Topic: Law and Civil Liberties

Wall Street Journal on Jury Nullification

Today, the Wall Street Journal has an article about recent developments to revive the doctrine of jury nullification.

Here’s an excerpt:

Juries in criminal cases in the U.S. have long had the power to acquit using the nullification principle. But New Hampshire is the only state in recent years to take steps to ensure juries in the state are aware of the concept.

The New Hampshire bill is a follow-up to one the state legislature passed in 2012 that explicitly says lawyers are allowed to tell jurors about nullification. That law has led to more defense lawyers urging juries to disregard the law if they find it unfair or overly harsh, say several New Hampshire lawyers.

The action that New Hampshire has taken on nullification has raised hopes of a revival of the idea among some constitutional scholars, defense lawyers and legislators in other states who view it as a way to boost civic engagement and cut down on what they see as overly aggressive prosecutions.

“What New Hampshire is doing represents the most significant development with jury nullification in a long, long time,” said Tim Lynch, the director of the libertarian Cato Institute’s criminal-justice project. “We’re hopeful that this marks the start of a resurgence.”

Not everyone shares his enthusiasm. Nullification is an “extremely dangerous notion,” said Scott Burns, executive director of the National District Attorneys Association.

I understand ‘disagree with’ and ‘have reservations about,’ but ‘extremely dangerous’? Please. 

Remember all the discretion that resides with the government. The police officer who can opt to tell the drunk: “quiet down and go home to sleep,” instead of taking him in for disorderly conduct. The prosecutor who can opt to dismiss charges–even if another, less busy prosecutor might file those charges. Jury nullification is about allowing the jury some discretion.

Cato has the most comprehensive book on the subject. Related items here and here.

Can Litigation Save American Education?

Next week, the case of Vergara v. California goes to trial. The question being litigated is whether or not the state’s laws on teacher tenure (“permanent employment”), dismissals, and last-in-first-out layoffs disproportionately harm poor minority kids, thereby violating California’s constitution.

Plaintiffs in the case feel they have the evidence to prove this point (see the links above), and so far the courts have acknowledged that their view is at least plausible. Certainly these laws are incompatible with efforts to maximize the quality of the teaching workforce. And it does seem as though they do the most damage in districts and schools serving the most disadvantaged kids. But will a victory by the plaintiffs in this lawsuit do substantial and lasting good?

That’s less obvious. For one thing, these employment practices can be found in many places where they are not codified in state statutes.They are employment guarantees and benefits of the sort that are often sought and obtained by teachers’ unions in collective bargaining with districts. So getting rid of the laws won’t necessarily get rid of the practices.

More broadly, over a dozen states have explicit constitutional provisions demanding that they create “uniform” education systems—a more stringent equality requirement than is contained in California’s constitution—and it’s not at all obvious that this seemingly strict legal guarantee has made any difference in the quality of educational opportunity in those states.

It’s easy to empathize with the desire to see state legal precedents enforced, and bad laws overturned. But neither state constitutions nor legal precedents have been able to secure either the uniformity or the quality of American education systems, and there is no reason to expect that to change no matter how the Vergara case is decided. More than half a century after the victory in Brown v. Board of Education, poor African-American kids are  still disproportionately likely to be assigned to lousy schools. I wrote about this 11 years ago, and little has changed since then. Lawsuits can redress specific legal wrongs, like compelled segregation, but they can’t produce educational outcomes that require the coordination and relentless dedication of thousands or even millions of people, year after year.

For those who really want to maximize the quality of education offered to disadvantaged and minority students—indeed to all students—the best hope is to study the different sorts of education systems that have been tried around the world and across history, and then ensure universal access to the best among them: a free educational marketplace.

 

Scalia the Unlikely Swing Vote in Big Workers Rights Case

Today the Supreme Court heard oral argument in Harris v. Quinn, the case regarding the forced unionization of home healthcare workers in Illinois (and by extension the 10 other states with similar laws). To me this is a pretty easy case: just because the state is paying these workers through its Medicaid program doesn’t mean it employs them – just like my doctor isn’t employed by my health-insurance company – which means that it can’t force them to pay dues to a union that negotiates Medicaid reimbursement rates. 

