Annual press dinner gives media a chance at enjoying the last laugh

May 23 ,2024

I am in a deep funk.
Once again, my request to attend the White House Correspondents’ Association (WHCA) dinner held recently was rejected by my editors.
Berl Falbaum

I am in a deep funk.

Once again, my request to attend the White House Correspondents’ Association (WHCA) dinner held recently was rejected by my editors.

The Detroit News hired me as a general assignment reporter on June 6, 1960, and I have been rejected since June 6, 1960 by the various editors at papers I have worked for over the years.

To soothe my hurt feelings, I went to have my annual dinner at Leo’s Coney Island. I walked in front of the restaurant pretending I was on a red carpet.  Periodically, I asked customers to take a selfie with me.

Some called the cops, but they know the drill and don’t come out anymore on the night of the dinner.

Inside I commended customers on their clothes, and I praised the chef for the beans in my chili which, I am confident, came from some exotic country while WHCA guests enjoyed “seared petit filet mignon.” Leo’s doesn’t serve that; I asked.

The New York Times, devoted to “All the News That’s Fit to Print,” published three stories of the event at the Washington Hilton at which a president, this time Joe Biden, is the principal speaker.  His responsibility is to skewer the press and try to get even for all the nasty stories they write about him.

The attendees howl good-naturally, knowing full well they will have a very good and last laugh the next day when they get back to work.

I learned that Lester Holt, NBC News anchor, sat next to Jeffrey D. Zients, White House chief of staff, who spoke to the famous Rev. Al Sharpton.

Who would not want to witness that?

I am sure that I would have been included in one of the stories, even if Holt confessed to guests that he shook hands with someone whom he had absolutely no idea who he was.

While most of the men wore tuxedos, Senator John Fetterman, of Pennsylvania, wore a white-hooded sweatshirt. Hey, I can promise the powers-to-be, I would even wash my sweatshirt -- very reluctantly -- if my editors let me attend.

Vice President Kamala Harris, the Times reported, wore a “high-necked sequin column faded into transparency at the shoulders.” While I have no idea what that meant, I did a Google search but could not find a photo of her wearing that thingamajig.

White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre “plunging look was covered in a scrim of tulle” -- another thingamajig. There were thingamajigs all over the place, according reporters covering fashion.

This dinner has been held since 1920, but women were not permitted to attend until about 50 years ago.  JFK refused to attend until the ban on women was lifted and everyone thought he objected because of the discrimination.

Donald Trump boycotted the dinner during his four years as president, but he had a spokesperson read the following statement each year. “I did not do anything wrong.” It always got the biggest laugh of the night.

We had a similar dinner, called the “Steakout” in Detroit sponsored by the defunct Detroit Press Club, but it died about 30 years ago or so.  

Instead of the president, the governor and Detroit mayor would deliver their humorous monologues.

I attended some of these but was always undecided whether I should wear a name tag. That would imply that I realized people would not know who I was.  Self-realization can be damaging to the psyche.  

Thus, I went without one, and settled for handshakes with people who told me, “It’s nice to see you again,” but never included my name. Then I heard them whisper to companions as they walked away, “Who the hell was that?”

Incidentally, the price per ticket to the WHCA dinner was $375 or roughly 57.69 bowls of chili -- that’s plain chili, no meat.” *

Attendance at the WHCA dinner now is open to not just journalists, but also famous people from Hollywood, sports, etc. I fail to qualify for any of the other categories as well.

People Magazine, which described the dinner as the “most star-studded event in political journalism,” listed some of the “big names” attending the dinner. More thingamabodies; I did not recognize one of them.

And like at the Academy Awards, there are parties everywhere in the D.C. area over four days, before and after the dinner. I confess: I have thought of crashing one or two of them.

Finally, People Magazine discovered that very few, if any, of the non-journalist guests could name one White House correspondent. Maybe they were crashing the party.

The magazine also reported this is all designed to celebrate the First Amendment right to a free press. To prove your commitment to an unfettered press you had to attend at least three parties.  

Perhaps, some actors thought the First Amendment was the contract clause that defined the percentage their agents receive for landing a role.

Regrettably, the Founding Fathers who drafted the First Amendment put no constitutional limits on narcissism, conceit, vanity, or self-importance.

So, tell me, is there a better way to celebrate the constitutional protection of the press?

*(Funds raised are used to finance educational projects and scholarships.)


Berl Falbaum is a long time political reporter and author.

