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Roundtable: Healthcare, Soledad Cross, Stolen Valor, Military Sexual Assaults

June 29, 2012 1:01 p.m.

Guests: Kenny Goldberg, Health Reporter, KPBS News

Beth Ford Roth, Home Post Blog, KPBS News

Tony Perry, San Diego Bureau Chief, L.A. Times

Related Story: Roundtable: Healthcare, Soledad Cross, Stolen Valor And Military Sexual Assaults

Transcript:

This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

ST. JOHN: The legality of the healthcare reform act is no longer in question, but now the politics of healthcare reform really kicks in. This is the KPBS Midday Edition Roundtable. The U.S. Supreme Court didn't stop the controversy surrounding healthcare reform. The debate continues unabated. The mill stare taking on sexual abuse. Is it real? And the mount Soledad cross is still a monument to an unresolved debate. This is the KPBS Roundtable. Today is Friday, June 29th. I'm Alison St. John. And with me today is Kenny Goldberg, our healthcare reporter.

GOLDBERG: Hi, Alison.

ST. JOHN: Beth Ford Roth, our military blogger.

FORD ROTH: Hi there.

ST. JOHN: And Tony Perry who is the San Diego bureau chief of the LA Times.

PERRY: Good to be here.

ST. JOHN: We could not start the Roundtable on any other topic this week. Healthcare reform is the biggest issue. Everyone has an opinion on it, and no one seems to completely understand it. But it will touch all of us, possibly in life and death ways for years to come. So Kenny, let's start with you. We know by now that the Supreme Court left almost all the provisions of it in tact. Were you surprised?

GOLDBERG: I was shocked, completely shocked. And I think a lot of people were. I thought they were going to overturn it or at the very least strike down the individual mandate as unconstitutional. But they threw everybody a curve ball, and look what happened.

ST. JOHN: How about you, Beth?

FORD ROTH: I was sitting on a couch with my husband, and we were sort of waiting to hear, then I heard my phone make that alert sound when the AP has an alert, and I said oh, I know it, I know it, and I looked and I could not believe they upheld it. We were both shocked.

ST. JOHN: Now, Tony, I wanted to ask you if you were surprised but were you surprised on how they justified their decision?

PERRY: Yes. Like everyone else, I had figured that Anthony Kennedy, the classic middle vote, would swing this way or that, and there goes the Court. Didn't happen. It was the chief justice, we now know. And that caught everybody by surprise. I was on my couch listening, and I took fox and CNN at their word that it had gone down the shoot.

[ LAUGHTER ]

ST. JOHN: Should have turned to KPBS!

[ LAUGHTER ]

PERRY: By the time I came back with my chocolate milk and banana for breakfast, it was different! So yeah, I was shocked.

ST. JOHN: So, the mandate survived, which means if you don't have health insurance, you will have to buy it or face being fined. How does that work for people who don't have insurance now?

GOLDBERG: Well, there's a number of ways it'll affect them. No. 1, if they're within this income qualification where they can get government subsidized healthcare, there's a wider array of programs available to them. If they're on the individual market and they make too much to qualify for the public subsidies, there's going to be a health exchange. In 2014, it's an online marketplace where you can compare health plans, compare their benefits, compare the premiums, compare this, that, and the theory is that if you offer this wide array of plans and show people in direct comparison what's available, that it'll help keep the cost down.

ST. JOHN: So if you don't have it now, you might qualify for Medi-Cal or you might be able to buy affordable insurance plans through this exchange?

GOLDBERG: Right. Under the affordable healthcare act, they're going to expand Medi-Cal -- or Medicaid eligibility nationwide, Medi-Cal in California. In California about two million more people will be able to qualify who don't right now.

ST. JOHN: And what about people who have health insurance?

GOLDBERG: It's not going to affect them much at all. If you have company-provided health insurance, everything is status quo. You'll be able to keep your children on your plan until they're 26, you'll get preventative services free of charge, etc.

ST. JOHN: Tony, what about the politics of this? What are congressional delegations saying about this ruling?

PERRY: Well, the split was right down party lines, this was adopted without a single Republican vote as I remember it. And the reactions have been predictable, including Romney, says he's going to fight this thing tooth and nail, going to repeal it the day he gets in office best he can. So gentlemen, start your engines, we're off on the political road now. Of we let the lawyers deal with it, now we'll let the politics. Now, will it play out in these half a dozen states which are key to electing the next president of the United States? I think the political writers are going to have to tell us that in the next 48-72 hours, and I think they will. Am whether they're right or not is another thing. But it's going to be politics all the way till that certain Tuesday in November. Of

ST. JOHN: So Kenny, in California though, we're one of the states likely to go along with it.

