Thursday, February 25, 2010

Law and Order in the Ozarks (Part L): Federal stimulus funding sought for jail

Law and order news dominates the front page of the February 18, 2010, issue of the Newton County Times. First, the county has decided to seek federal stimulus (ARRA) funding of up to $200,000 to help finance its new jail. This is a turnaround from earlier indications that the stimulus money came with "too many strings attached." See a post here. The paper is still doing some front-page editorializing about the federal funding, noting "red tape and paperwork" and writing:
Stimulus legislation also includes a little-known provision that some critics contend wastes tax dollars and costs jobs. All $188 billion worth of construction projects funded in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act must pay Davis-Bacon prevailing wage rates. This requirement, critics contend, inflate construction costs and depress the economy.
Then, however, the paper tells the other side of the story:
Supporters consider Davis-Bacon an important means of preventing the government's buying power from distorting construction labor markets. In areas where the government is the largest buyer of construction services, it could use its negotiating power to lower construction wages.
After a 3-paragraph digression about the pros and cons of Davis-Bacon in relation to federal stimulus funds used for constructions projects, the journalist reports that the county has decided to seek the funds because the county judge (the chief administrator) has re-evaluated the reporting requirements and believes they will not be too onerous after all. Surely the main reason for seeking the funds is that the county is eligible for twice as much money under the ARRA program than under the alternative USDA Rural Development grant program. Even with the $200,000 in ARRA funds, the county will fall about $250,000 of the $2 million budgeted cost for the new jail.

In other news, David Middleton was flown to Newton County in a military helicopter to appear in relation to various charges, including several attempts to escape custody, including during the execution of a search warrant at his home in November, 2009. Middleton later also tried to escape from a hospital where he had been taken, still in custody, after feigning health problems. Finally, he is charged with conspiracy to kidnap the Sheriff's son and with conspiracy to intimidate a witness. (Read more here). The helicopter transport from a neighboring county where he is being held to Newton County was made because of his repeated escape attempts. Middleton entered not guilty pleas on all charges. Interestingly, Middleton did not have a lawyer representing him, and the prosecutor indicated that he had given Middleton an "application" for a public defender. Middleton recently pleaded guilty on federal drug charges, a matter in which he was presented by a federal public defender.

Tuesday, February 23, 2010

A unique rural development strategy

Read Dan Barry's story about Upham, New Mexico, and its planned space port here. According to Wikipedia, Upham is uninhabited, which would explain why it is not even a Census Designated Place. It is in Sierra County, population 13,270, the county seat of which is Truth or Consequences, an apparently risk-loving town that followed an interesting development strategy (or at least an attention-getting one) in the 1950s: it called the bluff of Ralph Edwards, host of the television show by the same name, who promised to broadcast from the first town to change its name to that of the show. Truth or Consequences, population 7,289, formerly was called Hot Springs.

Here's an excerpt from Barry's story about the space port.

Here, where rattlesnakes hibernate and rabbits scurry, there unfolds a two-mile runway designed to accommodate spaceships. And right beside it, past those giant rumbling tractors of sci-fi design, the groundwork is being laid for a hangar large enough to store spaceships between launchings.

This is not a secret government project, or some NASA reception hall for alien dignitaries. This is Spaceport America, a $198 million endeavor by the State of New Mexico to plumb the commercial potential of the suborbital heavens — a place once known only to astronauts, dreamers and the occasional chimp.

This is clearly not a development strategy that could work for just any rural place. The weather (rain is rare) and terrain (flat!) apparently make this part of southern New Mexico an ideal place for this endeavor.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Law and Order in the Ozarks (Part XLIX): What to do with a condemned (but historic) jail

The February 4 and February 11 issues of the Newton County Times don't have a lot of law and order news to report, but there are some stories of related interest.

The first is from the front page of February 4 paper, and it is headlined "What's the jail worth?" Here's the lede:
The Newton County Quorum Court directed County Judge John Griffith to find out what the historic Newton County Jail is worth, should the county want to sell it.

The question came up at the end of the quorum court's regular monthly meeting Monday night, Feb. 1, at the courthouse.
Regular readers will recall the county's long-standing jail saga, which ultimately resulted in the century-old structure being closed in the summer of 2009 under threat of condemnation. Read more here and here.

