Archives: April, 2014

Virginia Is for Gay Lovers Too!

In an attempt to prove that Virginia is indeed for lovers, two couples have recently gone to federal court to get their marriages recognized in their home state. One of the couples has been together for more than 20 years and the other got married in California and have a teenage daughter together, yet the Commonwealth of Virginia will not recognize their marriages because the couples are—you guessed it—same-sex.

These couples don’t see why their sexual orientation should keep them from enjoying the equal right to marry a partner of their choice, so they filed suit in federal district court to challenge the Virginia’s anti-gay-marriage state constitutional amendment. They argued that the provision violates both equal protection and the fundamental right to marriage, as protected by the Fourteenth Amendment. This February, the district court agreed with them, and now they’re defending that ruling before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit.

Following on the heels of last term’s Supreme Court ruling in United States v. Windsor—which struck down the part of the Defense of Marriage Act that denied federal benefits to lawfully married same-sex couples—this case adds Virginia to the list of states (which now includes Utah, Oklahoma, Texas, Kentucky, Michigan, and Ohio, and seems to grow with each passing week) that have the constitutionality of their marriage laws before a federal appeals court. 

Reprising our collaboration in Perry v. Hollingsworth—the California Prop 8 case in which the Supreme Court avoided ruling on the merits—and the Tenth Circuit gay marriage cases Kitchen v. Herbert and Bishop v. Smith, Cato and the Constitutional Accountability Center have filed a brief supporting the plaintiffs’ fight for equality under the law in the Old Dominion. We argue that the Fourteenth Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause protects against the arbitrary and invidious singling-out that the Virginia gay marriage ban effects, that the clause’s original meaning confirms that its protections are to be interpreted broadly, and that the clause provides every person the equal right to marry a person of his or her choice.

We believe that the Virginia constitutional amendment conflicts with the equal rights of those same-sex couples whose unions are treated differently than those of opposite-sex couples. To the extent that states recognize marriage, every person has the right to choose whom to marry and to have that decision respected equally by the state in which they live.

Especially in the wake of Windsor, it is becoming clearer that laws that force same-sex unions into second-class status have no place in a free society. After the Fourth Circuit hears argument in Bostic v. Rainey later this spring, it should affirm the district court’s decision.

TV Broadcasters Should Have Same Rights As Everyone Else

Remember broadcast television? Amid the avalanche of new streaming services, DVRs, and Rokus, not to mention cable TV, some people may have forgotten—or, if they’re under 25, never known—that there are TV shows in the air that can be captured with an antenna. The Supreme Court certainly hasn’t forgotten, given that it maintains an outdated rule that broadcast TV gets less First Amendment protection than cable, video-on-demand, or almost anything else–a rule dating to the 1969 case of Red Lion Broadcasting Co. v. FCC.

That lower standard of protection comes from the belief that the broadcast-frequency spectrum is scarce, and thus that the Federal Communications Commission is properly charged with licensing the spectrum for the public “interest, convenience, and necessity.” But if newspapers or magazines were similarly licensed, the First Amendment violation would be obvious to all but the most hardened censor.

Hence the case of Minority Television Project v. FCC. Minority Television Project is an independent, noncommercial license-holding TV station in San Francisco. Unlike most noncommercial license holders, Minority TV receives no PBS money. Because it’s an over-the-air broadcaster, however, it must comply with the restrictions placed on the licenses by Congress and the FCC, including prohibitions on paid commercials and political ads. Minority TV challenged these restrictions as violating the First Amendment.

Applying Red Lion’s lower First Amendment standard, the district court, a panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit, and even the en banc Ninth Circuit (11 judges rather than the usual 3) all ruled against Minority TV. On petition for certiorari to the Supreme Court, Minority TV argues that Red Lion’s rationale for reducing broadcasters’ rights is outdated and should be overruled.