GOLDBERG: No question. California has embraced healthcare reform from the very beginning. I can't imagine a state would turn down all this federal money to expand their Medicaid program because the federal government pays for all it, then the percentage goes down a little bit. What state wouldn't want to provide healthcare to their people at virtually no cost to them? I don't know why they wouldn't want to do that.

ST. JOHN: Can you explain that, taupy?

PERRY: I cannot. And I can't explain how Mr. Romney is going to explain that he did something like this in Massachusetts but he doesn't like it on a federal level. I still have trouble with that.

FORD ROTH: Well, he's saying what worked in Massachusetts might not work nationwide; but it's pretty remarkable THAT that the nationwide plan is based on the Massachusetts plan. I think it was a Roiters poll recently that asked if people supported the affordable care act versus before the Supreme Court decision came out, and by and large they did not. But when asked about every single provision within it, they supported the provisions within it. So there's something about what it's attributed to or maybe it's President Obama. But the actual facets of it, people support.

ST. JOHN: Everybody liked them.

FORD ROTH: But if you label it Obama dollars care, oh, no, I don't support it.

GOLDBERG: Well, the Obama administration has done a miserable job about educating people about what is in the plan. Yesterday, are the president laid out what's in it, the provisions of it in a very clear way. Where was he the last couple years? The administration has done an atrocious job at 28ing people what it is.

PERRY: People ask you a question. The sainted New York Times had a front page story today, not an analysis piece, but a straight news story saying what we have here is President Obama's attempt to transform social welfare state to compensate for the fact that the folks in the middle and the lower parts really have been pretty stagnant in terms of their income. So what we have here is a very large redistribution of resources, money, and services from the haves, basically, to the have notes. I was startled in that it was a hard news story as opposed to an analysis. But what's your take on that? Is that what we're doing here? We're making sure the people at the middle and lower part are subsidized?

ST. JOHN: It is true, I was just looking -- they're saying six million Californians will have free access to preventative care. $5 billion for people who don't have insurance, and almost ten billion to add to the Medicare.

PERRY: But no care is free.

ST. JOHN: So the people who perhaps can't afford it right now, but the money has got to come from the people --

GOLDBERG: Well, there's no question that in the first few years, the federal government is going to be pouring out money left and right to get this going. But in the long-term, if more people are insured, if more people get mammograms routinely, and prostate exams, and childhood immunizations and take care of their health in a more preventive way, in the long-term, it will bring costs down because people will be healthier. That's the ideal of it

PERRY: But that assumes we're going to stop smoking, drinking, and getting fatter.

GOLDBERG: Oh, we'll never do that. But maybe we'll do it later than we usually do.

FORD ROTH: I was going to bring up a conversation I had with one of my doctors about two weeks ago. And he was discussing how -- he's a specialist, but how several of his friends, and he's been a doctor for about 35 yearsing are emergency room doctors, and more and more they are seeing people for diabetes care, for things that are not -- not even an urgent care situation but regular medical care. And this is something that taxpayers are paying for in the long run. And I think that's what Romney's point was when he tried to sell this in Massachusetts was this is a conservative principle of personal responsibility. You buy your own health insurance. And it's sort of strange that that narrative hasn't been used by the Obama administration, and maybe turn it on its head. Of how could Romney say that's not -- they could quote him to quote governor Romney, it's a point of personal responsibility because if you don't buy your own health experience, then the taxpayers are footing the bill for you

PERRY: But that's only true in Massachusetts.

[ LAUGHTER ]

ST. JOHN: Isn't it true to say your average person who is buying health insurance is already paying for the act that there are a lot of uninsured people?

GOLDBERG: No question. We're all doing that. When bye-bye goes in the emergency room, by federal law, hospitals have to treat them and stabilize them. That's expensive if they're uninsured, believe you me. Of so somebody has to pay for it. There's no free lunch here.

ST. JOHN: Is it true that this is a shift of resources from the wealthy down to -- it's not really the case because we're already paying for them, and can Kenny is saying it's going to be federal government subsidies.

PERRY: I'll alert the New York Times that they're wrong.

[ LAUGHTER ]

ST. JOHN: I wanted to ask you, Tony, about the Supreme Court argument for why they justified the constitutionality of the individual mandate. Not with the commerce clause but with the argument that the federal government has the right to tax. Do you feel like this is really handing the critics a huge weapon to attack this?

