Tag: law

Lying and the Federal Government

Speaking of White House gate-crashers Tareq and Michaele Salahi (as we were trying to think of an excuse to do, to increase blog traffic), Slate says they might be guilty of a federal crime. What crime? Well, possibly trespassing on federal property. Or maybe the “broad prohibition on lying to the federal government.” Title 18, section 1001 of the U.S. Code

can be used to prosecute anyone who “knowingly and willfully … falsifies, conceals, or covers up by any trick, scheme, or device a material fact” or “makes any materially false, fictitious, or fraudulent statement or representation” to the government. That could include lying about your arrest record on a government job application, claiming a fake deduction on your taxes, or telling someone you’re on the White House invite list when you’re not.

I can’t help wondering, is there any equally broad prohibition on lying by the federal government? If the federal government, or a federal agency, or a federal official “knowingly and willfully … falsifies, conceals, or covers up” information or “makes any materially false, fictitious, or fraudulent statement or representation” – about the costs of a new entitlement, or how a candidate for reelection will act in his next term, or case for going to war – is that prohibited? Or are the rules tougher on the ruled than the rulers?

Likely Supreme Court Tie Would Be a Loss to Property Owners

Today, the Supreme Court heard argument in Stop the Beach Renourishment v. Florida Department of Environmental Protection, which is a Fifth Amendment Takings Clause challenge involving beachfront property (that I previously discussed here).

Essentially, Florida’s ”beach renourishment” program created more beach but deprived property owners of the rights they previously had – exclusive access to the water, unobstructed view, full ownership of land up to the “mean high water mark,” etc. That is, the court turned beachfront property into “beachview” property.  After the property owners successfully challenged this action, the Florida Supreme Court – “SCOFLA” for those who remember the Bush v. Gore imbroglio – reversed the lower court (and overturned 100 years of common property law), ruling that the state did not owe any compensation, or even a proper eminent domain hearing.

As Cato adjunct scholar and Pacific Legal Foundation senior staff attorney Timothy Sandefur noted in his excellent op-ed on the case in the National Law Journal, “[T]he U.S. Constitution also guarantees every American’s right to due process of law and to protection of private property. If state judges can arbitrarily rewrite a state’s property laws, those guarantees would be meaningless.”

I sat in on the arguments today and predict that the property owners will suffer a narrow 4-4 defeat.  That is, Justice Stevens recused himself – he owns beachfront property in a different part of Florida that is subject to the same renourishment program – and the other eight justices are likely to split evenly.  And a tie is a defeat in this case because it means the Court will summarily affirm the decision below without issuing an opinion or setting any precedent.

By my reckoning, Justice Scalia’s questioning lent support to the property owners’ position, as did Chief Justice Roberts’ (though he could rule in favor of the “judicial takings” doctrine in principle but perhaps rule for the government on a procedural technicality here).  Justice Alito was fairly quiet but is probably in the same category as the Chief Justice.  Justice Thomas was typically silent but can be counted on to support property rights.  With Justices Ginsburg, Breyer, and Sotomayor expressing pro-government positions, that leaves Justice Kennedy, unsurprisingly, as the swing vote.  Kennedy referred to the case as turning on a close question of state property law, which indicates his likely deference to SCOFLA.

For more analysis of the argument, see SCOTUSblog.  Cato filed an amicus brief supporting the land owners here, and earlier this week I recorded a Cato Podcast to that effect. Cato also recently filed a brief urging the Court to hear another case of eminent domain abuse in Florida, 480.00 Acres of Land v. United States.

Monday Links

  • Nancy Pelosi: “The power of Congress to regulate health care is essentially unlimited.”

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.

Nanny State Doesn’t Like Competition - the English Version

A previous post by David Boaz poked fun at bureaucrats in Michigan for threatening a woman for the ostensible crime of keeping an eye on her neighbors’ kids without a government permit. English bureaucrats are equally clueless, badgering two women who take turns caring for each other’s kids. The common theme, of course, is that bureaucrats lack common sense – but the real lesson is that this is the inevitable consequence of government intervention (especially when politicians say they are “doing it for the children). The BBC reports:

England’s Children’s Minister wants a review of the case of two police officers told they were breaking the law, caring for each other’s children.

Ofsted said the arrangement contravened the Childcare Act because it lasted for longer than two hours a day, and constituted receiving “a reward”.

It said the women would have to be registered as childminders.

…Ms Shepherd, who serves with Thames Valley Police, recalled: “A lady came to the front door and she identified herself as being from Ofsted. She said a complaint had been made that I was illegally childminding.

“I was just shocked - I thought they were a bit confused about the arrangement between us. So I invited her in and told her situation - the arrangement between Lucy and I - and I was shocked when she told me I was breaking the law.”

…Minister for Children, Schools and Families Vernon Coaker insisted the Childcare Act 2006 was in place “to ensure the safety and wellbeing of all children”.

The “Read the Bill” Debate and Government Growth

There’s an interesting back-and-forth over at the Volokh Conspiracy about whether legislators should have to read the actual legislative text of bills they vote on. Most people’s intuitive reaction is: “Duh, of course!” But if you’ve ever actually spent time poring over legislative text, you know that reading the bill itself seldom leaves you with a very good sense of what it does. Legislation is typically a tangle of modifications along the lines of “Strike paragraph 2, replace the period with a semicolon, insert the word ‘reasonable’ in the following sentence…”—which is why legislators have staffers who prepare plain-English summaries of the effects of legislation. Now certainly it would be possible to render bills somewhat more readable to ordinary people. Saving paper is not a huge concern in the digital era, so there’s no good reason legislation couldn’t simply contain the full text of the statutory provisions it amended, perhaps including a side-by-side comparison highlighting the changes. Even this, however, wouldn’t necessarily be all that illuminating. I’ve got a reference book on my desk that contains the 80-or-so pages of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, and then a few hundred pages explaining what it actually means. It’s not enough to know what the verbatim text says; you need to understand how it interacts with other statutes, how key terms are defined in the law, how courts have interpreted the law’s provisions, and so on.

Legislation could be written in a somewhat more transparent way, but in light of all these complex interactions, it can’t actually be that much more transparent, for the same reason computer programs are a lot longer and more impenetrable than a plain-English description of what the program does. Achieving a result in a complex rule-based system requires a level of precision and sensitivity to how terms are used within the system that’s at odds with colloquial description. Of course, for precisely the same reason that summaries will give an ordinary person a better understanding of a law than scrutiny of the verbatim text, they also give a very incomplete understanding. An ordinary language description will tell you what a computer program is supposed to do. If you want to know whether it’s going to crash or open up a security vulnerability under certain conditions, perhaps when it interacts with other software running simultaneously, you need to have a look at the source code. Again, if you’ve spent any time digging through legislation, you know that the staff summary of a bill often glosses over many interesting little details and ambiguities you can ferret out while reading the text.

Most legislators, of course—even those with legal training—cannot possibly have the kind of expertise needed to undertake meaningful scrutiny of the details of legislative text outside a tiny number of issue areas. So does it make sense to insist that every member of Congress literally “read the bill”? Probably not. The actual text will contain important details not captured in a summary, but only an expert will really understand what those are on the basis of the text anyway. Crucially, this is not a function of needless obscurantism on the part of Congress: it is a necessary feature of legislation in a legal system as complex as ours. Which means that there’s a pretty basic tension between the value of democratic transparency and a large, complex government. Past a certain point, it’s more or less impossible for any individual legislator—let alone ordinary citizens—to really understand the vast majority of bills Congress takes up in any detailed way.