Topic: Law and Civil Liberties

Government As Scofflaw, On Pollution And Beyond

It’s a familiar libertarian insight that regulation often holds government itself to lower standards than it does private actors. Pension funds for public employees are mostly immune from the federal solvency and funding requirements that apply to their private counterparts; Federal Trade Commission rules against false advertising by profit-seeking companies do not restrain false advertising by government actors on the same topics; the FTC can fine companies massively for data breaches even as the federal government itself suffers gigantic losses of sensitive data to foreign actors with few career consequences for many of those who had dozed; anticompetitive practices per se illegal under antitrust law become legal when states do them, and so forth and so on.

Now David Konisky of Indiana University and Manuel Teodoro of Texas A&M, in a study published by the American Journal of Political Science entitled “When Governments Regulate Governments,” have pulled together some data:

Our empirical subjects are public and private entities’ compliance with the U.S. Clean Air Act and Safe Drinking Water Act. We find that, compared with private firms, governments violate these laws significantly more frequently and are less likely to be penalized for violations.

A Government By And For People? Or By And For Cronies?

Occupational licensing is supposed to protect consumers against people who would practice a trade without the proper qualifications. In the first Supreme Court case on the question, Dent v. West Virginia (1883), the Court held that government may require people to be trained and educated before taking up the medical profession, because “such regulations” help “secure” the public “against the consequences of ignorance and incapacity as well as of deception and fraud.” But, the Court warned, if states impose licensing requirements that are not aimed at protecting “the general welfare of [the] people,” those restrictions “can operate to deprive one of his right to pursue a lawful vocation.”

But Dent was decided before the advent of “rational-basis scrutiny,” the rule under which courts today typically ignore violations of the right to earn a living. Under today’s law, state governments are given extremely broad power to limit economic freedom in whatever way lawmakers or unelected bureaucrats think best. That raises a crucial question—one on which the federal Courts of Appeals are now divided: may government restrict economic freedom, not to protect the public, but solely to protect the private benefits of a preferred group of people? Does such “mere protectionism” qualify as a “legitimate state interest” under the lenient “rational basis” rule?

Supreme Court Must Defend Interstate Commerce

The Commerce Clause, while invoked since the New Deal as a warrant for progressive federal policy, actually provides protections for businesses against state regulations that burden interstate commerce. In Brown-Forman Distillers Corp. v. New York State Liquor Authority (1986), for example, the Supreme Court struck down New York’s Alcoholic Beverage Control Law on the ground that it regulated the price of alcohol outside the state.

Or take this hypothetical example: Colorado gets its electricity from a grid that services 11 states, Canada, and Mexico. Electricity used anywhere within this grid can come from any source that services it and, once loaded onto the grid, this electricity is identical, regardless of how it was produced or the fuel used to generate it. Yet Colorado renewable-energy regulations require that all energy that enters the state be created in compliance with certain parochial standards, which excludes the type of power generated by a particular power company in California. What Colorado has effectively enacted is an extraterritorial law, regulating economic activity outside the state and thus violating the Commerce Clause (more technically, the Dormant Commerce Clause, in the sense that Congress hasn’t explicitly legislated to prohibit the Colorado regulation).

This situation is not hypothetical, however, but the actual case of Energy & Environment Legal Institute v. Epel, wherein the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit held that Colorado’s regime evaded Commerce Clause scrutiny because it did not consist of pure price controls. No matter that the regulations has a clear anticompetitive and protectionist effect on the interstate energy market—favoring in-state (complying) producers over out-of-state ones—the court sanctioned any state’s adoption of extraterritorial regulation so long as the state is savvy enough to crafts its rules as something other than a price-control mechanism.

Accordingly, Cato has joined the Pacific Legal Foundation, National Federation of Independent Business, and Reason Foundation on an amicus brief supporting a request that the Supreme Court take the case and restore a (relatively) free and competitive interstate energy market. This brief comes at an important crossroads for state-federal economic regulation, particularly relating to environmental norms. Indeed, California’s attempt to regulate out-of-state emissions was raised before the Court in Rocky Mountain Farmers Union v. Corey (2015)—turnabout is fair play?—and North Dakota is suing Minnesota for attempting to regulate its neighbors’ emissions.

The ban on extraterritorial regulation vis-à-vis the Commerce Clause is essential to preserving the competitive-federalism regime enshrined in the Constitution and the Supreme Court’s precedents. If states were able to impose their regulatory schemes on out-of-state companies in interstate industries, the 50 “laboratories of democracy” would not be able to function as such.

Under a regime of federal rivalry, competition for voters, taxpayers, and industries forces states to be accountable to those they govern and innovative in their search for solutions to vexing problems. If a state finds a cheaper, more efficient way to solve a policy conundrum, people and businesses will flock to it. But if states can impose the costs of their regulatory regimes on their neighbors, they could blunt this competitive effect.

The Supreme Court should take up Epel and flesh out federal constitutional protections for interstate commerce.

More on the Immigration Ruling as We Head to the Supreme Court

Nearly a week has passed since the Fifth Circuit affirmed the injunction against President Obama’s executive action on immigration, known as DAPA (Deferred Action for Parents of Americans). After digesting the 70-page majority opinion and 54-page dissent (plus the 11-page DAPA memo that’s an appendix), I can say that there aren’t any real surprises but we should keep in mind the following points as this case moves forward to the Supreme Court, which I elaborate on forForbes:

  1. Standing is very important.
  2. “Justiciability” is similarly crucial.
  3. The appellate court didn’t simply affirm the district court’s finding that the executive action violated the Administrative Procedure Act, but also added a further justification, that DAPA exceeds the executive’s statutory authority.

For more detailed examinations of the Fifth Circuit ruling, see Josh Blackman’s diligent series of posts on standingjusticiability, the procedural claim, the substantive claim,  the dissenting opinion generally and on standing and justiciability.

So where do we go from here? Read my Forbes piece.

Police Officer Reinstated Despite Regularly Having Body Camera Off

Jeremy Dear, an Albuquerque police officer, has been reinstated despite the fact that his body camera was not on when he shot and killed 19-year-old Mary Hawkes, a suspected car thief who allegedly pointed a gun at Dear during a foot chase in April last year. Dear’s reinstatement is a reminder that officers who do not have their body cameras on when they are supposed to should face harsh disciplinary consequences.

In June 2013 Dear, who was the subject of numerous complaints, was ordered to have his body camera on for every interaction with the public. According to reporting from the Albuquerque Journal, Personnel Board documents show that Dear didn’t have this body camera on for about half of the calls he responded to. Dear’s failure to record his encounters with citizens prompted Albuquerque police chief Chief Gorden Eden to fire him last December.

At the time of the Hawkes shooting Dear was equipped with TASER’s Axon Flex camera. Below are illustrations from the instruction manual for the camera, showing how the camera is attached to the collar and connected to the controller.

Dear claims that his camera was accidentally unplugged from the controller when he killed Hawkes. Dear’s camera was sent to TASER for analysis. TASER’s report on Dear’s camera states that it was shut down and activated a number of times on the day of the Hawkes shooting and that the camera would not have shut down because of low battery power.

TASER’s report also stated that the connector cable on Dear’s camera was damaged at both ends and that the cable retention clip on the controller was missing, thereby making the removal of the cable from the controller “easy with minimal force.”

The report went on the say that “Stress was placed on the cable by twisting and pulling it but without disconnecting it from the system. This stress did not result in a powering down of the system.”

TASER’s report doesn’t contradict Dear’s claim that his camera’s cord was unintentionally detached from the controller. But it is worth remembering that his camera did activate and power down normally numerous times on the day of the shooting.

Dear’s case raises questions about what the repercussions should be for officers who fail to have their cameras activated when they should. I and the ACLU’s Jay Stanley think that in such circumstances there ought to be “Direct disciplinary action against the individual officer.”

Border Patrol Slowrolls Body Camera Deployment

Today, Customs and Border Protection Commissioner Gil Kerlikowske announced that the agency would spend three additional months studying whether body-worn cameras (BWCs) are suitable for deployment by CBP. The agency has been studying BWC deployment since 2014, and the effort comes after years of intense pressure by non-governmental organizations over a pattern of lethal use-of-force incidents since 2010.

The draft feasibility report released by CBP appears to give federal employee unions virtual veto power over the deployment of the cameras, stating “Successful union negotiations are required prior to implementation.”

The report also makes clear that the cameras are being sold to CBP agents as a shield against public complaints, and less as an officer accountability tool:

Officers and agents must be willing to wear and operate their BWCs, without fear of reprisal. Officers and agents must have the confidence of knowing that the primary purpose of BWCs is to corroborate their sworn testimony, not create frivolous punishments. They also must be assured their privacy will be protected from unnecessary review and release.

In addition, the report outlines a number of factors that “may adversely affect CBP officers/agents, operations, and mission (sic).” However, upon closer examination many of these factors are easily addressed and need not impede the deployment of body cameras.

For instance, the working group writes:

The BWCs increase the cognitive load experienced by officer/agents, causing them to redirect their attention towards the operation of the camera versus allowing them to focus on the encounter. BWCs may also cause an officer/agent to second-guess a course of action.

Body cameras may take some getting used to, but the fact that some officers find operating the cameras difficult or distracting should not prevent the CBP from deploying body cameras. After all, dash cameras also presumably increased officers’ “cognitive load” and caused some officers to second-guess their actions. And yet, dash cameras as now considered perfectly normal law enforcement tools. During a press call on November 12, CBP officials conceded that it was a mistake on their part not to have conducted a dash camera review as part of the initial BWC evaluation process, an oversight that will allegedly be corrected during the upcoming follow on evaluation process.

Towards a Balanced Budget Amendment

I’ve previously written about the Compact for America, an organization that advocates a balanced budget amendment (BBA) to the Constitution through an interstate compact.  (Full disclosure: I’m on the CFA Council of Scholars.)

Not surprisingly there are several organizations and grassroots movements out there pushing BBAs. They all have their pluses and minuses, and they’re all trying to mobilize states to get behind their efforts to get Congress to call an Article V amendment convention.

As I’ve detailed before, CFA’s procedural advantage is that once a state has acted, it’s done; there’s a cascading turn-key operation that goes into effect once three-quarters of the states have passed the enabling legislation and Congress has acquiesced. CFA currently has four states signed up – Georgia, Alaska, Mississippi, and North Dakota – with various others considering the relevant legislation (I testified before the Texas legislature earlier this year). 

Other efforts claim to have more states signed up but the problem is that the BBA idea has been around for so long that the existing state resolutions are so different that they can’t be considered together as one unified call for Congress to call a convention under Article V. I’ve always known this intuitively, but recently I was sent a study that shows why the various resolutions are irreconcilable. It was put together by Jeff Kimble, a West Virginia attorney who dabbles in legal theory and public policy. As you can imagine, I get plenty of queries from amateur constitutionalists, but this looks pretty thorough. Judge for yourself: here’s the appendix that shows all 27 BBA resolutions that have been passed to date, grouped into the 9 categories that Kimble has devised.

In sum, there are no short cuts to a BBA – and that’s even before you consider the economic merits of the different kinds of BBAs.