Tag: Supreme Court

One Police Video, Many Interpretations

Members of the public should be able to access the body camera footage related to Tuesday’s police-involved shooting that left Keith Scott dead and prompted violent protests in Charlotte, North Carolina. But we shouldn’t be under any illusion that everyone who watches the footage will arrive at the same opinion about the police officer’s behavior. Two people can watch the same video and come to different moral conclusions. A study on video footage that proved instrumental in a Supreme Court case helps illustrate this fact.

In Scott v. Harris (2007) the Supreme Court considered whether a police officer (Scott) had violated the Fourth Amendment when he deliberately ran Harris’ car off the road during a high-speed chase, which resulted in Scott being left a quadriplegic. An 8-1 majority found that, “a police officer’s attempt to terminate a dangerous high-speed car chase that threatens the lives of innocent bystanders does not violate the Fourth Amendment, even when it places the fleeing motorist at risk of serious injury or death.”

Against Judicial Restraint

That’s the provocative title of my new essay in National Affairs, out this week. I’m mostly addressing conservatives who believe that judges ought to be “restrained,” as opposed the in contradistinction to the “liberal judicial activism” of the Supreme Court in the 1960s and ’70s. It’s puzzling that the attack would be that judges should have a bias towards inaction, towards sitting on their hands, when it’s precisely this deference to the political branches that allowed progressives to rewrite the Constitution during the New Deal. As I explain:

Under the founders’ Constitution, under which the country lived for its first 150 years, the Supreme Court hardly ever had to strike down a law. The Congressional Record of the 18th and 19th centuries shows a Congress discussing whether legislation was constitutional much more than whether it was a good idea. Debates focused on whether something was genuinely for the general welfare or whether it served only a particular state or locality. “Do we have the power to do this?” was the central issue with any aspect of public policy… .

Insider Trading: The Unknowable Crime

Under our criminal justice system, ignorance of the law is no defense.  But what if the law is undefined?  Or what if it seems to change with every new case that’s brought?  What if unelected judges (with life tenure) started to invent crimes, piece by piece, case by case?  Holding people accountable for knowing the law is just only if the law is knowable, and only if those creating the law are accountable to the people. 

On Friday, Cato filed an amicus brief in Salman v. U.S. that is aimed at limiting the reach of just such an ill-defined, judicially created law. “Insider trading” is a crime that can put a person away for more than a decade, and yet this crime is judge-made and, as such, is ever-changing. Although individuals may know generally what is prohibited, the exact contours of the crime have remained shrouded, creating traps for the unwary.

The courts, in creating this crime, have relied on a section of the securities laws that prohibits the use of “any manipulative or deceptive device or contrivance” in connection with the purchase or sale of a security. The courts’ rationale has been that by trading on information belonging to the company, and in violation of a position of trust, the trader has committed a fraud.  The law, however, does not mention “insiders” or “insider trading.”  And yet, in 2015 alone, the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) charged 87 individuals with insider trading violations.  

Broadly speaking, insider trading occurs when someone uses a position of trust to gain information about a company and later trades on that company, without permission, to receive a personal benefit.  But what constitutes a “benefit”?  The law doesn’t say.

Left to their own devices, the SEC has pushed the boundaries of what constitutes a “benefit,” making it more and more difficult for people to know when they are breaking the law.  In the case currently before the Court, Bassam Salman was charged with trading on information he received from his future brother-in-law, Mounir Kara, who had, in turn, received the information from his own brother, Maher.  The government has never alleged that Maher Kara received anything at all from either his brother or Salman in exchange for the information.  The government has instead claimed that the simple familial affection the men feel for each other is the “benefit.”  Salman’s trade was illegal because he happens to love the brothers-in-law who gave him the inside information.

Under this rationale, a person who trades on information received while making idle talk in a grocery line would be safe from prosecution while the same person trading on the same information heard at a family meal would be guilty of a felony.  Or maybe not.  After all, if we construe “benefit” this broadly, why not say that whiling away time chit-chatting in line is a “benefit”?    

No one should stumble blindly into a felony.  We hope the Court will take this opportunity to clarify the law and return it to its legislative foundation.  Anything else courts tyranny. 