PERRY: Well, the word tax is red meat to a certain segment of the electorate. And when this plan was being devised and pushed through Congress, the president of the United States over and over again said it's not a tax, it's not a tax. And there's all sorts of film clips about that, and now the chief justice decides that it's legal because it is a tax. And the government has the right to tax. We'll see whether that sort of faculty lounge dispute will play as a political -- what plays better politically probably is the dispute about can you keep your own doctor, will there be "death panels." That dispute we're going to hear in the fall. This other which is fine for again the sort of erudite discussions I don't think will -- though it was certainly fascinating, they turned it on its head, precisely what the president of the United States said it was not is what saved it.

GOLDBERG: We're bringing back death panels now?

FORD ROTH: Steven Colbert brought it up last night.

GOLDBERG: I thought it was a communist plot.

[ LAUGHTER ]

ST. JOHN: One of the things that people are wondering about, is it going to affect their premiums? Is it going to cost people more because we're going to be covering more people? And isn't there a big problem in California where the insurance companies can jack up their premiums?

GOLDBERG: There is nothing to stop them. California is one of those few states that does not regulate the cost of health insurance. In California, auto insurance and home insurance is regulated. Companies have to submit their price increases to the state insurance commissioner and justify them. And he has the right to turn them down. With health insurance, that's not the case in California. It is in dozens of other states. So that is a real issue. You can create a marketplace and have a wide array of plans for people, but if that's no ultimate control on the price of health insurance, they can keep charging whatever they want and raise rates whenever they want, just like they can now.

ST. JOHN: This is an enormous issue for all the people, and it's almost a third of San Diegans who don't have health insurance that this health exchange where you can have a marketplace, where you can go out and buy affordable healthcare, if they can't control the premiums, does that mean the federal subsidies have to go up in order for people to afford them?

GOLDBERG: Ultimately that's true. However at least in San Diego a certain percentage of the uninsured people here are undocumented immigrants, and they don't qualify, they can't take part in the affordable healthcare act anyway. They're not even allowed to buy into the insurance even if they have the money.

ST. JOHN: So that's not going to make any difference for the undocumented population?

GOLDBERG: No, it will not. They'll still be able to go to community clinics and hospital emergency rooms like they could do now. And there's a possibility that because community clinics are getting more money and they'll be able to expand their services, they'll get easier advice to care. But other than that, they can't take part in it. Of

ST. JOHN: We just have one minute left. And I wanted to raise one issue with Tony about the congressional delegation. I understand that Brian Bilbray, our congressional representative, has already started to use legislation that would push for grants. So he's invested in this passing. How would he vote to repeal it?

PERRY: Brian is sometimes a maverick. I sense on this one, he's outside the fold a bit. If you talk to Brian, which I happened to bump into him the other way, he understands the need for healthcare for all. He's had some family issues, which have driven that home.

ST. JOHN: His daughter.

PERRY: Yeah. So let's wait and see what he and. He's an interesting cat, politically. Of now, he's got an opponent who's gung-ho for the -- Scott Peter, who's gung-ho for the act. So he may be moving slightly to keep Peters from being able to gain any traction on that in a district which is less amenable to Brian's form of politics. And it's been redistricted. Of so it's going to be a tough race. So he may be moving to keep his democratic opponent from getting any traction.

ST. JOHN: So you think there's a possibility that our Congressman, Bilbray, might not vote to repeal the healthcare reform?

PERRY: Depends on how much his arm is twisted by his party.

ST. JOHN: Kenny?

GOLDBERG: All these people are clamoring for repeal. They're not going to repeal anything because unless there's a filibuster proof majority in the Senate for repeal, which there isn't, and unless Romney gets elected and they gain a filibuster proof majority in the Senate, nobody is going to repeal this thing.

ST. JOHN: You think be it's a token gesture?

GOLDBERG: It's a totally token gesture.

ST. JOHN: Okay. Well, we will be following this. Stay with us.

[[[NEW SEGMENT]]].

ST. JOHN: You're listening to the KPBS Roundtable, I'm Alison St. John. With two wars winding down, and troops coming home, the military is turning its attention to internal battles. The issue of sexual abuse in the military is raising its ugly head, and the Department of Defense is paying attention. A new report out this week says there have been more than 300 cases in the Marine Corps last year. Reported cases may just be the tip of the iceberg. James Amos has declared his intention to take this on. Beth Ford Roth is our military blogger. And by the way, Beth will have some news that's just breaking today on this. But let's get to the basic extent of this problem. What did the report suggest?

