Tag: bill of rights

Democrats, Kagan, and the Second Amendment

Today Politico Arena asks:

What are the political implications for Democrats and for the Kagan hearings of today’s Supreme Court gun decision?

My response:

The Supreme Court’s decision today that the Second Amendment applies against the states cannot be helpful to Democrats in the upcoming elections or to Elena Kagan in her confirmation hearings. Most Court-watchers expected the decision to come out as it did, yet the dissent by the Court’s four liberals speaks volumes. How could other rights in the Bill of Rights be good against the states, but not this right? Given the quality of their argument, the conclusion that the Court’s liberals are picking and choosing their rights on political grounds is inescapable.

And that issue will arise in the Kagan hearings, given some of her past statements about the Second Amendment. Will it block her confirmation? Probably not, given the numbers. But the discussion should illuminate the issue for the voters, and that’s good.

Citizen Shahzad

Two smart guys on opposite sides of the political spectrum have sound points about the treatment of suspected Times Square bomber Faisal Shahzad.  First, Orin Kerr points out that investigators have some flexibility in determining when and whether to read Miranda rights.  In this case, they refrained initially and questioned Shahzad for a while under the public safety exception. And despite the apparent belief of the perpetually terrorized that Miranda warnings are some kind of magical incantation that causes the cone of silence to descend upon blabbermouths, they determined that he would probably continue cooperating even after being Mirandized. But as Kerr points out, they could have proceeded sans Miranda had that seemed necessary—provided they were willing to waive the ability to introduce Shahzad’s confession at trial. Given that there appears to be plenty of other evidence against him, that might well have been a viable option.

Either way, this surely seems like the kind of judgment call best left to the investigators on the scene, not Monday morning quarterbacks in Congress like Rep. Peter King (R-NY) who gave us this priceless reaction:

“Did they Mirandize him? I know he’s an American citizen but still,” King said.

Putting aside that nauseating “but still,” does King really imagine that he possesses some deep insight into the pernicious effect of Miranda warnings that the agents on the ground lacked? Again, Shahzad is apparently still cooperating—maybe they knew what they were doing.

From Steve Benen, meanwhile, we have one of many posts around the blogosphere pointing out the incoherence of a cowardly proposal mooted by Joe Lieberman (I-CT) that would revoke the citizenship of Americans who join foreign terror groups.  The blindingly obvious question: By what process do we determine that a suspected member of a foreign terror group is really a member of a foreign terror group?   As Glenn Greenwald writes, there’s not much point to having a Bill of Rights if the government gets to revoke those rights at its whim. But no, Lieberman wants to assure us that suspects would have a right to challenge the revocation of their citizenship in a court—a civilian court, one hopes. Except giving material support to a foreign terror groups is, in fact, a crime.  If there’s enough evidence to persuade a court of law that someone is a member of such a group—congratulations, there’s enough evidence to convict them in the civilian system as well! It’s heartening that there doesn’t seem to be a great deal of support for this odious proposal, but depressing that a sitting senator would treat the rights of citizenship so lightly for the sake of a vapid, strutting display of “toughness.”

Democracy against Free Speech?

A new poll from Washington Post/ABC News poll shows that most respondents oppose the recent Citizens United decision by the U.S. Supreme Court. Just over 70 percent of those polled want to reinstate the unconstitutional restrictions. The questions asked may be found here.

Sean Parnell asks whether the wording of the questions in this poll drove the results. William McGinley shares Parnell’s concerns and suggests some alternative questions for future polling.

I was not surprised by the result. Polls have long found that substantial majorities support something called “campaign finance reform.” Over two years ago, a poll found that 71 percent of Americans wanted to limit corporate and union spending on campaigns. 62 percent also supported limiting the amount of money a person could give to their own campaign, even though such donations could not involve the possibility of corruption. (This desire to restrict self-funding, by the way, has been patently unconstitutional for over thirty years).

The history of public opinion also should be kept in mind. Fifty years ago, when mass polling started, researchers found that the public both supported and opposed the First Amendment. Surveys found overwhelming support for “the First Amendment” and other abstractions like “the Bill of Rights.” They also frequently detected less than majority support for actual applications of the First Amendment and the Bill of Rights. Majorities opposed, for example, permitting Communists or other disfavored groups to speak at a local school.

