The outbreak of COVID-19 across the U.S. has touched every facet of our society, and our democracy has been no exception.
Which states have postponed their primaries?<p>Since President Trump's declaration of a national emergency over the coronavirus on March 13, Connecticut, Delaware, Georgia, Indiana, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maryland, New York, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Puerto Rico, Rhode Island, and West Virginia have <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/article/2020-campaign-primary-calendar-coronavirus.html" target="_blank">postponed their primaries</a>. Alaska, Hawaii, and Wyoming have replaced in-person primary voting with comprehensive mail-in systems. Ohio has postponed its primary and switched to a nearly all-mail election, with in-person voting allowed for people with disabilities and those without mailing addresses.</p><p>Despite the national emergency, three states, Arizona, Florida, and Illinois held their primaries on March 17 as scheduled. Wisconsin will hold its primary as scheduled on April 7, but on March 27, Governor Tony Evers requested that the state send <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/2020/03/27/us/politics/wisconsin-primary-coronavirus.html" target="_blank">absentee ballots</a> to all 3.3 million voters—a task some state legislators and election clerks claim to be logistically <a href="https://abcnews.go.com/Politics/make-election-safe-wisconsin-gears-primary-amid-coronavirus/story?id=69879453" target="_blank">impossible</a> within such a short time frame. Several groups have filed lawsuits seeking to postpone the election and extend the deadline for absentee voting.</p>
What legal provisions govern the postponement of a primary election?<p>The process involved in delaying a primary election varies by state, and some states are better prepared than others to modify their elections in emergency situations. A handful of states have <a href="https://www.ncsl.org/research/elections-and-campaigns/election-emergencies.aspx" target="_blank">statutes</a> that allow for the postponement of an election in case of an emergency, and most of these statues grant unilateral decision making power to the governor.</p><p>Other states, such as Pennsylvania, do not have legislation on the books explicitly addressing election postponement. And <a href="https://www.legis.state.pa.us/WU01/LI/LI/US/PDF/1937/0/0320..PDF" target="_blank">state law</a> sets Pennsylvania's primary election date for the fourth Tuesday in April in a presidential election year. Postponement of the Pennsylvania primary required the passage of a <a href="https://www.legis.state.pa.us/cfdocs/billInfo/BillInfo.cfm?syear=2019&sind=0&body=S&type=B&bn=422" target="_blank">bill</a> to amend the election code, and this would also be the case for any other primary with a date set by law.</p><p>A similar lack of clear guidelines for postponing elections caused confusion in Ohio and shed light on the importance of emergency contingency plans. The Ohio Democratic primary was scheduled for Tuesday, March 17. On Monday the 16th, Governor Mike DeWine expressed his desire to delay the in-person election and extend absentee voting due to the coronavirus outbreak. Without the authority to unilaterally postpone an election, he promised to support a lawsuit asking the Franklin County Court of Common Pleas to exercise its power to do so. Judge Richard A. Frye <a href="https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/ohio-seeks-postponement-of-tuesday-primary-as-coronavirus-fears-spread/2020/03/16/66a43cdc-67b5-11ea-b313-df458622c2cc_story.html" target="_blank">rejected</a> the lawsuit, claiming that the last-minute postponement would set a "terrible" precedent.</p><p>Shortly after, DeWine's chief health adviser declared a public health emergency and <a href="https://twitter.com/GovMikeDeWine/status/1239745738789306368" target="_blank">ordered</a> the polls to close. This prompted a lawsuit from the Ohio Democratic Party. "Nothing in Ohio law provides that Respondent Secretary has the power to set the date of Ohio's 2020 presidential primary election," says the <a href="http://supremecourt.ohio.gov/pdf_viewer/pdf_viewer.aspx?pdf=882617.pdf" target="_blank">lawsuit</a>. "Instead, the legal authority to set the date of Ohio's 2020 presidential primary election rests with the Ohio General Assembly." The Ohio Supreme Court denied this legal challenge. In addition to officially postponing the election to April 28, Ohio has also decided that the rescheduled primary will be conducted almost <a href="https://www.politico.com/news/2020/03/25/ohio-vote-by-mail-primary-election-149012" target="_blank">exclusively by mail</a>.</p>
