Tag: due process

Accountability for ‘Exigent Letter’ Abuse At Last?

It is more than three years since the Office of the Inspector General first brought public attention to the FBI’s systematic misuse of the National Security Letter statutes to issue fictitious “exigent letters” and obtain telecommunications records without due process. Nobody at the Bureau has been fined, or even disciplined, for  this systematic lawbreaking and the efforts to conceal it. But the bipartisan outrage expressed at a subcommittee hearing of the House Judiciary Committee this morning hints that Congress may be running out of patience—and looking for some highly-placed heads to roll. Just to refresh, Committee Chairman John Conyers summarized the main abuses in an opening statement:

The IG found that more than 700 times, such information was obtained about more than 2,000 phone numbers by so-called“exigent letters” from FBI personnel. In some cases, the IG concluded, FBI agents sent the letters even though they believed that factual information in the letters was false. For more than 3,500 phone numbers, the call information was extracted without even a letter, but instead by e‐mail, requests on a post‐it note, or “sneak peaks” of telephone company computer screens or other records…. In one case, the FBI actually obtained phone records of Washington Post and New York Times reporters and kept them in a database, leading to an IG conclusion of “serious abuse” of FBI authority and an FBI public apology.

It’s probably actually worse than that: Since these letters often requested a “community of interest” analysis for targeted numbers, the privacy of many people beyond the nominal targets may have been implicated—though it’s hard to be sure, since the IG report redacts almost all details about this CoI mapping.

And as Rep. Jerry Nadler pointed out, the IG report suggests a “clear pattern here of deliberate evasion,” rather than the innocent oversight the Bureau keeps pleading.  Both Nadler and the Republican ex-chair of the committee, Rep. James Sensenbrenner, expressed frustration at their sense that, when the FBI had failed to win legislative approval for all the powers on its wish list, it had simply ignored lawful process, seizing by fiat what Congress had refused to grant. Sensenbrenner, one of the authors of the Patriot Act, even declared that he felt “betrayed.” But we’ve heard similar rhetoric before. It was the following suggestion from Conyers (from my notes, but pretty near verbatim) that really raised an eyebrow:

There must be further investigation as to who and why and how somebody in the Federal Bureau of Investigation could invent a practice and have allowed it to have gone on for three consecutive years.  I propose and hope that this committee and its leadership will join me, because I think there may be grounds for removal of the general counsel of the FBI.

That would be Valerie Caproni, one of the hearing’s two witnesses, and an executive-level official whose dismissal would be the first hint of an administration response commensurate with the gravity of the violations that occurred. Caproni’s testimony, consistent with previous performances, was an awkward effort to simultaneously minimize the seriousness of FBI’s abuses—she is fond of saying “flawed” when le mot juste is “illegal”—and also to assure legislators that the Bureau was treating it with the utmost seriousness already. Sensenbrenner appeared unpersuaded, at one point barking in obvious irritation: “I don’t think you’re getting the message; will you get the message today?” The Republican also seemed to indirectly echo Conyers’ warning, declaring himself “not unsympathetic” to the incredulous chairman’s indictment of her office. Of course, the FBI has it’s own Office of Professional Responsibility which is supposed to be in charge of holding agents and officials accountable for malfeasance, but apparently the wheels there are still grinding along.

It’s also worth noting that Inspector General Glenn Fine, who also testified, specifically urged Congress to look into a secret memo issued in January by the Office of Legal Counsel, apparently deploying some novel legal theory to conclude that many of the call records obtained by the FBI were not covered by federal privacy statutes after all. This stood out just because my impression is that OIG usually limits itself to straight reporting and leaves it to Congress to judge what merits investigation, suggesting heightened concern about the potential scope of the ruling, despite FBI’s pledge not to avail itself of this novel legal logic without apprising its oversight committees. Alas, the details here are classified, but Caproni did at one point in her testimony conclude that “disclosure of approximately half of the records at issue was not forbidden by ECPA and/or was
connected to a clear emergency situation.”  There were 4,400 improperly obtained “records at issue” in the FBI’s internal review, of which about 150 were ultimately retained on the grounds that they would have qualified for the emergency exception in the Electronic Communications Privacy Act.  Since that tally didn’t include qualifying records for which legitimate process had nevertheless been issued at some point, the number of “real” emergencies is probably slightly higher, but that still suggests that the “half” Caproni alludes to are mostly in the “disclosure…not forbidden by ECPA” category.  Since ECPA is fairly comprehensive when it comes to telecom subscriber records—or at least, so we all thought until recently—we have to assume she means that these are the types of records the OLC opinion has removed from FISA’s protection. If those inferences are correct, and the new OLC exception covers nearly half of the call detail records FBI obtains, that would not constitute a “loophole” in federal electronic privacy law so much as its evisceration.

