Topic: Law and Civil Liberties

Federal Prosecutorial Ethics

Arkansas businessman, John Stacks, is about to stand trial in federal court.  Mr. Stacks is attacking the charges and the conduct of the government agents.  Prosecutors don’t like what he’s been saying and asked a judge to squelch their target’s ‘false allegations.’

From the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette [Sept. 4]:

Prosecutors sought an order preventing Stacks, his attorneys or any witnesses on his behalf from airing the “false and/or misleading” allegations in front of jurors. They cited a video “re-enactment” he posted online of agents executing a search warrant at his business, along with allegations he has aired in a lawsuit over the raid. “At the time that the lawsuit was filed, Stacks knew that a grand jury investigation was under way,” the government’s motion notes….

In July, [Judge] Holmes ordered prosecutors to supply a “bill of particulars” providing more detail about the criminal accusations against Stacks than what was stated in the indictment. This was in response to Stacks’ claim that he couldn’t figure out exactly what he was accused of doing wrong, and that when he asked for details, prosecutors handed over 80,000 un-navigable pages of documents.

The Constitution guarantees free speech.  It also says the accused has the right to be informed of the nature and cause of the accusation against him.  Two constitutional violations and the trial has not even started yet.

I have hosted two policy forums about federal prosecutorial abuses the past few months.  We may need to host such events even more regularly.  

School Choice Safe in Florida…for Now

Earlier this year, Florida’s largest teachers union filed a legal challenge to prevent the expansion of school choice. As I explained then:

The Florida Education Association is suing the state of Florida to eliminate the new Personal Learning Scholarship Account (PLSA) program, among other recent education reforms, including an expansion of the state’s scholarship tax credit law. Modeled after Arizona’s popular education savings account (ESA), the PLSA would provide ESAs to families of students with special needs, which they could use to pay for a wide variety of educational expenses, such as tuition, tutoring, textbooks, online learning, and educational therapy. Six families with special-needs children who would have qualified for the program are seeking to intervene as defendants in the lawsuit, represented by the Goldwater Institute’s Clint Bolick.

The union’s lawsuit argues that the legislation creating the PLSA, Florida’s Senate Bill 850, violated the state constitution’s “one subject rule” because it contained a variety of education reforms.

Today a circuit court judge dismissed the lawsuit, ruling that the plaintiffs lacked standing to sue because they could not show how they were harmed by the law. Last month, the New Hampshire Supreme Court unanimously ruled that plaintiffs lacked standing to challenge the Granite State’s scholarship tax credit law because they also could not demonstrate that they suffered any harm.

Targeting the Constitution

[Cross-posted from The Volokh Conspiracy]

It is now well known that the IRS targeted tea party organizations. What is less well known, but perhaps even more scandalous, is that the IRS also targeted those who would educate their fellow citizens about the United States Constitution.

According to the inspector general’s report (pp. 30 & 38), this particular IRS targeting commenced on Jan. 25, 2012 — the beginning of the election year for President Obama’s second campaign. On that date: “the BOLO [‘be on the lookout’] criteria were again updated.” The revised criteria included “political action type organizations involved in … educating on the Constitution and Bill of Rights.”

Grass-roots organizations around the country, such as the Linchpins of Liberty (Tennessee), the Spirit of Freedom Institute (Wyoming), and the Constitutional Organization of Liberty (Pennsylvania), allege that they were singled out for special scrutiny at least in part for their work in constitutional education. There may have been many more.

The tea party is viewed with general suspicion in some quarters, and it is not difficult, alas, to imagine the mindset of the officials who decided to target tea party organizations for special scrutiny. But federal officers swear an oath to “support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic.” It is chilling to think that these same officials who are suspicious of the tea party are equally suspicious of the Constitution itself.

What is most corrosive about this IRS tripwire is that it is triggered by a particular point of view; it is not, as First Amendment scholars say, viewpoint-neutral. It does not include obfuscating or denigrating the Constitution; only those “involved in … educating on the Constitution” are captured by this criterion. This viewpoint targeting potentially skews every national debate about politics or government. And the skew in not strictly liberal; indeed, it should trouble liberals as much as conservatives. The ultimate checks on executive power are to be found in the United States Constitution. Insidiously, then, suppressing those “involved in … educating on the Constitution” actually skews national debate in favor of unchecked executive power.

The Great Debate Over Hobby Lobby

The Supreme Court’s 5-4 ruling granting certain for-profit companies religious exemptions from Obamacare’s contraceptive mandate has of course generated a flurry of debates between conservatives and liberals (with libertarians siding with the right not to be forced by the government to violate your conscience). But what about within the camp that supported the decision in Hobby Lobby? Was there some conservative vs. libertarian split?

Well, as it happens, one of the icons of the libertarian legal movement, my former professor Richard Epstein, contributed an article to the most recent volume of the Cato Supreme Court Review. He concluded that Justice Samuel Alito’s majority opinion reached the right result for the wrong reason, that the Court should’ve rejected the mandate because the government didn’t have a compelling interest to advance not because it didn’t use the least-restrictive means to advance it. 

Epstein wasn’t able to attend our Constitution Day symposium, however, so Ed Whelan – president of the conservative Ethics & Public Policy Center and noted legal contributor to National Review Online – took Epstein’s place in discussing Hobby Lobby. Whelan took issue with Epstein’s approach; during the panel [see starting at 35:00] his comments about the Review article were akin to Justice Antonin Scalia’s “blistering concurrences” this term, agreeing with little other than the final judgment.