Murr v. Wisconsin: When the Government Redefines Property Rights in Order to Avoid Paying Just Compensation

In 1960, the Murr family purchased a 1.25-acre lot (Lot F) in a subdivision on the St. Croix River in Wisconsin. They built a recreation cabin on the lot. Three years later, the family decided to purchase an adjacent 1.25 acre lot (Lot E) as an investment. The family did not build on Lot E, and the parents later gave their children the property. When the children began to look into selling Lot E, the government said that they couldn’t. Why? Because regulations passed after both lots were purchased require a bigger “net project area” (the area that can be developed) than either lot had by itself. Because the lots were commonly owned, the government combined them into one unit and, consequently, prohibited the development or sale of what was once Lot E.

Combining the lots essentially eviscerated the independent value that Lot E once had. The Murrs filed suit against Wisconsin and St. Croix County, arguing that the governments’ action violated the Fifth Amendment Takings Clause by depriving the Murrs of the value of the property (Lot E) without just compensation. Regulatory takings cases like this one are analyzed under the Penn Central test, which applies its three factors to “the parcel as a whole,” thus making the definition of “the whole parcel” highly relevant and even determinative, as it was here. The governments’ defense in the Murr case is a tricky mathematical manipulation: By considering Lot E and Lot F together, the government argues that the taking is not unconstitutional because it affects only half of “the parcel.” But, the Murrs argue, if Lot E is analyzed individually, then the government took the whole thing.

Defining “the parcel as a whole” has been a long-disputed issue, so the Murrs, represented by the Pacific Legal Foundation, sought, and received, Supreme Court review after the Wisconsin Supreme Court declined to hear the appeal from the Wisconsin Court of Appeals, which is a pretty unique way for the Court to take a case. This gives property rights advocates hope that the Supreme Court will bring some clarity to the muddied waters that are the Penn Central test’s three factors. The government should not be allowed to combine lots simply because they have a common owner, and it should especially not be allowed to do so in order to avoid paying the “just compensation” required by the Fifth Amendment. The Cato Institute has filed a brief in support of the Murrs urging the Court to clarify Penn Central. Although the Court has attempted in a few other cases to clarify its test, it remains unclear what the factors even mean, how they are to be measured, how they relate to one another, and how they are to be weighted. Despite, or perhaps because of, the muddled nature of the test, the government wins the vast majority of regulatory takings cases.

Adopting a bright-line rule here in the narrow context of determining what constitutes “the parcel as a whole” would bring some clarity to the Penn Central test and help protect property rights. Any rule permitting the combination of adjacent parcels would exacerbate Penn Central’s problems by leaving the lower courts to determine when combination is permissible and when it is not. Already the lower courts disagree on this issue, leading to greater uncertainty and less protection for property rights. This destabilizes property owners’ reliance interests and discourages property investment. State and local governments across the country have been using the vagueness of Penn Central to facilitate taking private property without just compensation. By clarifying the “parcel as a whole,” the Court can curtail one type of eminent domain abuse.

Friedrichs Decision Is a Blow Against Educational Excellence

Today, an evenly divided Supreme Court affirmed a lower court’s decision in Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association to permit unions to continue charging nonmembers “agency fees” to cover collective-bargaining activities that the union supposedly engages in on their behalf. About half the states require agency fees from public-sector workers who choose not to join a union.

Not only do agency fees violate the First Amendment rights of workers by forcing them to financially support inherently political activities with which they may disagree (as my colleague Ilya Shapiro and Jayme Weber explained), but the unions often negotiate contracts that work against the best interests of the workers whose money they’re taking. For example, union-supported “last-in, first-out” rules and seniority pay (as opposed to merit pay) work against talented, young teachers. Moreover, a teacher might prefer higher pay to tenure protections, or greater flexibility over rigid scheduling rules meant to “protect” them from supposedly capricious principals.

Supreme Court Rejects Nebraska & Oklahoma Marijuana Suit against Colorado

This morning the Supreme Court declined to take up a lawsuit by the states of Nebraska and Oklahoma challenging Colorado’s Amendment 64 measure that legalized the sale and use of marijuana. Not just medical marijuana, but recreational use as well.

We detailed the arguments involved in the case last year:

The Nebraska/Oklahoma argument: because the federal government, through the Controlled Substances Act, has banned marijuana, states are not allowed to contradict that ban by creating a regulatory framework for legalization.  Further, Colorado’s official regulation of recreational marijuana imposes a nuisance burden on surrounding states due to an alleged increase in drug trafficking.  While Nebraska and Oklahoma disclaim any intent to force Colorado to “re-criminalize” marijuana, the suit argues that Colorado’s official efforts to regulate the legal marijuana industry bring the state into conflict with federal and international drug laws.