Of course, it’s possible that the specific nature of the exception would allay civil libertarian fears. What’s really intolerable in a democratic society is that we don’t know. Operational facts about specific investigations, and even specific investigatory techniques, are rightly classified. But an interpretation of a public statute so significant as to potentially halve its apparent protections cannot be kept secret without making a farce of the rule of law.

Scalia Can No Longer Call Himself an Originalist

As I blogged last week, the Supreme Court didn’t seem amenable to Privileges or Immunities Clause arguments in last week’s gun rights case, McDonald v. Chicago.  This is unfortunate because the alternative, extending the right to keep and bear arms via the Due Process Clause, continues a long-time deviation from constitutional text, history, and structure, and reinforces the idea that judges enforce only those rights they deem “fundamental” (whatever that means).

It was especially disconcerting to see Justice Antonin Scalia, the standard-bearer for originalism, give up on his own preferred method of interpretation – and for the sole reason that it was intellectually “easier” to use the “substantive due process” doctrine.

Josh Blackman and I have an op-ed in the Washington Examiner pointing out Scalia’s hypocrisy.  Here’s a choice excerpt:

Without the Privileges or Immunities Clause … the Court must continue extending the un-originalist version of substantive due process to protect the right to keep and bear arms. To give original meaning to the Second Amendment, it must ignore the original meaning of the Fourteenth Amendment!

Yet this is the line Scalia took last week: Instead of accepting the plain meaning of the Privileges or Immunities Clause—which uncontrovertibly protects the right to keep and bear arms—the justice chose a route that avoids disturbing a 140-year-old precedent rejected by legal scholars of all ideological stripes.

In 2008, Scalia wrote, “It is no easy task to wean the public, the professoriate, and (especially) the judiciary away from [living constitutionalism,] a seductive and judge-empowering philosophy.” But at the arguments in McDonald, he argued that while the Privileges or Immunities Clause “is the darling of the professoriate,” he would prefer to follow substantive due process, in which he has now “acquiesced,” “as much as [he] think[s it is] wrong.”

Put simply, if the opinion Scalia writes or joins matches his performance last week, he can no longer be described as an originalist (faint-hearted or otherwise).  A liberty-seeking world turns its weary eyes to Justice Clarence Thomas – who has expressed an openness to reviving the constitutional order the Fourteenth Amendment was designed to create – to convince his wayward colleague that the way to interpret legal text is to look to its original public meaning.

Read the whole thing.

Wars, Crimes, and Underpants Bombers

I’ve been meaning to follow up on Gene Healy’s post from last week on the interrogation and prosecution of terror suspects.  I share Gene’s bemusement at the howls emanating from Republicans who have abruptly decided that George Bush’s longstanding policy of dealing with terrorism cases through the criminal justice system is unacceptable with a Democrat in the White House.  But I also think it’s worth stressing that the arguments being offered – both in the specific case of Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab and more generally – aren’t very persuasive even if we suppose that they’re not politically motivated.

Two caveats.  First, folks on both sides would do well to take initial reports about the degree of cooperation terror suspects are providing with a grain of salt. For reasons too obvious to bother rehearsing, investigators won’t always want to broadcast accurately or in detail the precise degree of cooperation a suspect is providing.   Second, as Gene noted, given that it seems unlikely we’ll need to use Abdulmutallab’s statements against him at trial, the question of whether the civilian or military system is to be preferred can be separated from the argument about the wisdom of Mirandizing him. That said, the facts we have just don’t seem to provide a great deal of support for the conclusion that, warning or no, criminal investigators are somehow incapable of effectively questioning terrorists.