Cato has filed an amicus brief in support of Minority TV, agreeing that it’s time to give broadcast TV full First Amendment protection. Just as we argued in 2011’s FCC v. Fox Television Stations—where the Court chose to evade the question—it’s time to update our law to fit current realities. The way that people consume information and entertainment has changed dramatically since 1969. Rather than three broadcast networks, we have hundreds of channels of various kinds, and increasingly people are forgoing traditional TV altogether. The FCC can still license broadcasters—that system isn’t going away anytime soon regardless of the next mind-boggling innovation—but the conditions it places on those licenses have to satisfy strict First Amendment scrutiny, especially when they pertain to political speech.

The Supreme Court should take this case in order to update its treatment of broadcasters’ speech rights, including a requirement that the government offer a truly compelling justification any time it wants to restrict them. 

Copyright on the (Cato) Docket May 7th

This week, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office and the National Telecommunications and Information Administration announced four upcoming hearings on issues raised in the Department of Commerce Internet Policy Task Force’s July 2013 paper, “Copyright Policy, Creativity, and Innovation in the Digital Economy.” The hearings will be held in or near Nashville, Boston, Los Angeles, and San Francisco in May, June, and July.

Cato will host its own hearing early next month on Tom W. Bell’s new book Intellectual Privilege. That event will occur May 7th at the Cato Institute in Washington, D.C.

In the book, Bell treats copyright as a statutory privilege that threatens not just constitutional rights, but natural rights, too. He argues for a new libertarian view of copyright that reconciles the desire to create incentives for creators with our inalienable liberties. Bell’s vision is of a world less encumbered by legal restrictions and yet richer in art, music, and other expressive works.

Register now for what is sure to be a lively discussion of this perennially interesting issue on May 7th!

Judge Rebukes Labor Department Over Shoddy Case

It seems every week or two another federal agency gets smacked down in court for trampling the rights of regulated parties in enforcement litigation. This week it’s the Labor Department’s turn:

The U.S. Department of Labor must pay more than $565,000 in attorney fees to an oilfield services company it accused of wage-and-hour violations totaling more than $6 million, a federal judge has ruled….

Officials, who opened their investigation in 2010, alleged the business [Texas-based Gate Guard Services, LLC] improperly classified 400 gate attendants as independent contractors.

The agency would have learned that the guards weren’t employees had it talked to more than just a few of them, [federal judge John] Rainey wrote in a 24-page order. Because the probe was not “substantially justified,” Gate Guard was entitled to recover its attorney fees, he said.

“The DOL failed to act in a reasonable manner both before and during the course of this litigation,” Rainey wrote.

Goaded by labor unions and other interested parties, the Obama Labor Department has made wage-and-hour law a big priority, with the President himself pushing the law into new ways of overriding private contractual choice. As for the overzealous enforcement, it’s coming to look less like inadvertence and more like systematic Administration policy.  Last year we noted an Eleventh Circuit decision rebuffing as “absurd” a Labor Department claim of authority regarding the H-2B guest worker program. The pattern extends to agency after agency, from the EPA (ordered to pay a Louisiana plant manager $1.7 million on a claim that hardly ever succeeds for defendants, malicious prosecution), to white-collar enforcement, to a series of Justice Department prosecutions under the Foreign Corrupt Practices Act. 

Probably the agency to suffer the most humiliating reversals is the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, nominally independent but in fact reshaped in recent years into a hyperactive version of its already problematic self. You can read here about some of the beatings the EEOC has taken in court in recent years, including a case last summer where the federal judge dismissed the commission’s lawsuit over a Maryland company’s use of criminal and credit background checks using words like “laughable,” “unreliable,” and “mind-boggling.” And just last week, as reported in this space, the Sixth Circuit memorably slapped around the commission’s amateurish use of expert testimony in another credit-check case, this time against the Kaplan education firm. As I noted at Overlawyered

The Sixth Circuit has actually been one of the EEOC’s better circuits in recent years. For example, it reversed a Michigan federal judge who in 2011 had awarded $2.6 million in attorneys’ fees to Cintas, the employee-uniform company, and reinstated the lawsuit. In doing so, the appellate panel nullified what had been the lower court’s findings of “egregious and unreasonable conduct” by the agency, including a “reckless sue first, ask questions later strategy.” The commission hailed the reversal as one of its big legal wins — although when one of your big boasts is getting $2.6 million in sanctions against you thrown out, it might be that you don’t have much to brag about….

