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New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie delivers his State Of The State address, Jan. 13, 2015, in Trenton, NJ. (Photo by Julio Cortez/AP)

Christie's office guided controversial Exxon settlement

03/05/15 09:10AM

We've been keeping a close eye on a controversy out of New Jersey, which continues to get more interesting by the day. To briefly recap, after Exxon damaged more than 1,500 acres of wetlands in northern New Jersey, the state filed an $8.9 billion lawsuit. The case progressed in the state's favor -- Exxon's culpability was effectively already decided. The only remaining question was how much the oil giant would pay in damages.
Last week, however, New Jersey settled the case. After seeking $8.9 billion -- $2.6 billion for environmental restoration and $6.3 billion in compensatory damages -- the state agreed to accept just $250 million. That's roughly 3% of the original target, and most of that total would go towards closing the governor's budget shortfall, rather than environmental repair.
On the show last night, state Sen. Raymond Lesniak (D) told Rachel, "We want to find out who engineered this. Was it the attorney general's office? Was it [the state's Department of Environmental Protection] or was it maybe someone in the governor's office?"
The latest New York Times report seeks to answer that question.
For more than a decade, the New Jersey attorney general's office conducted a hard-fought legal battle to hold Exxon Mobil Corporation responsible for decades of environmental contamination in northern New Jersey.
But when the news came that the state had reached a deal to settle its $8.9 billion claim for about $250 million, the driving force behind the settlement was not the attorney general's office -- it was Gov. Chris Christie's chief counsel, Christopher S. Porrino, two people familiar with the negotiations said.
Bradley Campbell, the commissioner of New Jersey's Department of Environmental Protection when the lawsuit was first filed, argues today that Christie's chief counsel "inserted himself into the case, elbowed aside the attorney general and career employees who had developed and prosecuted the litigation, and cut the deal favorable to Exxon."

Jobless claims climb to 10-month high

03/05/15 08:40AM

With new monthly job numbers just a day away, the latest news on initial unemployment claims isn't what we were hoping to see.
The number of Americans seeking first-time unemployment benefits rose last week, but the number is still consistent with an economy that is adding jobs.
Initial jobless claims increased by 7,000 to a seasonally adjusted 320,000 in the week ended Feb. 28, the Labor Department said Thursday. Economists surveyed by The Wall Street Journal had expected 296,000 new claims.
To reiterate the point I make every Thursday morning, it’s worth remembering that week-to-week results can vary widely, and it’s best not to read too much significance into any one report.
In terms of metrics, when jobless claims fall below the 400,000 threshold, it’s considered evidence of an improving jobs landscape. At this point, we’ve been below 300,000 in 19 of the last 25 weeks. On the other hand, we've been above 300,000 five of the last eight weeks.
Dr. Ben Carson speaks at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC), at the Gaylord National Resort and Convention Center in National Harbor, Maryland, March 8, 2014.

Ben Carson trips over 'gay issues'

03/05/15 08:00AM

Ordinarily, when a political figure makes the transition from credible, mainstream voice to cover-your-eyes crank, the shift is gradual and takes years (cough, Rudy Giuliani, cough). But in the case of right-wing neurosurgeon Ben Carson, the shift was much quicker.
In fact, it happened quite suddenly two years ago, when Carson compared gay people to "NAMBLA [and] people who believe in bestiality." After initially flubbing an apology and blaming critics for quoting him accurately, the Republican personality eventually walked back his comments. Carson's reputation hasn't been the same since.
Two years later, his anti-gay attitudes are still tripping him up. CNN aired an interview with Carson yesterday in which he said homosexuality is "absolutely" a choice. As proof, the likely Republican presidential candidate added, "A lot of people who go into prison go into prison straight -- and when they come out, they're gay. So, did something happen while they were in there? Ask yourself that question."
After initially telling Sean Hannity that his comments were CNN's fault, Carson eventually apologized via Facebook.
"In a recent interview on CNN, I realized that my choice of language does not reflect fully my heart on gay issues," the statement begins, continuing, "I do not pretend to know how every individual came to their sexual orientation. I regret that my words to express that concept were hurtful and divisive. For that I apologize unreservedly to all that were offended." [...]
"No excuses. I deeply regret my statement and I promise you, on this journey, I may err again, but unlike politicians when I make an error I will take full responsibility and never hide or parse words."
This attempt at taking responsibility would have been more compelling if (a) Carson didn't have an ugly track record on LGBT issues; and (b) hadn't tried to blame CNN a few hours earlier.
But taking one step further, I'm curious about a related angle: how does Carson decide which of his outrageous comments warrant an apology?

