Tag: jurisprudence

Obama on ‘Conservative Judicial Activism’

Speaking to reporters last evening on Air Force One, in the context of his upcoming Supreme Court nomination, President Obama warned of “conservative judicial activism.” “In the ’60s and ’70s, the feeling was, is [sic] that liberals were guilty of that kind of approach,” he said. “What you’re now seeing, I think, is a conservative jurisprudence that oftentimes makes the same error.” That error? “Not showing appropriate deference to the decision of lawmakers,” the AP reports.

Really. And which “activist” decisions from the ’60s and ’70s does this former constitutional law instructor have in mind? Griswold v. Connecticut (1965), where the Court found unconstitutional a state statute criminalizing the sale and use of contraceptives? Loving v. Virginia (1967), the same, concerning inter-racial marriage?

The list of Court decisions overturning “the will of the people,” as reflected by their legislatures, is long; and not all are correct. But viewing those decisions through the lens of “activism” and “restraint” is one of the least useful ways of determining that question. In fact, too often those labels distract us from the real issue, namely, disagreement over the meaning or implications of the constitutional, statutory, or regulatory provisions before the Court.

Obama’s objective, however, is hardly disguised. He fears that a “conservative” Court will be “active” in finding constitutional constraints on his agenda. We saw that in his reaction to the Court’s decision in January throwing out parts of the McCain-Feingold campaign finance law. And with more than 20 states now challenging ObamaCare, he’d like to have a Court “showing appropriate deference” to Congress.

On Monday the White House Office of Public Engagement invited me and three others over for an “off-the-record” discussion on the upcoming nomination. After making clear that my comments, at least, would not be off the record, I noted the obvious, that the president’s nominee would likely be in a tough spot during the Senate confirmation hearings, because one of the central questions he or she will have to address is whether, in light of ObamaCare, there are any longer any limits on the power of Congress to regulate. After all, if Congress can now order individuals to buy a product from a private company, what can’t it order?

In his comments last evening, Obama said judges should be deferential “as long as core constitutional values are observed.” Is there any constitutional value more fundamental than limited government, designed to secure individual liberty? The Constitution authorizes courts to actively secure that value, failing which their deference amounts to dereliction of duty.

State Secrets, Courts, and NSA’s Illegal Wiretapping

As Tim Lynch notes, Judge Vaughn Walker has ruled in favor of the now-defunct Al-Haramain Islamic Foundation—unique among the many litigants who have tried to challenge the Bush-era program of warrantless wiretapping by the National Security Agency because they actually had evidence, in the form of a document accidentally delivered to foundation lawyers by the government itself, that their personnel had been targeted for eavesdropping.

Other efforts to get a court to review the program’s legality had been caught in a kind of catch-22: Plaintiffs who merely feared that their calls might be subject to NSA filtering and interception lacked standing to sue, because they couldn’t show a specific, concrete injury resulting from the program.

But, of course, information about exactly who has been wiretapped is a closely guarded state secret. So closely guarded, in fact, that the Justice Department was able to force the return of the document that exposed the wiretapping of Al-Haramain, and then get it barred from the court’s consideration as a “secret” even after it had been disclosed. (Contrast, incidentally, the Supreme Court’s jurisprudence on individual privacy rights, which often denies any legitimate expectation of privacy in information once revealed to a third party.) Al-Haramain finally prevailed because they were ultimately able to assemble evidence from the public record showing they’d been wiretapped, and the government declined to produce anything resembling a warrant for that surveillance.

If you read over the actual opinion, however it may seem a little anticlimactic—as though something is missing. The ruling concludes that there’s prima facie evidence that Al-Haramain and their lawyers were wiretapped, that the government has failed to produce a warrant, and that this violates the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. But of course, there was never any question about that. Not even the most strident apologists for the NSA program denied that it contravened FISA; rather, they offered a series of rationalizations for why the president was entitled to disregard a federal statute.

There was the John Yoo argument that the president essentially becomes omnipotent during wartime, and that if we can shoot Taliban on a foreign battlefield, surely we can wiretap Americans at home if they seem vaguely Taliban-ish. Even under Bush, the Office of Legal Counsel soon backed away from such… creative… lines of argument. Instead, they relied on the post-9/11 Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF) against al-Qaeda, claiming it had implicitly created a loophole in the FISA law. It was David Kris, now head of DOJ’s National Security Division, who most decisively blew that one out of the water, concluding that it was “essentially impossible” to sustain the government’s reading of the AUMF.

