Topic: Law and Civil Liberties

Should NSA Be Immune from Constitutional Scrutiny?

Today the Court of Appeals for the DC Circuit issued a ruling in NSA v. Klayman that has almost no practical effect, but is a potent illustration of how excessive secrecy and stringent standing requirements effectively immunize intelligence programs from meaningful, adversarial constitutional review.

Contrary to some breathless headlines, today’s opinion does not “uphold” the NSA’s illicit bulk collection of telephone records—which, thanks to the recent passage of the USA Freedom Act, must end by November in any event. Rather, the court overturned an injunction that only ever applied specifically to the phone records of the plaintiffs. And they did so, not because the judges found the program substantially lawful, but because the plaintiff could not specifically prove that his telephone records had been swept into the database, even though the ultimate aim of the program was to collect nearly all such records.

Together with other similar thwarted challenges to mass government surveillance—most notably the Supreme Court case Clapper v. Amnesty International—the decision sends the disturbing signal that mass scale surveillance of millions of innocent people by our intelligence agencies is, for all practical purposes, immune from meaningful constitutional scrutiny. Even when we know about a mass surveillance program, as in the case of NSA’s bulk telephony program, stringent standing rules raise an impossibly high barrier to legal challenges. Perversely, the only people with a realistic chance of challenging such programs in court are actual terrorists who the government chooses to prosecute. The vast, innocent majority of people affected by bulk surveillance—those with the strongest claim that their rights have been violated—are effectively barred from ever having those rights vindicated in court.

Given the routine refusal of courts to step in to protect our Fourth Amendment rights, it is fortunate that Congress has already acted to bring this intrusive and ineffective program to a halt.

Rain on EPA’s Parade

No, the “waters of the United States” subject to Clean Water Act regulation do not include things like dry land over which water occasionally flows. That’s the conclusion of a federal judge who just put on hold the Environmental Protection Agency’s latest power grab.

The Clean Water Act empowers EPA and the Army Corps of Engineers to regulate the use of private property that affects “navigable waters,” which the Act defines as “the waters of the United States.” In late June, EPA and the Corps finalized a rule defining that term. This was, they said, a boon to those potentially subject to CWA regulation, because “the rule will clarify and simplify implementation of the CWA consistent with its purposes through clearer definitions and increased use of bright-line boundaries…and limit the need for case- specific analysis.”

In reality, it was yet another step in what the Supreme Court called “the immense expansion of federal regulation of land use that has occurred under the Clean Water Act.” The rule extends federal regulation—and prohibitions on land use—to “tributaries,” which it defines as anything that directly or indirectly “contributes flow” to an actually navigable body of water or wetland and “is characterized by the presence of the physical indicators of a bed and banks and an ordinary high water mark.” The point of that legalese is to reach things like “perennial, intermittent, and ephemeral streams”—in other words, areas that aren’t really “waters” at all. The broader the definition, the more land that is subject to CWA permitting requirements and, ultimately, EPA control.

The problem for the federal government is that the Supreme Court rejected basically the same expansive approach in a 2006 case, Rapanos v. United States. In a separate opinion that some believe to be controlling, Justice Kennedy explained that, to be within the reach of the Act, a water must, at the least, “significantly affect the chemical, physical, and biological integrity of other covered waters more readily understood as ‘navigable.’”

Judge Ralph Erickson recognized that the new rule “suffers from the same fatal defect.” It “allows EPA regulation of waters that do not bear any effect on the ‘chemical, physical, and biological integrity’ or any navigable-in-fact water.” That includes “vast numbers of waters that are unlikely to have a nexus to navigable waters within any reasonable understanding of the term.” In other words, EPA is overreaching once again.

Obama Administration Declares War on Franchisors and Subcontractors

In a series of unilateral moves, the Obama administration has been introducing an entirely new regime of labor law without benefit of legislation, upending decades’ worth of precedent so as to herd as many workers into unions as possible. The newest, yesterday, from the National Labor Relations Board, is also probably the most drastic yet: in a case against waste hauler Browning-Ferris Industries, the Board declared that from now on, franchisors and companies that employ subcontractors and temporary staffing agencies will often be treated as if they were really direct employers of those other firms’ workforces: they will be held liable for alleged labor law violations at the other workplaces, and will be under legal compulsion to bargain with unions deemed to represent their staff. The new test, one of “industrial realities,” will ask whether the remote company has the power, even the potential power, to significantly influence working conditions or wages at the subcontractor or franchisee; a previous test sought to determine whether the remote company exercised “ ‘direct and immediate impact’ on the worker’s terms and conditions — say, if that second company is involved in hiring and determining pay levels.”