If the outbreak extends through the fall, can the November general election be postponed?<p>The general election could theoretically be postponed, but several obstacles make this scenario highly unlikely. <a href="https://www.loc.gov/law/help/statutes-at-large/28th-congress/session-2/c28s2ch1.pdf" target="_blank">The Presidential Election Day Act</a>, passed in 1845, sets Election Day as "the Tuesday next after the first Monday in the month of November." Therefore, postponing election day would require Congress to pass legislation that would be signed by the president and upheld in the courts.</p><p>In the unlikely case that this would happen, any flexibility in determining the length of the election delay would be limited by the Constitution. The <a href="https://constitutioncenter.org/interactive-constitution/amendment/amendment-xx" target="_blank">20th Amendment</a> states that "The terms of the President and the Vice President shall end at noon on the 20th day of January… of the years in which such terms would have ended if this article had not been ratified; and the terms of their successors shall then begin."</p>
What about mail-in voting for the general election?<p>While postponing the general election is effectively out of the question, voting by mail is one potential solution that could allow elections to continue while also prioritizing public health. While states do not have the power to change the date of their general elections, they do have broad jurisdiction to decide how to conduct them. Several states have expanded absentee voting options to some degree or adopted universal mail-in primaries, which can serve as "test runs" for expansive mail-in voting in the general election. And <a href="https://www.ncsl.org/research/elections-and-campaigns/all-mail-elections.aspx" target="_blank">five states</a>, Colorado, Hawaii, Oregon, Washington, and Utah, automatically mail ballots to all registered voters for all elections. An additional <a href="https://www.ncsl.org/research/elections-and-campaigns/absentee-and-early-voting.aspx#do%20not" target="_blank">28 states</a> offer "no-excuse" absentee voting, which means voters may vote by mail for any reason if they request a ballot in advance. The remaining 17 states offer absentee voting to those with valid excuses. Voters with injuries or illnesses qualify, as do those who will be out of the country on election day.</p><p>For the states that do not automatically mail ballots to all voters, uncertainty surrounding the outbreak's timeline has led state and local election boards to mobilize in preparation for a surge in demand for general election absentee ballots. But some leaders have hesitated to support the changes that would be involved. Democrats have traditionally been eager proponents of expanded absentee voting, which Republicans have dismissed as partisan power grabs. However, evidence does not support the belief that mail-in voting offers an unfair advantage to Democrats. In the 2016 presidential election, the rates of mail-in voting for Democrats and Republicans were <a href="https://www.marketwatch.com/story/brace-for-more-voting-by-mail-because-of-coronavirus-and-other-logistical-challenges-facing-election-officials-2020-03-30" target="_blank">about the same</a>. If the coronavirus outbreak necessitates a nationwide move to mail-in voting, state election officials will have to weigh several logistical and substantive concerns:</p>
Suggested Best Practices for States<p>When it comes to elections, there is no one-size-fits-all reform that would work for all 50 states. Many states did make changes to their primaries that prioritize both the health of the public and the integrity of the election. Even without postponement as an option for the general election in November, states still have the opportunity to make meaningful changes if they act quickly. To the extent that it is feasible, each state should consider the possibility that the coronavirus outbreak will continue through the fall and make in-person voting too dangerous.</p>
- Climate Change Is a Top Concern in 2020 Election - EcoWatch ›
- 'How Dare You Put Our Lives at Risk': Pennsylvania Democrat Brian Sims Rips GOP Members for 'Coverup' of Positive COVID-19 Tests ›
By Gretchen Goldman
The Independent Particulate Matter Review Panel has released their consensus recommendations to the EPA administrator on the National Ambient Air Quality Standards for Particulate Matter. The group of 20 independent experts, that were disbanded by Administrator Wheeler last October and reconvened last week, hosted by the Union of Concerned Scientists, has now made clear that the current particulate pollution standards don't protect public health and welfare.
