court May Be About to Save?or Destroy?Gay Marriage

    Supporters of gay marriage have been on a roll: In the past year, federal courts across the country have nullified same-sex marriage bans in more than a dozen states.

    Yet these victories are complicated by the lack of a national legal standard on gay marriage: For now, it remains a state-level question. But that could change if the US Supreme Court steps in. Last week, the high court announced that it will review a package of seven gay-marriage cases from five states in late September when it chooses which cases to consider in their 2014-2015 term.

    Legal experts say it's likely that the court will hear at least one of the cases. "I think they're going to take a case," says Dale Carpenter, a professor of civil liberties law at the University of Minnesota law school. "The only question is which one. They know whichever they take, it's going to be momentous."

    This cluster of cases centers on two key questions: All seven ask SCOTUS to consider whether a state law limiting marriage to a union between a man and a woman violates the 14th Amendment. Six of the seven cases also raise the question of whether states must recognize same-sex marriages performed in other states.

    The Supreme Court ruled on two landmark gay marriage cases in 2013: Hollingsworth v. Perry, which overturned California's Proposition 8, and US v. Windsor, which invalidated the Defense of Marriage Act. But neither weighed in on the constitutionality of same-sex marriage bans, leaving the choice to allow gay marriage up to each individual state. If the court takes one of these new cases, it's likely that its decision will have a broad and more definitive impact. "Should they decide that the 14th Amendment actually protects the rights of same-sex marriage, that would have the effect of being binding on the federal government," says Jane Schacter, a professor at Stanford Law School.

    The cases before the court involve the 14th Amendment's guarantees to equal protection under law and due process. If the high court rules that it is a violation of either promise for one state to deny a marriage license to a same sex couple, then it would become unconstitutional for any state to do so. Any state that failed to comply with the ruling, Carpenter elaborates, "would face immediate lawsuits—a complete waste of time and money."

    It's anyone's guess which case (or cases) SCOTUS may choose. The justices will choose between three Virginia cases, and one each from Utah, Indiana, Oklahoma, and Wisconsin. Ted Olson and David Boies, the attorneys on one of the Virginia cases, successfully argued Hollingsworth v. Perry last year. The attorney on one of the other Virginia cases is Paul Smith, who has argued multiple cases before SCOTUS, including Lawrence v. Texas in 2003, which struck down state sodomy laws. Carpenter says that the cases from Utah, Indiana, or Wisconsin might prove the most comprehensive choices for the court. "Utah, Indiana, and Wisconsin involve the marriage issue and the recognition issue and the state attorney generals are fully defending those laws. You have all the elements together in those cases," he says. "The Supreme Court might want to just take a very clean case in which you've got the state squarely taking the position and defending its law."

    The Supreme Court could take multiple cases or all of them. It could also consolidate cases, something the court has done in the past with hot-button issues. (For example, 1954's landmark Brown v. Board of Education combined six desegregation cases.) "All these plaintiffs want to be the chosen one," says Schacter. "But it wouldn't surprise me at all if they take more than one case."

    Here's a closer look at all seven cases being considered by the court, and what's at stake in each:

    1. Herbert v. Kitchen (Utah): SCOTUS briefly dealt with this case earlier this year. In December 2013, a federal district court struck down Utah's ban on same-sex marriage. Weddings began immediately. In January, the high court issued a temporary stay, putting a halt to marriages while the state's appeal was considered. In June, the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the lower court's ruling that the state's same-sex marriage ban was unconstitutional.

    2. Smith v. Bishop (Oklahoma): First filed in 2004, this case originally sought both to overturn Oklahoma's ban on same-sex marriages and to recognize marriages performed in other jurisdictions. In January, a district court judge ruled that the state's ban is unconstitutional, but dismissed the portion of the lawsuit addressing marriages from other states, ruling that the plaintiffs lacked standing. Both sides appealed to the 10th Circuit Court of Appeals, which affirmed the district court on both counts. In its appeal to SCOTUS, the state of Oklahoma is asking the court to rule exclusively on the marriage question.

    3. Bogan v. Baskin (Indiana): This case began as three separate suits filed on behalf of a widow and 11 couples. Several plaintiffs have same-sex marriage licenses from other states that are unrecognized in Indiana. In June, a district court judge consolidated the suits into Baskin, and struck down the state's ban on gay marriage. He did not stay the decision, allowing marriage licenses to be issued immediately. Earlier this month, the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the lower court's decision.

    4. Walker v. Wolf (Wisconsin): In February, the American Civil Liberties Union filed this case on behalf of eight same-sex couples, three of whom had married in other places. In March, a district court judge denied the state's requests to dismiss the case. In June she ruled in favor of the plaintiffs, overturning Wisconsin's ban on same-sex marriage. Her ruling was unclear on whether marriages could begin or not: Still, clerks in some cities began marrying couples immediately. Earlier this month, the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the lower court's decision.

