Tag: rule of law

It’s “Declaration of Internet Freedom” Day!

… or at least I should have said so back on March 4th.

That was the anniversary of the day that Congress proposed to append a Bill of Rights to our Constitution. With a lovely preamble that went a little somethin’ like this:

THE Conventions of a number of the States, having at the time of their adopting the Constitution, expressed a desire, in order to prevent misconstruction or abuse of its powers, that further declaratory and restrictive clauses should be added: And as extending the ground of public confidence in the Government, will best ensure the beneficent ends of its institution.

The Bill of Rights contains gems like “Congress shall make no law … abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press,” (Amendment 1) and, “The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated” (Amendment 4).

I think this original Declaration of Internet Freedom is the bee’s knees. Yes, it’s taking some work to apply its strictures to the modern communications environment, but that’s a much more contained problem than starting over.

Starting over. That’s what a collection of really lovely groups–some highly pro-regulation, others handmaidens of government growth–are doing. They’ve come up with a “Declaration of Internet Freedom” whose principal virtue is a pretty cool graphic. The actual “principles” in it are so weasel-y that I wouldn’t trust ‘em as far as I could throw ‘em.

When you’re done pondering how one could “throw” a principle, consider an alternative to the “mainstream” declaration put out by our friends at TechFreedom. Their Declaration of Internet Freedom has a bunch of principles like “Humility” and “Rule of Law.”

Their thing on “Free Expression” cites the First Amendment. Remember that one? That’s the “Congress shall make no law” one. So that’s pretty good.

But I’m really hoping that nobody living today gets to define the basic principles by which the Internet is ruled. We’ve got that. It’s a neato collection of negative rights, preventing the government from interfering with society’s development, whether that development occurs online or off.

So happy Declaration of Internet Freedom day! I’ll be celebrating the real one.

In case you’ve gotten confused in all the jostling around, the real one is the Bill of Rights.

The IRS Can’t Overrule the Supreme Court

Since the foundational administrative law case of Chevron v. Natural Resources Defense Council (1984), courts have given significant deference to executive agency interpretations of federal law. United States v. Home Concrete & Supply tests whether there are any meaningful limits on such deference.

The case involves a group of taxpayers who initiated a number of transactions designed to reduce their tax liability by allowing a financial entity they created, Home Concrete, to increase its tax basis and reduce its taxable gain from the sale of certain assets. In June 2003, the IRS ruled that the taxpayers’ use of Home Concrete in this way was improper and issued an adjustment to their tax return (requiring payment of back-taxes). Having missed the standard three-year limit for such actions, however, the IRS argued that the adjustment was timely under a tax-code provision that extends the statute of limitations to six years if the taxpayer “omits from gross income an amount properly includible therein which is in excess of 25 percent of the amount of gross income stated in the return.”

Despite the Supreme Court’s having long ago held otherwise, Colony v. Commissioner of Internal Revenue (1956), the IRS argues that an overstatement of basis qualifies as an omission under that tax provision. Further, during the course of this litigation, the Treasury Department issued a new regulation “clarifying” the provision in a way that supports the IRS’s argument. The IRS now argues that this new regulation is controlling and should be retroactively applied to Home Concrete’s 1999 returns.

After (mostly) winning at the district court, the IRS lost before the Fourth Circuit and asked the Supreme Court to review the case—which involves one of many similar applications of the relevant tax provisions. The Court took the case and now Cato has joined the National Federation of Independent Business on an amicus brief supporting the taxpayers, arguing that sanctioning this sort of ad hoc rule-making would undermine the rule of law and the separation of powers.

We note that “[t]he government’s position is that this regulation is due judicial deference” but the Supreme Court has “consistently held that where a statute has an unambiguous meaning, an agency’s contrary interpretation is not entitled to deference.” As Judge J. Harvie Wilkinson noted in his Fourth Circuit concurrence, “agencies are not a law unto themselves” and the government’s position in this case “seems to [be] something of an inversion of the universe and to pass the point where the beneficial application of agency expertise gives way to a lack of accountability and a risk of arbitrariness.”