Certainly if you ask veteran FBI interrogators, they don’t seem to share this concern that they won’t be able to extract intelligence their military counterparts would obtain. You might put that assessment down to institutional pride, but it’s consistent with the evidence, as the FBI has had impressive successes on this front already. And if you don’t want to take their word for it, you can always ask Judge Michael Mukasey who, before becoming attorney general under George W. Bush, ruled that military detainees were entitled to “lawyer up” – as critics of the Bush/Obama approach are wont to put it – explicitly concluding that “the interference with interrogation would be minimal or nonexistent.”

Nor, contra the popular narrative, does it appear to have interfered in the Abdulmutallab case.  Republicans leapt to construe sketchy early reports as implying that the failed bomber had been talking to investigators, then clammed up upon being read his Miranda rights and provided with counsel. But that turns out to have gotten the order of events wrong. In reality, Abdulmutallab was initially talkative – perhaps the shock of having set off an incendiary device in his pants overrode his training – but then ceased cooperating before being Mirandizied. Rather, it was the urging of his family members that appears to have been crucial in securing his full cooperation – family members whose assistance would doubtless have been far more difficult to secure without assurances that he would be treated humanely and fairly within the criminal justice system. It’s possible, one supposes, that the emo terrorist might have broken still more rapidly in military custody, but it seems odd to criticize the judgment of the intelligence professionals directly involved with the case, given that their approach has manifestly worked, on the basis of mere speculation about the superior effectiveness of an alternative approach.

Stepping back from this specific case, there seem to be strong reasons to favor recourse to the criminal systems in the absence of some extraordinarily compelling justification for departing from that rule in particular cases. Perhaps most obviously, few terror suspects are quite so self-evidently guilty as Abdulmutallab, and so framing the question of their treatment as one of the due process rights afforded “terrorists” begs the question. The mantra of those who prefer defaulting to military trial is that “we are at war” – but this is an analytically unhelpful observation.  We’re engaged in a series of loosely connected conflicts, some of which look pretty much like conventional wars, some of which don’t. This blanket observation tells us nothing about which set of tools is likely to be most effective in a particular case or class of cases – any more than it answers the question of which battlefield tactics will best achieve a strategic goal.

For the most part, the insistent invocation of the fact that “we’re at war” seems to be a kind of shibboleth deployed by people who want to signal that they are Very, Very Serious about national security without engaging in serious thought about national security. If it came without costs, I would be loath to begrudge them this little self-esteem boosting ritual. But conflict with terrorists is, by definition, a symbolic conflict, because terrorism is first and foremost a symbolic act. As Fawaz Gerges documents in his important book The Far Enemy, jihadis had traditionally been primarily concerned with the fight to impose their rigid vision in the Muslim world, and to depose rulers perceived as corrupt or too secular.  The controversial – and even among radical Islamists,quite unpopular – decision to strike “the Far Enemy” in the United States was not motivated by some blind bloodlust, or a desire to kill Americans as an end in itself. Rather, Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri hoped that a titanic conflict between Islam and the West could revive flagging jihadi movement, galvanize the ummah, and (crucially) enhance the prestige of Al Qaeda, perceived within jihadi circles as a fairly marginal organization.

This has largely backfired. But it’s important to always bear in mind that attacks on the United States, especially by sensational methods like airplane bombings, are for terror groups essentially PR stunts whose value is ultimately instrumental. They don’t do it for the sheer love of blowing up planes; they do it as a means of establishing their own domestic credibility vis a vis more locally-focused Islamist groups (violent and peaceful) with whom they are competing for recruits. While our response to these attempts will often necessarily have some military component, there is no reason to bolster their outreach efforts by making a big public show of treating Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula as tantamount to a belligerent foreign state.  Better, when it’s compatible with our intelligence gathering and security goals, to treat Abdulmutallab and his cohorts as just one more band of thugs.

Using Guns to Protect Liberty

Tomorrow the Supreme Court will hear oral argument in McDonald v. Chicago – the Second Amendment case with implications far beyond gun rights.  The Court is quite likely to extend the right to keep and bear arms to the states and thereby invalidate the Chicago handgun ban at issue, but the way in which it does so could revolutionize constitutional law.