If you wonder why the commission persists in its extreme aggressiveness anyway, one answer may be that the strategy works: most defendants settle, and the commission hauled in a record $372 million in settlements last year. 

 Perhaps it is time for defendants to start settling less often.

 

Making an International Deal: Iran Should Stop Persecuting Religious Minorities

Nuclear negotiations with Iran continue in Vienna.  Skeptics remain many:  everything depends on whether the ruling elite, and not just President Hassan Rouhani, is serious about reform.  Iran should demonstrate its commitment by respecting religious liberty.

The most celebrated case of persecution today is Saeed Abedini, an American citizen born in Iran and sentenced to eight years in prison last year for “undermining national security” by the Iranian government.

A Muslim convert to Christianity, his “crime” in Tehran’s view apparently was aiding house churches.  He went to Iran in 2012 to set up an orphanage, with the government’s approval.  Since then he was abused and tortured while held at two of Iran’s worst prisons. 

Unfortunately, Abedini represents far broader religious repression.  The U.S. Commission on International Religious Freedom has routinely labeled Tehran as a Country as Particular Concern.  The Commission’s 2013 report concluded:  “The government of Iran continues to engage in systematic, ongoing, and egregious violations of religious freedom, including prolonged detention, torture, and executions based primarily or entirely upon the religion of the accused.” 

Tehran’s brutal persecution has been getting worse.  The State Department reported that violations of religious liberty increased again 2012, as Tehran increasingly was “charging religious and ethnic minorities with moharebeh (enmity against God), ‘anti-Islamic propaganda,’ or vague national security crimes for their religious activities.” 

Currently the regime appears to be most concerned about conversions.  Christians traditionally were minorities, especially Armenians and Assyrians, who speak a different language.  However, HRWF reported that charges against those arrested last year included “conversion from Islam to Christianity, encouraging the conversion to Christianity of other Muslims, and propaganda against the regime by promoting Christianity as missionaries.” 

Iran is a theocratic state whose laws are to be based on “Islamic criteria.”  The constitution formally accords “full respect” to Christians, Jews, and Zoroastrians, who are allowed to worship “within the limits of the law.”  Proselytizing and converting are barred, however.  Moreover, according to the State Department, Jews are “regularly vilified” and the government “regularly arrests members of the Zoroastrian and Christian communities for practicing their religion.” 

Worse is the treatment of other groups, such as Baha’is and other Muslims, including Sufis, Sunnis, and non-conformist Shia.  All are considered to some degree to be apostates.  Explained State, “The government prohibits Baha’is from teaching and practicing their faith and subjects them to many forms of discrimination not faced by members of other religions groups.”  Sunnis face double jeopardy since many are ethnic minorities, such as Arabs and Kurds. 

Government hostility encourages private discrimination as well.  Said State:  “The government’s campaign against non-Shias created an atmosphere of impunity allowing other elements of society to harass religious minorities.” 

The U.S. government has little direct leverage, having already targeted Tehran with economic sanctions over its presumed nuclear ambitions.  However, Washington (and the Europeans) could indicate to Iran that a deal is more likely if it quiets Western skeptics.

In fact, public pressure works.  The UN’s Ahmed Shaheed reported last year that “At least a dozen lives were saved because of the intervention of international opinion.”  Encouraging Tehran to respect the freedom of conscience of its citizens might even more effectively come from the most fervent advocates of engagement, who are resisting proposals for new Western sanctions. 