    5, 6, and 7. Rainey v. Bostic, Schaefer v. Bostic, and McQuigg v. Bostic (Virginia): These three cases are different iterations of a suit filed in July 2013 by plaintiffs Timothy Bostic and Tony London, who seek to get married in Virginia. Carol Schall and Mary Townley joined the case in September 2013. They were legally married in California in 2008, but their union is not recognized in the Old Dominion. This has made it impossible for Schall to formally adopt her own daughter. In February, a district court judge ruled on all three cases, concluding that the state's laws barring in-state gay marriages and prohibiting recognition of out-of-state marriage licenses is unconstitutional. In July, the 4th Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the lower court's ruling. A fourth case, Harris v. Rainey, a class action suit, has been incorporated into Rainey v. Bostic.

  • Why Gun Control Groups Have Moved Away From an Assault Weapons Ban

    This story originally appeared on ProPublica.

    The morning after the Sandy Hook shootings, Shannon Watts, a mother of five and a former public relations executive, started a Facebook page called "One Million Moms for Gun Control." It proved wildly popular and members quickly focused on renewing the federal ban on military style assault weapons.

    "We all were outraged about the fact that this man could use an AR-15, which seemed like a military grade weapon, and go into an elementary school and wipe out 26 human beings in less than five minutes," Watts said.

    Read our profile of Moms Demand Action.

    Nearly two years later, Watts works full-time as the head of the group, now named Moms Demand Action for Gun Sense in America, is a significant player in a coalition financed by former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg. But while polls suggest a majority of Americans still support an assault weapons ban, it is no longer one of Watts' top priorities.

    "We've very much changed our strategy to focus on public safety measures that will save the most lives," she told ProPublica.

    It's not just that the ban proved to be what Watts calls a "nonstarter" politically, gaining fewer votes in the Senate post-Sandy Hook than background check legislation. It was also that as Watts spoke to experts and learned more about gun violence in the United States, she realized that pushing for a ban isn't the best way to prevent gun deaths.

    A 2004 Justice Department-funded evaluation found no clear evidence that the decade-long ban saved any lives. The guns categorized as "assault weapons" had only been used in about 2 percent of gun crimes before the ban. "Should it be renewed," the report concluded, "the ban's effects on gun violence are likely to be small at best and perhaps too small for reliable measurement."

    With more information, Watts decided that focusing on access to guns, not types of guns, was a smarter approach. She came to the same conclusion that other gun control groups had reached even before the Sandy Hook shootings: "Ultimately," she said, "what's going to save the most lives are background checks."

    While many gun control groups still officially support the assault weapons ban—"we haven't abandoned the issue," as Watts said—they're no longer actively fighting for it.

    "There's certainly a lot of public sentiment around high capacity magazines and assault weapons," Dan Gross, the president of the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence, said in an interview this summer. "It's easy to understand why people feel so passionate about it."

    But, he said, "when you look at this issue in terms of the greatest opportunity to keep guns out of the hands of dangerous people and prevent gun violence, background checks are a bigger opportunity to do that."

    Bloomberg's umbrella group, Everytown for Gun Safety, has also deemphasized an assault weapons ban. A 10-question survey the group gave to federal candidates to measure their stances on gun policy did not even ask about a ban.

    "We acknowledge that assault weapons put the 'mass' in mass shootings," Erika Soto Lamb, the group's communications director, said. But "we feel like it's a more productive use of our time, effort, money, voices, and votes [to focus] on the policies that are going to save the most lives."

    The most common criticism of the weapons ban – which was signed into law Sept. 13, 1994 -- was that it focused too much on the cosmetic "military-style" features of guns, like pistol grips or folding rifle stocks, which made it easy for manufacturers to turn banned guns into legal guns by tweaking a few features. During the ban, some manufacturers added "PCR" to the name of these redesigned guns, for " politically correct rifle."

    But the more profound criticism of the ban is that "assault weapons," a politically charged and imprecise term, have never been the weapons that contribute the most to American gun violence. Gun rights groups have pointed out for years that the campaign against assault weapons ignores the data. (The National Rifle Association did not respond to our requests for comment.)

    While assault weapons do appear to be used more frequently in mass shootings, like the ones in Newtown and Aurora, Colorado, such shootings are themselves rare events that are only responsible for a tiny fraction of gun homicides each year. The category of guns that are used in the majority of gun murders are handguns.

    Despite this data—and perhaps because many Americans do not have an accurate understanding of gun violence statistics—an assault weapons ban has continued to have broad public and political support.

    In January 2014, a Rassmussen poll found that 59 percent of likely voters still favored an assault weapons ban, even after the measure failed in the Senate in April 2013, along with the rest of the White House's push for tougher gun laws.

    Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., the author of the original ban, has repeatedly re-introduced it, most recently in 2013, after the Sandy Hook shootings. Obama made the policy part of his post-Sandy Hook platform for gun violence prevention, though the White House's central focus was on passing universal background checks.