FORD ROTH: Well, basically, as you said, it was about 346 victims based on 333 reports. And the reason for the discrepancy is sometimes it's more than one victim, sometimes there's more than one perpetrator. So that's where that happens. Basically this report came out and sort of went through the different issues in maybe the culture that keeps women or men from reporting, from keep think those reports from being taken seriously. From having a culture that maybe encourages the belief that you can sort of get away with this kind of thing, and trying to make people in charge understand that this is extremely serious to general Amos, to the Secretary of Defense, Leon Panetta, that they believe this is a huge problem. The secretary was defense came out a few months ago and said he believed 19,000 incidents of sexual assaults in the military in 2010 alone. This is believed to be a very underreported crime. So the higher ups are saying they're taking this very seriously.

ST. JOHN: What about the average person? You have had a lot of response, a lot of interaction with families am are you hearing much about this issue?

FORD ROTH: Interestingly enough on the blog, not so much. You had Congressman Jacky speer on, and she sort of believes what's at the heart of the problem is the way that rapes are reported in the military. You go to your superior, and she believes it needs to be taken out of the chain of command completely and given over to an objective set of eyes, still within the military, but maybe a group of military and civilian investigators who could look into it. So someone in charge of an alleged rape victim doesn't feel that it looks poorly on them that there was a rape within their chain of command. So there's that feeling of let's maybe wipe the slate clean and try this in a completely different way. And she's got legislation, the sexual assault training oversight and prevention act. And she's trying to push that through Congress right now.

ST. JOHN: Do you think that's part of the reason why you just don't hear a lot about this on the web? It's still something whereby your career could be affected if you talk about it?

FORD ROTH: Well, I think maybe there's that feeling that you won't be listened to. Of the I just wanted to bring this up, we were talking about this scandal that's breaking within the airforce that's come to light. And this is at lack land airforce base, which is sort of the bootcamp for the airforce. And I printed out a stars and stripes article about this issue, and the first comment that was written, and it was written by a woman is the following: "When I was in the military in the 1980s, if we had a problem with a male service member, we handle today alone and always got results." So there's also the feeling of toughen up. What's your problem? And there was a lot of that in the comment areas of different articles written that if you're in the military, you got to toughen up. And a lot of the men who have said they've reported these crimes, that's the reaction they get, like, know, you got to get tougher than that.

ST. JOHN: Right. But now -- it seems like they're going into the courtroom more than before. Tony, you've been covering the military for so long. Has the Department of Defense been talking as openly as they are now about this?

PERRY: They have, but not successfully. Amos says at the beginning of his report that we just haven't gotten -- we haven't been able to curb this, and we've been a failure so far. Pretty blunt talk from a commandant.

ST. JOHN: Do you get the sense that they're serious about it this time?

PERRY: I think they are serious about it. The new process which will make for better reporting they hope, more thorough investigating, will hold commanding officers responsible for what happens in their command. Slightly different viewpoint than what Congressman speer I think wants. It is my view that when the top general tells lesser generals you're responsible for this, are Mr. 1-star general, would you like to be a 2-scar general, they will snap to colonels also and begin to take it much more seriously than they have. The numbers in Camp Pendleton I found shocking. 64 assaults last year reported, and the actual number could be much larger because there are stats that show only a certain percentage of victims ever report. Now, what is happening out there? What is happening out there according to the report, more often than not, it is young men and young women going out and drinking. And they drink. And she gets drunk, and he gets drunk. Then he presses himself on her. Sometimes, appallingly, while other marines are there and do not do anything to stop it. Now, personal responsibility of marines. If you see something going down like this, stop it because safeguarding one of your colleagues in this regard is just as important as safeguarding them on the battlefield.

ST. JOHN: So when someone wrote do you, Beth, handle it alone -- this is injure culture, you take care television 1234

FORD ROTH: Well, there's an article in the Christian science monitor, perhaps the way the troops are housed now could contribute to this. They're not in barracks anymore. They're in these more home-like settings, and that could lead to, you know, letting down the guard, and they're not being as policed as much. And it is sort of like the lower ranked troops that are the ones allegedly perpetrating these crimes. So sort of the baseline checks that you may have had in the --

ST. JOHN: Right, the culture is changing.

FORD ROTH: And also the housing.