Yet you’ll note that none of these issues arise in Walker’s opinion, because the DOJ, in effect, refused to play. They resisted the court at every step, insisting that a program discussed at length on the front pages of newspapers for years now was so very secret that no aspect of it could be discussed even in a closed setting. They continued to insist on this in the face of repeated court rulings to the contrary. So while Al-Haramain has prevailed, there’s no ruling on the validity of any of those arguments. That’s why I think Marcy Wheeler is probably correct when she predicts that the government will simply take its lumps and pay damages rather than risk an appeal. For one, while Obama administration has been happy to invoke state secrecy as vigorously as its predecessor, it would obviously be somewhat embarrassing for Obama’s DOJ to parrot Bush’s substantive claims of near-limitless executive power. Perhaps more to the point, though, some of those legal arguments may still be operative in secret OLC memos. The FISA Amendments Act aimed to put the unlawful Bush program under court supervision, and even reasserted FISA’s language establishing it as the “exclusive means” for electronic surveillance, which would seem to drive a final stake in the heart of any argument based on the AUMF. But we ultimately don’t know what legal rationales they still consider operative, and it would surely be awkward to have an appellate court knock the legs out from under some of these secret memoranda.

None of this is to deny that the ruling is a big deal—if nothing else because it suggests that the government does not enjoy total carte blanche to shield lawbreaking from review with broad, bald assertions of privilege. But I also know that civil libertarians had hoped that the courts might be the only path to a more full accounting of—and accountability for—the domestic spying program. If the upshot of this is simply that the government must pay a few tens, or even hundreds of thousands of dollars in damages, it’s hard not to see the victory as something of a disappointment.

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.

‘We Don’t Put Our First Amendment Rights In the Hands of FEC Bureaucrats’

I (and several colleagues) have blogged before about Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, the latest campaign finance case, which was argued this morning at the Supreme Court.  The case is about much more than whether a corporation can release a movie about a political candidate during an election campaign.  Indeed, it goes to the very heart of the First Amendment, which was specifically created to protect political speech—the kind most in danger of being censored by politicians looking to limit the appeal of threatening candidates and ideas.

After all, hard-hitting political speech is something the First Amendment’s authors experienced firsthand.  They knew very well what they were doing in choosing free and vigorous debate over government-filtered pablum.  Moreover, persons of modest means often pool their resources to speak through ideological associations like Citizens United.  That speech too should not be silenced because of nebulous concerns about “level playing fields” and speculation over the “appearance of corruption.”  The First Amendment simply does not permit the government to handicap speakers based on their wealth, or ration speech in a quixotic attempt to equalize public debate: Thankfully, we do not live in the world of Kurt Vonnegut’s Harrison Bergeron!

A few surprises came out of today’s hearing, but not regarding the ultimate outcome of this case.  It is now starkly clear that the Court will rule 5-4 to strike down the FEC’s attempt to regulate the Hillary Clinton movie (and advertisements for it). Indeed, Solicitor General Elena Kagan – in her inaugural argument in any court – all but conceded that independent movies are not electioneering communications subject to campaign finance laws.  And she reversed the government’s earlier position that even books could be banned if they expressly supported or opposed a candidate!  (She went on to also reverse the government’s position on two other key points: whether nonprofit corporations (and perhaps small enterprises) could be treated differently than large for-profit business, and what the government’s compelling interest was in prohibiting corporations from using general treasury funds on independent political speech.)

Ted Olson, arguing for Citizens United, quickly recognized that he had his five votes, and so pushed for a broader opinion.  That is, the larger – and more interesting – question is whether the Court will throw out altogether its 16-year-old proscription on corporations and unions spending their general treasury funds on political speech.  Given the vehement opposition to campaign finance laws often expressed by Justices Scalia, Kennedy, and Thomas, all eyes were on Chief Justice Roberts and Justice Alito, in whose jurisprudence some have seen signs of judicial “minimalism.”  The Chief Justice’s hostility to the government’s argument – “we don’t put our First Amendment rights in the hands of FEC bureaucrats” – and Justice Alito’s skepticism about the weight of the two precedents at issue leads me to believe that there’s a strong likelihood we’ll have a decision that sweeps aside yet another cornerstone of the speech-restricting campaign finance regime.