What seems odd about the possibility of selling the jail is that a big chunk of "downtown" Jasper, the county seat, has recently been added to the National Register of Historic Places. Read a related story here. The jail is less than a block from this area and, seeming to meet the requirements for this national designation also, it would seem very odd to sell the jail for any purpose that would permit it to be destroyed and the land used for some other purpose. Perhaps the county is contemplating "selling" the jail to some sort of historic preservation society, but if a local one exists, I am certain it would not have funds to make a major purchase like that of the jail.

A front-page story in the Feb. 11 newspaper announces that the Newton County Sheriff, Keith Slape, is running for re-election. In his statement of reasons he is seeking re-election, he highlights headway that has been made in eliminating the county's meth problem, which he says is linked to all of the county's other crime problems. Read some stories about law enforcement successes against meth here and here.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Federal-local tensions in the West

Read the story in today's New York Times, which suggests that "monument," as in "national monument" is a fighting word in the West. An excerpt from Kirk Johnson's story follows in which he quotes politicians from states who would be affected by National Monument designations that are under highly preliminary consideration as such. The "1996 stroke of the pen reference" is to Clinton's designation of Grand Staircase Escalante as a National Monument:

“Given the lingering frustration felt by many Utahns, following the 1996 ‘stroke of the pen’ monument designation, it is totally inappropriate for this federal agency to even have preliminary discussions without involving the stakeholders on the ground,” said Representative Jim Matheson, Democrat of Utah, a state that had two of the possible new monuments on the list, the San Rafael Swell and Cedar Mesa.

In Montana, an area of unplowed grassland called the Northern Prairie was listed on the Interior Department memorandum, discussed as a possible home for a new national bison range. But the state’s representative at large, Denny Rehberg, a Republican, said in a statement, “The Antiquities Act was never intended as an end-run around the will of the people nor as a land-grab device for East Coast politicians.”

Friday, February 19, 2010

Rivers and rural livelihoods

That was a theme of two stories I heard or read yesterday, from different parts of the country.

The first was about the Mekong River, and was part of an NPR series on the river. This segment was about the part of the river in Cambodia. Near the end of it, journalist Michael Sullivan touches on Cambodia's agrarian past and present, rural-to-urban migration, and other rural themes.

The other was this story about the Klamath River in Oregon and California. Following is an excerpt about agreements signed yesterday to remove four dams on the river. The presence--and anticipated absence--of these dams has implications for farmers, American Indians who rely on the river's salmon populations, and others in the region.

The agreements would remove the four dams by 2020 if a series of federal studies and Congressional approval and appropriations follow suit; the interior secretary is to make a final decision on removal by March 2012.

The agreements were signed by Gov. Theodore R. Kulongoski of Oregon, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger of California, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar, Greg Abel, the chief executive of PacifiCorp, the power company that owns the dams, and more than 30 groups representing tribes, farmers, fishermen and environmentalists. Some tribes and environmental groups refused to sign, citing questions over water flow for salmon and the timing of dam removal.

See an earlier post about the matter here.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

A farm-to-law school tale

I've just finished an essay called "How You Gonna' Keep Her Down on the Farm ..." for a collection of essays about the authors' One-L years. For the uninitiated, I should explain that "One L" refers to the first year of law school. This collection, called "One L Revisited," is being published by the University of Missouri, Kansas City Law Review to commemorate the publication of Scott Turow's best seller, One L some three decades ago.

In his book, Turow documents in great detail his experiences as a first-year law student at Harvard. I acknowledge, in contrast, that I don't remember a great deal of detail about my first year of law school, though I do recall some vignettes and characters quite vividly. The piece may be of interest to those who study the rural because in it I ponder the influence of my rural upbringing on my sense of self and my approach to the law school under-taking. I also discuss my working-class background.

Pasted below is a paragraph from the essay in which I ponder my identity as "rural":

I may nevertheless have self-identified as rural. I’d had sufficient experiences in cities to have observed first hand aspects of the rural-urban binary, but I’d had few enough such encounters that cities still intrigued and intimidated me. If I acknowledged my rural home in the largely Arkansas context of the law school, it was probably as specifically hailing from Newton County. Both my mother’s and father’s families had lived there since shortly after the Civil War and, like many rural southerners, a significant component of my identity was (and is) grounded in place, based largely on the depth and breadth of my family’s roots. And certainly Newton County is a rural place. It is the most rural county in Arkansas by several so-called ecological measures, e.g., population size and density. But it is also culturally rural—the stuff of hillbilly lore even within Arkansas, which outsiders might see as an essentially or entirely hillbilly state.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Fighting over prison populations?