ST. JOHN: Well, fact is that the culture about women in the military is really changing. They can be in combat now. There's almost no roles, isn't that true, that they are excluded from?

PERRY: They're opening up more combat billet. Although the main part of an infantry platoon is still off limits. But you're right. They're driving vehicles, they're dog handlers, they're doing supplies, they're there.

ST. JOHN: And Kenny, you've done a story about sexual abuse in the military. And how cooperative did you find the people on Camp Pendleton when you did that story?

GOLDBERG: They weren't cooperative at all. I I did an investigative story last year, and this was spawned by a report issued by the VA that really quantified military sexual trauma. That's what they call it. And I would point out that across the board among all the armed forces, one out of five women say they have been sexually abused or assaulted, and 1 out of 100 men. But because there's more men in the services than women, the absolute numbers are about the same. So this is a very widespread problem. But to get back to your question, the officials at Camp Pendleton were not cooperative at all. They didn't want to do an interview. And then I finally got referred to I think it was a major colonel at the Pentagon who said well, you know, we can't get anybody for you to talk to now. But I could get you somebody in six months.

ST. JOHN: Oh, well, do you think there's something about rolling out this plan now?

PERRY: Sure, there's a documentary, very hard-hitting documentary, called the invisible war. And it asserts that the problem is widespread, and the brass have done little or nothing about it.

GOLDBERG: I think that's true.

PERRY: It's about ready to hit theatres, it's been reviewed positively by critics who have seen it, and also Leon Panetta has seen it. Will and shortly after seeing it, Secretary of Defense, he laid down the law and said we're going to change, we're going to toughen up. The Marine Corps is trying to get out in front of that, as a they always do, so they're not seen as foot-draggers, they're seen as leaders. That's what general Amos is trying.

FORD ROTH: I just wanted to bring up the sort of breaking news of this enormous scandal coming out of lack land airforce base in Texas. There are 31 alleged victims of abuse, and it goes all the way from an inappropriate relationship to rape. And the airforce is now investigating. It all started about a year ago. One woman came forward. And you've got just such a large difference in -- you've got a family airman, a grunt, who is in boot camp and being yelled at all the time. And her superior is the one who's trying to push her into shape. I can't think of a bigger differential in power than right then and there. So I think this was sort of ripe for this kind of abuse because these women had no way of saying no or -- this person is in charge of everything they're doing. Who are they going to go to? And I guess that was the feeling that they had. And the 1 man who so far has pled guilty to I think one count of misconduct, and after his -- he was released, he said, yeah, I had ten inappropriate -- I was basically sexually abused ten recruits. They can't use that against him in a future trial. They have to have those ten women come forward on their own and say something. And if these women want a career in the airforce, do they really want to come forward?

ST. JOHN: To actually get into court, yeah.

FORD ROTH: So many of these women who have come forward have been then pushed out of the military because they have been seen as uncooperative or not towing the party line.

ST. JOHN: Lori is on the line with a comment.

NEW SPEAKER: Yes, good afternoon. When I served in the state legislature, the women's caucus held a hearing on women in the military. And we found was that men of these young men and women are leaving families with histories of domestic violence, and they are more likely to be perpetrators with the men of sexually violent assault. And the women unfortunately are more likely to become victims of that. Of the military has seen with this all-volunteer military that there are many young men and women who are trying to escape a difficult background. So it lends itself badly to the situation that's occurring. And this is a hearing we held in California a few years ago on the heels of the hearing in Washington. The testimony in DC was so damning, they refused to let people come to California to testify. So we've known for years about the extent of this. I'm happy to hear that the Department of Defense is starting to manage it better. But the fact is with an all-volunteer army, we have young men and women who are entering the military sometimes to escape from very difficult situation, and they're carrying that with them.

ST. JOHN: Thank you for your experience on that, Lori SaldaÒa, who has some insurance on the legislative level of all of this. Do you think, Tony, the fact that this report is mainly focusing on training and data collection and not so much on penalties and sanctions is appropriate bearing in mind what Lori just said? Maybe there's a population here that's particularly at risk? And I think there's two arguments on this. Some people say this is never going to stop unless you get more specific sanctions.