One other thing to note: Justice Sotomayor, participating in her first argument since joining the Court, indicated three things: 1) she has doubts that corporations have the same First Amendment rights as individuals; 2) she believes strongly in stare decisis, even when a constitutional decision might be wrong; and 3) she cares a lot about deferring to the “democratic process.”  While it is still much too early to be making generalizations about how she’ll behave now that she doesn’t answer to a higher Court, these three points suggest that she won’t be a big friend of liberty in the face of government “reform.”

Another (less serious) thing to note: My seat – in the last row of the Supreme Court bar members area – was almost directly in front of Senators John McCain and Russ Feingold (who were seated in the first row of the public gallery).  I didn’t notice this until everyone rose to leave, or I would’ve tried to gauge their reaction to certain parts of the argument.

Finally, you can find the briefs Cato has filed in the case here and here.

The Sotomayor Hearings

judgesotomayorNothing has changed in the six short weeks since Sonia Sotomayor was nominated to the Supreme Court: she remains a symbol of the racial politics she embraces. While we celebrate her story and professional achievements, we must realize that she – an average federal judge with a passel of unimpressive decisions – would not even be part of the conversation if she weren’t a Hispanic woman.

As Americans increasingly call for the abolition of affirmative action, Sotomayor supports racial preferences. As poll after poll shows that Americans demand that judges apply the law as written, the “wise Latina” denies that this is ever an objective exercise and urges judges to view cases through ethnic and gender lenses.

At next week’s hearings, Sotomayor will have to answer substantively for these and other controversial views – and for outrageous rulings on employment discrimination, property rights, and the Second Amendment. To earn confirmation, she must satisfy the American people that, despite her speeches and writings, she plans to be a judge, not a post-modern ethnic activist. After all, a jurisprudence of empathy is the antithesis of the rule of law.

Richard Epstein on Sotomayor

Cato adjunct scholar Richard Epstein of the University of Chicago and New York University, finds much to worry about in Judge Sonia Sotomayor’s nomination to the Supreme Court:

The treatment of the compensation packages of key AIG executives (which eventually led to the indecorous resignation of Edward Liddy), and the massive insinuation of the executive branch into the (current) Chrysler and (looming) General Motors bankruptcies are sure to generate many a spirited struggle over two issues that are likely to define our future Supreme Court’s jurisprudence. The level of property rights protection against government intervention on the one hand, and the permissible scope of unilateral action by the president in a system that is (or at least should be) characterized by a system of separation of powers and checks and balances on the other.

Here is one straw in the wind that does not bode well for a Sotomayor appointment. Justice Stevens of the current court came in for a fair share of criticism (all justified in my view) for his expansive reading in Kelo v. City of New London (2005) of the “public use language.” Of course, the takings clause of the Fifth Amendment is as complex as it is short: “Nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation.” But he was surely done one better in the Summary Order in Didden v. Village of Port Chester issued by the Second Circuit in 2006. Judge Sotomayor was on the panel that issued the unsigned opinion–one that makes Justice Stevens look like a paradigmatic defender of strong property rights.

I have written about Didden in Forbes. The case involved about as naked an abuse of government power as could be imagined. Bart Didden came up with an idea to build a pharmacy on land he owned in a redevelopment district in Port Chester over which the town of Port Chester had given Greg Wasser control. Wasser told Didden that he would approve the project only if Didden paid him $800,000 or gave him a partnership interest. The “or else” was that the land would be promptly condemned by the village, and Wasser would put up a pharmacy himself. Just that came to pass. But the Second Circuit panel on which Sotomayor sat did not raise an eyebrow. Its entire analysis reads as follows: “We agree with the district court that [Wasser’s] voluntary attempt to resolve appellants’ demands was neither an unconstitutional exaction in the form of extortion nor an equal protection violation.”

Maybe I am missing something, but American business should shudder in its boots if Judge Sotomayor takes this attitude to the Supreme Court. 

The Jurisprudence of Detention: Definitions and Cases

Almost a year has passed since the Supreme Court’s decision to extend habeas rights to Guantanamo in Boumediene. Detention policy is currently under review by interagency task forces; it is worth looking at what the developing body of detention rulings say about the future of detention.

