Tag: department of justice

Department of Bias

The Department of Justice just invalidated a move by the residents of Kinston, North Carolina, to have non-partisan local elections. Rationale?

The Justice Department’s ruling, which affects races for City Council and mayor, went so far as to say partisan elections are needed so that black voters can elect their “candidates of choice” - identified by the department as those who are Democrats and almost exclusively black.

The department ruled that white voters in Kinston will vote for blacks only if they are Democrats and that therefore the city cannot get rid of party affiliations for local elections because that would violate black voters’ right to elect the candidates they want.

This, coming from the same Department of Justice officials that wouldn’t know a civil rights violation if it picked up a club and barred them access to a polling place.

Drug War Insanity Goes Up in Smoke

As my colleague David Rittgers notes below, the announcement by the Department of Justice that it will no longer seek to arrest medical marijuana users is a breakthrough for common sense in federal drug policy.

It is bizarre that it takes a major policy announcement to spell out what a waste of police and court time it is to investigate the ill people who use medical marijuana. Historians will surely look back on this period and ponder how our government could have seriously embraced the opposite policy, in the same way we look back at the strange days of alcohol prohibition.

The Obama administration should be taking much bolder steps to stop the criminalization of drug use more generally. More and more people have come to recognize that the drug war has been given a fair chance to work, but it has proved to be a grand failure.

Good News on Medical Marijuana

The Department of Justice is changing its long-standing policy of ignoring state laws that allow marijuana use for medicinal purposes. This federalism question played out several years ago in the Supreme Court in the Raich case; Cato’s amicus brief is available here.

Cato hosted Rob Kampia of the Marijuana Policy Project in March, and you can view the event here. Glenn Greenwald wrote an influential study for Cato on the successful decriminalization of drugs in Portugal. Greenwald notes that he gets more invitations to speak on the subject now than he did when it was published.

A good first step. Fourteen states permit medical marijuana dispensaries; I suspect more are on the way now that this hurdle has been cleared.

The Supreme Court Decision on NAMUDNO v. Holder

In the case of Northwest Austin Municipal District Number One (“NAMUDNO”) v. Holder, the Supreme Court issued a narrow decision today that avoided ruling on the constitutionality of Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act.

Section 5 requires any change in election administration in certain states and counties—mostly but not exclusively in the South—to be “precleared” by the Department of Justice in Washington. As I wrote earlier, this is a remnant of the Jim Crow era, and southern states’ massive resistance to attempts to enforce the 15th Amendment.

The ruling correctly allows a small utility district (and other political subdivisions) to seek relief—known as a “bailout”—from the 1965 Voting Rights Act’s onerous pre-clearance requirements. There is simply no reason for jurisdictions that have, at worst, gone decades without any voter intimidation or disenfranchisement—where the Act succeeded in stamping out or preventing racial discrimination—to continue to go before the Department of Justice for the most innocuous changes in state and municipal election procedures.

Here, for example, an electoral district that wasn’t even created until 1987 wants to move its polling locations from private garages to public schools, for ease of voting. Since Congress amended the Act in 1982, only 17 of 12,000 covered jurisdictions have been able to come out from under the thumb of federal oversight. Congress clearly never intended it to be so difficult to escape having to seek federal approval for such minor changes in election procedure.

This is one “bailout” that actually saves taxpayer money and makes common sense.

Unfortunately, the constitutionality of the Act’s Section 5—in the absence of the “exceptional conditions” the Court cited in 1966 as justifying “extraordinary legislation otherwise unfamiliar to our federal system”—remains in doubt. While it is a close call whether the Court need resolve that issue to dispose of the NAMUDNO case, Section 5’s validity as a matter of constitutional law and public policy is assuredly not a close call.

As Chief Justice Roberts notes in his majority opinion: “The evil that § 5 is meant to address may no longer be concentrated in the jurisdictions singled out for preclearance.”

Indeed, blatantly discriminatory evasions of federal decrees are exceedingly rare. Minority candidates run for and hold office at unprecedented rates—particularly in the South. The racial gap in voter registration—the primary concern of the VRA—is higher nationwide than it is in the covered states; in some covered states, blacks register and vote at higher rates than whites.

As Justice Thomas says in his partial dissent: “Admitting that a prophylactic law as broad as § 5 is no longer constitutionally justified based on current evidence of discrimination is not a sign of defeat. It is an acknowledgement of victory.”

More Politicization of the Department of Justice

At the last election, Democrats complained mightily of George Bush’s having politicized the Department of Justice: firing prosecutors, suborning legal memos justifying an expansion of executive power, etc., etc.  Well, it now seems at best that the pot was calling the kettle an abuser of power.

Early in the administration, when the DC Voting Rights Act last made the news cycle, it came out that newly confirmed AG Eric Holder sought a second opinion from the acting solicitor general when the Office of Legal Counsel affirmed its 45-year position that giving DC residents representation in Congress could not be done without amending the Constitution.  The bill is now stuck because of an amendment that was added to it relaxing the District’s strict – even after Heller – gun regulations, but this issue will resurface.

