At times this year, the Legislature’s Government, Military and Veterans Affairs Committee has seemed more second-year constitutional law class than quiet lawmaking body.
The committee is responsible for deliberating on new rules for the state’s elected officers and political subdivisions.
The nature of the bills referred to the committee, many that stoke the forge of an increasingly divided national political landscape, has driven a lot of the constitutional debate that has taken place.
But a big catalyst for the committee’s transformation into must-watch lawmaking for history and political nerds has been driven by the lawyers who freely recite “The Federalist Papers” or conjure Supreme Court precedent from thin air during lengthy debate.
Lincoln Sen. Mike Hilgers has been one of the biggest reasons the committee has become a crash course in constitutional history and Supreme Court case law, according to Gavin Geis, executive director of Common Cause Nebraska.
“When you go to that committee, you have to be prepped,” said Geis. “You know (Hilgers) is going to want to know precedent. You know he’s already going to know the precedent, so you can’t just throw things out there because they aren’t going to fly over his head.”
Geis, as well as John Cartier, director of voting rights for Civic Nebraska, have frequently tussled with Hilgers in what Sen. Tom Brewer of Gordon calls “mental judo,” wrangling in the kind of legal language that sounds foreign to untrained ears.
“Don’t worry if you don’t understand it,” Brewer once comforted the packed hearing room after a lengthy debate.
The lawyering has become a signature part of the Government Committee’s hearings.
During a January debate over a call for a constitutional convention by Sen. Bob Krist of Omaha to limit the influence of money in the country’s elections, Hilgers and Cartier sparred over the meaning of a pair of essays penned by James Madison in “The Federalist Papers.”
A few weeks later during debate over a Sen. John Murante proposal (LB1066), Hilgers and Cartier were at it again, this time over Supreme Court casework and what it said about Nebraska’s ability to require voters to show identification before casting a ballot.
That 2008 decision in Crawford v. Marion County Election Board held an Indiana law requiring voter ID did not violate the U.S. Constitution.
Answering a question from Hilgers, Cartier said Nebraska’s state constitution contained “one of the most strongly worded provisions” regarding elections, and said that line would play an important role in any challenges to Murante’s bill if it became law.
“Would you agree with me — maybe you wouldn’t — but would you agree with me that LB1066 as drafted would be constitutional under the U.S. Constitution?” Hilgers asked.
Cartier conceded Hilgers' point, but reminded the senator “that under constitutional law for some of our important protected rights, the states are very free to prescribe additional protections.”
“I would not disagree with that,” Hilgers answered before jumping back in to grill Cartier on his thoughts about human nature and the government’s role in enacting safeguards for several behaviors, including buying alcohol, boarding an airplane and voting.
On another Murante bill (LB1115) before the committee last week that would subtract the estimated number of noncitizens from the Census count used to redraw legislative boundaries in 2021, Geis and Hilgers discussed a 2016 Supreme Court case that said states could use the total population and not just the voting-eligible population to draw legislative districts.
Hilgers nimbly dissected two of Geis’ arguments for the committee, explaining to his fellow senators that Common Cause Nebraska wasn’t arguing that LB1115 was unconstitutional, but was instead a bad policy proposal.
Geis said in a phone interview Friday that Hilgers has improved the discourse of the committee and improved the legislative record.
“In past years, you could go up and testify and get zero questions,” Geis said. “You might say something provocative, but the senators would not say anything and you’d leave.
“It’s a healthy thing that (Hilgers) doesn’t just accept things at face value,” he added.
Cartier said Hilgers has forced him to research his testimony more thoroughly and be prepared to defend an argument from multiple sides.
“He’s definitely a worthy opponent,” Cartier said. “I appreciate the sparring back and forth.”
Hilgers said he’s often on the other end of the legal tête-à-tête, standing in a courtroom receiving questions from a judge in patent or commercial disputes he handles for his Lincoln law firm.
“The people who testify in front of the committee tend to be very smart, they tend to be very prepared,” Hilgers said last week. "A lot of the issues in front of the committee are legal in nature, so I get that back-and-forth, which I enjoy.”
That requires the former federal appellate clerk to gather casework and synthesize an argument while also researching the counter arguments that could be made using the facts underlying the issue the bill is trying to address.