Taking prisoners is an unavoidable part of military action. Telling our troops that they can engage identified enemies with lethal force but cannot detain them puts them in an impossible position.

But who can we hold? The Taliban foot soldier is an easy case, but as we move away from the battlefield things get a little fuzzy. A chronological review of the decisions regarding detainee status gives some insight.

Salim Hamdan

The first case comes from the military commissions convened in Guantanamo. Though it predates Boumediene, it puts the question of who is an unlawful enemy combatant in front of a judge.

Salim Hamdan was the petitioner in the Supreme Court case that invalidated military commissions established by executive order. Congress responded to his victory at the Supreme Court with the Military Commissions Act (MCA) to establish legislatively-sanctioned commissions, but their jurisdiction is limited to “alien unlawful enemy combatants.”

Following the passage of the MCA, Hamdan’s defense counsel filed a motion for an additional hearing to determine whether he was a lawful or unlawful combatant. If he was a lawful combatant, then the commission would lack jurisdiction and he might then be prosecuted in a court-martial. Lawful combatants (i) have a commander, (ii) wear uniforms or a distinctive symbol, (iii) bear their arms openly, and (iv) follow the laws of land warfare.

Captain Allred, the officer presiding, granted the defense motion.

Allred found that Hamdan’s service to Al Qaeda as Osama Bin Laden’s driver and occasional bodyguard, pledge of bayat (allegiance) to Bin Laden, training in a terrorist camp, and transport of weapons for Al Qaeda and affiliated forces supported finding him an enemy combatant. Hamdan was captured at a roadblock with two surface-to-air missiles in the back of his vehicle. The Taliban had no air force; the only planes in the sky were American. Hamdan was driving toward Kandahar, where Taliban and American forces were engaged in a major battle. The officer that took Hamdan into custody took pictures of the missiles in Hamdan’s vehicle before destroying them.

Hamdan’s past association with the Ansars (supporters), a regularized fighting unit under the Taliban, did not make him a lawful combatant. Though the Ansars wore uniforms and bore their arms openly, Hamdan was taken into custody in civilian clothes and had no distinctive uniform or insignia.

Based on his “direct participation in hostilities” and lack of actions to make him a lawful combatant, Captain Allred found that Hamdan was an unlawful enemy combatant.

Decisions Under the Enemy Combatant Definition

Following Boumediene, detainees have had their cases heard by federal judges. The District Court for the District of Columbia adopted and applied the following definition, and the government need only prove it by a preponderance of the evidence:

An “enemy combatant” is an individual who was part of or supporting Taliban or al Qaeda forces, or associated forces that are engaged in hostilities against the United States or its coalition partners. This includes any person who has committed a belligerent act or has directly supported hostilities in aid of enemy armed forces.

District Judge Richard J. Leon moved through these cases quicker than his colleagues and gives us several decisions to look at.

Lakhdar Boumediene, et al.: Five ordered released, one detained. This is the set of six petitioners that won the right to habeas corpus hearings at the Supreme Court. They were picked up in Bosnia and allegedly planned to travel to Afghanistan to fight against American forces. Judge Leon ordered five of the six released because the word of an unnamed informant was simply not enough to justify their detention. Since the evidence was insufficient to determine that a plan to travel to Afghanistan existed, Judge Leon did not reach the question of whether such a plan would constitute “support.” Leon found that the sixth man, Belkalem Bansayah, was an enemy combatant based on corroborating sources and evidence that he was adept in using false passports in multiple fake names and was facilitating the travel of others to fight in Afghanistan. This constituted “support” necessary to find him an enemy combatant.

Hisham Sliti: One detained.  Sliti is a Tunisian who traveled from London to Afghanistan on a false passport. He was detained in 2000 by Pakistani authorities because of his false passport and had an address book with contact information for radical extremists. He escaped back into Afghanistan and was later re-captured fleeing the American military in 2001. Judge Leon found that he had traveled to Afghanistan with the financial support of extremists with well-established ties to Al Qaeda, spent time with Al Qaeda-affiliated radicals, stayed at a guesthouse associated with Al Qaeda that served as barracks for terrorist training camps, and that other guests at the house were instrumental in creating terrorist cells. By his own admission, he knew the location, appearance, and code words used by those attending the nearby training camp.