The unauthorized practice of law in Michigan ADR: A journey

May 23 ,2024

In 2023 I was appointed to arbitrate a matter in which an out-of-state resident was a party to the proceedings.
Michael S. Leib

In 2023 I was appointed to arbitrate a matter in which an out-of-state resident was a party to the proceedings. The parties had agreed by contract to arbitrate  in Michigan and Michigan law would control. The lawyer for the out of state party was not licensed in Michigan, which raised an issue.  I  did some research that I share here.

When arbitration or mediation proceedings are court ordered,  as a prerequisite to the ability to represent a party in the matter, the out-of-state lawyer must be granted temporary admission via the court’s pro hac vice procedures. But where it is a non-court-annexed proceeding, the necessary process is less clear.  Nevertheless, the law, as well as ethical and practical considerations, suggest that pro hac vice admission is still required, and that in the absence of a judge, the assigned mediator or arbitrator is the appropriate body to review and pass upon any such requests. To clear up any confusion, rule amendments and a developed procedure for addressing possible unauthorized practice of law by out-of-state lawyers in Michigan non-court-annexed mediations and arbitrations would be helpful to arbitrators, mediators, and advocates alike.   

The Statute and Court Rule

Michigan statute, MCL 600.916, provides that a person shall not practice law in Michigan unless licensed and authorized to practice law in Michigan, with certain limited exceptions:

(1) A person shall not practice law or engage in the law business, shall not in any manner whatsoever lead others to believe that he or she is authorized to practice law or to engage in the law business, and shall not in any manner whatsoever represent or designate himself or herself as an attorney and counselor, attorney at law, or lawyer, unless the person is regularly licensed and authorized to practice law in this state... This section does not apply to a person who is duly licensed and authorized to practice law in another state while temporarily in this state and engaged in a particular matter.

The final sentence of Section (1) provides a person properly licensed to practice law in another state may practice law in Michigan “temporarily.” Is participation by counsel in an arbitration or mediation the practice of law? The court in Dressel v Ameribank 468 Mich 557 (2003) provides guidance. The court states at page 566:

We agree and reiterate that a person engages in the practice of law when he counsels or assists another in matters that require the use of legal discretion and profound legal knowledge.

It would seem then that assisting a client in a mediation or arbitration, assessing the strength and weaknesses of legal positions, applying facts to law, drafting mediation and arbitration statements, appearing at a mediation, appearing at an arbitration and participating in the hearing including advocating a legal position and handling the evidentiary portion of a hearing, fits within the Dressel definition of “practicing law”.  Indeed, Michigan Court Rule 8.126 (A), contains a process for obtaining temporary admission and provides that an out of state lawyer participating in an arbitration:

…may be permitted to appear and practice in a specific case in a court, before an administrative tribunal or agency, or in a specific arbitration proceeding in this state when associated with and on motion of an active member of the State Bar of Michigan who appears of record in the case.

Note that at present the Rule does not mention “mediation” and does not distinguish between a court-annexed arbitration and an arbitration commenced independent of a court proceeding.

MCR 8.126 (B) Waiver describes the circumstances under which an out of state lawyer may obtain a waiver of the requirement to associate with local counsel.  The waiver opportunity appears to apply only to a “court” proceeding and not to an arbitration.  See, for example MCR 8.126 (A)(1) where a motion for temporary admission must be submitted to the “court…or arbitrator.” But a waiver may be obtained from the court, at its discretion, for limited exceptions when the out of state lawyer produces an affidavit verifying the attorney is in good standing in all jurisdictions in which they are licensed to practice, not suspended or disbarred and is familiar with the Michigan Court Rules and Rules of Evidence. MCR 8.126 (B).

Ethical Considerations

Michigan Rules of Professional Conduct Rule 5.5 discusses the unauthorized practice of law and multi-jurisdictional practice. Rule 5.5 (a) provides that a lawyer may not practice law in violation of the regulations of the jurisdiction in which they intend to practice.  Rule 5.5 (b) states a lawyer not licensed in Michigan shall not practice law in Michigan unless authorized by an exception provided later in the rules.  Rules 5.5 (c), (d) and (e) provide the exceptions.  Rule 5.5 (d) and (e) speak to in-house corporate lawyers, government lawyers and to multi-jurisdictional issues and a lawyer licensed in another jurisdiction but residing in Michigan. These issues are beyond the scope of this article.