PERRY: Yeah, are and I might point out that general Amos's report said that there are predators, there are young marines that know what they're about when they're out using alcohol and trying to get her drunk and then push themselves on her. The so it isn't just it happened. No, sometimes there are predators, and that's really Egregeous. A commandant can only go so far. There is such thing as the uniform code of military justice. He can't impose penalties that aren't part of the code. But again, I think what he is calling for too is greater personal responsibility on everybody's part. The 5% women in the U.S. Marine Corps, the least of any of the services, and also women of course are trained differently. They have their own boot camp. They're not mixed in with the men as they are in the other services. So the Marine Corps is different in that regard. But it's going to boil down to personal responsibility. When you see something like that, first of all, don't get involved in something like this yourself. And stop your buddy if you think this is what he is about.

ST. JOHN: And what about Jacky speer's legislation and what chance is there that it's going to be taken out of the chain of command?

PERRY: In the Amos report, he does talk about some auditing being done by the outside. But the Marine Corps maybe more than other military services is very resistant to outsiders coming in and poking around inside.

ST. JOHN: Right.

PERRY: Kenny's experience is probably pretty average. If it's to be done, I would presume it would be better done inside with strong leadership. Now, there is leadership, both at the officer and enlisted ranks. I was with a different commandant two years ago, and they went from base to base to base in Afghanistan in which the sergeant major lectured all the troops about this, that there were cases of it, and he wanted it to stop. And he laid it on the line. So it isn't that they haven't done this, but they haven't done it well enough.

ST. JOHN: I understand from the VA, and Kenny, you've done stories with the VA. They are much more on top of this, aren't they? They are seeing the effects of this in all the veterans who years later are finally coming forward with this kind of -- what should we say? Crisis?

GOLDBERG: That's right. And there's research that shows that service people who have been abused or harassed in the military are much more likely to develop PTSD too. So they're definitely seeing the effects of it. I spoke to one guy in a nonprofit group, an exmarine, who deals with women's health issues. And he was saying the way to stop this in the militaries is for the brass to make it a show-stopper, he called. In other words really crack down on people that commit abuses. Just cashier them totally. Hold people up as examples and get rid of them.

ST. JOHN: Well, that is the question I'm raising. When I read the report, I did not see very much about cracking down. It was all about training and prevention.

PERRY: Very bureaucratic, very governmentise, let's have seminars and a chain of command, and a flow chart and all that. You're right. But what Kenny is suggesting is probably going to occur even if it's not in the report. The Marine Corps is decreasing the number of people it needs significantly. And one would think if you've been involved in incidents like this, you're not somebody they want to keep. So when that word gets out that you get boozed up, you press yourself on a woman, that could be the end of your career. I think that'll be a strong indication that things are going to get better.

ST. JOHN: Is there any indication that the Marines are behind the curve in dealing with this? Or any of the branches of the military ahead of the curve? It seemed to me that the army has already been really attacking this problem a bit more obviously than the Marine Corps.

PERRY: I think the Marine Corps, because of its nature, and because of its culture, and because only 5% of the force are women, I think it has a different situation than the other services. I don't know if that puts them ahead or behind the curve. Obviously the general, the commandant, he wants to get ahead of the curve. He doesn't want to see the Marine Corps labeled as dragging its feet. Much as he did on Don't Ask, Don't Tell. He wasn't in favor of lifting it, but once the word came down it's being lifted, he wanted the Marine Corps to step out sharply. On this one, he's been very strong against it for a long while. Wants to become even stronger. Has new procedures and new lectures and new emphasis. We'll see if it works.

ST. JOHN: And we'll keep an eye on it since for us here in San Diego, the Marine Corps is of particular interest.

[[[NEW SEGMENT]]].

ST. JOHN: You're listening to the KPBS Roundtable. Of I'm Alison St. John. As long as I can remember, there's been a debate over the cross on mount Soledad. Of the question is, does the presence of a large white cross on federal land constitute a violation of the establishment clause of the U.S. constitution? Though all the years of litigation, people used to say it'll have to be resolved by the Supreme Court. Well, now the case has made it to the Supreme Court and they refused to hear it. We'd like to hear your reaction. Do you have any creative solutions to this age-old legal battle? Tony, why did the Court not just step in and resolve it?

PERRY: A long time ago when I was at the Riverside paper, we had an issue that had been going on for so long, was so complex, and so inscrutable, when someone came in to get a job, they would give them all the clips and say hey, kid, write a story out of this. And it was undoable because it was so complex. Well, that involved a couple of bee keeper who is had had a feud. It did.

