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Dispatches The Buzz (Publick Occurrences)

Land of liberty interests

They camped out on the sidewalk between the Supreme Court building and the U.S. Capitol. On this cold January 8 predawn morning, a reporter from The Washington Post interviewed several hopeful spectators, some huddled and shivering under blankets, who wanted to be in the courtroom for that day's oral arguments over physician-assisted suicide. As the dawn broke, the reporter was interviewing a 53-year-old wheelchair-bound woman when Harvard's Lawrence Tribe walked by on his way to make his pro-euthanasia arguments to the Supreme Court. The woman, Eleanor Smith, stopped the interview as the smiling, well-dressed law professor passed. &quotIt's creepier than seeing a man with a gun," she remarked. &quotIt's like someone who's calling you softly, whispering, 'This is for your own good.'" Inside, Mr. Tribe spoke louder. He made a philosophical, this-is-for-your-own-good argument: &quotI think the liberty interest in this case is ... when facing imminent and inevitable death, not to be forced by the government to endure a degree of pain and suffering that one can relieve only by being completely unconscious. Not to be forced into that choice, that the liberty is the freedom, at this threshold at the end of life, ... to have some voice in the question of how much pain one is really going through." &quotWhy does the voice just arrive when death is imminent?" asked Justice David Souter. According to press accounts, none of the justices seemed impressed with this legal concept. Mr. Tribe answered: &quotThe court's jurisprudence has identified, I think for good reason, that life, though it feels continuous to many of us, has certain critical thresholds: Birth, marriage, child-bearing. I think death is one of those thresholds. That is, it is the last chapter of one's life after all...." Justice Antonin Scalia seemed to have heard enough: &quotAll of this is in the Constitution? ... You see, this is lovely philosophy. But you want us to frame a constitutional rule on the basis of that?" Yes, he did. Eleanor Smith hopes, for the sake of people like her, that &quotlovely philosophy" doesn't carry the day.

Silence the Speaker

After Newt Gingrich Jan. 7 became the first Republican Speaker of the House in 68 years to be reelected, House Ethics Committee members began 14 hours of deliberations to determine how to deal with ethics charges against Mr. Gingrich. Members of the panel scheduled a vote on his punishment Jan. 21. According to two major polls, many Americans have already rendered a judgment on Mr. Gingrich's punishment. A CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll found about 40 percent of Americans believe Mr. Gingrich should resign from the House altogether; two-thirds of respondents said he should not have been elected Speaker of the House. A CBS poll said 51 percent believe the charges were serious enough to justify his replacement as Speaker. Nine Republicans also felt that way. A handful of moderates--led by Jim Leach of Iowa--joined conservatives Linda Smith of Washington, Michael Forbes of New York, and Mark Neumann of Wisconsin in voting against Mr. Gingrich. The Speaker won reelection with just three more votes than necessary. &quotTo the degree I was too brash, too self-confident, or too pushy, I apologize," Mr. Gingrich declared after his victory, then outlined an ambitious legislative agenda for 1997.

Albright alright

Secretary of State nominee Madeleine Albright appeared to be headed for a smooth confirmation. After her first day of Senate confirmation hearings Jan. 8, no serious opposition had developed. Jesse Helms, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, criticized the Clinton administration, but expressed hope Ms. Albright could &quotbring some coherence, direction, and fresh ideas to America's foreign policy." Sen. Sam Brownback (R-Kan.) asked the secretary-designate whether she supported Sen. Helms's proposal for trimming the government's foreign-policy apparatus by abolishing three agencies and turning over their functions to the State Department. Ms. Albright said she would remain &quotopen minded."