In response to the oppression of freed slaves and abolitionists in southern and border states after the Civil War, the Fourteenth Amendment’s drafters sought to protect individual rights from infringement by state and local governments.  The amendment’s Due Process Clause and Privileges or Immunities Clause provided overlapping but distinct protections for these rights.  The Court decided in the 1873 Slaughter-House Cases, however, that the Privileges or Immunities Clause only protected Americans’ rights as national, not state, citizens.  This reactionary holding eviscerated the clause, rendering it powerless to protect individual rights from state interference.

McDonald provides the Court an opportunity to overturn the Slaughter-House Cases and finally restore the Privileges or Immunities Clause to its proper role as a check against government intrusion on individual rights.  Doing so would secure Americans’ natural rights, such as the freedom of contract and the right to earn an honest living, without enabling judges to invent constitutional rights to health care or welfare payments.  For a more detailed discussion of McDonald’s potential implications, and how the Court should rule, see my recent op-ed here.

I will also be participating in several public events this week on McDonald, the Fourteenth Amendment, and firearm regulation.  Today at 4:00 p.m., I will be speaking at a Cato policy forum, which will be broadcast live on C-SPAN and which you may watch online here.  Tomorrow at 3:30 p.m., I will participate in a post-argument discussion of McDonald at the Georgetown University Law Center, which event is cosponsored by the Federalist Society and the Georgetown Journal of Law and Public Policy (where Josh Blackman and I recently published a lengthy article on the subject).  And on Wednesday at noon, I will be participating in a Cato Capitol Hill briefing on McDonald and the future of gun rights at the Rayburn House Office Building, room B-340 (more information here).

NRA Shoots Itself in the Foot

I previously blogged about the NRA’s misbegotten motion, which the Supreme Court granted, to carve 10 minutes of oral argument time away from the petitioners in McDonald v. Chicago.  Essentially, there was no discernable reason for the motion other than to ensure that the NRA could claim some credit for the eventual victory, and thus boost its fundraising.

Well, having argued that petitioners’ counsel Alan Gura insufficiently covered the argument that the Second Amendment should be “incorporated” against the states via the Fourteenth Amendment’s Due Process Clause, the NRA has now filed a brief that fails even to reference the four biggest cases regarding incorporation and substantive due process.  That is, the NRA reply brief contains no mention of Washington v. Glucksberg (1997), Benton v. Maryland (1969), Duncan v. Louisiana (1968), or Palko v. Connecticut (1937).  (The NRA did cite those cases in its opening brief.)  What is more, it also lacks a discussion of Judge O’Scannlain’s magisterial Ninth Circuit opinion in Nordyke v. King (2009), which the Supreme Court might as well cut and paste regardless of which constitutional provision it uses to extend the right to keep and bear arms to the states!

I should add that the petitioners’ reply brief does cite all of those aforementioned cases (as well as the “Keeping Pandora’s Box Sealed” law review article I co-authored with Josh Blackman).  I leave it to the reader to determine whether it is Alan Gura or the NRA who is better positioned to argue substantive due process – or any other part of the McDonald case.

For more on the rift between the McDonald petitioners and the NRA, see this story in today’s Washington Post (in which I’m quoted, full disclosure, after a lengthy interview I gave the reporter last week).

(Full disclosure again: Alan Gura is a friend of mine and of Cato, and I suppose I should also say that I’ve participated in NRA-sponsored events in the past.)

Properly Extending the Right to Keep and Bear Arms to the States

I recently blogged about an interesting op-ed in which Ken Klukowski and Ken Blackwell of the American Civil Rights Union argue that the Supreme Court need not overturn The Slaughter-House Cases while “incorporating” the right to bear arms against the states.  (Josh Blackman fisked the article in more depth here.)   This piece was essentially a distillation of the ACRU’s amicus brief in McDonald v. City of Chicago, which ultimately argues, like Cato’s brief, that Chicago’s gun ban is unconstitutional.

It has come to my attention, however, that I mischaracterized one aspect of the Kens’ op-ed (sorry about that): while they are indeed against overturning Slaughter-House, the authors still seek to apply the Second Amendment right through the Privileges or Immunities Clause (like Cato and most libertarians), rather than through the Due Process Clause (like many conservatives and gun rights proponents).  This is the ACRU’s main argument, and it is based largely on Ken Klukowski’s recent law review article – indeed, the brief’s body cites Klukowski article some 20 times, often for propositions that find no further support in case law or academic literature.  (Josh has also provided a short critique of the ACRU brief/Klukowski article, so I won’t do that here.) 