The Elephant in the CASAC Meeting<p>CASAC has already acknowledged that <a href="https://blog.ucsusa.org/gretchen-goldman/uncharted-territory-the-epas-science-advisors-just-called-out-administrator-wheeler" target="_blank">they don't have the expertise</a> to conduct the review but you know who does? The Independent Panel. The Panel has more than double the experts of CASAC, and importantly, it has multiple experts in each of the necessary scientific disciplines critical to ensure a comprehensive, robust review of the science supporting the standards.</p><p><span style="background-color: initial;">As a result, we should watch whether or not CASAC aligns with the panel in their recommendations on the standards. If CASAC </span>doesn't <span style="background-color: initial;">decide this week to make a similar recommendation as the Independent Panel, they'll have to explain why they disagreed with a larger, more experienced, and more diverse </span><a href="https://ucs-documents.s3.amazonaws.com/science-and-democracy/pm-panel-meeting-docs/2-ipmrp-biosketches.pdf" target="_blank" style="background-color: initial;">set of experts</a><span style="background-color: initial;"> on the topic. In any event, the administrator will have access to both CASAC and the </span><a href="https://ucs-documents.s3.amazonaws.com/science-and-democracy/IPMRP-FINAL-LETTER-ON-DRAFT-PA-191022.pdf" target="_blank" style="background-color: initial;">Independent Panel's recommendations</a><span style="background-color: initial;"> when he ultimately makes the decision of where to set particulate pollution standards. The panel's recommendations should hold the administrator's feet to the fire.</span></p>
The Fine Particulate Matter Standards Don’t Protect Public Health<p>The standards of greatest interest are the primary PM2.5 standards. These are the standards for particulate matter less than 2.5 micrometers (fine particulate matter) that are designed to protect public health. The panel supported the preliminary conclusions of a <a href="https://www.epa.gov/sites/production/files/2019-09/documents/draft_policy_assessment_for_pm_naaqs_09-05-2019.pdf" target="_blank">Draft EPA Policy Assessment</a> that the current standards aren't requisite to protect public health.</p><p>The letter cited new and consistent epidemiological findings, supported by human and animal studies and other studies with natural experiments, as providing "clear and compelling scientific evidence" for tighter standards. Since the last particulate matter review, several new large-scale epidemiological studies provide powerful evidence that particulate matter is causing adverse health outcomes (such as early death, heart attacks, and respiratory stress) at locations and during time periods with concentrations at or below the level of the current standards.</p><p>They write, "New and compelling evidence that health effects are occurring in areas that already meet or are well below the current standards." Notably, this evidence cuts across different locations with different study populations, different study designs, and different statistical approaches.</p><p>Given the weight of the evidence from new studies across scientific disciplines and consistent with the decision-making process that EPA and its science advisers have used for many years, the panel recommends a particulate matter standard between 8 µg/m3 and 10 µg/m3 for the annual PM2.5 standard (compared to the current standard of 12 µg/m3) and between 25 µg/m3 and 30 µg/m3 for the 24-hour standard (compared to the current standard of 35 µg/m3) to protect public health. These ranges are tighter than those recommended in EPA's Draft Policy Assessment.</p>
Keeping the Current Fine Particulate Matter Standards Ignores the Science<p>The Independent Panel rejected a potential argument for maintaining the current primary PM2.5 standards. The Draft Policy Assessment offered up an alternative rationale that might be used if the agency were to reject the draft assessment's recommendation to strengthen the standards and maintain the current standards. This alternative rationale explains that such a move would require the administrator to be arbitrarily selective in choosing which new studies to accept and which to toss and to disregard new epidemiologic evidence showing effects at lower levels.</p><p>The panel roundly rejected this justification, noting that, "Arguments offered in the draft Policy Assessment for retaining the current standards are not scientifically justified and are specious." This is important because if the administrator fails to strengthen the standards, he'll have to explain (both in court and in the court of public opinion) why he feels such a decision is science-based, as required under the Clean Air Act. And one proposed argument he could use has just been debunked by this expert Panel.</p>