Focusing on MRPC 5.5(c), a lawyer admitted in another jurisdiction of the United States and not suspended or disbarred, may provide temporary legal services” (providing guidance as to the meaning of “temporarily” in MCL 600.916), if

(c)(1) The out of state lawyer is associated with a local lawyer;

(c)(2) The representation is related to a pending or potential pending proceeding before a “tribunal” if the out of state lawyer is authorized to appear in such proceeding or reasonably expects to be so authorized;

(c)(3) The legal services relate “to a pending or potential arbitration, mediation, or other alternative dispute resolution proceeding in this or another jurisdiction, if the services arise out of the lawyer’s practice in a jurisdiction in which the lawyer is admitted and are not services for which the forum requires pro hac vice admission”; or

(c)(4) “Not covered by c(2) and c(3) and arise out of or reasonably related to the lawyer’s practice in the jurisdiction where the lawyer is admitted to practice.”

The Comments to MRPC 5.5(c)(3) explain that an out of state lawyer may appear in a Michigan mediation or arbitration but “must obtain admission pro hac vice under MCR 8.126 in the case of a court-annexed arbitration or mediation, or otherwise if required by court rule or law”.   So, what if the mediation or arbitration are not “court-annexed”.  The Michigan Court Rules, current version, and as recently proposed, do not make a distinction between court-annexed arbitration and non-annexed arbitration but the proposed amendments do make a distinction between court-annexed mediation and non-court-annexed mediation. See below.

The Standing Committee on Professional Ethics has weighed in on the unauthorized practice of law in arbitrations.  It issued an informal opinion, RI-382 (2021), that discusses the unauthorized practice of law, the duty of a lawyer to report the unauthorized practice of law, and temporary legal services under MRPC 5.5(c)(3).  

Specifically, the informal opinion concludes:

1. Attorneys and judges have a duty to report the unauthorized practice of law to the State Bar of Michigan when they have actual knowledge of such activity.

2. Only the legislature and courts can determine whether specific conduct constitutes the unauthorized practice of law.

3. MRPC 5.5 provides that, absent meeting the exceptions contained in this section, an out of state attorney may not practice law in Michigan.

4. MRPC 5.5(c)(3) is one of the four “scenarios” where an out of state attorney may practice in Michigan. This scenario relates specifically to ADR.

RI-382 concludes:

“Pro hac vice admission is required in matters arbitrated in Michigan”. relying on MCR 8.126.” No distinction is made between court-annexed and non-court-annexed arbitrations. However, other adr proceedings (such as a mediation) must comply with one of the exceptions in MRPC 5.5.

Proposed Amendments to MCR 8.126

ADR providers and advocates should take note that the Michigan Supreme Court recently (March 27, 2024) published for comment proposed amendments to MCR 8.126.  See ADM File No. 2022-10. The comment period ends July 1, 2024. The staff comments reflect that the proposed amendments would “clarify and streamline” the pro hac vice process.

Currently, when an out of state attorney wants to participate in a Michigan arbitration, they must comply with MCR 8.126.  In addition to obtaining a sponsoring attorney, the out of state attorney must file a motion before the court or arbitrator seeking temporary admission and provide required information.

Importantly, the proposed amended rule makes a mediator “who conducts a facilitation or mediation” a “tribunal” in non-court related mediations. Hence, the mediator is the person to whom a motion for temporary admission is directed.
And, significantly, in the proposed amended rule, an out of state lawyer participating in a Michigan mediation must obtain a sponsoring attorney and temporary admission from the mediator.  It would seem then that RI-382 would then arguably support the position that out of state lawyers participating in a Michigan mediation must be admitted pro hac vice.

In the proposed rule, the court, the arbitrator, and mediator (in a non-court related mediation) may waive the sponsoring attorney requirement. In the current rule, the “court”, only, has the authority to waive the sponsoring attorney requirement.  

Practical Considerations

There are good reasons to take an unauthorized practice of law question seriously, especially in an arbitration.

First, as lawyers we have a duty to report professional misconduct. See MRPC 8.3(a) and RI-382, supra.  Lawyers have a duty to comply with MRPC 5.5.  Another lawyer who does not seek temporary admission when the law requires, will be in violation of the Michigan Rules of Professional Conduct MRPC 8.5 and likely in violation of the Rules of Professional conduct in the jurisdiction in which they are licensed.