Not much has changed over the years. In 2007, a survey funded by the First Amendment Center reported the following opinions related to First Amendment freedoms:

  • Only 56 percent believe that the freedom to worship as one chooses extends to all religious groups;
  • 50 percent agree “A public school teacher should be allowed to use the Bible as a factual text in a history or social studies class.”
  • 58 percent of Americans would prevent protests during a funeral procession, even on public streets and sidewalks;
  • 74 percent would prevent public school students from wearing a T-shirt with a slogan that might offend others;
  • majorities thought “the government should be allowed to require television and radio  broadcasters to offer an equal allotment of time to conservative and liberal commentators.”
  • That same poll also revealed that 66 percent of the public thought “the right to speak freely about whatever you want” was essential. Moreover, 74 percent found “the right to practice the religion of your choice” to be essential.

In the abstract, Americans continue to support First Amendment freedoms. In concrete cases, majorities still often oppose the exercise of such freedoms. Citizens United vindicated the First Amendment in a specific case that a majority does not support. This gulf between principle and application has been and continues to be common among Americans.

These findings suggest two thoughts. Liberals are now saying Citizens United should be undone because majorities oppose the decision. The principle that First Amendment rights should be overturned by majority sentiment may not please liberals in the future. Freedom of religion, in particular, attracts minority support in many concrete applications.

The more important lesson here involves an often ignored truth: the U.S. Constitution does not establish a government through which a majority can do anything it likes. The Bill of Rights marks a limit on political power even if a majority controls the government. (James Madison might have said especially if a majority controls the government). We have a Supreme Court to enforce those limits against government officials and against majorities. In Citizens United, the Court finally did what it should have done: protecting unpopular groups from the heavy hand of the censor. The fact that a majority favored and favors giving unchecked power to the censor matters not at all.

Bill of Rights Day

Since today is Bill of Rights Day, it seems like an appropriate time to pause and consider the condition of the safeguards set forth in our fundamental legal charter.

Let’s consider each amendment in turn.

The First Amendment says that Congress “shall make no law … abridging the freedom of speech.” Government officials, however, insist that they can make it a crime to mention the name of a political candidate in an ad in the weeks preceding an election. They also insist upon gag orders in thousands of federal investigations.

The Second Amendment says the people have the right “to keep and bear arms.” Government officials, however, insist that they can make it a crime to keep and bear arms.

The Third Amendment says soldiers may not be quartered in our homes without the consent of the owners. This safeguard is doing so well that we can pause here for a laugh.

The Fourth Amendment says the people have the right to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures. Government officials, however, insist that they can storm into homes in the middle of the night after giving residents a few seconds to answer their “knock” on the door.

The Fifth Amendment says that private property shall not be taken “for a public use without just compensation.” Government officials, however, insist that they can take away our property and give it to others who covet it.

The Sixth Amendment says that in criminal prosecutions, the person accused shall enjoy a speedy trial, a public trial, and an impartial jury trial. Government officials, however, insist that they can punish people who want to have a trial. That is why 95% of the criminal cases never go to trial. The handful of cases that do go to trial are the ones you see on television — the late Michael Jackson and Scott Peterson, etc.

The Seventh Amendment says that jury trials are guaranteed even in petty civil cases where the controversy exceeds “twenty dollars.” Government officials, however, insist that they can impose draconian fines against people without jury trials. (See “Seventh Amendment Right to Jury Trial in Nonarticle III Proceedings: A Study in Dysfunctional Constitutional Theory,” 4 William and Mary Bill of Rights Journal 407 (1995)).

The Eighth Amendment prohibits cruel and unusual punishments. Government officials, however, insist that jailing people who try in ingest a life-saving drug is not cruel.

The Ninth Amendment says that the enumeration in the Constitution of certain rights should not be construed to deny or disparage others “retained by the people.” Government officials, however, insist that they will decide for themselves what rights, if any, will be retained by the people.

The Tenth Amendment says that the powers not delegated to the federal government are to be reserved to the states, or to the people. Government officials, however, insist that they will decide for themselves what powers are reserved to the states, or to the people.

It’s a depressing snapshot, to be sure, but I submit that the Framers of the Constitution would not have been surprised by the relentless attempts by government to expand its sphere of control. The Framers themselves would often refer to written constitutions as mere “parchment barriers” or what we would describe as “paper tigers.” They nevertheless concluded that putting safeguards down on paper was better than having nothing at all. And lest we forget, that’s what millions of people around the world have — nothing at all.

Another important point to remember is that while we ought to be alarmed by the various ways in which the government is attempting to go under, over, and around our Bill of Rights, the battle will never be “won.” The price of liberty is eternal vigilance. To remind our fellow citizens of their responsibility in that regard, the Cato Institute has distributed more than three million copies of our “Pocket Constitution.” At this time of year, it’ll make a good stocking stuffer. Each year we send a bunch of complimentary copies to the White House, Congress, and the Supreme Court so you won’t have to.