Otherwise, the EPA’s Draft Policy Assessment Is Scientifically Sound<p>While the Independent Panel critiqued some details of the EPA's Draft Policy Assessment, the panel agreed that the draft science and policy assessments were cohesive and robust and the panel commended the "good faith effort" involved in the policy assessment. Specifically, the panel affirmed the use of EPA's causality framework used in the Integrated Science Assessment they reviewed last year and the Policy Assessment's new use of a hybrid modeling technique that allows for better assessment of risk from particulate matter exposure across the country especially in rural areas.</p><p>This diverges from what the seven-member CASAC has said and done around the EPA's assessment of the science and policy. In December, they concluded that the agency's draft science assessment was not a scientific document (it is) and CASAC Chair Dr. Tony Cox has been critical of the agency's causality framework that has been developed with dozens of experts over more than a decade. This view is <a href="https://science.sciencemag.org/content/363/6434/1398" target="_blank">not shared by the scientific community</a>, and now, not shared by the Independent Panel either.</p>
Other Particulate Pollution Standards Also May Need Revamping<p>The Independent Panel decided other particulate standards were also inadequate. On PM10, particulate matter less than 10 micrometers, the panel recommended revising this standard downward given that the PM2.5 component would also be tightened and noted several research and monitoring areas that need further work. On the secondary standards, i.e. the standards designed to protect welfare effects, such as visibility, the panel concluded that the standards should be tightened in order to be more protective.</p>
The Panel Condemns the EPA’s Broken Process<p>The Independent Panel's deliberations, demands for further research, and unanswered questions highlight how <a href="https://blog.ucsusa.org/gretchen-goldman/wheeler-worsens-particulate-pollution-review-process" target="_blank">broken the EPA process is</a>. In a normal review cycle, the panel would have had the opportunity to talk with agency scientists directly. The EPA staff would then have considered their comments and revised the Integrated Science Assessment in response to the committee and panel's suggestions. But because the administrator disbanded the panel and abbreviated the process, there was no opportunity for such dialogue and refinement of the agency's science assessment before <a href="https://twitter.com/GretchenTG/status/1184207743261036551" target="_blank">policy decisions were discussed</a>. But alas, the panel had to make do with what was available to them and CASAC does too.</p><p>Fortunately for CASAC, an Independent Panel has already done their job, and they are free (and encouraged) to run with it, especially given <a href="https://blog.ucsusa.org/gretchen-goldman/a-timeline-of-recent-attacks-on-the-epas-science-based-ambient-air-pollution-standards" target="_blank">the long list</a> of ways that EPA Administrator Wheeler has damaged the ambient air pollution review process.</p><p><a href="https://yosemite.epa.gov/sab/sabproduct.nsf/MeetingCalCASAC/A2DF51609E3DFC9C85258473006CF120?OpenDocument" target="_blank">Listen</a> and <a href="https://yosemite.epa.gov/sab/sabproduct.nsf/MeetingCalCASAC/49FAF8892AD2D38285258473006D1F4A?OpenDocument" target="_blank">watch</a> this week as CASAC discusses the same questions that the Independent Panel did last week. If CASAC comes to different conclusions than the larger, more experienced, and more diverse Independent Panel, we should ask why.</p><p>You can raise these questions yourself and demand that the administrator follow the panel's recommendations, by providing written or oral public comments at a <a href="https://yosemite.epa.gov/sab/sabproduct.nsf/MeetingCalCASAC/A0D0F9D4C6BC36D88525848C00467771?OpenDocument" target="_blank">future CASAC meeting</a> and commenting on the docket for the <a href="https://www.federalregister.gov/documents/2019/09/11/2019-19627/release-of-a-draft-document-related-to-the-review-of-the-national-ambient-air-quality-standards-for" target="_blank">particulate matter rule-making</a>. I'll be providing public comments this afternoon urging CASAC to follow the advice of the Independent Panel and commenting on the <a href="https://blog.ucsusa.org/gretchen-goldman/a-timeline-of-recent-attacks-on-the-epas-science-based-ambient-air-pollution-standards" target="_blank">EPA's problematic process</a> and drawing attention to that elephant in the room.</p>
- Air Pollution Linked to 30,000 U.S. Deaths in One Year - EcoWatch ›
- EPA Cuts Science Panel That Reviewed Deadly Air Pollutants ... ›
- These Scientists Were Disbanded by the EPA — They Plan to Meet ... ›
EcoWatch Daily Newsletter
Attorneys general and mayors from more than 25 states have banded together to oppose the easing of auto efficiency standards proposed by Scott Pruitt, the scandal-plagued administrator of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
"All Americans—not only the residents of the states, cities and counties signing this manifesto—deserve to enjoy fuel-efficient, low-emission cars and light trucks that save money on gas, improve our health and support American jobs. We strongly urge the auto industry to join us, and to use its influence with the Administration to ensure that these standards remain in place," the declaration states.