Second, the failure to address an unauthorized issue of law issue could impair the validity of an arbitration award.  Less we think this cannot happen and who would make such a claim, a few cases actually have addressed such a claim.  In Lawshawn Hines v Everest Institute, Case Number 2:13-cv-15219, (2014) ED Mich, the plaintiff filed a motion to vacate an arbitration award. The claim failed because the court found no conduct fitting within the bases for vacatur under FAA, 9 U.S.C. Sec. 10(a).  The court found that plaintiff’s claim best fit under the category of “fraud or undue means”. (The Michigan Uniform Arbitration Act, MCL691.1681 et seq addresses vacatur at MCL 691.1703 and also contains, as a basis for vacatur, an award “…procured by corruption, fraud, or other undue means”).

The court also discussed the “manifest disregard for the law” basis to vacate an award.  The court denied plaintiff’s motion because none of the allegations satisfied the bases for vacatur.  Specifically, the court denied the motion based on the claim that defendant’s attorneys practiced law without a license. However, even if true, the court found no evidence the arbitrator’s decision was influenced by the alleged unauthorized practice of law. There was no evidence the alleged unauthorized practice of law was an attempt to commit a fraud on plaintiff or the arbitrator. See also Superradio Ltd P’ship v Winstar Radio Productions, LLC 844 NE 2d 246 (Mass.2006).

Could a clever lawyer under the right set of facts argue that an award should be vacated because the winning lawyer engaged in the unauthorized practice of law? There is no reason to run the risks described above if the parties and/or the arbitrator are aware of facts that a lawyer from a foreign jurisdiction involved in a Michigan arbitration has not obtained temporary admission to practice law in Michigan.

Conclusion/Lessons Learned.

1. The unauthorized practice of law is not permitted. And it violates the Michigan Rules of Professional Conduct.

2. A lawyer licensed in Michigan who has knowledge that an out of state lawyer may be engaged in the unauthorized practice of law should report same to the State Bar of Michigan.

3. Participation by a lawyer advising a client in a mediation and arbitration certainly appears to be the practice of law.

4. An out of state lawyer may participate temporarily in an arbitration or mediation.

5. The procedure for seeking temporary admission to participate in an arbitration in Michigan is found in MCR 8.126. When and if amended, an out of state lawyer participating in a non-court annexed mediation must seek temporary admission from the mediator under MCR 8.126.

6. Whether an out of state lawyer participating in a Michigan mediation must seek temporary admission under current MCR 8.126 is an open question.
It would be helpful if the Michigan Supreme Court provided clarity to assist  lawyers, licensed in Michigan and out of state lawyers, in addressing unauthorized practice of law questions in ADR.

Two more ‘winners’ of Hypocrite Award come to the forefront

May 16 ,2024

With this column we are proud, actually very sad, to announce two more winners of the coveted, actually distained, Pence Outstanding Hypocrite Award (POHA).
Berl Falbaum

With this column we are proud, actually very sad, to announce two more winners of the coveted, actually distained, Pence Outstanding Hypocrite Award (POHA).

We are pleased, actually depressed, to award the next two POHAs to New Hampshire Governor Chris Sununu and former U.S. Attorney General William (Bill) Barr.

Like the other winners, actually losers, they display all the characteristics of an outstanding hypocrite and showed their ever-changing “versatility.”

We’ll deal with Sununu first.

Sununu was a strong supporter of Nikki Haley, who was the last challenger to Donald Trump for the GOP presidential nomination, and Sununu was a vocal critic of Trump.

He denounced Trump after the January 6 insurrection and said that Trump should drop out of the race if convicted of any of the 85 felony charges he faces.  He also described the classified documents charges “very severe” and the federal election case, “extremely severe.” Referring to Trump, he said, “a--holes come and go,” and described Trump as a “loser,” and “not a real Republican.”

Asked by the press if he thought Trump was crazy, Sununu said, “I don’t think he is so crazy that you have to put him in a mental institution.  But I think if he were in one, he ain’t getting out.”  He also has observed that Trump can “hardly read a teleprompter.”

But that was then and now is now. In a recent interview on George Stephanopoulos’s political talk show, Sununu proudly proclaimed he fully supports Trump and no longer believes Trump should end his campaign if convicted, telling Stephan-opoulos, “No, no, no…he’s not going to drop out after being the nominee?  Of course, not.  You know that’s not to be expected at all.” He explained:

"This [hush money] trial is not going to have major political ramifications that a lot of people think it may have. When it comes to these issues, people see it more as reality TV at this point. He’ll try to victimize it, and that has worked for him. This has been going on for over a year, and his poll numbers never seem to go down because of the issue."

Stephanopoulos seemed stunned and responded:  "Wait a second. Your words were very, very clear on January 11, 2021. You said his rhetoric and actions contributed to the insurrection. No other president in history has contributed to an insurrection. Please explain, given the fact you believe he contributed to an insurrection, how you can say we should have him back in the Oval Office?"