In any event, this clarification gives me an opportunity to name and outline the five possible ways a justice could come down in the McDonald case:

  1. “Extreme Anti-Gun” – Affirm the lower court in its entirety, deciding that it correctly interpreted Supreme Court precedent, that reconsideration of this precedent is unwarranted, and therefore that neither the Second Amendment nor the right to bear arms it protects extends to people in the states (as opposed to in federal territories, like the District of Columbia).  I can’t imagine that any justice will vote for this way; even those who dissented in Heller generally support the selective incorporation of rights against the states.
  2. “Conventional Liberal” – Affirm the lower court in part but clarify that while the Second Amendment is indeed “incorporated” as against the states via the Due Process Clause, Chicago’s gun ban is still okay – possibly under a test weighing the individual right against the city’s interest in reducing gun violence. There may be one to four votes for this position: Justice Breyer likes balancing tests; Justice Stevens may feel that his hometown’s regulations are justified; and Justices Ginsburg and Sotomayor may feel the same way about New York.
  3. “Conventional Conservative” – Reverse the lower court, “incorporate” the Second Amendment via the Due Process Clause – adopting an analysis akin to that of Ninth Circuit Judge Diarmuid O’Scannlain in the Nordyke case – and strike down Chicago’s gun ban.  The NRA’s brief primarily advocates this position, as do many conservatives fearful of the Privileges or Immunities Clause.  There may be one to eight votes for this position: The “minimalist” Chief Justice Roberts may be hesitant to overturn longstanding precedent; Justice Scalia may decide that the devil he knows (substantive due process) is better than the one he doesn’t (privileges or immunities); Justice Kennedy may feel vested in his own expansive “fundamental rights” jurisprudence under the Due Process Clause (see my review of a book analyzing that jurisprudence); Justice Alito may share one or more of the above sentiments; and one or more of the aforementioned liberals may decide to “bite the bullet” and go along with this position.
  4. “Mend Slaughter-House, Don’t End It” – Reverse the lower court, overturn three old precedents – Cruikshank (1876), Presser (1886), and Miller (1894), which were decided at a time when none of the rights in the Bill of Rights was considered to apply to the states – “incorporate” the Second Amendment via the Privileges or Immunities Clause without touching Slaughter-House, and strike down Chicago’s gun ban.  This is the ACRU position, and while I don’t think it’s textually or historically supportable – a scholarly consensus across ideological lines holds that Slaughter-House was both wrongly decided and forecloses any significant application of the Privileges or Immunities Clause – it could emerge as a political “compromise.”  (If Justice O’Connor were still on the Court, I could maybe see her advancing this position.) 
  5. “Originalist/Libertarian” – Reverse the lower court, overturn Slaughter-House and the three aforementioned cases, extend the right to keep and bear arms to the states (which is technically distinct from “incorporating” the Second Amendment), and strike down Chicago’s gun ban.  This is Cato’s position – as well as that of the liberal Constitutional Accountability Center on behalf of eight leading constitutional law professors from across the political spectrum – and there will be one and may be up to all nine of the justices here: Justice Thomas has long said that he’d like to revisit Slaughter-House in the appropriate case, and he surely led the push to grant a cert petition whose question presented called for briefing about the Privileges or Immunities Clause; any of the others who seriously grapple with the arguments in Alan Gura’s brilliant petitioners’ brief (and those of his amici, us included) will also have to go this way despite their various political qualms.

In short, I see at least five votes in favor of extending the right to keep and bear arms to the states, but it’s an open question as to whether the Court will do that via the Due Process of Privileges or Immunities Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.   

Now, you may ask why, if I’m so confident that the fifth option above is correct, don’t all conservatives qua self-professed “originalists” gravitate towards it (and, conversely, why some liberals qua “living constitutionalists” do).  That’s an unlawyerly matter of policy preferences: as the Kens’ op-ed details, conservatives (and some libertarians), while wanting to extend Heller’s interpretation of the Second Amendment to the states, are wary of opening a Pandora’s Box of positive rights (health care, housing, welfare, etc.), as well as the perpetual culture-war bogeymen (abortion, gay marriage, pornography, etc.).  Liberal intellectuals, meanwhile, are holding their nose at having to extend gun rights because they feel that’s the only concession they have to make to achieve their utopic constitutionalization of the entire progressive agenda.