Well, yes, rural and urban communities want to claim prison populations for some purposes--specifically because of the federal monies and political representation that accompany U.S. Census population counts. National Public Radio ran a story on this topic yesterday. The report, by David Sommerstein, focused mostly on the New York context, though this issue plays out in other states, too. An excerpt from the NPR story follows:
Ten years ago, the last time there was a census, 45,000 mostly black and Latino prisoners from New York City were locked up in the farm country of upstate New York. As inmates, they couldn't vote. But they were counted as residents of those rural political districts anyway. Chevelle Johnson was one of them.

"It's like a double slap in the face," Johnson says. "I can't vote, and then you take my body and put it in another community, so my community has no political power, so none of my interests get taken care of."

I've long been aware of this issue, and I've blogged about it earlier here. But one thing that struck me as worthy of note regarding yesterday's NPR report is that it was really balanced. Here's an excerpt reflecting "rural side of the story" as expressed by Chuck Kelly, a newspaperman in upstate Ogdensburg, who led a fight to attract two prisons to the city "at a time when other places were fighting to keep them away":

"The truth of the matter is New York City and the metropolitan areas didn't want [the prisoners]," Kelly says. "We needed the jobs, so we went after those jobs."

If Ogdensburg benefits from the census count, Kelly says, it's just compensation for the public security risk of housing criminals.

State Sen. Darrel Aubertine represents a district with five prisons, including the two in Ogdensburg — about 3,500 inmates in all. He says they use water and sewer and other infrastructure.

"That in part is paid for by those inmates being counted in this region," Aubertine says.

Sommerstein concludes the story with these neutral observations, reminding us of the similarities between two types of disadvantaged communities:

In New York politics, downstate and upstate are painted as two different worlds. But the places prisoners come from and the places where they are bunked share a lot in common, such as poverty and unemployment.

They also share a hunger for the good schools and jobs that political power brings.

Monday, February 15, 2010

Small-town "justice" run amok? Part II

Who knew the news would give me cause the write another post with this headline so soon after the first, but this story in today's New York Times is surely an invitation to do just that. The dateline is Homer, Louisiana, population 3,788, and this story--tragically--also has a racial component. Campbell Robertson's story reports the recent decision by a grand jury not to indict a white police officer who shot and killed a 73-year-old Black man on his front porch. Homer police maintain that the man, Bernard Monroe, was carrying a pistol, but numerous witnesses say he carried only a sports drink bottle. A police officer shot him seven times in the chest, back and side.

Acknowledging a conflict, the district attorney passed the state police report regarding the shooting to the attorney general to take to the grand jury. While more than 60% of Homer residents are Black, the grand jury that considered the matter--all from Homer and the nearby area--included 8 whites and 4 Blacks.

Here's an excerpt that further situates the events in social and racial context:
The outcome jarred a town of 3,400 that, like so many small Southern towns, has been struggling to move past a heritage of racial mistrust. Even among disillusioned black residents, it seemed like a throwback to uglier times.

* * *

Last week, the Southern Poverty Law Center filed a wrongful death lawsuit on behalf of Mr. Monroe’s family against the town and two former police officers, arguing that they had failed “to exercise reasonable care” and “created a volatile situation” in the series of events that led up to the shooting.

From a ruralist perspective, I found interesting the role of lack of anonymity in these events. Here's how it played out: The decedent's son, Shaun Monroe, has a criminal record, but his most recent conviction was 15 years old at the time police shot and killed the elder Monroe. Nevertheless, the police were keeping an eye on Shaun Monroe on the day in question because they believed he was involved in the drug trade. Allegedly based on this information, the police were following Shaun Monroe at the time of shooting, and it appears that when the officers shot the elder Mr. Monroe, they may have thought that the elder Monroe was assisting his son.