Moath Hamza Ahmed al Alwi: One detained. Al Alwi is a Yemeni who traveled from Saudi Arabia to Afghanistan to fight alongside the Taliban against the Northern Alliance. Judge Leon found that al Alwi could remain in custody based on the evidence that he had trained at Al Qaeda camps, stayed at Al Qaeda guesthouses, fought on two fronts with the Taliban, and did not leave Afghanistan until his Taliban unit was bombed on two or three occasions by American aircraft.

Mohammed el Gharani: One ordered released.  El Gharani is a Saudi who went to Pakistan around 2001. The government alleged that he had been a member of an Al Qaeda cell in London, stayed at an Al Qaeda-affiliated guesthouse, and fought American forces at the battle of Tora Bora. Judge Leon did not find these claims credible, as all of them were based on the word of fellow detainees. The government also alleged that he had been a courier for Al Qaeda, but had insufficient evidence to back up this claim.

In the above cases, six detainees have been ordered released and three met the criteria to be classified as “enemy combatants.”

Transition From “Enemy Combatant” to “Substantial Support”

The Obama administration has since dropped the term “enemy combatant” and changed its claim of detention authority:

The President has the authority to detain persons that the President determines planned, authorized, committed, or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001, and persons who harbored those responsible for those attacks. The President also has the authority to detain persons who were part of, or substantially supported, Taliban or al-Qaida forces or associated forces that are engaged in hostilities against the United States or its coalition partners, including any person who has committed a belligerent act, or has directly supported hostilities, in aid of such enemy armed forces.

The first decision under the new definition came down from District Judge Ellen Huvelle.

Yasin Muhammed Basardh: One ordered released. Basardh is a Yemeni who was arrested in early 2002 and transported to Guantanamo Bay. He cooperated with detention authorities, giving information about his fellow detainees. As a result, other detainees physically assaulted him and threatened to kill him. Judge Huvelle determined that widespread disclosure of Basardh’s cooperation with the government renders his prospects for rejoining terrorists “at best, a remote possibility.”

Judicial Review of the Authority to Detain

The definitions of “enemy combatant” and the power claimed by the Obama administration are very similar, and the addition of “substantially” is probably only going to affect marginal cases.

A recent review of the revised claim of detention power broadly approved the government’s power of detention. District Judge Reggie B. Walton accepted, in a slightly modified form, the general power of the government to detain those who have participated in hostilities. In doing so, he rejected a detainee’s claims that the Authorization for Use of Military Force passed after 9/11 did not allow military detention and that detainees must be tried in a civilian court or released.

Judge Walton adopted the following definition for detention decisions:

[I]n addition to the authority conferred upon him by the plain language of the AUMF, the President has the authority to detain persons who were part of, or substantially supported, the Taliban or al-Qaeda forces that are engaged in hostilities against the United States or its coalition partners, provided that the terms “substantially supported” and “part of” are interpreted to encompass only individuals who were members of the enemy organization’s armed forces, as that term is intended under the laws of war, at the time of their capture.

Judge Walton did limit the government’s detention authority to those part of the “command structure” of Al Qaeda and the Taliban. This precludes detaining “[s]ympathizers, propagandists, and financiers” that may be part of enemy organizations in an abstract sense but who are not part of the organizations’ command structure. Judge Walton also did not resolve the issue of organizations and individuals “associated” with the Taliban and Al Qaeda.

Though Judge Walton rejected the petitioners’ “direct participation in hostilities” standard for detention in favor of the government’s “substantial support” standard, he explicitly authorized detention of an Al Qaeda “member tasked with housing, feeding, or transporting” members of the organization. An Al Qaeda cook who trained at a terrorist camp can be detained just as “his comrade guarding the camp entrance.”

The competing definitions can often arrive at the same conclusion. Captain Allred determined that Salim Hamdan was an unlawful enemy combatant for a combination of the “substantial support” activities under the “direct participation in hostilities” standard.

Conclusion

The cases above illustrate that the general principles of detention have not changed significantly with adjusted definitions. The terms “enemy combatant,” “direct participation in hostilities,” and “substantial support” will be interpreted by judges on a case-by-case basis much like a finding of probable cause to issue a warrant or justify a search.