[ LAUGHTER ]

PERRY: And they poisoned each other's bees and married each other's wives and everything. It was a mess. Well, our bee dispute is the Soledad cross. 20 years, different litigants, up and down, state court, federal court. And in this case the Supreme Court said, well, maybe later. Go ask your mother. Now it comes back to the trial court here. The trial court which in 2008 said the cross can stay. Overturned by the 9th circuit in 2010, they said cross is an impermissible endorsement of religion. That court however did not say and it has to come down. No court wants to say that.

ST. JOHN: Ah, ha.

PERRY: Then it gets booted up to the supremes and they look at it and say say not today. Go back, work it out.

ST. JOHN: What are they waiting for?

PERRY: They're waiting for a final judgment. We have not had a final judgment. And it's hard to believe in all of these years, we've not had a final judgment of someone or someones that says it's this, and this is what it -- this is what must happen. Either it can stay or it has to come down.

ST. JOHN: Isn't every final judgment going to get appealed?

PERRY: Of course!

ST. JOHN: So is it possible to ever reach a final judgment?

PERRY: Oh, sure. Of I could see a final judgment being made by the appellate court, or excuse me, by the trial court down there in downtown San Diego. Then appealed to the 9th circuit up in San Francisco, then back again to the U.S. supreme. And we'll see what those nine folks, they might be different folks given the fact some of them are quite aged, see what they say. But all roads on this case go right back to downtown San Diego where the same judge, if he gets the case back, and the same judge who said cross can stay. We'll see what he says when the case comes back to him, because the appellate court said, and the Supreme Court repeated that maybe there's some sort of compromise that will allow the cross to pass constitutional muster.

ST. JOHN: So they're waiting for somebody to come up with a compromise?

PERRY: They're waiting for someone to split the baby that everyone is happy with. We've tried various stratagems down here before, including selling the land.

ST. JOHN: What happened to that?

PERRY: The Courts looked at that and said that wasn't a real sale. That was phony. It was so configured that only the folks that wanted to keep the cross there, nobody else got a real chance to buy.

ST. JOHN: Then they donated it to the federal government.

PERRY: They grabbed it in 2006, much to the delight of City Hall, which had paid hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal fees and was exhausted by the whole issue. Hey, the federal government took it over. So it's the Department of Justice with those deep pockets.

ST. JOHN: Is this one of the longest running cases in the nation over this particular question? Is it perhaps the epitome of the question?

PERRY: It could very well be. Great passions on both sides, good folks of good cheer on both sides. Everybody thinks they know what is best for both our city and this fat, happy country of ours, and they have to go to court to get an answer, and we don't have an answer yet.

ST. JOHN: Let's go to a call here. Go ahead, Ted.

NEW SPEAKER: Well, my backyard looks straight across the canyon at the cross. And religion seems to divide people more than bring them together. Why not use that space up there for a religious symbol from all the religions? And even let the atheists have their symbol, so a person could go to the top of the mountain, enjoy the view of the city, and learn about all the different religions? Maybe it would bring us closer together.

ST. JOHN: I like that idea. The problem with is that, does that have the same constitutional problem as a cross?

PERRY: Indeed, and the other religions, wonderful though they may be don't have anything can jet 43 feet up in the air.

FORD ROTH: The star of David.

PERRY: That would be one big star of David. Of

ST. JOHN: It would want

PERRY: There has been talk of that, and there has been talk also that really given those plaques, let's remember the thousand or so plaques for individual service members that are on the walls that circle the base of the cross, those are for any and all religions. There are folks from each religion, and that's notified on their plaque, and some of that has already been achieved.

FORD ROTH: I guess I'm being reminded of what's going on at Camp Pendleton right now, with the Camp Pendleton cross that was erected by veterans and a marine widow. The latest version this past veterans day. And I think it's right now in the hands of the Marine Corps out in Washington DC whether or not to decide to keep it. I'm not entirely clear because it's on military land that they are the ones deciding. Is there any way that this could be a precedent for that?

PERRY: It's really difficult. And I too am following that, and I too call every week and say how are we doing?

[ LAUGHTER ]

PERRY: And I'm told the lawyers are still looking at it. The Marine Corps lawyers, the Department of Defense lawyers, the Navy lawyers, the justice larceny. When you get lawyers involved, you're going to have a long dispute.

ST. JOHN: If they came to a conclusion on that case, would it affect it at all?

PERRY: No, because Pendleton is unique. It is not visible as the mount Soledad cross is, and it was clearly, clearly meant to memorialize three marines, among them, three marines who fell in combat. It's got a different sense. You may remember that mount Soledad, they have had to bootstrap the idea that it's a military memorial. Those plaques weren't there when it was put up in 1954. That is a sort of let's make it into something, and it has lapsed into legend that it's always been that way. It hasn't.

