AG Reyes takes oath after ‘whirlwind year’

photoOn Monday, Jan. 5, Sean Reyes took the Attorney General oath of the office, just as he did when he was appointed by Governor Herbert to fill the vacancy a year ago. In so doing, he continues as Utah’s chief law enforcement officer and leader of the largest law firm in the state.

As a former administrator of one of Utah’s fine, large, private law firms, I am somewhat familiar with the challenges associated with the practical and organizational dimensions of AG Reyes’ responsibilities. Leading and coordinating the efforts of any large group is difficult. Being accountable to do so in the “glass house” of service in the public sector can be daunting, even when things are going well. To observe that things were not going well when Reyes stepped into the role 12 months ago would be an understatement.

In his inaugural address, Attorney General Reyes described those circumstances.

A year ago we were faced with serious distrust by the public in our office, a demoralized workforce, dissatisfied clients, a lack of infrastructure, we lacked many policies, consistency, resources, vision – and we were tasked with handling cases of great import to the state and nation as well as investigations internally and externally into our office.  And that was just on the first day.

Further noting,

… client satisfaction hovered somewhere between dismal and really dismal (I like to say galactically dismal).

Describing efforts since that time, he said,

In this whirlwind year, … we as an office have focused our attention on returning to being a law office and not a political one, focused on legal excellence, professionalism, and our duty to defend the citizens, businesses and laws of Utah.

Underscored by several musical performances representing his diverse family lineage, Reyes acknowledged the influence of his wife, Saysha, their six children, and his parents and ancestors.

Readers of the transcript of his remarks will learn how the state’s 21st attorney general feels he has been prepared for the rigors of the office by personal and professional experiences and by his cosmopolitan heritage – from the Philippines, Spain, Japan and Hawaii. A foundation of strength that will be necessary to surmount current high hurdles and the high bar he has set for himself and his colleagues.

The pleasure-versus-pain calculation of modern morals – Mero Moment, 6/10/14

This post is a transcript of a 4-minute weekly radio commentary aired on several Utah radio stations.

Head of Epikouros (Roman, AD 100-120) - Epikouros (341-270 BC) was founder of the Epicurean philosophy that pleasure (emotional tranquility and absence of pain) was the greatest good.

Head of Epikouros – founder of the Epicurean philosophy that pleasure (emotional tranquility and absence of pain) was the greatest good.

Every year since 2001, the Gallup organization has surveyed Americans regarding the moral acceptability of 19 social issues. These social issues range from birth control to extramarital affairs, from divorce to suicide and from human cloning to medical testing on animals.

Of the 19, the most morally acceptable behavior is the use of birth control, even across party lines. Largely accepted, although with less consistency across party lines, are divorce, sex between an unmarried man and woman, stem cell research, gambling, the death penalty, buying and wearing animal fur, out-of-wedlock births, homosexuality and medical testing on animals.

Coming at this list from the other direction, extramarital affairs, cloning humans, polygamy and suicide are seen by Americans as highly unacceptable. Three issues were found to be largely unacceptable: sex between teenagers, pornography and the cloning of animals. Interestingly, the most contentious social issues of the day – the two issues that divide society right down the middle – are abortion and doctor-assisted suicide.

I mentioned in a previous commentary that one author calls this new moral acceptance “utilitarian hedonism” – a fancy term to describe the growing sentiment in society that pleasure is an intrinsic moral good and a moral pursuit. Now, this isn’t a new idea. Utilitarian ethics have been around as long as selfish people and were canonized as a science into polite society nearly two centuries ago. Some of the old believers even created a calculus of pleasure and pain intended to identify, measure and weigh nearly every human action to maximize pleasure and reduce pain.

This all gets rather silly. But there is a growing fascination with pleasure as a political credo. The Gallup poll attempts to measure the degree to which modern Americans accept behavior that gives pleasure and reject behavior that gives pain. Again, the most morally acceptable behavior in the Gallup survey is the use of birth control. While civil libertarians like to get misty-eyed about the right to control one’s own body, in this other context, birth control is more about pain relief. Unsupported unwed mothers are viewed as a stain on a progressive society, especially in an age of inexpensive and widely available birth control.