By Ken Kimmell
A major front in the climate change debate has moved to the courtroom, as I've previously discussed. Last week, plaintiffs in two separate cases won significant procedural victories—one against major fossil fuel companies, and a second against the Trump administration. Here are the latest developments and their implications.
From repealing and replacing Obamacare to constructing that border wall, President Donald Trump has broken a lot of promises that he made on the campaign trail. However, there is one area where Trump has been seemingly true to the his word—crippling the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA).
According to the first of a series of reports from the Environmental Data and Governance Initiative (EDGI), the Trump administration poses the greatest threat to the EPA's 47-year history.
By Andy Rowell
Since Donald Trump was elected, there has been an assault on the pillars of what many would be considered a free and fair democratic society: the right to protest and the right to free speech.
The House Science Committee will hear testimony March 29 that will question whether climate change is a human induced phenomenon. The hearing, Climate Science: Assumptions, Policy Implications and the Scientific Method, is a just another prong in the current effort to undo the environmental progress made during the Obama years.
It coincides with the efforts of the Trump administration, which has proposed to strip the federal budget of any monies that would be targeted to cutting carbon dioxide emissions. To that end, the president has signed executive orders to weaken Obama's Clean Power Plan, which would cut CO2 emissions by 32 percent by 2030, and eliminate rules to cut methane emissions from natural gas drilling.
Los Angeles-based law firm Baum, Hedlund, Aristei & Goldman filed lawsuits last week on behalf of 136 plaintiffs from across the country who allege that exposure to Monsanto's glyphosate-based weedkiller Roundup caused them to develop non-Hodgkin lymphoma. Three bundled complaints were filed last week in St. Louis County Circuit Court.
The Trump administration filed a motion Tuesday seeking an appeal to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals on a federal judge's Nov. 10, 2016 order in Juliana v. United States. The Trump administration also filed a motion to delay trial preparation until after its appeal is considered.
Further, the Trump administration asked for expedited review of both motions, arguing the plaintiffs' Jan. 24 letter requesting the government to retain records relating to climate change and communications between the government and the fossil fuel industry was overly burdensome. The excerpt from the government's stay motion said:
"Plaintiffs … intend to seek discovery relating to virtually all of the federal government's activities relating to control of CO2 emissions ... Compounding the United States' burdens, Plaintiffs have indicated that their intended discovery has a temporal scope of more than sixty years ... Absent relief, there will most certainly be depositions of federal government fact witnesses ... that will explore the extraordinarily broad topic of climate change and the federal government's putative knowledge over the past seven decades."
Yet, in another complex case regarding the Deepwater Horizon oil spill and BP, the U.S. produced more than 17 million pages of documents from April to September of 2011. Plaintiffs maintain that their requests are limited, reasonable and aimed at getting to trial this fall.
