Legally Speaking: Your Tax Dollars at Work

John G. Browning Feb. 9, 2010, 6:00am

Early voting begins across Texas on Feb. 16. While I always think it's a good idea for voters to be well-informed and wary of who they put in office, sometimes incidents come along that serve as reminders of what can happen when you put too much faith in how the government runs things.

Let's start at the local level. You'd think keeping the rolls of those eligible for jury duty up to date wouldn't be too much to ask, right? Apparently, it is in east Boston, Mass., where the local administrators and jury commission can't even successfully limit it to humans. Earlier this year, "Sal," a cat owned by Gary and Anna Esposito, received a summons for jury duty at Suffolk Superior Court on March 23.

No one knows how the family cat wound up on the rolls of prospective jurors, but Anna Esposito tried to clear up the matter by filing for Sal's disqualification of service with the jury commissioner. Just one problem -- in a triumph of bureaucratic wisdom, the jury commissioner denied the request. I guess Suffolk Superior Court will have to stock up on kitty litter on March 23.

Using the same logic, the town fathers of Saugatuck Township, Mich., came up with a game plan to finance the legal expense of fighting lawsuits filed by township residents seeking to have their property taxes reduced. To amass the $205,000 budget they would need to contest the lawsuits, the township board decided to get voters to approve a new tax.

That's right - to contend with constituents unhappy about taxes, Saugatuck Township decided that voters should be taxed even more. The two-year levy, if approved, would cost homeowners $50 a year on a $200,000 market value home. Apparently missing the irony, Township Board Trustee Chris Roerig said "If our voters want us to continue defending our land use policies and fair taxation, they're going to have to let us know by voting for this millage."

It's not just American politicians making judgment calls that leave others scratching their heads. Be careful how fast you drive in St. Gallen in eastern Switzerland, especially if you got a raise last year. Judges there assess speeding fines based on an individual's net worth. One wealthy speeder who was caught driving 35 miles an hour over the 50 mph limit was just fined $290,000. The record-breaking fine was based on the motorist's estimated wealth of over $20 million, and his status as a repeat offender.

The anti-discrimination laws in the United Kingdom have taken "political correctness" to new heights in absurdity. In January, Nicole Mamo wanted to place an advertisement for a $12/hour domestic cleaner position on the Jobcentre Plus Web site in Norfolk, England. The text of the job posting stated that applicants "must be very reliable and hard-working."

Citing British anti-discrimination laws, Jobcentre Plus refused to run the ad, telling Mamo and her employment recruiting firm that limiting the job opening to "reliable" people unfairly discriminated against unreliable ones. Mamo, who supplies workers for Britain's National Health Service among other clients, said "I laughed because I thought it was crazy." A spokeperson for the Campaign Against Political Correctness agreed, stating "This situation is absolutely ridiculous - of course people want reliable workers and of course employers should be able to ask for them."

Moving back to the U.S. government, you've really got to hand it to those branches charged with the responsibility of keeping us safe - the Department of Homeland Security and the Transportation Security Administration. A fugitive from justice found the best way to avoid apprehension was apparently to work for the Department of Homeland Security itself.
Tahaya Buchanan was indicted in New Jersey for insurance fraud in 2007, and an arrest warrant was issued for her that December. The warrant was also posted to the National Crime Information Center in January 2008.

But that nationwide alert didn't prevent the 39-year-old from getting a job with Homeland Security in Atlanta, Ga. In fact, it wasn't until
Buchanan's arrest following a July 2009 traffic stop, in which police noticed the outstanding warrant, that the office of Citizenship & Immigration Services even became aware that they'd been harboring a fugitive. Hey, Homeland Security - you may want to take a closer look at that "Bob bin Laden" guy in accounting.

Meanwhile, the folks at TSA - who have let people through security with weapons and bomb parts but who have kept us safe from our own shoes - have launched an internal investigation of a field office in Orlando, Fla. TSA supervisors there allegedly used a crew assignment board to ridicule passengers and "keep score" of women, gays and minorities. The board (of photo of which appeared on CNN) resembled that of the TV game show "Jeopardy," but with derogatory slang terms and references to gay men, lesbians and African-Americans. TSA has acknowledged the existence of the board, but hasn't elaborated on when the board was in use, where it was displayed, or how it was used.

The Wisconsin Department of Corrections and the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals need to get out more. Kevin Singer, an inmate at Wisconsin's Waupun Prison serving a life term for homicide, filed a federal lawsuit after his Dungeons & Dragons books and magazines were confiscated and playing of the popular fantasy role-playing game was banned by prison authorities. Singer claimed the policy against Dungeons & Dragons material violated his rights to free speech and due process.

The federal appeals court sided with the prison's rationale against the game, claiming that D&D players were engaged in a type of "gang" activity, and that the game itself promoted "fantasy role playing, competitive hostility, violence, addictive escape behaviors, and possible gambling." Seriously?

I've seen "Oz" and "The Shawshank Redemption," and I'm pretty sure what goes on in prisons bears no resemblance to a fantasy game played by the geeky kids from your high school. Unlike the judges on the 7thCircuit, I don't think that in a prison's sea of rampant violence, drug use, and illiteracy there's much chance of an inmate standing up to a tattooed white supremacist convict by claiming to be a Level 12 paladin with a magical sword and a spell-resistant cloak.

My final example of why we need to really be careful about who we put in government positions comes from the Department of Justice's Civil Rights Division. This federal government division recently posted a job announcement seeking up to 10 individuals for positions as trial attorneys in the Voting Section in Washington, D.C., and the ad made it clear that preference would be given to applicants with "targeted disabilities."

What did the Department of Justice define as a "targeted disability," you might ask? The government's own list included not just deaf lawyers or blind lawyers, but also those suffering from "mental retardation" or "mental illness." Hmmm - mentally retarded lawyers working for the federal government? That would explain a lot.

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