The Christie connection and other headlines

03/05/15 07:44AM

Christie's office drove Exxon settlement, ex official says. (New York Times)

Hillary Clinton urges State Dept. to make her emails public. (AP)

Democrats fret as Loretta Lynch's nomination languishes. (New York Times)

No clear way forward for Authorization for Use of Military Force against ISIS. (Politico)

Rep. Chris Van Hollen to run for Sen. Barbara Mikulski's seat. (AP)

David Koch backs gay marriage at the Supreme Court. (Washington Free Beacon)

U.S. Ambassador to South Korea doing 'well' after attack. (BBC)

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Ahead on the 3/4/15 Maddow show

03/04/15 06:51PM

Tonight's guests:

  • Dahlia Lithwick, Slate Magazine senior editor and legal correspondent
  • State Sen. Raymond Lesniak, (D) New Jersey

And here's Cory Gnazzo with a preview of what's in store tonight:

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Wednesday's Mini-Report, 3.4.15

03/04/15 05:30PM

Today's edition of quick hits:
* Ferguson: "The Department of Justice on Wednesday cleared former Ferguson, Missouri, police officer Darren Wilson of committing any civil rights violations in the shooting death of black teen Michael Brown Jr."
* Related news: "The Department of Justice released a scathing, 102-page report in full on Wednesday, condemning the Ferguson Police Department of routinely violating the constitutional rights of African-Americans living in the St. Louis suburb. The months-long investigation unearthed instances of when money and racial bias factored into the police department's unlawful activities."
* I wasn't in the room for the Supreme Court's oral arguments this morning, but I'd recommend checking out reports from some folks who were, including Suzy Khimm, Jonathan Cohn, Brian Beutler, Sarah Kliff, Sahil Kapur, and Ian Millhiser.
* On a related note, predictions at this stage are inherently tricky and routinely wrong.
* Keystone: "The Senate's attempt to override President Barack Obama's veto of the bill to approve the Keystone XL pipeline failed on Wednesday afternoon, effectively ending the measure, NBC News confirmed. The final vote was 62-37, but the measure needed a two-thirds majority of the Senate to pass."
* Keep an eye on this story: "Underscoring the Iraqi government's determination to control the timetable and tactics in the battle against the Islamic State, the country's defense minister declared on Wednesday that the most challenging operation, driving the militants from Mosul, Iraq's second-largest city, would be 'planned, timed and executed by Iraqis.'"
* Predictable: "A House investigative committee is preparing to send out subpoenas later Wednesday to gather a deeper look into former secretary of state Hillary Rodham Clinton's nearly exclusive use of personal e-mails to do her official business as the government's top diplomat, according to people familiar with the probe."
U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Gina McCarthy waves before signing new regulations for power plants at EPA headquarters June 2, 2014 in Washington, DC.

Blocking the EPA's science board from considering science

03/04/15 04:30PM

In the last Congress, the House Republican majority made no secret of its hostility towards the Environmental Protection Agency, pushing measures like the absurd, "Secret Science Reform Act." As the new Congress stumbles out of the gate, the same measures have been deemed a priority in the lower chamber once again.
But of particular interest this week is the Republican effort to "improve" the EPA's Science Advisory Board. Pending legislation would, among other things, prevent EPA experts in a given field from participating in "advisory activities." It's a bizarre approach -- if a state was doing an investigation into smog, for example, EPA experts who've conducted research on smog would be legally barred from offering guidance.
This bill, by the way, passed the House in 2014, before getting ignored by the Senate, which was led by Democrats at the time.
This year, the bill's back, with an additional provision: members of the EPA's Science Advisory Board would now be prohibited, by law, from even considering research on climate science from a variety of sources, including the U.S. Global Change Research Program's National Climate Assessment. Dave Roberts' responded:
So. When considering what to do about carbon pollution, EPA may not consider what America's best scientists have concluded about it, what an international panel of scientists has concluded about it, how the federal government has officially recommended calculating its value, or the most comprehensive solutions for it. [...]
As I've said many, many times, most Americans have no idea how bats**t crazy the House GOP has gone.... It's amusing in its own dark way, but it's not a sitcom or a satire. It's real life.
Wait, it gets a little worse.
Supreme Court Associate Justice Antonin Scalia And Hillary Clinton Speak At Law Conference (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty)