Appeals typically do not occur until a trial court has issued final rulings following the presentation of evidence, but the Trump administration is asking federal Magistrate Judge Coffin to exercise his discretion to allow the case to proceed to the Court of Appeals before final judgment.
Attorneys representing fossil fuel industry defendants are expected to file papers supporting the government's motions on Friday.
"The Trump administration argues that this is a big case and so the burdens of preserving government documents warrant an expedited review," Julia Olson, plaintiffs' counsel and executive director of Our Children's Trust, said. "They're right. It is a big case. We have a classic example of the government's misplaced priorities: They prefer to minimize their procedural obligations of not destroying government documents over the urgency of not destroying our climate system for our youth plaintiffs and all future generations?"
In the government's answer to the youth plaintiffs' complaint, they admitted that "the use of fossil fuels is a major source of [carbon dioxide] emissions, placing our nation on an increasingly costly, insecure and environmentally dangerous path."
The case was brought by 21 young plaintiffs who argue that their constitutional and public trust rights are being violated by the government's creation of climate danger. Judge Ann Aiken's November order denied motions to dismiss brought by both the Obama administration and fossil fuel industry defendants.
"This request for appeal is an attempt to cover up the federal government's long-running collusion with the fossil fuel industry," Alex Loznak, 20-year-old plaintiff and Columbia University student, said. "My generation cannot wait for the truth to be revealed. These documents must be uncovered with all deliberate speed, so that our trial can force federal action on climate change."
Other pre-trial developments
- During Wednesday's telephonic case management conference between attorneys for the parties and Magistrate Judge Thomas Coffin, the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ) took the view that the Trump administration, will have the opportunity to use executive privilege to prevent the release of evidence in the possession of the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA).
- DOJ attorneys said they recently informed the White House that NARA was in the process of gathering documents requested by the plaintiffs. It is the DOJ's view that former Presidents George H. W. Bush, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, will have the opportunity to bar release of the records of their respective administrations, but President Trump will ultimately have the authority to bar release of any and all NARA records.
- The next Juliana v. United States case management conference with Judge Coffin is scheduled for April 7 and will be telephonic.
- Attorneys for youth plaintiffs are in the process of compiling a list of prospective witnesses to be deposed, including Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and expect to provide that list to defendants next week.
Juliana v. United States is one of many related legal actions brought by youth in several states and countries, all supported by Our Children's Trust, seeking science-based action by governments to stabilize the climate system.
The Oklahoma County Court on Thursday found Trump's U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) nominee Scott Pruitt in violation of the state's Open Records Act. The Center for Media and Democracy (CMD) filed a lawsuit against Pruitt for improperly withholding public records and the court ordered his office to release thousands of emails in a matter of days.
In her ruling, Judge Aletia Haynes Timmons slammed the Attorney General's office for its "abject failure" to abide by the Oklahoma Open Records Act.
The judge gave Pruitt's office until Tuesday, Feb. 21, to turn over more than 2,500 emails it withheld from CMD's January 2015 records request and just 10 days to turn over an undetermined number of documents responsive to CMD's five additional open records requests outstanding between November 2015 and August 2016.
Thursday's expedited hearing was granted after CMD, represented by Robert Nelon of Hall Estill and the ACLU of Oklahoma, filed a lawsuit that has driven unprecedented attention to Pruitt's failure to disclose his deep ties to fossil industry corporations. On Friday, Pruitt is expected to face a full Senate vote on his nomination to run the EPA.
On Feb. 10, Pruitt's office finally responded to the oldest of CMD's nine outstanding Open Records Act requests but provided just 411 of the more than 3,000 emails they had located, withholding thousands of emails relevant to the request and still failing to respond to CMD's eight other outstanding requests. On Feb. 14 CMD filed a status report with the judge detailing the scope of missing documents, including 27 emails that were previously turned over to The New York Times in 2014.