ST. JOHN: But a lot of veterans are very attached to it

PERRY: Oh, yes!

ST. JOHN: Kenny, do you have a take on this?

GOLDBERG: I have a ridiculous idea, which is to -- why don't you suspend the cross above the land, and then it's not sitting on the land! It's like the floatoppia out in the --

ST. JOHN: Okay!

[ LAUGHTER ]

ST. JOHN: That's great. Creative solutions. We'd like to hear yours. Any solutions for this age-old problem? We have Jerry on the line from Banker's Hill.

NEW SPEAKER: I just wanted to disagree with Tony Perry that it's not been one long interminable dispute with no solution. It was ruled on, wasn't it, by the state Supreme Court? It was found that the cross violated the state's separation of church and state, which was much stronger than the federal government's. So the city started it all over again by giving it to the federal government. And then we had to go through this whole thing again. Personally, I think that Christians tend to think of the cross as representing all the dead that's nondenominational, but if you're not Christian, it's just not true.

PERRY: In terms of the lawsuit, and again, remember the bee case where it's absolutely impossible to summarize, in terms of this case, if it were -- we were keeping score like a baseball game, the folks that believe the cross is impermissible and should be taken down have won most of the rounds. The folks that believe the cross should stay won an enormous round in 2008 when federal district judge Larry burns in San Diego said it can stay, that the cross in our culture has a cultural meaning that superseeds its specific religious meaning, believe that or not. Then we had a sense if it ever got to the U.S. Supreme Court that they would rule in favor of the cross. Anthony Kennedy seemed to give us that body language at some point. Didn't work out that way. So once again, we're at gentlemen, start your lawyers. It is unclear to me whether the U.S. Department of Justice which carried the ball for the cross backers in this, whether they're going to continue the fight. They may just throw in the towel and say, hey, enough with this stuff. They were slow to rise to defend the cross proponents in this latest round. They may decide to get out, at which case private groups will have to take up the fight, and they're ready to.

ST. JOHN: And they're each hoping the other one will run out of money and steam. So far it hasn't happened

PERRY: Nope.

ST. JOHN: Buddy from university city. Thanks for joining us.

NEW SPEAKER: Hi. My question is if the cross is not meant to represent a religious persuasion, then why not just substitute it and put a large statue of a soldier or one of the memorials like they do in Washington DC? Something that stands for war memorial yet it doesn't have a religious connotation?

ST. JOHN: I believe the veterans association that maintains it has even suggested that

PERRY: There have been suggestions like that. But don't forget, there are crosses that are legitimate war memorials and have held up in court all over the place, not to mention cemeteries, and I think the people to whom this is not just an academy exercise, but it goes right to the core of their being, are going to fight for a long time for that cross as it was erected in 1954, and as it stood for 25 years without dispute. Much of the dispute is should we grandfather in certain things which if they were being proposed today would not be permissible, but should they be grandfathered in? And the folks who believe that believe it very strongly. On the other hand, the other people say, yeah, that's a remanent from days when one religion seemed to dominate the others. It's almost a religious equivalent of a Jim Crowe law. You ought to move away from that and say we've Es volved, and we know that just emphasizing one religion is wrong. Good people on both sides of this thing banging their heads and sicking their lawyers on each other for a long time and probably for another 24 months or so.

ST. JOHN: I wanted to ask you to summarize, Beth, perhaps you can, the one more Supreme Court ruling that we haven't touched on that came down this week, which was a ruling on the stolen valor act.

FORD ROTH: It centered around this California man, Xavier Alvarez, who was on a California water board and told everyone that he was a decorated war veteran and won the medal of honor. He also told people he played hockey for the Detroit red wings and was ambassador to Iran during a crisis. He was a liar. He pled guilty to saying he won the medal of honor but kept the chance to appeal, and did all the way up to the Supreme Court, the Supreme Court decided that it was a freedom of speech issue, a first amendment issue, that you can be a liar but it's not illegal to be a liar.

ST. JOHN: Tony, does that mean there's going to be a lot more people walking around claiming that they were heroes?

PERRY: Justice Kennedy says we need to protect speech that we find Egregious as well as speech that we endorse. Of they also said that public ridicule in the media and elsewhere is a good tonic to stop folks like this.

ST. JOHN: Okay. Thank you so much.