Sununu did not budge, stating it was less about Trump but more about support for a Republican administration.

"That doesn’t make any sense to me, governor,” said Stephanopoulos. “I’m sorry. You’re saying it’s not about Trump. He would be the president, and he’s somebody who contributed
to an insurrection.”

"I understand it doesn’t make sense to you, George, but look at the polls. What you are telling me is you don’t understand why 51 percent of this country is supporting Donald Trump…They’re not MAGA conservatives. They’re not extremists. They want culture change.”

Stephanopoulos did not let go and followed up with:

"I’m asking you a very simple question. You believe Donald Trump contributed to an insurrection. That’s correct, right?".

"I stand by the statement,” Sununu said, “[a]s does 51 percent of America.  I mean, really, I understand you’re part of the media. I understand you’re in this New York City bubble or whatever it is. But you’ve got to look around at what’s happening across this country. It’s not about just supporting Trump.

“It’s getting rid of what we have today. It’s about understanding inflation is crushing families. It’s understanding that this border issue is not a Texas issue. It’s a 50-state issue, right? That has to be brought under control. It’s about that type of elitism that the average American is just sick and tired of. And it’s a culture change. That’s what I’m supporting."

Stephanopoulos, obviously frustrated, tried to summarize the governor’s position:

"…[Y]ou would support him for president even if he was convicted in classified documents. You would support him for president, even though you believe he contributed to an insurrection. You support him for president even though you believe he’s lying about the last election. You'd support him for president even if he’s convicted in the Manhattan case. I just want to say the answer is yes, correct?"

Without any hesitancy, Sununu replied: “Yeah, me and 51 percent of America.”

Now, let’s take a look at Barr.

After January 6, Barr, who urged Republicans to support one of Trump’s competitors for the GOP presidential nomination, accused Trump of “inexcusable” behavior, adding that Trump’s “conduct was a betrayal of his office.”  

He said that Trump’s lies about winning the election were “bulls---“, and in a book he published described the former president as “incorrigible,” “erratic,” and a man who “cared only about one thing:  himself.  Country and principle took second place.”  (Please notice the use of the word “principle.”)

“I have made clear that I strongly opposed Trump for the nomination and will not endorse him,” Barr said at one point.

Now, this man of principle is all in for Trump -- lock, stock and barrel.

Barr has had an epiphany and believes Joe Biden is more of a threat to democracy because of the rise of the “far left.”  He explained in a TV interview:

“It’s [the far left] a heavy-handed bunch of thugs in my opinion and that’s where the threat is. I think they have a totalitarian temper.  They have bought into the progressive movement.  And they are trying to squelch opposition [unlike Trump] and freedom of speech.”

We can only conclude that Sununu and Barr are brushing up their credentials for a position in the next Trump administration should the former president defeat Biden.

Whatever the case, we are running low in our inventory of the award. At this rate, we may have to just present certificates instead of the existing very expensive lamp which features ever-changing colors.

The colors are infinite.


Berl Falbaum is a long time political reporter and author.

Merkel biography describes news tale worth telling again

May 09 ,2024

I have some recommended reading for the American journalistic community.
Berl Falbaum

I have some recommended reading for the American journalistic community.

It is not time-intensive or laborious; it is just one page -- page 234 -- in a biography, “The Chancellor: The Remarkable Odyssey of Angela Merkel.”

On that page, the author, Kati Marton, discusses how Merkel’s body was betraying her; she was suffering from severe tremors, very noticeable in public, and so severe that, at times, Merkel, the former German chancellor, could not stand up for a national anthem.

Merkel had served as chancellor for 16 years, from 2005-21, and was deciding whether to run again. She did not; she was 66 at the time. At the peak of her tenure, she was, arguably, the most powerful public official in Europe.

Well aware of public concern, Merkel issued the following statement: “I would simply say, you have known me for quite a while and know that I am able to fulfill my office.  As a human being I also have a personal interest in my health, especially as my political career is ending in 2021, and I would like to lead a healthy life after this one.”

The press took notice and, after serious reflection, made a decision that is journalistically fascinating and hard to imagine ever happening in our own media environment.

Journalists, please read the following carefully:

“Our press association held a meeting,” said Anna Sauerbrey, a Berlin-based columnist, “and we decided to stick to our tradition of not covering the chancellor’s health unless it prevents her from doing her job. She is obviously doing her job. We consider this a private matter.”  