Antonin Scalia's unintentional humor

03/04/15 02:46PM

During oral arguments this morning in the King v. Burwell case, Justice Antonin Scalia heard Solicitor General Don Verrilli warn of dire consequences if the Supreme Court strips millions of families of their health care insurance subsides. The Republican jurist just didn't believe the consequences would be ignored by the people's representatives.
It led to an unintentionally amusing exchange:
SCALIA: What about Congress? You really think Congress is just going to sit there while all of these disastrous consequences ensue? I mean, how often have we come out with a decision such as the ­­ you know, the bankruptcy court decision? Congress adjusts, enacts a statute that takes care of the problem. It happens all the time. Why is that not going to happen here?
VERRILLI: Well, this Congress?
The room, not surprisingly, erupted in laughter. Congratulations, Congress, you've literally sunk to the level of a punch line.
But more to the point, Scalia wasn't kidding. "I don't care what Congress you're talking about," he added. "If the consequences are as disastrous as you say, so many million people ­­ without insurance and whatnot -- yes, I think this Congress would act."
On a purely theoretical level, this is not ridiculous. Major new laws have routinely needed minor technical fixes for generations, and many of these corrections are intended to bring clarity to ambiguous phrases. Under normal circumstances, the King v. Burwell case wouldn't even exist because Congress would have clarified the ACA structure years ago.
And, again in theory, if the Supreme Court were to decide in this case that the statute needs clarification, a sane, mature, responsible legislative branch would simply add a few words to the ACA law and ensure that consumers receive the same insurance subsidies they're receiving now.
But that's all the more reason to understand exactly why Scalia is wrong.
"Obamacare"  supporter Margot Smith (L) of California pleads her case with legislation opponents Judy Burel (2nd R) and Janis Haddon, both of Georgia, at the U.S. Supreme Court in Washington, March 28, 2012.

For some, a Supreme Court case is a matter of life or death

03/04/15 12:40PM

The Supreme Court heard oral arguments in King v. Burwell this morning, and by most accounts, it's not at all clear how the justices intend to rule. The four center-left justices seemed unmoved by the plaintiffs' ridiculous argument; Scalia and Alito seemed eager to destroy "Obamacare"; Roberts said almost nothing; and Kennedy hinted he might back the ACA on federalism grounds.
We probably won't know for sure until June, when the ruling is issued. But in the interim, it's worth taking some time to think about families that will experience some sleepless nights between now and then.
Robert Schlesinger noted yesterday that a far-right ruling would produce "real human misery," and it's an important point. We're not just talking about numbers on a page; this is about whether real-world families have access to medical care.
Sarah Kliff recently highlighted the story of a woman named Marilyn Schramm, who's wondering whether King v. Burwell should cause her to move to a blue state.
She is a 63-year-old retiree who lives in Texas, and since November 2013 she's purchased health insurance through She has a policy that costs about $800 per month. Schramm, who earns $28,000 from her pension, pays about half the cost, and the federal government covers the rest with a subsidy.
Schramm has colon cancer. Doctors diagnosed it this fall, after she started feeling stomach pains during an RV trip through Tennessee. Doctors there removed the tumor, and she's now in Austin receiving chemotherapy, which should continue through this summer.
There's nothing academic about this case for Schramm and her loved ones. Under the Affordable Care Act, she can receive chemotherapy. If Republicans gut the Affordable Care Act, she'll likely lose her coverage and the treatment she needs.
This is obviously one person, but the point is that she's emblematic of millions more. The Huffington Post ran a powerful piece the other day shining a spotlight on real people who'll face dire straits if GOP justices rule the wrong way in this ludicrous case. Yahoo News ran a similar article, as did The Christian Science Monitor.

Wednesday's Campaign Round-Up, 3.4.15

03/04/15 12:00PM

Today's installment of campaign-related news items that won't necessarily generate a post of their own, but may be of interest to political observers:
* Right-wing neurosurgeon Ben Carson moved closer to launching his Republican presidential campaign yesterday, forming an exploratory committee. To date, he and Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-S.C.) are the only White House hopefuls who've taken this formal step.
* Speaking of Carson, the likely presidential candidate told CNN this morning that he believes homosexuality is "absolutely" a choice. He even tried to offer proof of his argument: "A lot of people who go into prison go into prison straight – and when they come out, they're gay. So, did something happen while they were in there? Ask yourself that question."
* How strong is former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush's (R) financial standing in the 2016 race? He's urging donors not to contribute to him too much right now. The Washington Post reported, "The move reflects concerns among Bush advisers that accepting massive sums from a handful of uber-rich supporters could fuel a perception that the former governor is in their debt. The effort is also driven by a desire to build as broad a pool of donors as possible among wealthier contributors."
* Speaking of Jeb, in an apparent pander to his party's far-right base, Bush has announced his opposition to the U.S. Export-Import Bank. Complicating matters a bit, the Export-Import Bank helped Jeb Bush's business interests in the not-too-distant past.
* In the latest national Quinnipiac poll, a majority of self-identified Republicans said they believe President Obama is neither a Christian nor a patriot. When GOP candidates pander to the fever swamps, keep this statistic in mind.
* Former Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) had an interesting explanation for his unique presidential candidacy: "When I look at this race and look and see where everybody else is and look at what else is going on, I realize we'll probably be the only person in the race for a minimum wage increase. We'll probably be the only person in this race that's for scaling back legal immigration."