The legal sparring with Cartier and Geis is never adversarial, even over contentious issues that can widen the divide between Nebraskans on both sides of the political spectrum.
“I give them a lot of credit because they are able to come in and focus and have a dialogue with me,” Hilgers added.
As Hilgers often finishes his questioning: “I appreciate the back and forth.”
The two Sumatran tigers aren’t even fully grown, but they’ll climb to the top of the food chain when they land in Lincoln this fall.
They’ll spend next winter getting used to their new home — an indoor-outdoor enclosure with a pond, stream and rock ledges — and meeting their new keepers at the Lincoln Children’s Zoo.
And then, next spring, the city will get its chance to meet them — Lincoln’s newest and biggest predators.
“This is ginormous,” said John Chapo, the zoo’s president and CEO. “It moves the zoo to a whole new level of conservation, education and experiences for our guests.”
The two tigers are among the stars of the zoo’s $16 million, 10-acre expansion, which will also introduce Lincoln to giraffes, spider monkeys and the idea of a year-round zoo. The new habitats and exhibits — now a series of construction zones — are expected to open in spring 2019.
The tigers are brothers from separate litters; one is 2 years old, the other six months older. They were born and live at the San Diego Zoo, where one was hand-raised because of a kidney infection.
The two only recently met, so they could get to know each other before their move to Lincoln.
And the zoo only recently learned it was getting the pair, but it’s thrilled with the news, Chapo said. Sumatran tigers are the world’s most endangered tigers, with fewer than 500 in the wild and about 90 in captivity around the globe.
The tigers’ move to Lincoln is part of a longer-term species survival plan, which dictates the distribution of animals in captivity to try to keep their genetics diverse. Of the 230 or so accredited zoos and aquariums in the country, Lincoln’s zoo will be one of 15 or 16 to house Sumatran tigers.
“We wanted to help save this beautiful and rare cat,” Chapo said. “What we’re doing is best for the species, best for the gene pool.”
The animals will be flown to Lincoln this fall and moved to their enclosure, with heated indoor shelters and an open-air habitat landscaped with trees, rocks and water. They’ll be fed six pounds of mostly raw meat daily. An average adult male Sumatran can grow to about 300 pounds, so they’ll be kept captive by steel-mesh fences 18 to 20 feet high, with a pane of 4-inch-thick glass separating them from the zoo’s guests.
The zoo plans several tiger viewing areas, but the big selfie draw will likely be a replica of a Jeep built on both sides of the glass, so guests can sit safely in the driver’s seat while the tigers — drawn by air conditioning in the summer and heat in the winter — ride shotgun.
The tiger enclosure will be the zoo’s second-largest building, behind the under-construction giraffe habitat and its elevated viewing area, where guests can feed the animals 8 feet above the ground.
The zoo is also renovating Ager Play Center, filling it with a simulated rainforest and a multi-level treehouse structure that will allow visitors to climb and crawl through tunnels and come face-to-face, through glass, with the spider monkeys.
And it’s investing in its staff, Chapo said. It’s already hired three full-time professionals, including a veterinarian from Omaha's Henry Doorly Zoo who worked with its large cats, and will add a half-dozen more full-time employees this summer.
With seasonal part-time employees, the zoo will have more than 125 people working for it this summer, Chapo said. Next year, the zoo will need part-time winter workers, too; all of the new exhibits and some of the old ones will be open year-round.
When the zoo was deciding its future, it conducted extensive research. Along with requests for specific animals, or endangered species, or more interactive exhibits, the public asked for a zoo that doesn’t close in the fall.
“That was a driving factor in all of the research we did,” he said. “Parents and children said, ‘Please, we love the zoo. Can we have it year-round?”
The zoo’s final eight-month season begins Thursday.
The United States is in the midst of a national debate over school security after the mass shooting at a Florida school.
To President Donald Trump and some gun supporters, the solution is to put more guns in the hands of trained school staff — including teachers — to "play defense" against a rampaging gunman.
The rest of the world has different strategies to deal with violence around schools. But the U.S. appears to be the only place in the world where some want to arm teachers to the degree the president wants.