Of course, police everywhere presumably keep an eye on known criminals. But Shaun Monroe's most recent conviction was long ago, so why did he draw so much police attention? Further, the town's white police chief acknowledges the use of "preventive policing" tactics that are more often associated with larger cities. This involves stopping "groups of young people walking in these neighborhoods, ask[ing] for identification 'and possibly pat[ting] them down.'”

In small towns where populations tend to be fairly static, there is not only racial profiling, there may be "profiling"--accompanied by differential treatment--of all with criminal records. Such community members may be not only known to police on the basis of those records, but because law enforcement officers tend to be more socially enmeshed with their communities in rural areas and small towns.

In short, small town policing often takes the notion of "usual suspects" to a whole new height. And, that can make it especially difficult for those with criminal records to rehabilitate. In this case, it may have led to even more tragic consequences.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Small-town "justice" run amok?

I have been intrigued by the attention national media have given this week to a criminal trial in West Texas. Ann Mitchell, an administrative nurse at the community hospital in Winkler County, went on trial in state court charged with "misuse of official information," a third-degree felony that carried a possible fine of $10,000 and up to 10 years in prison. The charges stemmed from an anonymous letter that Mitchell and another administrative nurse wrote to the Texas Medical Board. In it, they called the Board's attention to irregularities in how Dr. Rolando G. Arafiles was practicing medicine at the hospital where they worked. The nature of the irregularities and report are described in a New York Times story as "a pattern of improper prescribing and surgical procedures — including a failed skin graft that Dr. Arafiles performed in the emergency room, without surgical privileges. He also sutured a rubber tip to a patient’s crushed finger for protection, an unconventional remedy that was later flagged as inappropriate by the Texas Department of State Health Services." The nurses believed they were under a professional obligation to make the report, but following it, the Winkler County Sheriff's Office seized their work computers and arrested them. The local prosecutor subsequently charged the nurses with the third-degree felony, and the Winkler County Hospital fired them. Those consequences apparently unfolded after the Medical Board notified Dr. Arafiles of the anonymous complaint and he told his "friend, the Winkler County sheriff, that he was being harassed. The sheriff, an admiring patient who credits the doctor with saving him after a heart attack, obtained a search warrant to seize the two nurses’ work computers and found the letter." The prosecutor says that Mrs. Mitchell has a history of making "inflammatory" statements about Dr. Arafiles and that she did not make the report in good faith. To establish the felony charged, however, the State must prove that she disseminated confidential information for a "nongovernmental purpose" with intent to harm Dr. Arafiles.

The prosecutor dropped charges against Mrs. Mitchell's colleague just before the case went to trial. A jury in neighboring Andrews County acquitted Mrs. Mitchell on Thursday. The jury voted unanimously on the first ballot to aquit the nurse and questioned why she had ever been arrested. Read more here.

New York Times reporter Kevin Sack observed that "seeming conflicts of interest are as abundant as the cattle grazing among the pump jacks and mesquite" in the small town of Kermit, population 5,714, where these events unfolded. Indeed, subsequent reports reveal an additional conflict: according to filings in a federal case the nurses have brought against Arafiles, the Sheriff, and Winkler County, the Sheriff is a partner in Dr. Arafiles' herbal supplement business, a business that Arafiles promoted in emails to patients.

Despite the obscure locale of these events--or perhaps because of it--the New York Times published three items about them last week. The paper reported last week-end on the impending trial of Mrs. Mitchell, and later in the week it reported the not-guilty verdict. In between, it published an editorial commenting on apparent flaws in the prosecution and the chilling effect it might have on whistle-blowing.

The first NYT story about these events inspired this blog post, and I was especially intrigued that the story attracted as much attention as it did. On the day it appeared, it rose as high as number 2 on the "most emailed" list at, and it stayed on the top-10 list for nearly two days. I attributed the high degree of interest to the broad headline, "Nurse to Stand Trial for Reporting Doctor." Many doctors and nurses all over country were presumably taking note of this unusual event and sharing the news. But the New York Times reporting and editorial suggest several ways in which this story is distinctly "rural" or "small-town." In addition to referring to the apparent conflicts of interest, Sack's reporting refers to the "stained reputations" of the nurses and how "heads turn when they walked into local lunch spots." He also reports the practical difficulties that rural hospitals like that in Winkler County have in attracting and retaining physicians; indeed, Dr. Arafiles came to the hospital in 2008 with a restriction already on his medical license. The trial was moved to neighboring Andrews County because it "polarized the community." Finally,the New York Times editorial suggests that "small-town 'justice'" was the problem.

So, is there really something distinctly "rural" about this story, or could it happen anywhere? Clearly, it could happen anywhere, though I tend to agree with the Times' suggestion that the rural context facilitated this unusual prosecution.

Rural sociologists and other scholars who write about rural-urban difference have discussed a number of factors apparently at play in these West Texas events. These include lack of anonymity and conflicts of interest that sometimes result from it; rural disadvantage in terms of access to services such as medical care; a lack of checks and balances in rural local government and a related failure of local government to protect civil rights. In this case, heightened reputational injury associated with lack of anonymity and the inability of the dismissed nurses to find replacement jobs because of the limited labor market presumably increased the damages they suffered. This little case out of Kermit, Texas thus illustrates how various characteristics of rural places can be legally relevant in a variety of ways. Some of the challenges associated with rural lack of anonymity were apparently mitigated by the change of venue. Whether law and legal actors adequately respond to other challenges associated with rural places--such as those that seem to have aggravated the nurses' damages--may be evident when their case against the various officials is tried or settled.

Cross-posted to UC Davis Faculty Blog.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

One way of dealing with idleness among rural youth: a wired school bus

Scholars and policy makers have identified idleness among rural youth as a serious problem (see here), and as a somewhat related matter, Sam Dillon of the New York Times has written previously (see here) about the long bus rides endured by school children in western states. But Dillon's story on the intersection of these issues in yesterday's paper had a more positive spin. The dateline is Vail, Arizona, population 2,484, which Dillon refers to as an exurb of Tucson. Turns out that the Vail school district is a far flung one, with 18 schools and 10,000 students spread across 425 square miles of southern Arizona. Dillon reports that the district installed a router on one of its buses earlier this year, making Wi-Fi available to students riding it. Here's an excerpt focusing on some of the positive consequences of the move:
The students call it the Internet Bus, and what began as a high-tech experiment has had an old-fashioned — and unexpected — result. Wi-Fi access has transformed what was often a boisterous bus ride into a rolling study hall, and behavioral problems have virtually disappeared.

“It’s made a big difference,” said J. J. Johnson, the bus’s driver. “Boys aren’t hitting each other, girls are busy, and there’s not so much jumping around.”

School district officials indicate that equipping the bus with Wi-Fi was "part of a wider effort to use technology to extend learning beyond classroom walls and the six-hour school day. " Indeed, Dillon buys into this theme, as reflected in the story's headline: "Wi-Fi Turns Arizona Bus Ride Into a Rolling Study Hall." As one who sees some downsides to too much technology too much of the time, I'm wondering how it is school officials think students are--for the most part--using this Wi-Fi access. With only anecdotal evidence about students emailing assignments to teachers, I'm skeptical about serious educational benefits, though the disciplinary improvements alone may justify expanding the practice.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Food stamp usage up all over--but rates still highest in nonmetro counties

This story in yesterday's New York Times, headlined "Once Stigmatized, Food Stamps Find Acceptance," draws anecdotes on the increase in food stamp receipt entirely from urban contexts. In fact, it does not use the words "rural" or "nonmetropolitan" even once. The accompanying map, however, shows the counties where food stamp use is highest. A quick glance at it reveals that many of the counties with the highest rates of food stamp (now SNAP: Supplemental Nutritional Assistance Program) receipt are the "usual suspects" in terms of what we know about place-based poverty. That is, they are counties in the western U.S. with high American Indian populations, counties in the Rio Grande Valley with high Latina/o populations, counties in the Mississippi Delta and black belt with high African American populations, and counties in Appalachia. In short, there is a lot of overlap between counties with high rates of SNAP receipt and persistent poverty counties.

Plus, as the list of counties ranked by their rates of SNAP receipt show, the counties with the highest rates are mostly nonmetropolitan. The first metropolitan area on the list of counties ranked in descending order by percentage of residents receiving SNAP is St. Louis City Missouri, and it falls at number 35, with 36% of residents receiving food stamp benefits. The next highest metropolitan areas on the list are Hidalgo County, Texas and Bronx, New York, where 29% of residents receive food stamps. In terms of rate of receipt, however, those metropolitan counties are not even the top 100 list.

Also of interest from a rural perspective is this bit of information: Missouri "enrolls a greater share of eligible people than any other state, about 98%." In 21 Missouri counties, half of the children get food stamps. That is compared to slightly fewer than one one in four children in the nation as a whole. The story does not explain why enrollment in Missouri is so high, but it does address some of the ways that states make it easier or more difficult for residents to get food stamps, mostly by how they handle the application process. In the list of counties with the highest rates of food stamp receipt, three Missouri counties are in the "top" 15 counties. All are nonmetropolitan counties from Southeast Missouri, two specifically from the bootheel. They are Pemiscot, population 20,047, with a 47% rate of receipt; Dunklin County, population 31,616 (44%); and Ripley County, population 13,509 (39%).

Here is a recent Carsey Institute report on the importance of federal child nutrition programs to rural households.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Slow-food's hidden costs to women

Having spent last semester reading many blog posts from my classmates in Professor Pruitt's Law and Rurality class on the slow-food movement, I was enticed by a catchy headline in the Sacramento News & Review yesterday: "Fast v. Food." The article, written by local author Sierra Filucci, gave a first person account of "how the sustainable food movement drove one busy family to the brink and back again." She described her adventures as a married, working mother of two young children- 4 and 2, attempting to follow all the slow-food rules. She gardened in her backyard, exclusively shopped at farmer's markets, and made all her family's meals from scratch. Filucci also described how much she found herself hating it. Specifically, she grew dissatisfied with all of the time spent in the kitchen away from her husband and kids, toiling over the hot stove night after night.

As she acknowledges, the story of her experiences trying to live by the slow-food rules was eerily reminiscent of scenes from Betty Friedan's The Feminine Mystique. Filucci described her feelings of resentment towards her husband who got to come home from work and relax and play with their children. She also lamented that the joy of cooking was gone for her entirely. In one final moment of exasperation, feeling "like some rebellious housewife from the 1960s getting her first taste of feminism," she finally announced to her family: "I'm not going to cook anymore."

Filucci's strike only lasted one month, but she conditioned her return to the kitchen on a promise from her husband to help out more with family meals. For her part, she also accepted that moderation and frozen Trader Joe's meals would have to be part of their lives. In the end, she found these sorts of compromises made slow-food living much more enjoyable.

Through her story, the author exposes the hidden costs of the slow-food movement for other women in her position. Eating according to the rules requires an incredible investment of time and energy. Women are still doing more of the household work than their male counterparts in 2010, and for families trying to eat more sustainably, that means women are doing a lot more work. Filucci believes this is a reality of the slow-food movement that is not acknowledged or talked about enough. As she puts it, the slow-food movement needs to "realiz [e] that what they ask of communities and households - while worthy and noble- falls unequally at women's feet." Hopefully opening people's eyes to this special burden on women will lead to more compromises like those that worked in Filucci's house.

An interesting characterization of Canada--the whole nation--as akin to a small town

Following is an excerpt from yesterday's report in the New York Times about Canada's stated quest to bring home 30 gold medals in the Winter Olympics that start tomorrow in Vancouver. The committee responsible for this ambitious effort is called "Own the Podium," and Charles McGrath's explanation of why it is "un-Canadian" follows.
Talk like this, so nakedly ambitious, makes some Canadians uneasy. Theirs is a vast country that in many ways is run like a small town, with small-town values, and it has a highly developed culture of modesty, if not a collective inferiority complex. The athletic record in general is a little underwhelming, and some Canadians think that is because their countrymen prefer that, considering a good effort just as valuable as a trunkload of trophies, maybe better.
Interesting to me is the suggestion that small town culture is a culture of modesty--and perhaps even of inferiority complexes.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Invoking nostalgia for the rural to save farm subsidies

Senator Blanche Lincoln's recent statement in response to proposed cuts to farm subsidies struck me as disingenuous. Or maybe she just isn't as well informed as she should be, given that she is the Chair of the Senate Agriculture Committee. Lincoln said:
I am standing up for farmers and ranchers and all of rural America once again by opposing cuts that will harm the hardworking men and women who are the backbone of our rural economy. ... While I, too, believe we must reduce the federal deficit, we must all share in this responsibility.
The New York Times characterized Lincoln's statement as "accus[ing] the White House of unfairly focusing on farm communities." Read the story here.

