Topic: Law and Civil Liberties

The Ongoing Situation in Ferguson

The grand jury’s decision not to indict Darren Wilson is not surprising because police officers are rarely prosecuted for on-duty shootings.  And in the rare instances in which criminal charges are ever brought against police, juries are reluctant to hold them accountable with a felony criminal charge.  A report on Cato’s Police Misconduct web site found a conviction rate of only 33% – roughly half the percentage in non-police, civilian prosecutions.  It remains to be seen whether Wilson will be held accountable in some other way.  We must remember that just because a jury has declined to bring criminal charges does not automatically mean that Wilson should return to duty.  Police commanders may conclude, given all the surrounding circumstances, that he may not be right for police work. Certainly his involvement in Brown’s death will create problems for prosecutors who will have to rely on his future work. Wilson’s testimony in future trials could be very problematic.

With respect to the unrest in Ferguson, there seems to be a reluctance to acknowledge the crimes that are being committed by thugs who are taking advantage of the situation.  It seems wildly inaccurate to say that protesters have started fires and are looting stores, for instance.  The people doing that are criminal troublemakers, not “protesters.”

Broad Reforms Needed to Stop Another Ferguson

The violence in Ferguson is inexcusable. But it should not be seen as primarily a reaction to the grand jury’s decision not to indict Darren Wilson. Rather, it should be seen as a reaction to years of racially charged policing and a discriminatory justice. Focusing on Officer Wilson’s culpability detracts from the bigger, nation-wide story: That every month there are innumerable police abuses throughout the country that go unnoticed and unreported, and, even if they are reported, the accused officers will likely never be disciplined, much less charged with a crime. Unfortunately, many of these abuses are disproportionately felt by people of color. Abuses can be small and nearly impossible to discover, such as stopping a car full of black men without probable cause, or they can be large and public, such as unjustifiably gunning down an unarmed black teenager. Sometimes the police action may be justified, and sometimes it may not, but the systems in place for determining culpability are egregiously biased in favor of police officers. Add to this an over-militarized police force that uses surplus military gear to violently break into homes 100 times per day, usually to only execute search warrants, and you have a recipe for disaster and an urgent need for reform. We should take advantage of this time of heightened awareness to reform a justice system that has too much power and too little accountability. Hopefully the violence in the street will not overshadow the legitimate protests, but I fear it may. 

A Tyranny of Silence: One Journalist’s Battle Against Modern-Day Restrictions on Free Speech

In their effort to provide the public with information about controversial yet important world events, journalists face constant intimidation. Whether it takes an extreme form—such as beheading or death threats—or a less violent one—like government censorship or enforced political correctness—it nonetheless constricts their ability to convey truthful information about key issues.

No one knows this better than Flemming Rose.

In 2006,  the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten published 12 cartoons of the prophet Muhammad, stoking the fires of a worldwide debate about what limits—if any—should constrain freedom of speech in the 21st century.

Rose, then the paper’s culture editor, defended the decision to print the drawings, quickly becoming the target of death threats and more, all of which he recounts in his new book, published by the Cato Institute.

In The Tyranny of Silence: How One Cartoon Ignited a Global Debate on the Future of Free Speech, Rose provides a personal account of an event that has shaped the global debate about what it means to be a citizen in a democracy and how to coexist in a world that is increasingly multicultural, multireligious, and multiethnic. Rose writes about the people and experiences that have influenced his understanding of the crisis—including meetings with dissidents from the former Soviet Union and ex-Muslims living in Europe—and takes a hard look at the slippery slope of attempts to limit free speech.

Rose’s message clearly resonates with lovers of liberty around the world. A special one-on-one conversation between Rose and Jonathan Rauch of the Brookings Institution, hosted at the Cato Institute in mid-November, saw over 100 in-person attendees with another 53 people tuning in online.

That impressive showing, however, was far outpaced by the mass response to Cato’s very first Reddit AMA, featuring Rose, which has been viewed well over 200,000 times since it was first published on November 13th, and continues to draw thousands of Reddit viewers every hour, almost two weeks later.

Rose’s AMA, entitled “I am a journalist and free speech advocate who has received hundreds of death threats since 2006. AMA,” quickly broke into the top ten discussions on the iAMA forum that week. As questions continues pouring in, Rose sat down for a second full hour session the day after the original session was scheduled.

You should definitely read the AMA yourself, but here are some highlights:

Enjoyed the discussion? You can read the whole thing here. And, of course, don’t forget to buy the book to read all of Rose’s harrowing tale.