The author, Marton, writes, “By American standards, German media’s reluctance to pursue the story of the chancellor’s health seems remarkable. In this unsettling new world, this collective decision by the media to respect the chancellor’s privacy seemed downright quaint.”

Quaint? How about, by U.S. standards, unthinkable, inconceivable, incomprehensible.

I raise this issue given the U.S. media’s obsession with President Biden’s gaffes. In the millions of words written about them, none—and I believe I can use the absolute “none” —has ever reported how they affected either domestic or foreign

No one has taken the time to consider whether they are newsworthy in terms of Biden’s performance. Nor has anyone considered, as one reporter, a stutterer, pointed out that when Biden talks, he not only has to decide what he wants to say but how to say it to avoid stuttering.  That, of course, leads to gaffes.

As Clarence Page, a stutterer, wrote in The Chicago Tribune, “When you bump up against a word that’s not going to let you proceed without a struggle, you just switch to another word.”

The media’s only objective seems to be to get a “good story” and beat competitors to the punch.

Of course, Biden is not the first public official at the presidential level to be a victim of reckless and simplistic journalistic practices.  There have been many and one that still leaves me mystified: Dan Quayle who in 1992, as vice president, misspelled “potato” while at a New Jersey elementary school, adding an “e” at the end of the word.

This error, which had nothing to do with his official duties, hounded him during his entire career, and is ingrained in our political culture and history. Given the massive, relentless coverage, many still remember this faux pas, more than 30 years after the fact.  Incidentally, Quayle was not totally at fault; he used a teacher’s flash card in making the mistake.

If you Google “famous bad spellers,” you will find, among others, Jane Austen, Albert Einstein, Winston Churchill, George Washington, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Ernest Hemingway, and William Butler Yeats. All of them performed pretty well in their respective discipline.

An aside on the evolution of our politics: Quayle’s misspelling severely damaged his entire career. Meanwhile, Trump’s thousands of lies, corruption, ugly sexual history, etc., did not stop him from winning the presidency in 2016, becoming the GOP presidential candidate in 2020, and he is poised to possibly winning the presidency again this year despite -- let us not forget -- having been impeached twice and found guilty of sexual assault in the civil proceeding. Someone explain all that to me.

Then there was President Gerald Ford who stumbled several times while climbing the steps on the ramp of Air Force One. The media ignored the “political relevance” of Ford’s accidents, constantly describing him as a clumsy ignoramus despite the fact that he was probably the most athletically talented president to hold the office, having had offers to play professional football, was an avid skier and decent golfer.

Indirectly, consider the coverage of Katherine, Princess of Wales, as she undergoes treatment for cancer. Understandably, the story needs to be covered; she is after all royalty. But how about substituting some respect, sensitivity, compassion and support for unfeeling sensationalism. The British press, particularly, has been shamefully ruthless.

There are, of course, other absurdities in the coverage of our politics. Would that the U.S. media copy page 234 of Marton’s book, study it, distribute it to all who cover public affairs, and take steps to implement such a policy.

Now that would be news!


Berl Falbaum is a long time political reporter and author.

U.S. Supreme Court case could see the homeless housed in jails

May 09 ,2024

When it comes to affording housing, more and more Americans are living on the edge of the abyss.
Mark Jenkins

When it comes to affording housing, more and more Americans are living on the edge of the abyss.

A recent report by Redfin notes that half of U.S. homeowners and renters sometimes, regularly, or greatly struggle to make their house payments. More than a third took no or fewer vacations. And more than a fifth skipped meals and/or worked overtime in order to pay for monthly housing costs.

To make matters worse, even if Americans could afford such costs, there simply aren’t enough houses to go around. At the end of 2023, America was short upwards of 3.2 million homes, according to census data analyzed by Hines, a global real estate developer. And those houses and apartments that are being built are not easily afforded.

It is amid such a shortage of affordable housing that the U.S. Supreme Court recently heard oral arguments in arguably the most significant case about the rights of unhoused people to come before the court in more than 40 years. At issue in City of Grants Pass, Oregon v. Johnson is whether cities are allowed to punish people for using what they are classifying as “camping equipment” — pillows, sleeping bags, even cardboard boxes — as shelter for sleeping outside even when there are no available options for safe shelter.

The city council makes no pretense of their intent. Their president is on record as saying, “the point is to make it uncomfortable enough for them in our city so they will want to move on down the road.