While libertarians share the conservative concern about positive rights – as well as legal, if typically not policy, qualms about courts’ handling of social issues (e.g., that Roe v. Wade is bad law even if some libertarians are pro-choice; that Lawrence v. Texas is good law but achieved through Kennedy-esque hand-waving rather than sound legal reasoning) – many of us see the benefits of being able to protect economic liberties and other natural rights.  For example, unlike conservatives, we generally like Lochner, the 1905 case that struck down on “liberty of contract” grounds a New York law limiting bakers’ hours.

Yes there’s a danger – particularly if President Obama gets to replace not only Justices Stevens and Ginsburg, but also Scalia and Kennedy – that overturning Slaughter-House will open the aforementioned Pandora’s Box, but: 1) that danger isn’t necessarily mitigated by somehow managing to use the Privileges or Immunities Clause without overturning Slaughter-House; 2) the danger is no different than under the current substantive due process doctrine; and 3) if we are to remain originalists not just in overturning Slaughter-House but in future jurisprudence, the progressives’ arguments fail, the danger is averted, and the Box stays sealed. Josh Blackman and I wrote our article, “Keeping Pandora’s Box Sealed: Privileges or Immunities, The Constitution in 2020, and Properly Extending the Right to Keep and Bear Arms,” in part to address the valid concerns (sketched in the Kens’ op-ed) about the consequences of truly reviving the Privileges or Immunities Clause.

While we won’t assuage the staunchest social conservatives – (adult) pornography is protected speech (but even more so is political advertising!) – we should mollify many faint-hearted originalists.  Anyone who thinks the Constitution is a “dead” document, whose text is to be interpreted according to its original public meaning, has to admit that the Privileges or Immunities Clause protects something more than what Slaughter-House said it did.

To see how all this works in greater detail, read our Pandora’s Box article, which I’ve previously discussed here , here, and here.  And again, Cato’s amicus brief is here; see also this law review article by its principal author, Cato adjunct scholar Timothy Sandefur.

Keeping Pandora’s Box Sealed

In today’s Washington Times, Ken Klukowski and Ken Blackwell co-authored an op-ed about McDonald v. Chicago and the Privileges or Immunities Clause titled, “A gun case or Pandora’s box?

If that title sounds familiar, it should. Josh Blackman and I have co-authored a forthcoming article called “Opening Pandora’s Box? Privileges or Immunities, The Constitution in 2020, and Properly Incorporating the Second Amendment.“  As Josh put it in his reply to the Kens, “imitation is the most sincere form of flattery.”

Going beyond the title, there are several errors in the piece,  which I will briefly recap:

First, the Kens argue that the Supreme Court should uphold the Slaughter-House Cases, out of a fear that reversal – and thereby a reinvigoration of Privileges or Immunities – would empower judges to strike down state and local laws. What they neglect to mention is that it has been the role of the judiciary since Marbury v. Madison to strike down laws that violate the Constitution. There is near-universal agreement across the political spectrum that Slaughter-House was wrongly decided, causing the Supreme Court to abdicate its constitutional duty by ignoring the Privileges or Immunities Clause for 125 years. The Kens want to continue this mistaken jurisprudence.

Next, the Kens describe the Privileges or Immunities Clause as a general license for courts to strike down any law they do not like. This is not accurate. Neither the Privileges or Immunities Clause nor any other part of the Fourteenth Amendment empowers judges to impose their policy views. Instead, “privileges or immunities” was a term of art in 1868 (the year the Fourteenth Amendment was ratified) referring to a specific set of common law, pre-existing rights, including the right to keep and bear arms. The Privileges or Immunities Clause is thus no more a blank check for judges to impose their will than the Due Process Clause – the exact vehicle the Kens would use to “incorporate” the Second Amendment.

To set the record straight, Josh and I are working on an op-ed – not so much to respond to the Kens’ flawed analysis but to present the correct historical and textual view of the Privileges or Immunities Clause. To see our arguments in greater detail, read our article and Cato’s McDonald brief, both of which I’ve previously blogged about here , here, and here.