Now, in the most recent development in the “Is Hillary Clinton Constitutional?” saga the OLC reversed its own position from 1987 just in time for federal prosecutors to file a motion to dismiss a lawsuit challenging Clinton’s appointment that cites the new memo (see footnote 21).  Indeed, the motion was filed the same day Acting Assistant Attorney General David Barron – who had previously rebuffed Holder on the DC Voting Rights Act (though we still have to see what the next confirmed OLC head says, be that Dawn Johnsen or someone else) – signed the new OLC memo.

The issue is that Clinton’s appointment to the cabinet – as well as that of Interior Secretary Ken Salazar – violates the Emoluments (sometimes called Ineligibility) Clause of Article I, section 6 because both she and Salazar were sitting Senators when cabinet salaries were increased.  Congress later passed short laws reversing these raises for the duration of both officials’ tenures but, as I’ve argued previously – and as OLC head Chuck Cooper spelled out in the 1987 memo – there is no “net accounting” proviso which somehow erases the constitutional defect.  While the new memo relies heavily on historical practice – several presidents going back to William Howard Taft (most recently Bill Clinton in appointing Lloyd Bentsen to be Treasury Secretary) have proceeded in this manner – the fact that political branches have acted in a certain way doesn’t speak to the constitutionality of that action.

In short, again the Obama Justice Department has found a politically expedient way of dealing with pesky constitutional issues.  In this case, that way involved issuing a memo to buttress a motion being filed that very same day in federal court.

H/T: Tom Fitton of Judicial Watch, which is involved in the suit challenging Clinton’s appointment.

DoJ Fails to Report Electronic Surveillance Activities

Unlike with wiretaps, law enforcement agents are not required by federal statutes to obtain search warrants before employing pen registers or trap and trace devices. These devices record non-content information regarding telephone calls and Internet communications. (Of course, “non-content information” has quite a bit of content - who is talking to whom, how often, and for how long.)

The Electronic Privacy Information Center points out in a letter to Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-VT) that the Department of Justice has consistently failed to report on the use of pen registers and trap and trace devices as required by law:

The Electronic Communications Privacy Act requires the Attorney General to “annually report to Congress on the number of pen register orders and orders for trap and trace devices applied for by law enforcement agencies of the Department of Justice.” However, between 1999 and 2003, the Department of Justice failed to comply with this requirement. Instead, 1999-2003 data was provided to Congress in a single “document dump,” which submitted five years of reports in November 2004. In addition, when the 1999-2003 reports were finally provided to Congress, the documents failed to include all of the information that the Pen Register Act requires to be shared with lawmakers. The documents do not detail the offenses for which the pen register and trap and trace orders were obtained, as required by 18 U.S.C. § 3126(2). Furthermore, the documents do not identify the district or branch office of the agencies that submitted the pen register requests, information required by 18 U.S.C. § 3126(8).

EPIC has found no evidence that the Department of Justice provided annual pen register reports to Congress for 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, or 2008. “This failure would demonstrate ongoing, repeated breaches of the DOJ’s statutory obligations to inform the public and the Congress about the use of electronic surveillance authority,” they say.

It’s a good bet, when government powers are used without oversight, that they will be abused. Kudos to EPIC for pressing this issue. Senator Leahy’s Judiciary Committee should ensure that DoJ completes reporting on past years and that it reports regularly, in full, from here forward.

Blogging from the Supreme Court - NAMUDNO v. Holder

I write this from the Bar Members’ line waiting to be let into the Supreme Court courtroom for the final argument of the term.

Today the Court hears Northwest Austin Municipal Utility District No.1 (“NAMUDNO”) v. Holder. This is a challenge to the controversial Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, which requires, among other things, any change in election administration in certain states and counties to be “precleared” by the Department of Justice in Washington. This is, of course, a remnant of the Jim Crow era, and southern states’ massive resistance to attempts to enforce the 15th Amendment.

In 1965, Congress included Section 5 – which would otherwise be an unconstitutional infringement on peoples’ right to run their own elections locally – as a temporary remedy to an emergency situation. The section has been amended and extended several times (e.g., to add linguistic minorities, Pacific Islanders, etc.), most recently in 2006. But in this last renewal, Congress, despite introducing more than 15,000 pages into the record, failed to even allege the existence of the type of systemic voting discrimination as existed in the 1960s – because, of course, it doesn’t exist any more, and other parts of the VRA exist to cover specific discriminatory incidents.

Accordingly, a small utility district in Austin, Texas, contests Section 5’s continuing validity (if it cannot escape the section’s clutches via a confusing and little-used “bailout” provision). Specifically, NAMUDNO wants to change the location of its polling station to a public garage (from a less convenient location) – a move that obviously lacks discriminatory intent, and showcases the minutiae that the DOJ now has to micromanage.

Cato legal scholars support NAMUDNO’s challenge because, barring the widespread systemic unconstitutional actions of the Civil Rights Era, Section 5 violates our most basic principles of self-government and federalism, and is emblematic of governmental overreach.