This is a really big deal; as our friend Iain Murray puts it at CEI, it has the potential to “set back the clock 40 years, to an era of corporate giants when few people had the option of being their own bosses while pursuing innovative employment arrangements.”

  • A tech start-up currently contracts out for janitorial, cafeteria, and landscaping services. It will now be at legal risk should its hired contractors be later found to have violated labor law in some way, as by improperly resisting unionization. If it wants to avoid this danger of vicarious liability, it may have to fire the outside firms and directly hire workers of its own.
  • A national fast-food chain currently employs only headquarters staff, with franchisees employing all the staff at local restaurants. Union organizers can now insist that it bargain centrally with local organizers, at risk for alleged infractions by the franchisees. To escape, it can either try to replace its franchise model with company-owned outlets – so that it can directly control compliance – or at least try to exert more control over franchisees, twisting their arms to recognize unions or requiring that an agent of the franchiser be on site at all times to monitor labor law compliance.

Writes management-side labor lawyer Jon Hyman:

If staffing agencies and franchisors are now equal under the National Labor Relations Act with their customers and franchisees, then we will see the end of staffing agencies and franchises as viable business models. Moreover, do not think for a second that this expansion of joint-employer liability will stop at the NLRB. The Department of Labor recently announced that it is exploring a similar expansion of liability for OSHA violations. And the EEOC is similarly exploring the issue for discrimination liability.

And Beth Milito, senior legal counsel at the National Federation of Independent Business, quoted at The Hill: “It will make it much harder for self-employed subcontractors to get jobs.” What will happen to the thriving white-van culture of small skilled contractors that now provides upward mobility to so many tradespeople? Trade it in for a company van, start punching someone’s clock, and just forget about building a business of your own.

What do advocates of these changes intend to accomplish by destroying the economics of business relationships under which millions of Americans are presently employed? For many, the aim is to force much more of the economy into the mold of large-payroll, unionized employers, a system for which the 1950s are often (wrongly) idealized.

One wonders whether many of the smart New Economy people who bought into the Obama administration’s promises really knew what they were buying.

ACLU v. Nevada Children

The American Civil Liberties Union announced today that it is filing a legal challenge against Nevada’s new education savings account program. The ACLU argues that using the ESA funds at religious institutions would violate the state’s historically anti-Catholic Blaine Amendment, which states “No public funds of any kind or character whatever…shall be used for sectarian purposes.”  

What “for sectarian purposes” actually means (beyond thinly veiled code for “Catholic schools”) is a matter of dispute. Would that prohibit holding Bible studies at one’s publicly subsidized apartment? Using food stamps to purchase Passover matzah? Using Medicaid at a Catholic hospital with a crucifix in every room and priests on the payroll? Would it prohibit the state from issuing college vouchers akin to the Pell Grant? Or pre-school vouchers? If not, why are K-12 subsidies different?

While the legal eagles mull those questions over, let’s consider what’s at stake. Children in Nevada–particularly Las Vegas–are trapped in overcrowded and underperforming schools. Nevada’s ESA offers families much greater freedom to customize their children’s education–a freedom they appear to appreciate. Here is how Arizona ESA parents responded when asked about their level of satisfaction with the ESA program:

 Parental satisfaction with Arizona's ESA program

And here’s how those same parents rated their level of satisfaction with the public schools that their children previously attended:

Parental satisfaction among AZ ESA families with their previous public schools 

Note that the lowest-income families were the least satisfied with their previous public school and most satisfied with the providers they chose with their ESA funds.

Similar results are not guaranteed in Nevada and there are important differences between the programs–when the survey was administered, eligibility for Arizona’s ESA was limited only to families of students with special needs who received significantly more funding than the average student (though still less than the state would have spent on them at a public school). By contrast, Nevada’s ESA program is open to all public school students, but payments to low-income families are capped at the average state funding per pupil ($5,700). Nevertheless, it is the low-income students who have the most to gain from the ESA–and therefore the most to lose from the ACLU’s ill-considered lawsuit.

New Jersey: Briefly Leaving Kid Alone In Car May Not Constitute Abuse

Last year in this space, I wrote about a case in which a New Jersey appeals court found that a mother could be put on the state’s child abuse registry, with life-changing consequences, for having left her sleeping toddler alone in the back seat of her locked, running car while she ran into a store briefly. No harm had come to the child during the ten minutes and an investigation found nothing else wrong with the family. 