Finally, to keep perspective, we should also take note of the many positive developments we’ve experienced in America over the years. And for some positive overall trends, go here.

Hurting the Sick Is Not Good Politics

I was glad to see James Pinkerton engage my criticism of Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal’s (R) endorsement of federal price controls for health insurance.  I was even more pleased to see that Pinkerton has his own blog devoted to developing a Serious Medicine Strategy.

If I understand Pinkerton, his argument is essentially: it’s all well and good for some unelectable wonk in the “citadel of libertarian thinking” to “uphold ivory-tower free-market purity” by opposing price controls.  But Republicans need “art-of-the-possible solutions” to win elections, and 90 percent of the public support those price controls.  “Everyone has a right to his or her principled position,” Pinkerton writes, “but the majority has rights, too.”

Two problems.

First, Pinkerton suggests that libertarians oppose price controls for reasons that only matter to libertarians, and therefore may be safely ignored.  Problem is, price controls hurt people.  Were Pinkerton to explore the merits of Jindal’s proposal, he would soon conclude that imposing price controls on health insurance taxes the healthy, reduces everyone’s health insurance choices, and creates even greater incentives for insurers to shortchange the sick.  (Turns out that what Larry Summers said about price controls applies to health insurance, too.)  As John Cochrane explains, those price controls also block innovative products that would provide more financial security and better medical care to the sick.

But Pinkerton’s advice for Republicans is, essentially: “Do what’s popular now, even if it hurts people and voters end up blaming Republicans for it later.”  How is that a good strategy?

Second is this idea that “the majority has rights.”  Majorities don’t have rights.  Individuals have rights.  For example, you have the right to negotiate the terms of your health insurance contract with the individuals at this or that insurance company.  Majorities may attain power, but that’s the opposite of rights.  (See the Bill of Rights.)

Finally, a couple of important odds and ends.  Pinkerton suggests it is “un-libertarian” to be “pro-life,” or to “support the police, the military, and other upholders of public order,” or to “support government restrictions on…euthanasia.”  Writing from the “citadel of libertarian thinking,” I can assure him he is wrong.  Might I suggest Pinkerton read the relevant chapters from The Encyclopedia of Libertarianism?  (The health care chapter is a page-turner!)  Also, I did not “denounce Jindal” any more than Pinkerton denounced me.  I criticized his ideas, and I respect the man.

(Cross-posted at Politico’s Health Care Arena.)

Supremes Take Gun Rights Issue Nationwide

Supreme CourtWith its decision today to hear the case of McDonald v. Chicago, the Supreme Court should settle the question of whether states must recognize the Second Amendment right to keep and bear arms. In June of 2008, in District of Columbia v. Heller, the Court found, for the first time, that the federal government must recognize the Second Amendment right of individuals, quite apart from their belonging to a militia, to have an operational firearm in their home. But the decision left open the question whether states were similarly bound.

Thus, the so-called incorporation doctrine will be at issue in this case – the question of whether the Fourteenth Amendment “incorporates” the guarantees of the Bill of Rights against the states. The Bill of Rights applied originally only against the federal government. But the Fourteenth Amendment, ratified in 1868, left open the question of which rights states were bound to recognize. The modern Court has incorporated most of the rights found in the Bill of Rights, but the Second Amendment’s guarantees have yet to be incorporated.

Moreover, a question that will arise in this case is whether the Court, if it does decide that the states are bound by the Second Amendment, will reach that conclusion under the Fourteenth Amendment’s Due Process Clause or under its Privileges or Immunities Clause, which has been moribund since the infamous Slaughterhouse Cases of 1873. In its brief urging the Court to hear the McDonald petition, the Cato Institute urged the Court to revive the Privileges or Immunities Clause.

Barnett on the Supreme Court Confirmation Hearing

Cato senior fellow Randy Barnett has a piece in the Wall Street Journal on the Senate’s confirmation hearing for Obama’s nominee to the Supreme Court.  Excerpt:

Supreme Court confirmation hearings do not have to be about either results or nothing. They could be about clauses, not cases. Instead of asking nominees how they would decide particular cases, ask them to explain what they think the various clauses of the Constitution mean. Does the Second Amendment protect an individual right to arms? What was the original meaning of the Privileges or Immunities Clause of the 14th Amendment? (Hint: It included an individual right to arms.) Does the 14th Amendment “incorporate” the Bill of Rights and, if so, how and why? Does the Ninth Amendment protect judicially enforceable unenumerated rights? Does the Necessary and Proper Clause delegate unlimited discretion to Congress? Where in the text of the Constitution is the so-called Spending Power (by which Congress claims the power to spend tax revenue on anything it wants) and does it have any enforceable limits?

Read the whole thing.