Colorado’s response: there is no conflict.  Federal marijuana prohibition is still in effect, and the decision not to prioritize enforcement in states that legalize marijuana came from the federal government, not Colorado.  If Nebraska and Oklahoma object to the manner in which the federal government is discharging its law enforcement duties in Colorado, they should be suing the federal government.  Colorado’s regulation of the marijuana industry is within its prerogatives under the CSA. As to the nuisance claim, Colorado argues that mere policy differences between states that don’t directly injure the sovereignty of other states are not actionable nuisances.

The legal basis for the lawsuit has been questionable from the beginning, with legal commentators both challenging its merits and pointing out the irony in two of America’s “reddest” states taking a legal posture that overruns state sovereignty in favor of federal power.

And, of course, if prohibition states are concerned with the costs, they could always legalize and regulate marijuana themselves and spare their justice systems the immense costs of prohibition.  

Today’s result is not surprising, especially after the Obama Administration urged the court to decline the case, and the outcome fits with our analysis of the case’s prospects in 2014:

Will the Supreme Court accept this case for review? That’s impossible to predict. However, the constitutional argument being advanced by Nebraska and Oklahoma is weak and so would likely fail. Just because the federal government enacts a law against marijuana, it does not follow that all the states have to enact laws against marijuana. And just because the federal police (FBI and DEA) have grown accustomed to having state and local police conduct marijuana raids and arrests, it does not follow that the local authorities can’t stop doing that. So long as the local police are not arresting or threatening to arrest federal agents for trying to enforce the federal law, there is no “conflict.” Thus, the Supremacy Clause does not come into play.

Today’s action at the Supreme Court amounts to a big boost to the marijuana legalization movement, which continues to gather strength and momentum.

For those interested in a deep dive into the legal issues, check out the Cato Policy Analysis by Robert A. Mikos, On the Limits of Federal Supremacy: When States Relax (or Abandon) Marijuana Bans.

Congress Can Deny Barack Obama the Power to Replace Justice Scalia

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) responded to the sudden death of Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia with a press release saying, “this vacancy should not be filled until we have a new President.” Republican presidential candidates Ben Carson, Sen. Ted Cruz (TX), and Sen. Marco Rubio (FL) agree. Hillary Clinton spoke for many Democrats: “The Republicans in the Senate and on the campaign trail who are calling for Justice Scalia’s seat to remain vacant dishonor the Constitution. The Senate has a constitutional responsibly here that it cannot abdicate for partisan political reasons.” Conor Friedersdorf says the no-vote stratagem is “illegitimate” because “the Senate does have an obligation to fulfill its ‘advice and consent’ obligation….A preemptive rejection of any possible Supreme Court appointment is self-evidently in conflict with that obligation.” Clinton and Friedersdorf are wrong. Senators have every right to advocate not holding a vote on an Obama appointment, and not to hold a vote.

Clinton and Friedersdorf are overlooking the “consent” part of “advice and consent.” Consent means the Senate is under no obligation whatsoever even to hold a vote on any presidential appointment. The Senate’s obligation is to do what the Senate wants, and only what the Senate wants. Those are the rules. To try to hold senators to a different rule is to try to change the rules on them–and people tend to resent that. Everyone is free to disagree with the positions individual senators or the Senate as a whole take on individual nominations or prospective nominations. But there is no question that senators individually or collectively can deny their consent to any actual or prospective nomination for any reason–just as the American people can vote for whomever they want, for whatever reason they want.

Indeed, President Obama isn’t even entitled to nominate a replacement for Justice Scalia–or at least, Congress can deny him that right. The Constitution gives Congress the power to decide how many seats there are on the Supreme Court. In 1789, there were only six. Given sufficient congressional support (i.e., veto-proof majorities in both chambers), Congress could reduce the number of Supreme Court justices from the current nine to eight. McConnell, Cruz, and Rubio could propose doing so right now. It seems strange to criticize senators who are merely expressing in what circumstances they will withhold their consent when Congress has the power to deny the president the ability to fill this vacancy entirely by itself eliminating this vacancy.

At the same time Democrats turn a blind eye to President Obama repeatedly ignoring constitutional limits on his power, they claim Republicans would dishonor the Constitution if they use powers the Constitution clearly grants them. That is unlikely to dissuade Senate Republicans from delaying a vote on Scalia’s successor until 2017. Nor should it. For more on this topic, please read this by my colleague Ilya Shapiro at Forbes.

Scalia’s untimely passing was a gut punch. I didn’t agree with him all the time. But I agree with Trevor Burrus about him. RIP.