Like many small towns, Grants Pass has no homeless shelters qualified by the Department of Housing and Urban Development. The city relies solely upon the Gospel Rescue Mission to fill that need. But the mission has strict requirements for those who would stay there. Residents “must dress and behave according to their birth gender;” work six hours a day, six days a week; attend mandatory Bible studies every morning and evening; and pay $100 monthly rent. And if one is too sick or disabled to work, there is simply “no room at the inn.”

“Instead of responding to an increase in homelessness with compassion and housing services,” said Jesse Rabinowitz of the National Homelessness Law Center (NHLC), “the city of Grants Pass decided to give people tickets of around $350 for camping outside.” Rabinowitz continued, “This is literally about if people can be punished for using something like a blanket a cardboard box or a pillow when they’re sleeping outside.”

In 2019, in the case of Boise v. Martin, the Ninth Circuit court held that enforcing criminal restrictions on public camping when there is no “access to adequate temporary shelter” violates the Eighth Amendment’s Cruel and Unusual Punishments clause. It is this ruling that Grants Pass is challenging. Should the Supreme Court rule in Grants Pass’s favor and overturn Boise v. Martin, it will, in effect, criminalize homelessness during a growing shortage of housing. Freddie Mac recently estimated that, as of the fourth quarter of 2020, the United States had a housing supply deficit of 3.8 million units. This means that, if every available housing unit were filled tonight, millions of Americans would still find themselves sleeping out of doors. And, if Grants Pass were to have its way, they would be sleeping without pillows or blankets.

All too often, when confronted with the facts of this case, the response is to assume that unhoused persons are living on the streets by choice or as the result of a choice to become addicted to drugs or alcohol. Little regard is given to the systematic dismantling of the social safety net that has occurred over the last fifty years.

When I was 10 years old, in 1968, my clergyman father enrolled in a summer training program at the Chicago Urban Training Center. Twelve major American denominations established this center to train clergy, seminarians, and laity interested in inner city ministry. Among the mentors he met there was Kwame Ture, then known as Stokely Carmichael, one of the most active, committed, and engaging social organizers of the day.

On the first week of the program, he and others were subjected to something called, “the Plunge.” They were each given five dollars in change and sent out to live on the streets. In order to fit in, my father wore an old army overcoat that had been dyed. He spent his first night in a flophouse. The second in an all-night movie theater. After that, he was out of money. No food. And nowhere to stay.

So he signed on at a local business called “Rent-a-Man.” There he got a job unloading box cars making $11.25 for the day. At the end of the day, when he was paid, he noted that social security had been withheld even though the company had not bothered to get his number. It was a tax that would clearly never be paid. And to make things worse, he was paid not in cash but in a voucher. Like the 19th century Welsh coal miners who were paid with vouchers from the company store, workers at “Rent-a-Man” were paid with a voucher that could only be cashed at the bar across the street.

“You get a cycle going there,” my father later said. “You go to the bar. You cash your check. You drink up most of your check. And then the next day you’re without funds. You’ve got to go back and work again for a day.”

Life on the streets is not what it seems. Societal structures – structures purposefully designed to do what they do – conspire to keep people homeless and in poverty. It is, in essence, a modern-day indentured servitude. Only the indentureship is structured in such a way as to trap people permanently in their circumstance. Perhaps saying it’s a conspiracy seems over the top. But it was no accident that those alcoholic workers were sent to the bar to get paid.

“We need to be very clear,” says Rabinowitz of the NHLC, “that there is a well-funded, billionaire-backed, national campaign to criminalize homelessness in cities and states across the country.”

Regardless of what so many think, the vast majority of people who live on the streets are not there by choice. They are there because they lack the resources, financial and otherwise, to find shelter. They are there because there simply isn’t enough housing or shelters available.

If the court should side with Grants Pass, as it seems likely, we will be housing the homeless in jails and prisons. But even should they rule that jailing or fining the homeless for using a pillow when no safe shelter is available does indeed constitute cruel and unusual punishment, that will not solve the problem. Until this country gets serious about providing its citizens with a living wage and affordable housing, none of this is going to go away.


Mark Jenkins retired in 2015 after 30 years of parish ministry in the Episcopal Church and 11 years teaching at Wayne State University. Since then he has spent his days reading, writing, cooking, and publishing the occasional essay.

All is quiet on golf and tennis fronts, for some strange reason

May 02 ,2024

Now, I have written about some very controversial issues, i.e. Trump, Ukraine, Israel-Hamas, the environment and many other topics.
Berl Falbaum

Now, I have written about some very controversial issues, i.e. Trump, Ukraine, Israel-Hamas, the environment and many other topics.

