Tag: justice samuel alito

U.S. v. Jones: A Big Privacy Win

The Supreme Court has delivered a big win for privacy in U.S. v. Jones. That’s the case in which government agents placed a GPS device on a car and used it to track a person round-the-clock for four weeks. The question before the Court was whether the government may do this in the absence of a valid warrant. All nine justices say No.

That’s big, important news. The Supreme Court will not allow developments in technology to outstrip constitutional protections the way it did in Olmstead.

Olmstead v. United States was a 1928 decision in which the Court held that there was no Fourth Amendment search or seizure involved in wiretapping because law enforcement made “no entry of the houses or offices of the defendants.” It took 39 years for the Court to revisit that restrictive, property-based ruling and find that Fourth Amendment interests exist outside of buildings. “[T]he Fourth Amendment protects people, not places” went the famous line from Katz v. United States (1967), which has been the lodestar ever since.

For its good outcome, though, Katz has not served the Fourth Amendment and privacy very well. The Cato Institute’s brief argued to the Court that the doctrine arising from Katz “is weak as a rule for deciding cases.” As developed since 1967, “the ‘reasonable expectation of privacy’ test reverses the inquiry required by the Fourth Amendment and biases Fourth Amendment doctrine against privacy.”

Without rejecting Katz and reasonable expectations, the Jones majority returned to property rights as a basis for Fourth Amendment protection. “The Government physically occupied private property for the purpose of obtaining information” when it attached a GPS device to a private vehicle and used it to gather information. This was a search that the government could not conduct without a valid warrant.

The property rationale for deciding the case had the support of five justices, led by Justice Scalia. The other four justices would have used “reasonable expectations” to decide the same way, so they concurred in the judgement but not the decision. They found many flaws in the use of property and “18th-century tort law” to decide the case.

Justice Sotomayor was explicit in supporting both rationales for protecting privacy. With Justice Scalia, she argued, “When the Government physically invades personal property to gather information, a search occurs.” This language—more clear, and using the legal term of art “personal property,” which Justica Scalia did not—would seem to encompass objects like cell phones, the crucial tool we use today to collect, maintain, and transport our digital effects. Justice Sotomayor emphasized in her separate concurrence that the majority did not reject Katz and “reasonable expectations” in using property as the grounds for this decision.

Justice Sotomayor also deserves special notice for mentioning the pernicious third-party doctrine. “[I]t may be necessary to reconsider the premise that an individual has no reasonable expectation of privacy in information voluntarily disclosed to third parties.” The third-party doctrine cuts against our Fourth Amendment interests in information we share with ISPs, email service providers, financial services providers, and so on. Reconsidering it is very necessary.

Justice Alito’s concurrence is no ringing endorsement of the “reasonable expectation of privacy” test. But he and the justices joining him see many problems with applying Justice Scalia’s property rationale as they interpreted it.

Along with the Scalia-authored Kyllo decision of 2001, Jones is a break from precedent. It may seem like a return to the past, but it is also a return to a foundation on which privacy can be more secure.

More commentary here in the coming days and weeks will explore the case’s meaning more fully. Hopefully, more Supreme Court cases in coming years and decades will clarify and improve Fourth Amendment doctrine.

The Unrelenting Battle over Campaign Finance

Following on the heels of November’s gubernatorial elections in Virginia and New Jersey, the loss of Ted Kennedy’s Senate seat in Massachusetts two weeks ago was a devastating blow to Democratic Party hopes.  But it must have been especially devastating to President Obama, who promised an adoring University of Missouri crowd, just before he was elected, that “We are five days away from fundamentally transforming the United States of America.”  Yet it would appear, judging from the unrelenting commentary and from the president’s own behavior last week, that those losses pale in comparison to the government’s loss before the Supreme Court two days after the polls closed in Massachusetts.  For 11 days now the wailing over the Court’s Citizens United decision has not ceased.  Indeed, campaign finance regulation, intimately connected to incumbency protection, is a bedrock principle of modern liberalism.

Exhibit A is E.J. Dionne’s column today in the Washington Post – his second in a week on the subject.  Last week, railing against the “reckless decision by Chief Justice John Roberts’s Supreme Court and the greed of the nation’s financial barons,” he charged the Court with “an astonishing display of judicial arrogance, overreach and unjustified activism” and urged “a new populist-progressive alliance” to demand “legislation to turn back the Supreme Court’s effort to undermine American democracy” – including a bill prohibiting political spending by corporations who hire lobbyists, no less.

Today, however, Dionne has last Wednesday’s unseemly episode of Obama rebuking a silent Supreme Court to work with.  And, like the immortal Daniel Schorr on yesterday’s NPR Sunday Morning, he puts all the blame on Justice Samuel Alito for seeming to mouth, silently, “Not true” when Obama, before all assembled and a watching nation, tendentiously misstated the holding in Citizens United.  But Dionne doesn’t stop there, of course.  No, he thanks Alito.  You see, “Alito’s inability to restrain himself” brought a long-ignored truth to the nation:  “The Supreme Court is now dominated by a highly politicized conservative majority intent on working its will, even if that means ignoring precedents and the wishes of the elected branches of government.”  Likening Obama’s behavior to President Reagan’s writing a 1983 article criticizing Roe v. Wade – I didn’t make that up – Dionne chastises conservatives for their double standard:  “Reagan had every right to say what he did. But why do conservatives deny the same right to Obama?”  Where does one begin?

Turning finally to “the specifics of Obama’s indictment,” Dionne tries to defend the president’s misstatements, but unfortunately the precision ordinarily expected of such a wordsmith seems to have deserted him.  Citing Obama’s claim that the Court had reversed “a century of law” and also opened “the floodgates for special interests – including foreign corporations,” Dionne writes that ”Obama was not simply referring to court precedents but also to the 1907 Tillman Act, which banned corporate money in electoral campaigns.”  That’s not what the Tillman Act did:  It banned direct corporate contributions to campaigns.  Only in 1947 were independent campaign expenditures by corporations (and unions) banned – and more clearly so only in 1990, which is the ban the Court overturned.  Moreover, pace Obama, foreign corporations are still specifically banned from contributing anything of value “in connection with a Federal, State or local election.”  Thus, in claiming, without more, ”that the ruling opens a loophole for domestic corporations under foreign control to make unlimited campaign expenditures,” Dionne seems simply to be passing along what he’s read or heard from others.  Nothing in the Court’s opinion warrants that conclusion.

But it’s Dionne’s larger claim that most demands an answer – that an “activist” Roberts Court, exercising “raw judicial power,” is ”ignoring precedents and the wishes of the elected branches of government.”  That’s hardly the definition of “activism.”  That’s what the Court should be doing, where it’s warranted by the Constitution, whether the Court is defending the rights of blacks to attend unsegregated schools or of gays to sexual freedom or of corporate owners, the shareholders, to engage in political speech through their corporation consistent with their articles of incorporation and by-laws.  The claim that corporations aren’t people is a red herring.  Corporate owners are people, and their right to speak can take many forms.  Fortunately, we have a First Amendment, which protects not only corporate owners but E.J. himself from all but the error of his ways.

[Cross-posted at Politico Arena]