    Experts say that a smarter way to approach the assault weapons ban might be to focus on the ammunition, not the design of the guns themselves. The 1994 gun ban included a ban on magazines with more than 10 rounds of ammunition. Unlike "assault weapons," high-capacity magazines were used in as much as 26 percent of gun crimes before the ban. Limiting magazines to a smaller number of rounds might mean shooters, particularly in mass shooting situations, could not hit as many victims as quickly.

    But even this focus on banning high-capacity magazines, rather than guns, suffers from a lack of data. "It is not clear how often the outcomes of gun attacks depend on the ability of offenders to fire more than 10 shots (the current magazine capacity limit) without reloading," the 2004 evaluation concluded.

    There is some evidence that the ban was preventing violence outside the US: Mexican politicians have long blamed the end of the assault weapons ban for contributing to drug-related violence in Mexico. In a 2013 study, three American academics found that the end of the ban brought about "at least 238 additional deaths annually" in areas of Mexico near the US border.

    Meanwhile, as gun control groups have moved their focus away from gun bans, Americans are buying fewer assault weapons than they did when a ban seemed imminent, Bloomberg News reported last month.


Green Facts

  • Recycling aluminum saves 95% of the energy used to make the material from scratch.

  • Americans use 100 million tin and steel cans every day.

  • A steel mill using recycled scrap reduces related water pollution, air pollution, and mining wastes by about 70%.

  • If every U.S. household turned the thermostat down by 10 degrees for seven hours each night during the cold months, and seven hours each weekday, it would prevent nearly gas emissions.

  • Glass can be recycled over and over again without ever wearing down.

  • Bamboo absorbs 35% more carbon dioxide than equivalent stands of trees.

  • Washing your clothes in cold or warm instead of hot water saves 500 pounds of carbon dioxide a year, and drying your clothes on a clothesline six months out of the year would save another 700 pounds.

  • In California homes, about 10% of energy usage is related to TVs, DVRs, cable and satellite boxes, and DVD players.

  • Current sea ice levels are at least 47% lower than they were in 1979.

  • Every week about 20 species of plants and animals become extinct.

  • Recycling 1 million laptop computers can save the amount of energy used by 3,657 homes in the U.S. over the course of a year.

  • Recycling for one year at Stanford University saved the equivalent of 33,913 trees and the need for 636 tons of iron ore, coal, and limestone.

  • A single quart of motor oil, if disposed of improperly, can contaminate up to 2,000,000 gallons of fresh water.

  • A tree that provides a home with shade from the sun can reduce the energy required to run the air conditioner and save an additional 200 to 2,000 pounds of carbon over its lifetime.

  • Nudge your thermostat up two degrees in the summer and down two degrees in the winter to prevent 2,000 pounds of carbon dioxide from entering the atmosphere.

  • Turning off the tap when brushing your teeth can save as much as 10 gallons a day per person.

  • Refrigerators built in 1975 used 4 times more energy than current models.

  • Less than 1% of electricity in the United States is generated from solar power.

  • You will save 100 pounds of carbon for each incandescent bulb that you replace with a compact fluorescent bulb (CFL), over the life of the bulb.

  • A laptop consumes five times less electricity than a desktop computer.

  • Americans throw away more than 120 million cell phones each year, which contribute 60,000 tons of waste to landfills annually.

  • Plastic bags and other plastic garbage thrown into the ocean kill as many as 1,000,000 sea creatures every year.

  • It takes 6,000,000 trees to make 1 year's worth of tissues for the world.

  • One recycled aluminum can will save enough energy to run a 100-watt bulb for 20 hours, a computer for 3 hours, or a TV for 2 hours.

  • Youíll save two pounds of carbon for every 20 glass bottles that you recycle.

  • You will save 300 pounds of carbon dioxide for every 10,000 miles you drive if you always keep your carís tires fully inflated.

  • 82 percent of greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S. come from burning fossil fuels.

  • Recycling 100 million cell phones can save enough energy to power 18,500 homes in the U.S. for a year.

  • The World Health Organization estimates that 2 million people die prematurely worldwide every year due to air pollution.

  • States with bottle deposit laws have 35-40% less litter by volume.

  • An aluminum can that is thrown away instead of recycled will still be a can 500 years from now!

  • Due to tiger poaching, habitat destruction, and other human-tiger conflicts, tigers now number around 3,200óa decrease in population by about 70% from 100 years ago.

  • American workers spend an average of 47 hours per year commuting through rush hour traffic. This adds up to 23 billion gallons of gas wasted in traffic each year.

  • For every 38,000 bills consumers pay online instead of by mail, 5,058 pounds of greenhouse gases are avoided and two tons of trees are preserved.

  • Shaving 10 miles off of your weekly driving pattern can eliminate about 500 pounds of carbon dioxide emissions a year.

  • Rainforests are being cut down at the rate of 100 acres per minute.

  • In the United States, automobiles produce over 20 percent of total carbon emissions. Walk or bike and you'll save one pound of carbon for every mile you travel.

  • Americans throw away enough aluminum to rebuild our entire commercial fleet of airplanes every 3 months

  • 77% of people who commute to work by car drive alone.