In deciding Chevron, the Supreme Court surely never intended to undermine the very structure of the Republic and unleash an administrative state wholly a law unto itself.

The Supreme Court will hear United States v. Home Cincrete & Supply on January 17.

Things to Be Thankful For

Not long ago a journalist asked me what freedoms we take for granted in America. Now, I spend most of my time sounding the alarm about the freedoms we’re losing. But this was a good opportunity to step back and consider how America is different from much of world history — and why immigrants still flock here.

If we ask how life in the United States is different from life in most of the history of the world — and still  different from much of the world — a few key elements come to mind.

Rule of law. Perhaps the greatest achievement in history is the subordination of power to law. That is, in modern America we have created structures that limit and control the arbitrary power of government. No longer can one man — a king, a priest, a communist party boss — take another person’s life or property at the ruler’s whim. Citizens can go about their business, generally confident that they won’t be dragged off the streets to disappear forever, and confident that their hard-earned property won’t be confiscated without warning. We may take the rule of law for granted, but immigrants from China, Haiti, Syria, and other parts of the world know how rare it is.

Equality. For most of history people were firmly assigned to a particular status — clergy, nobility, and peasants. Kings and lords and serfs. Brahmans, other castes, and untouchables in India. If your father was a noble or a peasant, so would you be. The American Revolution swept away such distinctions. In America all men were created equal. Thomas Jefferson declared “that the mass of mankind has not been born with saddles on their backs, nor a favored few booted and spurred, ready to ride them legitimately, by the grace of God.” In America some people may be smarter, richer, stronger, or more beautiful than others, but “I’m as good as you” is our national creed. We are all citizens, equal before the law, free to rise as far as our talents will take us.

Equality for women. Throughout much of history women were the property of their fathers or their husbands. They were often barred from owning property, testifying in court, signing contracts, or participating in government. Equality for women took longer than equality for men, but today in America and other civilized parts of the world women have the same legal rights as men.

Self-government. The Declaration of Independence proclaims that “governments are instituted” to secure the rights of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” and that those governments “derive their just powers from the consent of the governed.” Early governments were often formed in the conquest of one people by another, and the right of the rulers to rule was attributed to God’s will and passed along from father to son. In a few places — Athens, Rome, medieval Germany — there were fitful attempts to create a democratic government. Now, after America’s example, we take it for granted in civilized countries that governments stand or fall on popular consent.

Freedom of speech. In a world of Michael Moore, Ann Coulter, and cable pornography, it’s hard to imagine just how new and how rare free speech is. Lots of people died for the right to say what they believed. In China and Africa and the Arab world, they still do. Fortunately, we’ve realized that while free speech may irritate each of us at some point, we’re all better off for it.

Freedom of religion. Church and state have been bound together since time immemorial. The state claimed divine sanction, the church got money and power, the combination left little room for freedom. As late as the 17th century, Europe was wracked by religious wars. England, Sweden, and other countries still have an established church, though their citizens are free to worship elsewhere. Many people used to think that a country could only survive if everyone worshipped the one true God in the one true way. The American Founders established religious freedom.

Property and contract. We owe our unprecedented standard of living to the capitalist freedoms of private property and free markets. When people are able to own property and make contracts, they create wealth. Free markets and the legal institutions to enforce contracts make possible vast economic undertakings — from the design and construction of airplanes to worldwide computer networks and ATM systems. But to appreciate the benefits of free markets, we don’t have to marvel at skyscrapers while listening to MP3 players. We can just give thanks for enough food to live on, and central heating, and the medical care that has lowered the infant mortality rate from about 20 percent to less than 1 percent.

A Kenyan boy who managed to get to the United States told a reporter for Woman’s World magazine that America is “heaven.” Compared to countries that lack the rule of law, equality, property rights, free markets, and freedom of speech and worship, it certainly is. A good point to keep in mind this Thanksgiving Day.

This article originally appeared in the Washington Times in 2004 and was included in my book The Politics of Freedom.