Like most of the labor cases in recent years, however, this one is likely to go 5-4. The so-called “liberal” justices were all openly hostile to the workers’ position, so the challengers will have to sweep the rest of the bench of to win. Fortunately, such an outcome is more than possible – though much will depend on the thinking of Justice Scalia, who was hostile to everyone.

The argument began in a frustrating manner, with a focus on the right to petition the government for redress of grievances, and whether a union asking for a pay increase was different from an individual public-sector employee (a policeman, say) asking for the same raise. Justice Scalia correctly pointed out that this wasn’t really the right at issue here, but he further confused the matter in distinguishing the right to petition from the First Amendment (when in fact that right is found in that amendment). He meant to invoke the First Amendment right to the freedoms of speech and association, but also indicated that he was prepared to give the government plenty of leeway when it was acting as an employer.

Justice Alito was the most skeptical of the union/government position, pointing out that unions don’t necessarily act in all workers’ interest, even when they succeed in negotiating certain “gains.” For example, a productive young worker might prefer merit pay to tenure provisions or a defined-benefit pension plan. Chief Justice Roberts was similarly concerned about administering the line between those union expenses that could be “charged” even to nonmembers (because related to collective bargaining) versus those that can’t because they involve political activity. Justice Kennedy, meanwhile, noted that in this era of growing government, increasing the size and cost of the public workforce is more than simple bargaining over wages and benefits; it’s “a fundamental issue of political belief.” In no other context could a government seek to compel its citizens to subsidize such speech. A worker who disagrees with the union view on these political questions is still made to subsidize it. 

It was also heartening to see that the continuing vitality of Abood v. Detroit Board of Education (1977) was in play. That case established that, in the interest of “labor peace,” a state could mandate its employees’ association with a union, forcing them to subsidize that union’s speech and submit to it as their exclusive representative for negotiating with the government regarding their employment. (Abood simply assumed, without further analysis, that the Supreme Court had recognized labor peace as a compelling interest.)

Justices Breyer and Kagan were particularly concerned that so many employers and unions had relied on the Abood doctrine over the years, so touching it would implicate significant reliance interests. But overruling or severely limiting Abood would only be one more step in the Court’s trend of protecting individual workers from having to support political activities. More workers could thus opt out of supporting a labor union – but if unions truly provide valuable services for their members, few workers would do so.

Of course, the Court could shy away from touching Abood and simply rule that being paid by state funds alone isn’t sufficient to make someone a state employee. Such a position might more easily attract Justice Scalia’s vote – and that of Chief Justice Roberts, who goes out of his way to rule narrowly – even if it leaves unresolved some of the contradictions at the heart of the jurisprudence in this area, such as the duty of courts to police the murky line between “chargeable” and “nonchargeable” union expenses.

For more on the case, see George Will’s recent op-ed and the Wall Street Journal’s editorial.

Good First Steps, But Real Surveillance Reform Will Require More

The president’s speech on surveillance today proposed some welcome first steps toward appropriately limiting an expanding surveillance state — notably, an end to the NSA’s bulk phone metadata program in its current form, and a recognition that judges, not NSA analysts, must determine whose records will be scrutinized.

The details are important, however. Obama’s speech left open the possibility that bulk collection might continue with some third party — which would in effect be an arm of government — as a custodian. If records are left with phone carriers, on the other hand, it’s important to resist any new legal mandate that would require longer or more extensive retention of private data than ordinary business purposes require.

It was disappointing, however, to see that many of the recommendations offered by Obama’s own Surveillance Review Group were either neglected or specifically rejected. While the unconstitutional permanent gag orders attached to National Security Letters will be time-limited, they will continue to be issued by FBI agents, not judges, for sensitive financial and communications records.

