Tag: judiciary committee

What You Don’t Know Won’t Hurt You (Surveillance State Edition)

While there are many choice tidbits to relate from Tuesday’s hearings on PATRIOT Act reform at the House Judiciary Committee’s Subcommittee on the Constitution—not least the fellow who had to be wrestled from the room, literally kicking and screaming, after he tried to stand and interrupt with a complaint about alleged FBI violations of his civil rights—I’ll just relate a novel theory of the Fourth Amendment advanced by Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa).

The ACLU’s Mike German, a former FBI agent turned surveillance policy expert, was explaining that it’s hard to know whether expansive surveillance powers are being abused, they’re mostly used in secret and deployed via third-parties like financial institutions and telecoms, who have little incentive to raise much fuss or draw attention to their cooperation. King interrupted to suggest that if we weren’t hearing about constitutional challenges, then it was probably safe to assume there was no Fourth Amendment harm. German tried to reiterate that the people whose privacy interests were directly harmed typically would not know they had ever been targeted.

That, King declared, was precisely the point. Surveillance of which the subject never became aware, he said, could be compared to a “tree falling in the forest” when nobody’s around. In other words, if you aren’t ultimately prosecuted, and don’t even feel subjective distress as a result of the knowledge that your private records or communications have been pored over, then it’s presumably no harm, no  foul. If we take this line of thinking literally, sufficiently secret surveillance can never be unconstitutional, which would seem to make King a spiritual cousin of Richard “if the president does it, that means it’s not illegal” Nixon.

Sotomayor Doesn’t Deserve a Supreme Court Seat

Having sat through the entire gavel-to-gavel coverage of last week’s confirmation hearings, I still don’t know if I would vote to confirm Sonia Sotomayor if I were a senator, I really don’t. Deciding how to vote on this is more than a simple matter of deciding whether she is “qualified” to sit on the Supreme Court—which is hard enough given there is no fixed qualification standard.

It also has to include how much deference you want to give the president, in general terms but also taking into account that Sotomayor will likely be confirmed and you want to position yourself politically for the next nominee. And it has to include, of course, how your constituents feel; while it’s cowardly to follow opinion polls blindly, you are accountable to those who sent you to Washington. There are many other considerations, both political and legal.

But I’m not a senator—or even a senator’s aide—so I don’t have to make that decision. As a constitutional lawyer, however, I can say that—even as most of Sotomayor’s opinions are uncontroversial—it is impossible to overlook the short thrift the judge gave to the judicial process in Ricci v. DeStefano and Didden v. Port Chester. I am similarly hard-pressed to accept hearing-seat conversions that contradict over 15 years of speeches and articles: most notably against the idea that judges’ ethnic backgrounds—and even “physiological differences”—should affect their rulings.

Given Sotomayor’s repeated past rejection of the idea that law is or should be objective, stable, or discernible from written text, her inability during her testimony to explain her judicial philosophy—or even state her position on important cases and issues beyond an acceptance of precedent (by which she would no longer be bound in her new role)—leaves me with an abiding concern about the damage she could do to the rule of law in this country. Because of the nominee’s evasion, obfuscation, and doubletalk, I like her less now than I did before the hearings.

And so, on second thought, I do know how I would vote. During John Roberts’s confirmation hearings, Sen. Dick Durbin said that “no one has a right to sit on the Supreme Court” and that the “burden of proof for a Supreme Court justice is on the nominee.” I will follow this very apt “burden of proof” paradigm and respect the logic of Sen. Arlen Specter, the Republican-turned-Democrat former judiciary committee chairman who at President Clinton’s impeachment trial curiously evoked Scottish law to vote “not proven.” Given the impropriety of citing foreign law (another issue on which the nominee failed to explain her “conversion” in hearing testimony), I would vote that the case for confirming Sonia Sotomayor to the Supreme Court is “not proven”—under American law.

Update on the Sotomayor Hearings

After yesterday’s bloviating—much reduced by Joe Biden’s departure from the committee—today we’ve gotten into some good stuff. Sotomayor is obviously well-prepared. She speaks in measured, dulcet tones, showing little emotion.

Judiciary Committee Chairman Leahy gave her the opportunity to explain herself on Ricci and on the “wise Latina” comment—which she has repeated in public speeches at least six times going back 15 years—and then built up the nominee’s background as a prosecutor and trial judge. Ranking Member Sessions and Senator Hatch (himself a former chairman of the committee) pounded Sotomayor on Ricci, asking her how she reconciles a race-based decision with clear Supreme Court precedent—and how her panel decided the case in two paragraphs despite the weighty statutory and constitutional questions.

Sessions in particular pointed out the inconsistency between her statement yesterday that she was guided by “fidelity to the law” and her history of calling the appellate courts as being the place where “policy is made” and profession of inability to find an objective approach of the law divorced from a judge’s ethnicity or gender. Sotomayor’s responses were not convincing; rather than agreeing with Justice O’Connor’s statement that a wise old man and a wise old woman would come out the same way on the law, the “wise Latina” comment plainly means the exact opposite.

And so the back-and-forth continues. One refreshing thing I will note is that only twice has the nominee said she can’t answer a question or elaborate on a response: on abortion, saying Griswold, Roe, and Casey are settled law; and on guns, declining to discuss whether the constitutional right to bear arms can be used to strike down state (as opposed to federal) laws. The former is a clear—but not unexpected—cop-out because, unlike a lower court judge, the Supreme Court justice revisits the nature and scope of rights all the time. The latter is actually the correct response in light of the three cert petitions pending before the Court in the latest round of Second Amendment litigation. Still, her discussion of the Second Amendment left much to be desired given her ruling in Maloney; as Jillian Bandes pointed out recently, you can’t discuss incorporation without a solid understanding of Presser.

CP Townhall

Should Judges ‘Have the Back’ of Police Officers?

Vice-president Joe Biden says we should rally behind the Supreme Court nomination of Sotomayor because she will “have the back” of the police.  Biden is a lawyer, a senator, and former chairman of the Senate’s Judiciary Committee, so he should know better than to pull a political stunt like that to curry favor with law enforcement groups.  The Constitution places limits on the power of the police to search, detain, wiretap, imprison, and interrogate.   The separation of powers principle means that judges must maintain their impartiality and “check” the police whenever they overstep their authority.  To abdicate that responsibility and to “go along with the police” is to do away with our system of checks and balances.

As it happens, The New York Times has a story today about one Jeffrey Deskovic.  He got caught up in a police investigation because he was “too distraught” over the rape and murder of his classmate.  When there was no DNA match, prosecutors told the jury it didn’t really matter.  Does Biden really want Supreme Court justices to come to the support of the state when habeas corpus petitions arrive on their desks and the police work is sloppy, weak, or worse?

On a related note, Cato adjunct scholar Harvey Silverglate fights another miscarriage of justice in Massachusetts.