Waterboarding, Consent, and Rape

Former Vice President Dick Cheney appeared at AEI today to promote his book and again made the claim that waterboarding detainees is not torture because we use this technique on our own troops. As he put it:

“Another key point that needs to be made was that the techniques that we used were all previously used on Americans,” Cheney went on. “All of them were used in training for a lot of our own specialists in the military. So there wasn’t any technique that we used on any al Qaeda individual that hadn’t been used on our own troops first, just to give you some idea whether or not we were ‘torturing’ the people we captured.”

This isn’t a new argument. Plenty of other folks have argued that, because we subject members of the military to waterboarding in Survival, Evasion, Resistance, and Escape (SERE) School (the military’s POW prep course), waterboarding detainees is not mistreatment.

It’s also a nonsensical argument.

The difference is consent. What one person consents to in one set of conditions does not make the same treatment, without consent and in other conditions, somehow less invasive or less illegal under domestic and international law. I was not waterboarded when I attended SERE school, but I endured treatment I wouldn’t willingly accept in other circumstances. If you want to waterboard me, you’d best be ready for a fight.

Export Cheney’s logic to sex. Consenting adults have sex and it’s legal, enjoyable, and essential to the survival of the species. If you accept the premise that, because you can have sex with someone with consent, it is always legal and moral to have sex with others, you’ve just declared that rape is not a crime.

Setting aside the issue of consent, waterboarding was clearly recognized as a criminal act by the laws of war and domestic statute well before we interrogated KSM. We prosecuted our own soldiers for using controlled drowning (the “water cure” and waterboarding) in the Spanish-American War and in Vietnam. We prosecuted Japanese soldiers for using waterboarding after World War II. We prosecuted a sheriff in Texas for waterboarding confessions out of prisoners.

I wrote a piece for the Los Angeles Times a few months back spelling out how Cheney isn’t arguing with Obama here. He’s reliving a battle he lost within the Bush administration:

The legal framework underlying waterboarding collapsed during President George W. Bush’s tenure. The White House Office of Legal Counsel in 2004 withdrew the memoranda that authorized waterboarding. The Detainee Treatment Act of 2005, sponsored by former POW and torture victim Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), barred “cruel, inhuman, and degrading” treatment of any detainee in military custody. There may be an argument that waterboarding isn’t torture, but there’s no argument that it’s not cruel, inhuman and degrading…

The Supreme Court put the nail in the coffin with its Hamdan vs. Rumsfeld decision in 2006. The real import of the ruling was not that Congress had to authorize military commissions (it quickly did) but that the Geneva Conventions apply to the armed conflict with Al Qaeda. The application of the laws of war, which allow broad power to kill your enemy but provide no authority to mistreat him, brought down the legal house of cards that authorized coercive interrogation. Bush issued an executive order the next year that banned the bulk of enhanced interrogation techniques. Obama followed suit with his own order applying stricter military standards to the intelligence community.

Read the whole thing. Read some more on waterboarding and detainees here, here, and here.

Magna Carta Day

The liberties we Americans enjoy were hard-won over the centuries. Today we mark a major event in that struggle, the day in 1215 when English barons presented King John with a written list of rights they demanded he recognize. Known ultimately as Magna Carta, the Great Charter, it was a compact between the barons and their king, a political effort by subjects to secure their liberty by placing their ruler under the rule of law, thus limiting arbitrary power.

The charter has gone through several iterations, but it drew in part from the common law rights, especially rights of property, that judges in the king’s courts had been finding from reason and custom as they decided controversies the king’s subjects brought before them. What Magna Carta did was bring those same rights against the king. Most important for us today was the promise found in clause 29:

No freeman shall be taken or imprisoned or deprived of his freehold or of his liberties or free customs, or outlawed, or exiled, or in any manner destroyed, nor shall we go upon him, nor shall we send upon him, except by a legal judgment of his peers or by the law of the land.

Note first the broad terms of clause 29: that enabled it to apply not just to the issues at hand but to varied future situations. Second, notice that only “freemen” were protected. The barons came to realize, however, that if their rights were to be maintained against the king, they would need the cooperation of all classes. Thus, the charter came in time to protect “common” liberties.