Nor did the president address NSA’s myopic efforts to degrade the security of the Internet by compromising the encryption systems relied on by millions of innocent users. And it is also important to realize that changing one controversial program doesn’t alter the broader section 215 authority, which can still be used to collect other types of records in bulk—and for all we know, may already be used for that purpose.

Most fundamentally, Congress must now act to cement these reforms in legislation — and to extend them —to ensure safeguards implemented by one president cannot be secretly undone by another.

In Maryland, A Left-Right Alliance on Surveillance

Some issues lend themselves well to cooperation between liberals and conservatives who can both see the need to limit the arbitrary power of government. One prime prospect: the dangers to individual privacy of government surveillance run amok. This week in Annapolis several members of the Maryland legislature held a press conference to announce that they would push for an agenda of reforms setting out rules for law enforcement’s use of techniques including phone location tracking, automatic license plate readers, email surveillance, and drones. The group is led by Sen. Jamie Raskin (D-Silver Spring), one of the strongest liberals in the state legislature, and Sen. Chris Shank (R-Hagerstown), one of the strongest conservatives. Here (quoting verbatim) is the summary provided by the ACLU of Maryland

  • Email surveillance. Legislation to require that law enforcement go before a neutral arbiter and prove that the information they are obtaining is likely to turn up evidence of a crime before intercepting and accessing online data.
  • Location Tracking. Legislation to require that law enforcement get a warrant based on probable cause prior to obtaining mobile phone tracking information.
  • Drones. Legislation to impose limits and regulations on aerial surveillance that would protect against police fishing expeditions, and abusive use of these tools.
  • Automatic License Plate Recorders. Legislation that would keep law enforcement from storing records of license plates and locations that are not ‘hits’ against any database.

Others sponsoring the bills include Democratic delegates from Baltimore City and Montgomery County as well as Del. Mike Smigiel (R-Eastern Shore), a prominent supporter of Second Amendment rights. 

Looks like something worth keeping an eye on.

Obama Allows Congress to Participate in Lawmaking

This headline appeared in Thursday’s Washington Post:

Obama allows Congress a voice in NSA

The story reports that President Obama “will call on Congress to help determine the [NSA surveillance] program’s future. Which is good because Article I, Section 1, of the Constitution of the United States provides that:

All legislative Powers herein granted shall be vested in a Congress of the United States.

Deciding the scope and extent of any federal surveillance powers is clearly a legislative matter. Subject to the constraints imposed by the Constitution’s limits on federal powers, legislative powers are vested in Congress, not the president. How can reporters (and headline writers) write so cavalierly about the president “giving” Congress a chance to “weigh in” on matters of fundamental law? This headline should be as jarring as one reading, “Obama plans to give Supreme Court a say in fate of NSA program.” It isn’t up to the president. The legislative branch is empowered by the Constitution to make law, and the judicial branch is empowered to strike down legislative and executive actions not authorized by the Constitution. The president’s job is to “take Care that the Laws be faithfully executed.”

Arthur Schlesinger Jr. wrote that the rise of presidential power ‘‘was as much a matter of congressional acquiescence as of presidential usurpation.’’ It’s time for Congress to stop acquiescing. And for journalists to remind readers of the powers granted to presidents in the Constitution.

What the DEA and Drug Traffickers Have in Common

In today’s WaPo, the DEA’s Chief of Operations James L. Capra claims that: 

the movement to decriminalize the sale of pot in the United States will have severe consequences. … Every part of the world where this has been tried, it has failed time and time again.

Capra’s assertion is so ignorant of the facts that it merits little comment; instead, read Glenn Greenwald’s Cato study on decriminalization in Portugal, which shows just the opposite of Capra’s claim.

Capra’s statement about “severe consequences” is not entirely wrong, however; legalization will put thousands of DEA and other law enforcement officials out of work! Perhaps, therefore, the government should outlaw food, clothing, and shelter; then we could emply billions in the attempt to enforce those laws.

An interesting side note is that, like law enforcement officials, drug traffickers also fear legalization. See minute 4:00 of this video.