Dispatches > The Buzz

The Buzz

Issue: "Muddy Gras," March 4, 2006

IRAQ President Jalal Talabani warned that extremists are pushing Iraq toward civil war after a pair of bombs caused extensive damage to the golden dome of one of the country's most revered Shiite shrines in Samarra on Feb. 22, triggering protests and reprisal attacks against Sunni mosques. "We are facing a major conspiracy that is targeting Iraq's unity," Mr. Talabani said.

The attack came as talks between the major Shiite, Sunni Arab, and Kurdish parties forming a new government bogged down following December parliamentary elections. The shrine, more than 1,000 years old, is in Sunni territory but locals believe foreign terrorists were behind the attack, as local Shiites and Sunnis both benefit from pilgrimage traffic. Stores closed and the government declared a three-day mourning period after the attack.

NEW ORLEANS "Everyone wants to come back. . . . Our city is like no other," declared New Orleans resident Ben McLeish. But standing in an empty street surrounded by crumbling houses of the Ninth Ward, it's hard to know when that dream will come true. City fathers dug into a busted budget to foot the $2.7 million bill for Mardi Gras festivities, hoping to lure tourists and others faithful to the epic carnival, while fewer than 200,000 of the city's 465,000 residents have moved back six months after Hurricane Katrina.

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PORTS President Bush vowed to use his veto pen for the first time if a Republican-led Congress moved to block a federal panel's decision to turn six U.S. ports over to a holding company in United Arab Emirates. The president made the pledge despite overheated claims by Republicans and Democrats that it constituted a breach in national security.

SUPREME COURT The U.S. Supreme Court announced on Feb. 21 that it will review Gonzales v. Carhart, a case involving the constitutionality of the 2003 federal law banning partial-birth abortion. The case will be the first test of Justice Samuel Alito's views with respect to abortion law and the legal doctrine known as stare decisis. Even if both Justice Alito and Chief Justice John Roberts vote to uphold the ban, the deciding vote may come from a less likely quarter: Justice Anthony Kennedy. In Stenberg v. Carhart, a 2000 high court ruling that struck down a PBA ban, Justice Kennedy dissented, arguing that the state has a legitimate interest in preserving fetal life, and is therefore within constitutional bounds in banning a procedure widely viewed as bordering on infanticide.

Based on Stenberg, justices likely to uphold the 2003 ban are Kennedy and fellow Stenberg dissenters Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas. Reliable abortion boosters, Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, David Souter, and John Paul Stevens, are likely to vote to strike it down. The two new justices, Roberts and Alito, are question marks, though Justice Alito has a history in this area of law: As an appeals court judge, he ruled a PBA ban unconstitutional for one of the same reasons that three lower courts did so in the current case: because it didn't include a health exception.

RELIGION In its first religious freedom ruling with the new chief justice at the helm, the high court last week sided with a small sect that uses hallucinogenic tea in its rituals. The Bush administration argued that the drug in the tea violates U.S. law, but Chief Justice Roberts wrote that the government had failed to prove a compelling need to hinder the religious practice, as it is required to do by the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. Jared Leland, legal counsel for The Becket Fund for Religious Liberty, called the decision "just one step in the right direction in the fight for religious liberty." Justice Alito did not take part in the case.

SOUTH DAKOTA South Dakota last week moved one step closer to mounting a direct challenge to Roe v. Wade. With a vote of 23-12, the state senate approved a bill that would ban abortion in the state except when a mother's life is in danger. The bill then went back to the House, which has already approved a similar abortion ban. Planned Parenthood promised an immediate legal challenge if Republican Gov. Mike Rounds signs the bill into law.

HARVARD Facing a scheduled faculty no-confidence vote on Feb. 28, controversial Harvard University president Lawrence Summers last week resigned his position, effective the end of this semester. The prominent economist and former U.S. Treasury secretary had alienated many faculty members with his aggressive management style and comments that innate biological differences might explain why women are not represented better in the sciences.

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