Each of those issues has informed the American experience. First, Magna Carta itself inspired our Founders to limit power through a written document, our Constitution. Second, clause 29 is captured in the Fifth Amendment, which provides that no person shall be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law. And third, Magna Carta’s capacity to grow is reflected by the post-Civil War inclusion of the Due Process Clause in the Fourteenth Amendment. That brought the Bill of Rights to bear not only against the federal government, its original limit, but against the states as well. We owe much to this English inheritance.

Cross-posted at the National Constitution Center’s Constitution Daily.

June 2011 Cato Unbound: Targeted Killing and the Rule of Law

When can the executive lawfully kill?

The rule of law itself depends on getting the answer right. Clearly that answer can’t be “never,” because then even defensive wars would be impossible. And it can’t be “whenever,” because that would be the very antithesis of lawful government. As F. A. Hayek wrote, “if a law gave the government unlimited power to act as it pleased, all its actions would be legal, but it would certainly not be under the rule of law” (p. 205).

The answer must be “sometimes”—but which times are those? In wartime? In peacetime? Against aliens? What about citizens? What role do the courts play? And what about the legislature?

In answer to these questions, Cato Unbound lead essayist Ryan Alford draws on the Anglo-American constitutional tradition, arguing that the killing of a citizen or subject without judicial authorization was so far opposed to our traditional legal safeguards that the American Founders didn’t even bother to prohibit it in the Constitution. And yet, he argues, the case of Anwar al-Awlaqi shows that our government now claims this power anyway. The themes of his essay are explored in much more detail in his forthcoming article in the Utah Law Review.

To discuss with him this month, we’ve lined up a panel of legal and historical experts: John C. Dehn of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, Gregory McNeal of Pepperdine University, and Carlton Larson of the University of California at Davis. Each will offer a commentary on Alford’s essay, followed by a discussion among the four on this timely and important subject. Be sure to stop by often, or just subscribe to Cato Unbound’s RSS feed.

As always, Cato Unbound readers are encouraged to take up our themes, and enter into the conversation on their own websites and blogs, or at other venues. Trackbacks are enabled. We also welcome your letters and may publish them at our option. Send them to jkuznicki at cato.org

The (Beginning of the) End of the Shameful U.S. Cotton Deal?

Heartening news from the Appropriations Committee yesterday: they voted to cut aid to farmers generally, and to make significant changes to an egregious cotton program. But first, some background.  You’ll recall the embarrassing deal made by the Obama administration last year to head off Brazil’s right to impede American exports in retaliation for WTO-illegal cotton support. The United States is, in other words, now sending almost $150m worth of “technical assistance” and “capacity building” funds to Brazil, just so we can continue to subsidize American cotton growers without penalty (so much for U.S. promotion of the rule of law in international commercial relations). Rep. Ron Kind (D-WI) tried to end that deal earlier this year, but to no avail. Big Ag’s friends in Congress argued, unfortunately successfully, that any changes to the cotton bribes should be dealt with in the context of the 2012 Farm Bill, and by the agriculture committees (good luck with that).

But yesterday, the Appropriations Committee approved by voice vote an amendment from Rep. Jeff Flake (R-AZ) to take the fiscal 2013 payment to Brazil from funds that would normally go to supporting U.S. cotton growers. According to an article [$] in the Congressional Quarterly, Rep. Flake argued that “American cotton growers should pay the bill since the United States was making the payment on their behalf.” Well played, sir.  Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-CT) filed an amendment that would send the FY2012 cotton payment to the Women’s, Infants and Children nutrition program instead.

The Committee also voted to lower the income eligibility cap to $250,000 AGI.

The CQ article did contain this worrying footnote, however:

Support for the amendments may be tenuous — especially if lawmakers cannot hide behind the anonymity of a voice vote. After winning the voice vote in committee, Flake sought a roll call, prompting appropriators of both parties to suggest that he did not need the recorded vote. Flake took their advice and demurred.

 Leglislators are usually shy about publicizing their positions only when they think it could get them in political hot water, so let’s not uncork the champagne yet.