So this sounds ripe for the libertarian-versus-conservative trope, right? Maybe Epstein focused on liberty and Whelan on religion? Actually not really; (most of) their dispute is more about principle with pragmatism.

The Constitutional Dimension of Your Morning Commute

Over the last few years, D.C.-area drivers may have noticed the continual increases in toll fares on the Dulles Toll Road, the highway going through the Northern Virginia suburbs past Dulles Airport.  Indeed, since 2005, the toll for the typical round-trip commuter has more than quadrupled from $1.50 to $7.00, with more increases coming. These extra toll dollars haven’t been going for upkeep or expansion of the highway, however, but instead have been funding the over-budget and under-performing construction of the Metro’s Silver Line extension.

While originally slated to fund only 25% of that cost, commuters are now looking at paying more than half of the $5.6 billion (and counting) total cost, with years of construction still to come. The entity in charge of the construction project (and of gouging the toll road’s commuters) is the Metropolitan Washington Airports Authority, a public body established to govern Dulles and Reagan National airports at the behest of the Department of Transportation. But who’s actually in charge of the MWAA, and to whom can beleaguered commuters turn for relief? Although created by an interstate compact between D.C. and Virginia, the MWAA was granted all of its authority by an act of Congress, and the highways and airports that it oversees are federal property.

In many ways, the MWAA acts like a federal agency—in nearly all ways, in fact, except one important aspect: oversight. If federal assets and lawmaking power are being delegated to the MWAA, then there must be a means for the executive branch to “take care that the laws be faithfully executed.” The MWAA, however, is governed by a board of individuals whom the president has no meaningful ability to appoint, oversee, or control. This means that the MWAA has no political accountability for its decisions.

Having no other meaningful recourse, a group of Dulles Toll Road users sued the MWAA, arguing that its decrees violate the separation of powers. (Full disclosure: my wife and I just bought a house in Falls Church and will likely be using the road every now and again, though not on my commute to Cato.) The federal district and appeals courts—two of them, in an unusual development whereby the Federal Circuit transferred the case to the Fourth Circuit—decided that the MWAA’s nature as a state-created entity required the case to be dismissed. Moreover—get this—because the MWAA has no meaningful executive-branch control, there is no separation-of-powers issue. (This despite the federal government’s appearance as an amicus to argue that the MWAA exercises federal power and is subject to separation-of-powers scrutiny.)

Undeterred, the plaintiffs have petitioned the Supreme Court to hear their case. Cato has joined the American Highway Users Alliance and the Recreation Vehicle Industry Association on a brief supporting their petition. We argue that the Court should take the case because (1) there is a critical violation of the separation of powers, (2) there are already manifest harms resulting precisely from that violation, and (3) the federal government sees and treats the MWAA as a federal agency—but one without any meaningful accountability whatsoever.

It isn’t every day that a separation-of-powers case is as squarely presented as it is here, where commuters are being railroaded, so to speak, by a runaway agency whose conductor is absent. The executive branch has to take the blame not only for the MWAA’s policies, but its corruption, incompetence, and mismanagement.

The Supreme Court will decide whether to take Corr v. Metro. Washington Airports Authority later this fall.

War Powers in the Bush-Obama Era

Over at the National Interest, I have a piece examining President Obama’s claim, in his nationally televised address Wednesday night, that “I have the authority to address the threat from ISI[S].” 

Just where he’s supposed to get that authority isn’t clear—even to the Obama administration itself. In the last week, Obama officials have invoked (1) the War Powers Resolution, (2) the 2002 Authorization of Military Force (AUMF) against Iraq, and (3) the AUMF that Congress passed three days after 9/11. Any AUMF in a storm, it seems. 

As I explain in the article, not one of those claims survives a good-faith reading of the relevant legislative text. The WPR specifically forecloses any interpretation that it grants the president a “free pass” for elective bombing. And invoking the 2001 or 2002 AUMF for a new war against a new enemy over a decade later is the sort of statute-stretching that makes using TARP to bail out car companies look timid by comparison. 

You could describe the president’s approach as “three bad arguments in search of a theme.” Near as I can discern it, that theme is, “I’m not George W. Bush.” 

Apparently, it’s very important to Barack Obama to make clear that he doesn’t subscribe to the Congress-be-damned, I’m the “Decider” approach of his predecessor. Justifying war on a pure presidential power theory is for bad people like Dick Cheney and John Yoo, the legal architect of the Bush-Cheney “Terror Presidency.” (Though, of course, Bush went to Congress for authorization in Iraq and Afghanistan, even while denying he needed it).

Obama’s nothing like that, he’ll have you know. He’s the guy who told us on the campaign trail that “The separation of powers works. Our Constitution works. We will again set an example for the world that the law is not subject to the whims of stubborn rulers,” and affirmed that the president lacks the power to launch military attacks absent an “actual or imminent threat to the nation.”  (His eventual veep, Joe Biden, went further, promising to “impeach [Bush] if he takes the nation to war against Iran without congressional approval.”)

And yet, it’s hard to escape the echoes of Obama’s predecessor in Wednesday night’s speech, from his case for preventive war against an enemy that “if left unchecked… could pose a growing threat beyond that region—including to the United States,” to his promise to “support Iraq’s efforts to stand up National Guard Units” (When they stand up, we will stand down). As John Yoo himself said last week: “Obama has adopted the same view of war powers as the Bush administration.”

Tortured, bad-faith constructions of authorization passed by past Congresses for different wars can’t hide that underlying reality. Obama may not be George W. Bush, but he’s doing a pretty decent imitation.