Rather, emergency drills, armed guards patrolling school campuses and intruder drills seem to be more of the norm.
Here is a look at school security measures at some countries around the world.
Education Ministry spokesman Amos Shavit said "the vast majority of schools have armed security guards" and those that don't are supposed to have heavy locks and security systems.
Visitors to the school are questioned by the guard, who checks their bags and sometimes uses a hand-held metal detector. Entry is strictly forbidden to anyone without authorization, Shavit said.
That's augmented by municipal security units that work in conjunction with police. "If there is an incident at a school they will be there in a minute or less," Shavit said.
He said the small number of teachers who have a legal gun license and usually carry a weapon can do so as well in school, but that this is not policy or encouraged. "Teachers here aren't supposed to be carrying weapons in classrooms, teachers are supposed to teach," he said.
Violent incidents have been rare in Russian schools, but two attacks last month attracted nationwide attention and drew comparisons to the school violence in the U.S.
In one, a teenager armed with an ax attacked fellow students at a school in southern Siberia, wounding five children and a teacher. In another attack in the Urals city of Perm, two teenagers stabbed children and their teacher with knives, wounding 15 people. They then attempted to kill each other, but were detained.
The incidents highlighted lax security in schools, triggering calls for stronger protection.
Now, there are security guards at Russian schools.
In the wake of deadly terror attacks in Paris and Nice, France introduced new security guidelines at schools when children went back to classes in September 2016.
The measures, which remain in place, include a tighter screening of people entering schools, which can include bag checks, and improved coordination with police.
Police officers patrol in school areas, while parents and students are requested to avoid gathering near schools and report any suspicious behavior or object. French schools also hold three security drills a year, including one in which an alleged assailant enters their premises. Students are taught how to hide or to escape.
All students aged 13 to 14 and class representatives also get basic training on life-saving measures. In pre-school and kindergarten, for toddlers aged 2 to 6, children are taught to hide and keep quiet through games.
Attacks on schools are rare in Japan, where there have been a handful of knifings, but guns are practically non-existent. Security measures at Japanese schools became compulsory only after a June 2001 attack at an Osaka elementary school, where eight children were stabbed to death and 15 others were injured by an intruder who was later sentenced to death and executed.
Japanese schools generally do not allow outsiders to freely walk into schools without getting permission at the gate, which is usually closed during school hours. Parents or other visitors must wear a pass to go in. Schools are also required to have an emergency manual in case of crime or accident at school or while children are walking to or from school. Some schools have set up security cameras, or teachers sometimes take turns patrolling during breaks or lunchtime.
Parents or neighborhood volunteers usually stand along designated commuting routes or intersections to watch kids as they walk to and from school. Children usually carry handheld alarms attached to their school bags that they can use in an emergency while they are on the road. Schools, PTA and students set up commuting routes and draw safety maps.
Rome has been spared any terrorism-related attacks, but international schools in Italy's capital have been deemed "soft targets" for several years and receive extra security.
Several have army jeeps with machine-gun toting soldiers standing guard. The measures are similar for embassies as well as popular outdoor gathering spots, such as the Campo dei Fiori market in Rome's historic center. The increased security is more a response to Islamic terrorism fears than mentally unstable people getting hold of weapons.
There have been no visible signs of increased security at public schools.
"In my country, teachers teach. They don't open fire," Matteo Salvini, who heads the right-wing League party, said recently in response to questions about his views on the Trump administration.
The Swedish National Agency for Education has issued a pamphlet for schools with general advice about what to do in case of an armed attack, including locking a door or barricading oneself, evacuating the premises and seeking shelter. The brochure says the guidelines are general because school buildings can vary.
There were no changes in security ordered after a 2015 attack on a school in the industrial town of Trollhattan, in which three people were killed by a masked sword-wielding man who eventually was shot and killed by police. An investigation found that the attack was racially motivated; the school was located in a neighborhood with a large immigrant population.
Mexico's ongoing drug war has driven schools in Baja California, Monterrey, Ciudad Juarez and some other cities to hold emergency drills to instruct teachers and students what to do in case of gunfire that sometimes breaks out outside schools during drug cartel shootouts.
Students are usually advised to drop to the floor, seek cover behind walls, remain calm and crawl to safety.