"Scott Pruitt broke the law and went to great lengths to avoid the questions many Americans have about his true motivations," said Nick Surgey, CMD's director of research. "Despite Pruitt's efforts to repeatedly obfuscate and withhold public documents, we're all wiser to his ways and the interests he really serves. The work doesn't stop here to make sure communities across the country have the information they need to hold him accountable to the health and safety of our families."
Ahead of Thursday's hearing, Senators Carper, Whitehouse, Merkley, Booker, Markey and Duckworth—all members of the EPW committee—weighed in on the case, urging the Oklahoma court to require the Office of the Oklahoma Attorney General to release documents relevant to CMD's open record requests as a matter of "federal importance." In a letter to the Oklahoma Court, the Senators stated:
"We are providing this information to the Court today because we have concluded [the] pending Open Records Act requests may be the only means by which the Senate and the general public can obtain in a timely manner critical information about Mr. Pruitt's ability to lead the EPA."
"We need to understand whether ... Mr. Pruitt engaged with the industries that he will be responsible for regulating if he is confirmed as administrator in ways that would compromise his ability to carry out his duties with the complete impartiality required."
Pruitt's continued lack of transparency extends from a difficult nomination process in which research from CMD demonstrated Pruitt's repeated pattern of obfuscating ties to deep-pocketed, corporate interests.
At his hearing before the Senate Environment and Public Works (EPW) Committee, Pruitt faced a series of questions about his private meetings with major fossil fuel companies while chair of the Republican Attorneys General Association and fundraising for the Rule of Law Defense Fund. Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse concluded his questioning telling Pruitt his testimony "just doesn't add up." Despite failing to respond to any records requests for the past two years, Pruitt told U.S. Senators last week to file more open records requests with his office to answer 19 outstanding questions from his confirmation hearing.
After Democratic Senators twice boycotted the EPW Committee vote due to concerns over Pruitt's conflicts of interests and failure to fulfill open records requests, Republicans resorted to suspending Committee rules to advance his nomination.
Sidd Bikkannavar, a U.S.-born citizen and scientist at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL), was detained by U.S. Customs and Border Patrol (CPB) when trying to reenter the country from Chile late last month. Bikkannavar was in Patagonia racing solar-powered cars. He was detained by CPB in Houston without explanation and forced to unlock his NASA-issued phone.
After his passport was scanned, he was taken into a back room where other detained travelers waited on cots. Bikkannavar is a member of Global Entry, a CBP program that “allows expedited clearance for pre-approved, low-risk travelers" upon arrival in the U.S.
Bikkannavar asked "Why was I chosen?" But, no response was given, The Verge reported.
Bikkannavar was questioned on basic information already provided by his Global Entry membership and then asked to hand over and unlock his work phone. He was reticent to unlock his phone because it was issued by a federal agency and might contain sensitive information—NASA employees are told to protect work data. He tried to politely explain this when the CBP officer handed him an Inspection of Electronic Devices form.
While manual phone searches are legal, travelers are not required to unlock phones. But, travelers who do not unlock phones may be further detained.
"In each incident that I've seen, the subjects have been shown a Blue Paper that says CBP has legal authority to search phones at the border, which gives them the impression that they're obligated to unlock the phone, which isn't true," said Hassan Shibly, chief executive director of the Council on American-Islamic Relations in Florida, according to The Verge.
Bikkannavar's form listed detention and seizure among the consequences for not cooperating and he decided to turn over his phone and PIN. The phone was returned in about 30 minutes. He immediately turned his phone off and took it to the cybersecurity team at JPL upon arriving in Los Angeles.
Bikkannavar left for Chile on Jan. 15 prior to the Trump administration's travel ban, which targeted people from seven predominantly Muslim Middle Eastern and African countries, but returned to the U.S. four days after the ban was signed.
The ban is currently on hold after a federal appeals court upheld U.S. District Judge James Robart's ruling against the executive order. Bikkannavar, whose family name has roots in southern India, has been searched before but not to this extent. "Maybe you could say it was one huge coincidence that this thing happens right at the travel ban," he told The Verge.
Read Bikkannavar's account of the events from one of his friends who shared his tweet: