Topic: Law and Civil Liberties

Government Must Honor Its Contracts

Virtually every aspect of government’s work depends on contracts, whether they be with manufacturers of naval ships, civilian contractors, the companies that sell office supplies, or the landlords who lease the office space that houses the vast bureaucracy. These contracts, like any contract, only work when both parties have legal certainty; each must be able to depend on the promises made by the other.

That said, federal contractors do have to assume less certainty when dealing with the government because the Supreme Court has held that contracts can’t bind Congress from passing new legislation, or agencies from adopting new regulations. For example, while the government could enter into a contract promising to buy 100 widgets, Congress could pass a law making it illegal to manufacture or sell widgets—effectively voiding the agreement.

In the case of Century Exploration v. United States, an energy company leased the rights to an oil field in the Gulf of Mexico owned by the government for $23 million dollars up front, and $50,000 per year of the lease. Because oil drilling is a heavily regulated industry, Century only felt safe spending that kind of money because the lease contained a promise that Century wouldn’t be subject to any changes to the law that the government might make in the future, except for a specific class of regulations created under the authority of a single statute, the Outer Continental Shelf Lands Act (OSCLA). Without this promise, there would have been nothing to stop the government from taking Century Exploration’s money and then outlawing drilling in the Gulf of Mexico, or passing new regulations that would make it prohibitively expensive for Century to make use of the leased plot.

Unfortunately, the government did the very thing it promised not to. Under the Oil Pollution Act (OPA), drilling companies have to calculate the volume of oil that would be released in a “worst case scenario” and prove that they have the financial resources to fund cleanup efforts. The method for calculating the amount of oil, and the cost of cleanup, are governed by regulations issued under the OPA. Two years into Century’s lease, however, a civil servant in the Interior Department sent the company an email demanding a recalculation of the “worst case scenario” using a more extreme methodology contained in an attached FAQ. Using that new method, the cost of cleaning up a hypothetical spill increased from $4.5 million to $1.8 billion. Because Century couldn’t prove that it would have $1.8 billion on-hand in the event of a disaster, it could no longer operate on the leased plot.

Century appealed to the courts, relying on a 2000 case called Mobil Oil in which the Supreme Court interpreted a nearly identical lease to mean that the government would breach its contract if it tried to apply new laws or regulations to the leaseholders (except, again, for regulations under OSCLA). Under Mobil Oil, unilaterally changing the method of calculating the volume and cost of a spill would be just such a breach; the regulatory changes were made under the OPA, not OSCLA, and the changes were made by email, not by formal regulation. The government insisted it had done no wrong and, remarkably, the U.S. Court for the Federal Circuit agreed.

Cato has filed an amicus brief urging the Supreme Court to review this case and make clear that the government can’t violate contractual obligations with impunity. We make two key points:

There’s Room for Direct Democracy in a Republic

Not many people know that there’s a clause in the Constitution that charges Congress with guaranteeing every state a “republican form of government.” Even fewer people are aware of exactly what that means.

Historically, the Guarantee Clause is considered to have been a measure the Framers included to ensure that the governments of the states—which used to have far greater autonomy—didn’t devolve into monarchies or other despotic forms. But the clause’s legal effect has never been fully fleshed out. Not that there haven’t been opportunities; claims based on the Guarantee Clause are peppered throughout U.S. history. Courts have typically disposed of them by invoking the political question doctrine, which they use to avoid deciding an issue they believe is more appropriately left to the elected branches. Since there’s no legally binding definition of “republican,” a court applying the Guarantee Clause has little to work with, also contributing to the tendency to treat such cases as non-justiciable.

Accordingly, when a group of legislators and citizens groups supporting big government banded together to attack Colorado’s Taxpayer Bill of Rights (TABOR) based on a Guarantee Clause claim, it seemed like a longshot. Their theory was that the state no longer had a republican form of government because the TABOR—a voter-approved state constitutional amendment—restricts the legislature’s ability to raise taxes without approval from the people of Colorado.

Colorado Gov. John Hickenlooper (D), defending the state’s constitution, moved to dismiss the case in federal district court but, surprisingly, lost the motion. Even more surprisingly, a panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Tenth Circuit affirmed that denial, which meant that the plaintiffs’ claims could go to trial and jeopardize the continued existence of the state’s popular anti-tax measure. Colorado has one more chance, however, to prevent poorly constructed Guarantee Clause claims from being heard in federal courts and thus jeopardizing the dozens of state constitutional measures that use popular input: the Supreme Court.

Governor Hickenlooper has filed a petition for certiorari requesting that the Supreme Court, among other things, put to bed the erroneous notion that elements of direct popular participation and direct democracy can’t exist in a republican government. Joined by the Independence Institute, Reason Foundation, and Individual Rights Foundation, Cato has filed a brief supporting Colorado’s petition. We argue that the Court should hear the case so it can inform the lower courts that pretextual Guarantee Clause claims don’t belong in federal courts.

We give three reasons for this position. First, the plaintiffs’ complaint fails to provide a court with legal standards coherent enough to decide the case under the Guarantee Clause. Second, under Supreme Court precedent, the idea that initiatives and referenda are incompatible with republican government was resolved (and rejected) when Congress admitted states that used these popular procedures into the union. Third, even a brief look at the history of the Founding Era’s understanding of the words “republic” and “republican” dispels the myth on which the plaintiffs base their claim: that direct popular participation is incompatible with the republican form. Our brief provides that historical context.

In sum, the suggestion that the Guarantee Clause—meant to ensure that state governments would remain governments “of the people” and wouldn’t revert to despotic monarchies—could be used to wrest greater control of the taxing power from the people makes the plaintiffs’ claims risible. The Supreme Court should take this opportunity to hear Hickenlooper v. Kerr and put an end to this case.

Freedom of Contract in Corporate Governance: Let Bylaws Be Bylaws

To the extent America has made progress in recent years in rolling back the extreme litigiousness of earlier years, one main reason has been the courts’ increased willingness to respect the libertarian and classical liberal principle of freedom of contract. Most legal disputes arise between parties with prior dealings, and if they have been left free in those dealings to specify who bears the risks when things go wrong, the result will often be to cut off the need for expensive and open-ended litigation afterward. Thus the courts’ willingness to enforce agreements to arbitrate disputes, rather than run to court, has played a major role in curbing what once looked like an ever-rising tide of workplace and consumer class action litigation. “Shrinkwrap” or “clickwrap” disclaimers of liability, despite their occasional absurdities, serve the very practical function of ensuring that when information technology or online services go wrong the result is not to sink providers in limitless liability over the consequences of data loss to buyers. And recognizing libertarian principles of free contract would be among the most promising ways to reduce the glaring costs and injustices of medical liability litigation, as Richard Epstein argued in his very early (1976!) paper, Medical Malpractice: The Case for Contract.  

In May, in a case named ATP Tour v. Deutscher Tennis Bund, the Delaware Supreme Court decided to enforce as written a corporate bylaw adopted by an enterprise incorporated in Delaware providing for a loser-pays rule in cases of claims against it by shareholders. Almost at once, the community of practicing Delaware corporate litigators, as well as plaintiff’s class action lawyers across the country, protested loudly: such a rule, by putting claimants at risk of their own money, would discourage all but the strongest claims (and, not incidentally, cut into counsels’ own livelihood of prosecuting and defending such claims). They demanded that the Delaware legislature step in to ban such bylaws and restore the legal status quo ante, along with its accompanying flow of litigation. Within weeks, the legislature was on the verge of passing such a ban, only to pull back when the national business community raised an uproar of its own to defend letting the bylaw experiment go forward

Prof. Steve Bainbridge, a leading corporate law expert at UCLA, has now published a two-part post on why lawmakers and regulators should leave freedom of contract alone when it comes to such bylaws. In Part One, he recounts the evidence for believing that the business of private class-action shareholder litigation generally serves the interests of the lawyers who run it and not that of investors, transferring money from corporate treasuries (ultimately, from investors themselves) to an essentially identical class of investors following a large haircut of legal fees and costs. Deterrence of fraud, self-dealing, and managerial shirking, while an important objective, is poorly served by the class-action mechanism both because guilty individuals seldom pay and because transactions such as mergers and businesses in volatile markets are routinely sued, and made to pay legal toll, whether their managers have misbehaved or not. The result is a less competitive capital market from which internationally mobile companies and investors are increasingly retreating to more predictable legal regimes in other countries.

In Part Two, Bainbridge brings public choice analysis to bear, noting that Delaware’s sought-after corporate law regime is heavily shaped by the interests of repeat-player lawyers, who want to keep Delaware law efficient enough to keep attracting national businesses to incorporate there, yet not so efficient that it does away with the litigation and advisory opportunities that make for their own livelihood. What constrains them from yielding entirely to self-interest is that there is competition between states. Legislators in Oklahoma have moved to authorize loser-pays bylaws for companies incorporated there, and although it would take a lot to get companies to consider departing Delaware as a preferred state of incorporation, a few episodes like this might do it. Inevitably, hints are now in the air of federal action to put Oklahoma in its place: Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), a frequent ally of plaintiff’s lawyers, has asked the federal Securities and Exchange Commission to step in to squash the option.

I agree with Bainbridge’s bottom line: approving fee shifting bylaws “is the right answer from a policy perspective.” It’s also the answer that is most respectful of contractual liberty.

The Coming Globalization of the Marijuana Industry

A couple years ago, I speculated about eventual free trade in marijuana. That was before legalization in Colorado and Washington state. The case for trade and globalization of this industry looks stronger now. 

The Economist had a good article recently, taking into account this legalization, and thinking about what the future of the industry looks like. Right now, it’s just a bunch of small companies searching for the right market strategy, but they see consolidation eventually:

As happened with alcohol after the end of Prohibition, and has also happened with tobacco, the pot industry would probably come to be dominated by a few giant corporations.

They note that the tobacco industry has looked into the marijuana sector in the past, and might be well-positioned to run things, although it really could be anyone.

Assuming the current trend of increased acceptance continues, it seems inevitable that the marijuana industry will begin to look like other industries. There will be a few major global players, possibly based in the countries where legalization first happened. There will also be trade and investment disputes, just as there are in industries such as steel, cotton, and aircraft. No doubt the industry will be highly regulated, and regulations often given rise to these complaints.

For example, as the article notes, “Both Colorado and Washington have imposed residency requirements on the owners of marijuana businesses—including anyone with an equity stake.” Why restrict investments from foreigners and others who are not residents of the jurisdiction? No doubt the regulators have some rationale for this, but whether it’s a good one or complies with the various international investment obligations that are now in effect is up for debate.

Grass-Roots Tobacco Bans? Not Quite

When the small town of Westminster in central Massachusetts announced plans to ban the sale of tobacco entirely – not just in certain types of stores, or to younger buyers – townspeople came out loudly and in force to oppose the plan. That has thrown advocates back a bit [New York TimesMassLiveearlier]:

“They’re just taking away everyday freedoms, little by little,” said Nate Johnson, 32, an egg farmer who also works in an auto body shop, as he stood outside the store last week. “This isn’t about tobacco, it’s about control,” he said.

Right he is. And despite the Times reporter’s lifted eyebrow at the notion that “outside groups” are encouraging town officials to go forward with the ban, it’s worth asking how Westminster, Mass., population 7,400, came to have its very own “tobacco control officer.” Do you imagine the townspeople decided to create such a position with local tax funds? If so, read on.

WestminsterSealFor well over a decade the Massachusetts Municipal Association has run something called the Tobacco Control Technical Assistance Program, assisted by grant money from the state Department of Public Health. It does things like campaign for town-by-town hikes in the tobacco purchase age to 21, and town-by-town bans on tobacco sales in drug stores. It will surprise few that it has been in the thick of the Westminster situation.

This article, written for a friendly audience of public health advocates, frankly describes how the MMA project, with assistance from nonprofit and university groups as well as the Commonwealth of Massachusetts, worked to break down the reluctance of town health boards to venture into restrictions on tobacco sales (scroll to “Roles of the Massachusetts Tobacco Control Program, Local Boards of Health, and Tobacco Control Advocates”):

Local boards were enticed into hiring tobacco control staff by the DPH’s tobacco control grants. As a participant in the process explained, “[L]ocal boards of health looked at it as ‘oh, it’s a grant. Let’s apply for this grant. So now, what do we have to do, now that we’ve got it?’” … The grants dictated that local boards use those community members they had hired as their staff to assist them in enacting and enforcing tobacco control regulations…

The staff paid with money from outside the town seem to have seen their job as, in part, lobbying the local officials: “We’ve had to work on each individual board [of health] member to get them to come around,” said one.

The account continues with many revealing details of how the outside advisers managed to orchestrate public hearings to minimize critics’ voice, deflect challenges with “we’ll take that under advisement” rather than actual answers, and in the case of particularly intense opposition, “back off for a couple of months” before returning. “Grant-funded regulatory advocates were able to counter all of [opponents’] arguments and tactics.”

In other words, an extra reason for the townspeople of Westminster to be angry is that they have been paying to lobby themselves. And it’s worth knowing exactly how the game plan works, because similar ones have been rolled out to localities in various states not only on “tobacco control” but on “food policy,” environmental bans and other topics. Grass roots? If so, most carefully cultivated in high places.

[cross-posted and slightly adapted from Overlawyered]

Strange Bedfoes against NSA Reform Bill

The push to rein in the authorities of the National Security Agency—covertly expanded by a secret court to permit indiscriminate bulk collection of Americans’ communications  and financial records—has become a truly bipartisan affair. In a way, this is nothing new: Liberals who recall the abuses of the Hoover era have long teamed with conservatives skeptical of government power in efforts to check excessive surveillance.  With a Senate vote looming to move forward with the USA FREEDOM Act, however, a still stranger mix of opponents is seeking to block what has emerged as the primary vehicle for intelligence reform in the post-Snowden era.

First, and least surprising, there’s the “More Catholic than the Pope” contingent—boosters of the intelligence community who seem convinced that the bill will somehow put Americans at risk, despite the insistence of Director of National Intelligence James Clapper that the proposed safeguards would not hinder intelligence operations. This stance is exemplified by a stunningly misleading Wall Street Journal op-ed penned by former Attorney General Michael Mukasey and forrmer NSA head Michael Hayden. Since the terrorist Islamic State group, or ISIS, is currently in the headlines, naturally it is invoked to tar the bill as “a reform that only ISIS could love.”  Never explained: Why, precisely, we should expect an authority to indiscriminately sweep up domestic telephone records to be a critical tool for monitoring a group that seems primarily concerned with consolidating its power overseas, not fielding operatives in the United States.  After all, even when it comes to domestic investigations—where one might have expected the NSA’s mass database to show its value—two independent review groups with full access to classified records have concluded that the program had little or none.  Incoming Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell has described the reforms as “tying our hands behind our back”—but a hand is a useful appendage.  On the public record, “tying our hair back” might a be more apt description—the bulk database has obscured the FBI’s by flooding the Bureau with dead-end “tips,” while any truly pertinent information it provided was invariably duplicative of records that agents had already obtained using traditional, targeted authorities.

Yet the USA FREEDOM framework actually preserves the core capabilities of this ineffective program: It creates a new mechanism for the government to do “connection chaining” by quickly and continuously obtaining, from multiple phone carriers, the records of suspected terror affiliates and their contacts. Mukasey and Hayden falsely decribe the new process as requiring a “warrant”—which it does not, on the consensus legal understanding that a “warrant” is a particularized authority based on the Fourth Amendment’s relatively high evidentiary standard of “probable cause.”  They also, somewhat comically, describe it as requiring the government go “scurrying” to telecomunications providers to “comb through” records, presumably by consulting a card catalogue.  Yet the point of the new framework, with a mandate that carriers provide “technical assistance” to NSA, is precisely to ensure that carriers can rapidly search their files to provide information about numbers once the secret FISA court has signed off (or, indeed, in advance of the court’s approval in an emergency).  Nor, indeed, do Mukasey and Haden so much as mention “National Security Letters,” a separate tool that can be used to obtain certain types of communications records without any judicial involvement. Unfortunately, the USA FREEDOM Act does not implement the recommendation of the President’s Surveillance Review group that these, too, require court authorization. Nor, conspicuously, does their tendentious discussion of the various safeguards currently in place mention the numerous massive and systemic violations of the rules imposed by the FISA court—violations that easily passed undetected for years precisely because NSA itself maintained the database rather than making particularized requests to carriers through the FISA court.

In short, the bill doesn’t really affect the government’s capabilities, only the way they’re implemented.  First, phone numbers to be searched will have to be specifically approved by the FISA Court—as Congress expected would be the case when it approved these authorities, and as has already been required since Februrary under a presidential directive.  Second, NSA will quickly obtain particular records, corresponding to “specific selectors” like phone numbers or other account identifiers, by passing its search queries to the carriers who already maintain those rather than compiling its own massive database, overwhelmingly consisting of irrelevant data about innocent people. This ought to be a pure win: A privacy protective re-architecting that reduces the potential for abuse without meaningfully interfering with the government’s ability to obtain the information in which it has a legitimate interest.   Which, of course, is why current intelligence officials have characterized the reforms as reasonable. Retired officials—the ones who implemented the bulk program and insisted its vast invasiveness was absolutely necessary—may be reluctant to admit they’ve been proven wrong, but their stubbornness does not amount to much of an argument.

Executive Decisions, Eric Holder, and Marijuana Re-Scheduling

Christopher Ingraham at The Washington Post’s Wonkblog has a terrific piece up today on Eric Holder’s refusal to use executive branch authority under the Controlled Substances Act to reclassify marijuana as a less harmful substance. The crucial portion is here:  

The crowning inconsistency of the federal drug control system has always been the classification of marijuana as a Schedule 1 substance under federal law, which makes it among the Worst of the Worst drugs as far as the DEA is concerned – literally as bad as heroin, and worse than cocaine! Drug reform advocates have pushed the DEA to change its position for years, citing decades of research on the relative harmlessness of weed compared to other drugs – including alcohol – but the agency hasn’t budged, even as public opinion has rapidly evolved.

The Controlled Substances Act, which set up the drug schedules in the early 1970s, explicitly places drug scheduling authority in the hands of the attorney general, and even instructs him or her to “remove any drug or other substance from the schedules if he finds that the drug or other substance does not meet the requirements for inclusion in any schedule.”

Much to the chagrin and outright befuddlement of drug law reformers, however, outgoing attorney general Eric Holder has repeatedly stated that any changes to the scheduling status of marijuana should be made by Congress.

Ingraham then explains that

a bipartisan group of congressmen asked the administration to [re-schedule marijuana] … In essence, the Justice Department and Congress are both begging each other to fix federal marijuana laws, but nobody’s doing anything.

As Ingraham writes, “Welcome to Washington in 2014.”