Will the Third Time Be the Charm as the Supreme Court Again Takes Up a Controversial Theory of Racial “Discrimination”?

Title VIII of the Civil Rights Act, also known as the Fair Housing Act (FHA), makes it illegal to deny someone housing on the basis of race and other protected characteristics. Applicable to governments, private entities, and individuals, the FHA prohibits racially discriminatory practices in most if not all transactions relating to housing.

For example, a landlord can’t refuse to rent an apartment to an otherwise qualified tenant, solely on the basis of race. Similarly, banks and credit unions can’t take a borrower’s race into account when deciding whether and on what terms to extend credit for the purpose of buying a home.

While it’s clear that the FHA bars such discriminatory intent, it remains an open question whether it covers claims of “disparate impact,” where a neutral policy disproportionately harms members of the protected class. Under this theory, a landlord insisting that all applicants pass a credit check could be held liable if it turns out that applicants from one protected group are disproportionately unlikely to have a sufficiently high credit score. That landlord would be held liable even though a satisfactory credit score is required of all potential tenants, regardless of race, and the landlord’s only intent was the (perfectly legal) desire to avoid tenants who would get behind on their rent—not to deny housing to any particular group.

In the decades since the FHA was passed, disparate impact has been used by the government and private litigants to exact tens of millions of dollars in fines and settlements from banks and developers whose facially neutral policies were alleged to have excluded members of a protected class from the housing market. The problem is that unlike with other anti-discrimination laws, such as the Americans with Disabilities Act—which expressly prohibits policies that have a disparate impact—the text of the FHA explicitly forbids only intentional discrimination.

Obama’s Executive Action Is Good Policy, Bad Law, and Terrible Precedent

In an excellent speech combining reasoned policy arguments, appeals to American ideals, touching anecdotes, and well-selected Scripture, President Obama launched significant positive reforms to an immigration (non-)system that I’ve long called the worst part of the U.S. government (at least before Obamacare). Unfortunately, the centerpiece of this action, the legalization of around five million people who are in the country illegally—mostly the parents of U.S. citizens and green-card holders—is beyond the powers of the president acting alone.

To be sure, the relevant statutes give executive branch officials very broad discretion in how they enforce immigration laws. For example, Section 212(d)(5)(A) gives the Secretary of Homeland Security the “case-by-case” discretion to “parole” for “urgent humanitarian reasons or significant public benefit” an alien applying for admission. The authorization for “deferred action”—a decision not to seek deportation and concomittant authorization to reside and work legally, which was the basis for Obama’s 2012 Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program—is similarly broad.

And all modern presidents, from both parties, have used such discretionary powers. President Ronald Reagan’s Justice Department issued regulations to comport with the family-unity provisions of the 1986 Immigration Reform and Control Act. President George H.W. Bush temporarily expanded the category of undocumented children and spouses eligible to stay in the country before Congress formalized their status. President Bill Clinton deferred action on illegal immigrants from Haiti during that country’s convulsions in the 1990s—one example of many relating to executive discretion regarding nationals of war-torn nations—while President George W. Bush took various actions regarding illegal aliens in areas affected by Hurricane Katrina. These are just a few examples, but they’re all different from what President Obama is doing, both qualitatively—discrete and temporary versus open-ended and potentially timeless—and quantitatively. (See here and here for contrasts between Reagan/Bush and Obama.)

But don’t take it from me. Here are a few solid arguments that were made by a noted constitutional lawyer over the last several years:

  • “Comprehensive reform, that’s how we’re going to solve this problem…. Anybody who tells you it’s going to be easy or that [the president] can wave a magic wand and make it happen hasn’t been paying attention to how this town works.” (March 10, 2010)
  • “America is a nation of laws, which means [the President is] obligated to enforce the law…. With respect to the notion that [the president] can just suspend deportations through executive order, that’s just not the case, because there are laws on the books that Congress has passed…. [W]e’ve got three branches of government. Congress passes the law. The executive branch’s job is to enforce and implement those laws. And then the judiciary has to interpret the laws. There are enough laws on the books by Congress that are very clear in terms of how we have to enforce our immigration system that for me to simply through executive order ignore those congressional mandates would not conform with [Obama’s] appropriate role as President.” (March 28, 2011)
  • “If this was an issue that [the president] could do unilaterally, [Obama] would have done it a long time ago…. The way our system works is Congress has to pass legislation. [The president] then get[s] an opportunity to sign it and implement it.” (Jan. 30, 2013)

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.