Abortion and breast cancer

A team of Danish scientists weighed in on the question of whether having an abortion increases a woman's risk of breast cancer. Their answer: &quotNo." The Danish study--conducted in a country where abortion is unrestricted and government-paid--found no &quotoverall increased ... risk for the average woman." But Joel Brind of Baruch College in New York, the author of an earlier study that did find an increased cancer risk from abortion, claims the Danish study is &quotpolitically correct [but] not scientifically correct." Dr. Brind's theory, also held by a number of other scientists, is that when pregnancy-related hormonal changes are interrupted unnaturally, rapidly reproducing breast cells are left especially prone to becoming cancerous.

God and country

Calling on state-controlled Protestant churches in China to continue to "[hold] high the banner of patriotism and socialism," a high-ranking Communist Party official said unauthorized Christian activity in the nation must be restricted. Speaking at a national congress of two state-run church groups, Li Ruihan apparently was aiming his remarks at clerics in the official church suspected of secretly supporting underground churches. Officially, China has fewer than 15 million Christians, but unofficial estimates of believers run as high as 90 million. Persecution of Christians in China is widespread. Authorities have arbitrarily detained, harassed, and even tortured believers in their campaign to shut down unofficial churches.

Killer regulations

Sen. Dirk Kempthorne (R-Idaho) demanded in a hearing Jan. 8 that the head of the National Highway Transportation Safety Board move more quickly to lift government rules requiring the equipping of automobiles with airbags so powerful that they kill children and small adults even in slow-speed crashes. NHTSB chief Ricardo Martinez said the agency would by February decide how to &quotdepower" the airbags. Automakers are required to equip their cars with airbags capable of restraining a 170-pound male not wearing a seatbelt during a 30-mph crash into a wall. The force required to protect the unbelted male is so powerful that to date airbags have killed 32 children and 20 adults who otherwise would have survived the low-speed collisions in which their airbags deployed. Sen. Kempthorne told Mr. Martinez he wrote the agency last month--after the infant daughter of a resident of his state was decapitated by an airbag-- suggesting the crash test be scrapped. He received no reply.

Weathering the storms

While the news media were captivated by political machinations in Washington, many Americans spent the week focused on something more pressing: the weather. Winter storms battered parts of the Southwest, Midwest, and South--covering some areas with either ice or snow. Up to two feet of snow fell in Northern Arizona, while in North Georgia an ice storm knocked out power to 250,000 people. Westerners, meanwhile, were trying to keep their heads above water. Floods and mudslides continued for a second week--the result of snow runoff and heavy rain. Especially hard hit by the western waters were California farmers, who saw barns and farm machinery destroyed and hundreds of animals drowned. Also inundated: thousands of homes and businesses. Forty-two of California's 58 counties were declared disaster areas, as were parts of Idaho and Nevada. At least 29 people died as a result of the Western storms. Another 29 lost their lives Jan. 9 when a commuter plane headed from Cincinnati to Detroit went into a spiral and nose-dived near dusk into a snow-covered field about 25 miles short of its destination. The immediate cause of the crash was unknown, but investigators were looking at the possibility of icing on the wings.

Yeltsin ailing

Russian president Boris Yeltsin, still recuperating from heart surgery, was hospitalized Jan. 8 with early signs of pneumonia. Mr. Yeltsin had returned to work on a limited schedule in late December, six weeks after a quintuple bypass operation. His political opponents--including 1996 election rival, Gen. Alexander Lebed--were quick to seize the opportunity afforded by Mr. Yeltsin's latest illness, calling on him to resign.

Gulf War syndrome

An article in the Journal of the American Medical Association contradicts the findings of a Jan. 7 presidential commission report. The JAMA article reports some soldiers did indeed suffer neurological damage from chemical-weapons exposure during fighting in the Persian Gulf. Medical research shows some Gulf vets suffer from three primary syndromes caused by subtle brain, spinal cord, and nerve damage--not stress, as the presidential commission suggested. President Clinton accepted the panel's report, which also criticized the Pentagon for failing to respond adequately to soldiers' illnesses, but ordered the commission to keep working nine months longer.

Murder mystery

Criticizing &quotcareless speculation" by the news media, Boulder, Colo., Police Chief Tom Koby said his department was proceeding with &quotdiligent and careful police work" in the mysterious murder of six-year-old JonBenet Ramsey. The child beauty queen, winner of the Little Miss Colorado contest, was found slain in her home the day after Christmas, hours after her parents say they discovered a three-page ransom note demanding $118,000. The note had been written using a legal pad found in the home. A Boulder newspaper quoted a &quotfamily friend" as saying the note came from a &quotforeign group" that had a vendetta against the girl's father--the owner of a computer graphics company--related to several business deals. Police did not confirm that report. In New York, police concluded that a package bomb that severely burned a 10-year-old girl on Christmas Eve had been sent by a family acquaintance bent on revenge. Authorities found the alleged bomber, who police say had been fired from his job by the girl's uncle, shot to death Dec. 29 while on a hunting trip. Authorities have not determined whether his death was an accident or suicide.

Keep paying

The responsibility for enforcing immigration laws falls to the federal government, but when those laws aren't enforced, state governments have to pick up the tab for incarcerating, hospitalizing, and even educating illegal immigrants. Unhappy with that state of affairs, Arizona and California--states with large numbers of illegal immigrants--went to court, suing for federal reimbursement of those expenses. Since the federal government had failed to protect the borders, they argued, the resulting expenses should be paid from the federal treasury. That argument got nowhere. In a Jan. 7 ruling, the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals rebuffed the two states, ruling the claims involved &quotnonjusticeable political questions." Similar suits filed by four other states also have failed; a case brought by Texas is pending. Arizona and California officials are planning an appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court.

Slow progress

Hoping to placate tens of thousands of protesters, the Communist government of Serbian president Slobodan Milosevic acknowledged Jan. 8 that non-communist opposition parties had won elections in Serbia's second largest city, Nis. The daily street protests have continued since Mr. Milosevic moved to invalidate the Nov. 17 elections after it became clear that opposition parties had claimed victories in 14 of Serbia's 19 largest cities. Instead of being satisfied with the admission that Nis had been won, reinvigorated demonstrators pledged to continue their daily street rallies until the communists give up control of all 14 cities.

In brief

President Clinton Jan. 8 named his fifth White House counsel in four years: Charles F.C. Ruff, a lawyer with experience in high-profile political prosecutions. Mr. Ruff was a Watergate special prosecutor and as a defense lawyer represented Sen. John Glenn during the Keating Five probe. One of Mr. Clinton's most trusted political counselors, Dick Morris, got the news Jan. 6 that his wife of 20 years was filing for divorce--five months after news reports showed Mr. Morris carrying on a regular relationship with a prostitute.

Weighing the evidence

In North Carolina, confessed serial killer Henry Wallace was convicted Jan. 7 of raping and murdering nine Charlotte-area women in a two-year-long crime spree that ended with his arrest in 1994. Prosecutors will ask for the death penalty. At the O.J. Simpson &quotwrongful death" civil trial in California, lawyers for Nicole Brown Simpson and Ron Goldman showed jurors 30 previously undiscovered photographs of Mr. Simpson wearing rare Bruno Magli designer shoes; those were the same kind that left bloody shoe prints at the murder scene in 1993. In earlier testimony, Mr. Simpson had denied ever owning a pair of the Italian-made shoes, and he claimed a single photo of him wearing Bruno Maglis--introduced as evidence--was a fake. A Texas woman went on trial in the June 1996 stabbing deaths of her two sons, ages 6 and 5. Darlie Routier insists a male intruder killed the children as they slept, but prosecutors claim she invented the story. Her husband, who was asleep in another part of the house when the killings occurred, says his wife is innocent. In Florida, an assisted suicide case went to trial. With financial backing from the Hemlock Society and the Palm Beach County chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union, AIDS patient Charlie Hall is suing to overturn Florida's law against assisted suicide. Mr. Hall, who contracted AIDS from a blood transfusion, is the only remaining plaintiff in the suit. Two others died of cancer before the case reached court.