As I conclude my latest article in American Spectator online:  “Tehran should release Rev. Abedini, pardon imprisoned Baha’is, allow Sufis and Sunnis to worship, and more.  ‘The international community is watching,’ observed Dwight Bashir, deputy director of USCIRF.  Iran should act accordingly.”

The Zombie National ID

Like some sort of zombie from a 1950s B-movie, the REAL ID Act shambles forward, awaiting the day when some national emergency can bring it back to life.

In the District of Columbia, the city government has announced that they will begin to issue REAL ID compliant driver’s licenses from May 1, 2014 onwards. The city’s “REAL ID Credential” page sings every note in the pro-national-ID song book. It says that REAL ID is “not a national identification card,” a claim debunked on this blog long ago. It also says that REAL ID will help “inhibit terrorists’ ability to evade detection by using fraudulent identification.” That’s true, as far as it goes. But inconveniencing wrongdoers this way provides a tiny sliver of security compared to the costs in dollars and privacy, not to mention the inconvenience about to be visited on D.C. residents.

The D.C. government says that the change is being made “to ensure our residents will have access to federal facilities and the ability to board airplanes.” Never mind that the federal government has caved over and over again after threatening to disrupt air travel. D.C. plans to put all 540,000 or so licensed drivers into the national ID system over the next few years, including many federal policymakers.

In Louisiana, meanwhile, state legislators have advanced a bill to repeal the state’s 2008 ban on participation in the REAL ID program. The bill’s proponents also say that they must put Louisianans into the national ID system or they won’t be able to fly. Again, the federal government will never cut off Americans’ right to travel because they live in states that don’t comply with REAL ID. It’s been threatened over and over again, and the federal government always backs down.

But there may yet be a stake that goes through the heart of the national ID program. A bill to repeal REAL ID has been introduced in both the House and Senate. H.R. 4073, introduced by Rep. Steve Daines (R) of Montana, and S.2121, introduced by Daines’ rival in the current Montana Senate race, Sen. John Walsh (D), both would repeal the REAL ID Act.

It is refreshing to see some pushback against REAL ID during the current Congress. But is it enough to kill the zombie national ID?

 

Washington’s Inconsistent Stance on Territorial Integrity

U.S. officials scarcely miss any opportunity to denounce Russia for severing Crimea from Ukraine and then annexing the peninsula. Yet Washington’s own track record regarding respect for the sovereignty and territorial integrity of countries is inconsistent, to say the least. Critics have noted that the position the United States and its NATO allies adopted toward the issue of Kosovo is at sharp variance with the current denunciation of Moscow’s conduct in Crimea. Not only did NATO launch an air war against Serbia to detach one of its provinces in 1999, but it proceeded to encourage and defend Kosovo’s subsequent unilateral declaration of independence in 2008 from what had become a fully democratic Serbia. 

The insistence of U.S. officials that the Kosovo situation was unique and, therefore, did not set any precedent, barely passed the laugh test. Russia explicitly cited Western policy in Kosovo for its own actions in Georgia, detaching two of that country’s secessionist-minded territories, South Ossetia and Abkhazia, later in 2008. More recent efforts by staunch critics of Russia’s amputation of Crimea to argue that Western actions in Kosovo were entirely different are scarcely more credible than Washington’s original justifications. The reality is that the Kosovo, Georgia, and Crimea episodes were all acts of aggression.

Cyprus is another case that undermines Washington’s professed reverence for the territorial integrity of nations. NATO ally Turkey invaded the island in 1974 and proceeded to occupy the northern 37 percent of Cypriot territory. At the very least, the U.S. government looked the other way while its ally committed a blatant act of territorial theft. And a provocative new book, Kissinger and Cyprus: A Study in Lawlessness, by former Nixon Administration official Eugene Rossides, makes a solid case that the administration aided and abetted Ankara’s aggression.