Today, I am taking on an issue I was warned not to tackle. My family and friends repeatedly advised me to leave it alone.  But being a masochist, I can no longer resist; it has bothered me for years.

So here goes: Why do spectators at golf and tennis matches have to be silent?  (There, I did it and I think I hear the outcry already). Let’s begin by applying the “quiet” rule to some other sports.

Scene 1: A Detroit Tiger batter has finished scratching and adjusting his gloves/helmet when an announcement on the public address system commands fans to “be quiet please.” Some 45,000 fans comply.

Scene 2: A Detroit Piston is at the free throw line. A similar announcement orders fans to take their seats, not move a muscle, while the basketball player shoots.  

Scene 3: The Detroit Lions quarterback, ready to take the hike, is bothered by a fan slurping a beer in the upper deck. He stops, points to the stands and the announcer, whose voice reflects annoyance, chastises the offending fan to drink quietly.
None of the above is possible, you say?  Yup, you’re right; very true. So…

Why is golf and tennis different?  What is it about these games that require fans to not only hold their breath, but also are ousted from stadiums and golf courses if they can’t control the sniffles?

The golfing great Tiger Woods became angry when he heard camera shutters click, and at a Wimbledon classic, one player complained that she was bothered by “groans” after she missed a shot. She said a sports psychotherapist was treating her for this mental/psychological dilemma. (I did not make that up; I could never have thought of that.)

In the in-depth interviews I conducted, I was told, “You just don’t understand.” Which, of course, is true. They explained:  it’s a matter of concentration.

Apparently, it takes more concentration to hit a golf ball sitting motionless on a tee, waiting to be whacked than hit a curving, twisting 95-mile an hour pitch from just 60.5 feet away.

A basketball player doesn’t need to concentrate shooting a free throw while fans engage in hilarious antics to force him to miss. Some of the signs and photos can’t be reported in a family newspaper. When the player does miss, given the raciness of the photos, a coach ought to be a little forgiving.

Question: Who needs more time to think: A golfer contemplating a 12-inch putt or a quarterback looking at six hulking, 300-pound salivating linemen who are planning to claw their way through the defensive line to crush every bone in his body.  

The internet provides many reasons (all are really about concentration), one arguing that a tennis player needs to hear the ball hit the opponent’s racket. Apparently, that sound provides vital info for the return.

If sound -- any sound -- is so disruptive, then the first people who should be ushered out are players who grunt, among them the great Serena Williams. Those grunts are annoying, I confess, to me watching on TV. Maybe that’s her secret to winning.

We might also observe golfers don’t grunt even when they hit a drive for some 300 yards. But they do stand like statues on the green when  opponents putt. Professional courtesy.

Concentration?  What about doing backward somersaults on a beam just four inches wide and 4.1 feet off the ground? You think that might need a little concentration?

No, dear tennis players and golfers, concentration doesn’t do it. Citing that as the reason is nothing but sports elitism.  

Then, what is the reason? Answer: Tradition. These were rich people’s sports played at country clubs that required respectable behavior and appropriate manners. People at these clubs didn’t shout, let alone cuss, but behaved “properly.” One professional tennis player, discussing this issue on the web, called his colleagues “dilettantes”

Moreover, tennis was played before royalty and that required acceptable protocol. It still is at Wimbledon where members of the royalty frequently attend matches. No one ever witnessed a king, queen, prince or princess, chugging a beer, and shouting, “Helluva shot, old chum.”

Admittedly, I never met the late Queen Elizabeth but from what I have read about her, I think she would have enjoyed a more raucous scene. I know Prince Harry would.

(If it’s not too much to take on at the same time, we might also change the scoring system in tennis.  What the hell is the point of 15, 30, 40 love? The numbers don’t make sense and what is meant by “love?” Yes, I read all the reasons for the scoring, but for the “love” of me, none makes any sense.  How about 1, 2, 3 and when the player reaches 4, he/she wins the game.)

We have witnessed several revolutions in the last half-century. We have made progress in civil rights, women’s rights, LGBTQ+ rights, and in other sectors of society.

It’s time to fight for “fan rights” at tennis matches and on golf courses. With spring upon us, let’s make 2024 the year we begin to cheer and boo at these sporting events.  I will start it if you promise to post bail.

We might just discover it doesn’t make a damn bit of difference -- and that it is a lot more fun.  

And the player who is upset by groans will save a lot of money on therapy.    


Berl Falbaum is a long time political reporter and author.