But contrary to Lincoln's suggestion, rural and agricultural economies are not one in the same. Only 6% of rural Americans are involved in agricultural labor. (Read a USDA ERS report here). Rural and farm communities are also not synonymous. Further, the 2008 Farm Bill made one of the lowest allocations ever to rural development. Here's a statement from the Center for Rural Affairs which explains that the ratio of rural development funding to commodity subsidy spending in the farm bill is 1:233! That's $150 million in rural development spending compared to $35 billion for commodity subsidies. Read more from CFRA here.

West Texas whistleblower goes on trial

The New York Times reports today on the impending trial of Anne Mitchell, a nurse administrator in Kermit, Texas, who is charged with "misuse of official information," a third degree felony in Texas. The story by Kevin Sack characterizes the prosecution as "unprecedented" because the information Mitchell allegedly misused regarded Dr. Rolando Arafiles, Jr., a doctor at the Winkler County Memorial Hospital. Ms. Mitchell reported Dr. Arafiles to Texas health regulators for various irregularities, including performing surgery in the hospital's emergency room without surgical privileges. She believes she had a duty to make the report to protect patients. Last week, the prosecutor dropped charges against a second administrative nurse who, like Ms. Mitchell, was fired from the hospital last June. The two nurses had been the hospital's compliance and quality improvement officers.

The story notes the difficulty rural communities like Kermit, population 5,714, face in attracting physicians to practice there. Dr. Arafiles came to the Winkler County hospital with a restriction already on his medical license because of past irregularities.

Here's a quote from the NY Times story that suggests the influence of lack of anonymity in small towns like Kermit, which is in West Texas' Permian basin, just a few miles from New Mexico.
The seeming conflicts of interest are as abundant as the cattle grazing among the pump jacks and mesquite.

When the medical board notified Dr. Arafiles of the anonymous complaint, he protested to his friend, the Winkler County sheriff, that he was being harassed. The sheriff, an admiring patient who credits the doctor with saving him after a heart attack, obtained a search warrant to seize the two nurses’ work computers and found the letter.

Both sides acknowledge that the case has polarized the community, and the judge has moved the trial to a neighboring county.

The nurses have sued in federal court charging the county, hospital, sheriff, doctor, and hospital with vindictive prosecution. They also allege infringement of their First Amendment rights.

Interestingly, this story is currently No. 10 on the's most emailed list.

P.S. As of 4:45 PST on the day it first appeared, the story went as high as No. 2 on the most emailed list. This level of interest must be a consequence of all the doctors and nurses sharing a story under the very general (but provocative) headline, "Nurse to Stand Trial for Reporting Doctor."

Saturday, February 6, 2010

Faulkner's home town goes "wet"

That means it will soon be legal to buy beer and wine coolers in New Albany, Mississippi, population 7,607. Wine and liquor will still not be allowed. Read the New York Times report here. New Albany is in Union County, which is contiguous with Lafayette County, the home of Oxford and Ole Miss. William Faulkner was born in New Albany, but his family soon moved to Oxford, where he once campaigned unsuccessfully for Lafayette County to go wet.

The NYT story explains that about a third of Mississippi counties are still "dry," and it also notes the significant role of religion in local battles like this. Here's an excerpt.

“Union County has always pretty much had the reputation of being the wettest dry county in the state,” said William O. Rutledge III, a lawyer who tried to overturn the liquor ban more than three decades ago, when he owned one of New Albany’s newspapers.

It was Mr. Rutledge’s 25-year-old son, Logan, a hospitality-management major from the University of Mississippi in Oxford, who led the fight for the beer ordinance.

The main argument for the pro-beer forces, New Albany Citizens for Progress, was along the maxim attributed to Faulkner that civilization begins with distillation: the city, whose population is about 8,000, would never grow without nice restaurants, and nice restaurants would never arrive if they could not serve alcohol.