Now a unanimous New Jersey Supreme Court has reversed that decisionNot only does the mother deserve a hearing before being put on the registry, it said, but such a hearing should not find neglect unless her conduct is found to have placed the child at “imminent risk of harm.” 

The battle is by no means over. The New Jersey Department of Children and Families vowed to continue its efforts to hold the mother responsible for gross neglect, its spokesperson saying that “leaving a child alone in a vehicle – even for just a minute – is a dangerous and risky decision.” That’s one view. Another view is the one I expressed last year: 

When the law behaves this way, is it really protecting children? What about the risks children face when their parent is pulled into the police or Child Protective Services system because of overblown fears about what conceivably might have happened, but never did?

For much more on this subject, check out the speech at Cato last year (with me moderating) by the founder of the Free-Range Kids movement, Lenore Skenazy, who has written extensively on the New Jersey case. She’s also been contributed the lead essay at a Cato Unbound symposium on children’s safety and liberty. We’ve also covered the celebrated case of the Meitiv family of Silver Spring, Md., who have faced extensive hassles from Montgomery County, Md. Child Protective Services for letting their children walk home alone from a local park. 

This post was adapted and expanded from Overlawyered.

The Right to Pay for Your Own Lawyer

Criminal asset forfeiture has the taste of Old Testament justice: an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth. The bank robber stole $100,000, so the government takes $100,000 from him. That seems right and fair, but only if we know that the defendant’s guilty.

If the government took $100,000 from someone who was innocent, or whose guilt was ambiguous, it wouldn’t merely be an “unjust” forfeiture, it would be theft—or, to be more politic, an uncompensated and unwarranted taking.

Consider the case of Sila Luis. For several years, Luis ran a healthcare company that provided home nursing services to patients enrolled in Medicare. In 2012, the government accused Luis of fraud, claiming that her company billed Medicare for unnecessary services. In addition to criminal charges, the grand jury indictment included a forfeiture finding, stipulating that if Luis is convicted, up to $45 million of her personal assets would be forfeited, to make up for all of the money her company ever received from Medicare.

Regulatory Incompetence (and King v. Burwell) Could Save the Nuns

Obamacare imposes a requirement that employers provide insurance that covers “preventive care” for women, but does not specify what that entails. The Department of Health & Human Services (HHS) determined that “preventive care” includes all FDA-approved contraceptives, from condoms to the morning-after pill.

While houses of worship were exempted outright from the mandate, other religious orders were not. (And, as we know from the Hobby Lobby case, for-profit employers who object to certain forms of contraceptive don’t have to pay to cover them.) Instead, under an “accommodation” created by HHS and the Departments of Labor and Treasury, an objecting religious organization isn’t required to pay for the offending contraceptives, but they do have to notify HHS, which then modifies their insurance contracts so their insurers cover the objected-to items.

Even though the religious organizations are not paying for the contraceptives, groups like the Little Sisters of the Poor—an order of nuns who provide various kinds of social services—still feel complicit in sin and claim that their free exercise of religion has been burdened.

Cato and law professor Josh Blackman (who recently became a Cato adjunct scholar) have filed an amicus brief supporting the Little Sisters’ request that the Supreme Court hear their case. The Little Sisters raise claims under the First Amendment and the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. Our brief asks the Court to consider a supplemental question: Whether the Departments have the interpretive authority and “expertise” to resolve this “major question” of profound social, “economic and political significance”—to quote Chief Justice Roberts’s majority opinion in King v. Burwell (where he said that courts couldn’t simply defer to the IRS on the important question presented there).

Congress gave absolutely no indication that it delegated to federal agencies the authority to decide which religious groups would be exempted and which could have their religious liberty burdened under an accommodation, or for that matter, how agencies were to design any accommodations. To quote another recent case where the Court refused to defer to an administrative agency, UARG v. EPA (2014), here the agencies are “laying claim to an extravagant statutory power” affecting fundamental religious liberty interests—a power that the ACA “is not designed to grant.”

If the Departments lack the interpretive authority to craft accommodations, then Hobby Lobby provides the rule of decision and the Little Sisters must be exempted from the mandate. Accordingly, the Supreme Court should consider this additional question and conclude that the Departments’ regulatory incompetence prevents them from forcing the Little Sisters to be complicit in what they view as sin.

Pages