Polygamy also is viewed as harming woman and children but it doesn’t have a pill to make it go away. Its only prescription is legal prohibition on the conduct. Public opinion behind each of the 19 categories in the Gallup survey is highly predictive in terms of pleasure and pain. Read more

Utah’s ‘inner rings’: the healthy and the sinister – Mero Moment, 4/29/14

This post is a transcript of a 4-minute weekly radio commentary aired on several Utah radio stations.

Peter_Paul_Rubens_-_Self-Portrait_in_a_Circle_of_Friends_from_MantuaDuring the Memorial Lecture at King’s College in 1944, famed Christian apologist C.S. Lewis delivered remarks titled “The Inner Ring.” His purpose was to share with those college students a psychological force in their lives even greater than sexual desire. C.S. Lewis described the “inner ring” as the desire to be on the inside of whatever social or economic group provides us with status, prestige or wealth.

Lewis remarked that these “inner rings” are quite natural and many are personally useful and socially constructive. Think of people of faith. Here in Utah many Latter-day Saints make sacred covenants placing them within an “inner ring” of their faith community. College students join fraternities and sororities. Country clubs are a type of “inner ring.” So too are sports teams and high school clubs. Even in our close circle of friends there are certain friends who we count on and trust. These are our “inner rings.”

The fact is that human beings have a natural attraction to associate in groups like families and friends. Nobody wants to be an “outsider” when it comes to the things we love most. Even in politics, insider relationships are what matter most if influence is to be found.

But as Lewis warns, not all “inner rings” are useful and constructive. Some are nefarious, even evil. In the world of politics, we call these sinister groups by many names. We hear tales of evil doings inside America’s greatest philanthropic foundations and among the nation’s wealthiest people – and, to a certain degree, everyone buys into the idea that evils are perpetrated every day to benefit a few wealthy individuals. The progressive left now calls them the “1 percent.”

The most predominant and unhealthy “inner rings” in Utah are what I refer to as “cronyism.” There are certain businessmen in Utah who feel as if they are the adults in the room, our caretakers who know what is best for the rest of us and why Utah needs to be more enlightened and progressive. They know what “real” cities look like and how enlightened people are supposed to think. They envision Utah for everyone else while they live how they want regardless of the common good.

While Utah is filled with many wonderful people who use their wealth to serve those in need and relieve suffering, cronies of the “inner ring” use legal plunder, through the force of government, to get gain and become wealthy through government positions, contracts and taxpayer-financed business schemes that primarily benefit them and their friends.

They thrive on political power and only scandal reveals their circles. And when they’re out of power they do everything they can to get it back. I have spent my career fighting against these cronies and, fortunately, many good and decent people have formed their own circles of influence to promote the common good. But these two worlds do collide and when they do it’s sometimes hard to tell the wheat from the chaff. After all, the insiders need to look distinguished and sound respectable to get gain. Ronald Reagan warned us about people who say, “I’m from the government; I’m here to help.” You might also keep your eye on Utah businessmen and their cronies who require tax dollars to do their business.

For Sutherland Institute, I’m Paul Mero. Thanks for listening.

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Reid abandons impartiality on Swallow

REIDSCUtah State Senator Stuart Reid, showing his displeasure with Attorney General John Swallow’s lack of regard for public opinion during a recent press conference, sent a letter to many of his Senate colleagues with the subject: “My loss of impartiality.”

Senator Reid provided Sutherland with a copy of the letter:

Leaders and Colleagues,

Both the Senate and the House have already spent an inordinate amount of time trying to figure out the best approach to recover public trust in the Attorney General’s office and in state government generally. It is apparent that we will spend even more time and possibly millions of dollars trying to restore public trust. This is and has been our primary focus, as it should be in this case, particularly while numerous other investigatory agencies are trying to discover if any of the accusations of criminality against General Swallow can be substantiated. In the face of our reasonable efforts to secure the faith of the people in our government and on the heals of the House’s decision not to impeach at this time, General Swallow declared to the press that he does not care about public opinion. That declaration was sandwiched between both a celebratory attitude and at moments flippant responses to the press.

Read more

Google on a search-and-destroy mission against online child porn

GoogleplexwelcomesignThis is a great piece of news to start the week with:

[Google] is creating a database of images depicting child exploitation – to be shared with tech companies, law enforcement, and charities – in order to scrub the images from the Internet. …

Google’s plan is to build a database of child porn images that can be shared with other tech companies, law enforcement, and charities around the world. The database will let these groups swap information, collaborate, and remove the images from the Web.