I grew up in a dry county in Arkansas--and it's still a dry county, but I remember how divisive this issue was the one time it was raised in any serious way during my childhood. A "newcomer" who advocated for a vote on the wet-dry issue was depicted as a heathen, even though she was a pianist at a local church.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Law and Order in the Ozarks (Part XLVIII): Newton County's very own crime family

The two most recent issues of the Newton County Times provide updates on the recent shenanigans of what is shaping up to the county's biggest crime family in recent years. The January 21, 2010, issue follows up on earlier reports of David Middleton's family plotting to help him escape from custody. (Read an earlier report here). Specifically, the headline is that Middleton's daughter, Tracy Waits, was caught and that four others were arrested for hindering her apprehension. Waits was found thanks to the work of the Boone and Newton County Sheriff's departments and the 14th Judicial Drug Task Force, which traced leads about a vehicle seen at the Wal-Mart in Harrison. The vehicle was registered to an address in the nearby town of Lead Hill, where Waits was found. Four residents of Lead Hill were arrested for harboring or assisting Waits. Bond was set for the two women so charged at $25,000 each, and for the two men, $50,000 each. The women posted bond right away. The mug shots of Waits, along with those of her father David Middleton, uncle Ricky Middleton, and the four defendants who hindered her arrest across the top of the paper, just under its banner, is striking--like nothing I have ever seen in this small-town newspaper. It tempts me to wax nostalgic about the good old days when crimes were very rarely reported in the paper (and therefore presumably did not occur) and to wonder what on earth is becoming of my home town.

The January 28, 2010 issue follows up on other threads of this crime family drama. It reports that David Middleton himself, the man who tried multiple times to escape from custody (with or without his family's help), has finally decided to "take his medicine" and has pleaded guilty to two of four federal drug charges. His brother, Ricky Middleton, previously under custody for plotting to help David Middleton escape, posted $1 million bond and was released. The story says Middleton "put[ ] up cash and property through a professional bondsman."

In other news, 14th Judicial District Prosecuting Attorney Ron Kincade has announced he will seek re-election. Kincade has been prosecuting attorney for the past seven years.

In news not related to crime, the story headlined "Help needed to preserve Boxley landmark" tells of efforts to raise money to repair and restore the century old Boxley community building, "one of the most visited and photographed buildings in the Buffalo National Park."

NPR coverage of Latina/os in the rural South

Public radio's "Marketplace" program recently did a two-part series on a study by Martha Crowley and Daniel Lichter on so-called Latino boomtowns in the South. Listen to the stories here and here. The first is the "good news" about Latino migration to small-ish towns in the South (contrary to stereotypes, they are not going to hell in a handbasket as a consequence of Latina/o arrivals) and the second is the "bad news" (the strain on public services like health care and schools).

My own look at Latina/o immigration into the South is here. The Crowley and Lichter study is "Social Disorganization in New Latino Destinations," published in December, 2009, in Rural Sociology.  My article in the Harvard Latino Law Review, "Latina/os, Locality and Law in the Rural South" is available here.

Monday, February 1, 2010

A different spin on J.D. Salinger and his rural life

Don't miss Katie Zezima's story in today's New York Times under the headline, "A Recluse? Well, Not to His Neighbors." It's chock full of anecdotes about J.D. Salinger's life in Cornish, New Hampshire, population 1,661. As the headline suggests, he was not entirely the curmudgeon of his reputation, as reflected in many of last week's obituaries of him. Read some coverage here and here. Indeed, if the tales in Zezima's story are to be believed, he was downright avuncular to children, and he sometimes sought extra time in public spaces, such as when he arrived as much as an hour early at church suppers, of which he was especially fond.

Zezima also describes how town residents helped to protect his privacy:
“Nobody conspired to keep his privacy, but everyone kept his privacy — otherwise he wouldn’t have stayed here all these years,” said Sherry Boudro of nearby Windsor, Vt., who said her father, Paul Sayah, befriended Mr. Salinger in the 1970s. “This community saw him as a person, not just the author of ‘The Catcher in the Rye.’ They respect him. He was an individual who just wanted to live his life.”

The curious constantly descended on Cornish and the surrounding area, asking residents for directions to Mr. Salinger’s house. Instead of finding the home, interlopers would end up on a wild goose chase.

The entire piece is well worth a read for its appealing portrayal of a small New England town. In a sense, it depicts what I have elsewhere called the paradox of rural privacy--the phenomenon whereby rural residents often know each others' business, even as they pretend they don't or at least act in a way that respects others' privacy.