Part of the technology behind this database comes from a technique Google already uses called “hashing,” which tags images showing sexual abuse of children with a unique identification code. Computers can recognize the code and then locate, block, and report all duplicate images on the Web. Google plans to have the database up and running within a year.

Google’s Jacquelline Fuller wrote on the company’s blog Saturday:

We’re in the business of making information widely available, but there’s certain “information” that should never be created or found. We can do a lot to ensure it’s not available online—and that when people try to share this disgusting content they are caught and prosecuted.

Undoubtedly some of the criminal-minded will find ways to hide their online “work” from Google, but the search engine’s efforts toward making child pornography harder to post and to find is a giant step in the right direction. We are delighted to see Google using its massive resources to fight this unspeakable abuse of children.

Weighing decisions of character against feelings of discomfort

In our continued debates over moral issues, it is not uncommon for politicians, opinion leaders and others to announce that, after agonizing over the issue, they have decided to change positions or announce positions in favor of things like abortion or redefining marriage or whatever.

Some of these announcements are well-meaning and sincere, some are opportunistic and cynical. A common explanation is that the experience of a relative or friend or prominent advocate has led to the change of heart (or mind). It’s probably not appropriate to try to guess motives – and certainly not to assume ill motives – but sincerity is not the only factor that ought to be considered.

For instance, how should our discomfort (even very acute or agonizing discomfort) caused by the fact that moral standards appear to create hardships for others be weighed against other considerations? Does the fact that we know or admire or love someone who has rejected the standard absolve us from upholding it?

To paraphrase a statement I heard years ago, there is a need for decisions of character apart from sympathy. Read more

Real 'moral sense' involves balancing conflicting principles

Josh Greenman, a New York Daily News opinion and editorial writer, recently tweeted, “If you believe conception instantly creates a human being, it makes moral sense to ban all abortions. Exceptions are craven compromise.”

Greenman’s assertion got us thinking. Making moral sense isn’t about taking basic moral notions and connecting them to a simplistic and unbending logic in order to arrive at a universal conclusion that leaves no room, short of cynical calculation, for exceptions based on real-life situations. That’s ignorant ideological moralizing, not “moral sense.”

Genuine “moral sense” is about working through the moral conflicts that real life inevitably creates and finding a workable solution to balance equally moral, and sometimes conflicting, principles. Case in point: Making moral sense is balancing one perfectly moral principle (we should protect the life and health of unborn children) with another perfectly moral principle (we should protect the life and health of pregnant mothers-to-be). Read more

California shows that ‘independent commissions’ are an illusion


Some in Utah, including interest groups, the media, and a few elected officials (usually former elected officials) favor creating “nonpartisan,” “independent” commissions to oversee important political processes like congressional redistricting and legislative ethics investigations.[pullquote]The influence of money and partisan interests does not magically disappear simply because we create “independent” commissions.[/pullquote]“Independent” commissions produce better outcomes, we are led to believe, because they make their decisions free of the influence of wealthy special interests and/or political partisanship.

Yet, as a recent Pro Publica (a nonprofit news organization) investigative report into California’s new “nonpartisan” redistricting commission shows, this promise of freedom from partisan or special interest influence is an illusion.  Read more

So what was the DABC drinking, anyway?


If recent media reports surrounding the performance of the state’s Department of Alcoholic Beverage Control (DABC) have left you scratching your head, you’re not alone.

Information from the media over the past few months has ranged from singing the DABC’s praises as one of the state’s greatest sources of revenue to calling for governmental investigations into the management and solvency of the department.

In the last two months the director of the DABC has been forced to resign; ethics probes have called into question the business dealings of its commissioners; and the governor has been forced to get personally involved. Read more

Who’s running UTA, anyway?


Photo credit: vxla

Terry Diehl used to be a board member of the Utah Transit Authority. But no longer. He’s being investigated by the Attorney General’s Office for allegedly misusing official information about the location of a potential commuter rail station in Draper and buying up the land rights in the surrounding area.

That’s bad enough, but get this – even though he’s no longer on its board, Terry Diehl continues to work with UTA and wants to develop more land opportunities. Now this sort of stuff only happens in the darkness of political corruption. If UTA were operating in the bright sunshine, no one in their right mind would allow this to happen. Read more