Topic: Law and Civil Liberties

Justice Delayed Is Justice Denied

Four years is too long to wait for a ruling on a constitutional claim. Not for the ultimate vindication of a right that’s been summarily denied, mind you, but a mere ruling in a case asserting this right that has long ago been briefed and argued.

That’s the situation faced by my colleague Tom Palmer and his fellow plaintiffs in a lawsuit challenging the District of Columbia’s complete ban on carrying guns for self-defense outside the home. Palmer v. District of Columbia was one of many suits filed in the wake of the Supreme Court’s 2008 ruling in District of Columbia v. Heller, which found that the Second Amendment protects an individual right to keep and bear arms. (Recall that two years ago the Seventh Circuit struck down a similar ban in Chicago, the only other place in the country where there is no legal way to exercise the right to carry – forget places like New York, New Jersey, and Maryland, where it’s possible in theory even if local law enforcement can, and always do, deny requests in practice.)

This case has now been pending for more than four years without a resolution of cross-motions for summary judgment – both parties agreed that the case can be decided by the judge on the law, without fact-finding or a trial. The docket (see pages 37-42 of this document) is one of the weirdest I’ve ever seen for a federal case: Palmer was filed in August 2009 and a hearing was held in January 2010, at which point Judge Henry Kennedy took the case under advisement. In July 2011, Chief Justice John Roberts (!) reassigned the case from Judge Kennedy to Judge Frederick J. Scullin, Jr. of the Northern District of New York. (In other words, Judge Kennedy sat on the case for 18 months and then retired.) There was a status conference soon after, then a motion hearing scheduled for August 2012 (more than a year later), which was rescheduled for October 2012, after which Judge Scullin took the case under advisement, and then… nothing. Plaintiffs’ counsel Alan Gura (my friend and sometime co-author) filed a motion to expedite in August 2013, and then a petition for a writ of mandamus – a request that a higher court command a government official to do something – with the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit in October 2013.

Clay Conrad on Jury Nullification

A few weeks ago, the Drug Policy Alliance had its annual convention in Denver.  I was on a panel that addressed jury nullification.  The other panelists were Clay Conrad (author, Jury Nullification: The Evolution of a Doctrine), Kirsten Tynan (Fully Informed Jury Association), and Steve Silverman (Flex Your Rights).  Steve Silverman transcribed the discussion.  Here is an excerpt:

Clay Conrad

Clay Conrad: Jury NullificationToday judges tell jurors to commit injustice in the name of the law, and we call that progress  –Clay Conrad

Clay Conrad is currently a lawyer in private practice.  He discusses the history and background of jury nullification. (Jump video of Clay’s talk.)

What is Jury Nullification?

“Jury nullification is the act of a criminal trial jury in refusing to convict on conscientious grounds in spite of proof of guilt beyond a reasonable doubt, because they think the law is unjust, the law is misapplied, or the punishment is inappropriate.”

“Juries have always had [a political] role. That’s what the founders intended to protect in the 6th Amendment, and that’s what’s guaranteed in the constitutions of all 50 states.”

“The understanding of the phrase ‘judges of both fact and law’ has changed over the years because our understanding of where the law comes from has changed. Back in that period of history, people believed in natural law doctrine. That was the generally accepted view of where the law comes from. Law was considered part of natural science to be discovered.”

“Today we have a much more technocratic understanding of the law. Natural law doctrine has given way to a positive, formalistic conception of law. But under natural law doctrine when you say the jury is the finder of fact and law, it means they can determine where justice lies, because justice is what the law was. It was the understanding of what was just that was their understanding of the law.”

“Today judges tell jurors to commit injustice in the name of law, and we call that progress.”

Cato will soon be releasing an e-version of Clay Conrad’s book.

Ohio Legislator: Your Kids Belong to the State

In the wake of a tragedy, there is a natural and understandable desire to prevent something similar from ever happening again. Unfortunately, legislators too often respond hastily to the passionate demands that they “do something” without thinking through the consequences of their actions. This phenomenon gave rise to the morbid truism that “dead kids make bad laws,” such as “Kyleigh’s Law” in New Jersey. In the wake of a fatal car accident involving a teenage driver, the state legislature passed a law requiring teens to drive vehicles with special decals to make it easier for police to enforce an 11:00pm curfew. When irate parents raised concerns that the decals put their children at risk of being followed by pedophiles, 13 legislators who had initially voted for the law filed a bill to repeal it.

The story that gave rise to “Teddy’s Law” (Senate Bill 248) in Ohio is similarly heartbreaking and the legislative response has been similarly misguided. After teachers reported their suspicions about abuse to Children’s Services, Teddy Foltz-Tedesco’s mother pulled him out of school under the pretense that she would homeschool him. Instead, her boyfriend, Zaryl Bush, tortured and killed the 14-year-old Teddy. Bush is now serving life in prison.

Teddy’s story is a tragic failure of the system to protect him after years of warning signs and reports from neighbors. However, the legislators’ response goes in the wrong direction. Rather than address why social services failed to act on repeated reports of abuse, “Teddy’s Law” treats all would-be homeschooler parents as child abusers until proven innocent. The legislation further assumes that all children belong to the state, as it requires families to seek permission from the government to homeschool their own children. They would have to submit to background checks and a social services investigation in which parents and children are interviewed separately. The law grants the agency the authority to deny the right to homeschool if it “determines it is not in the best interest of the child,” without providing any guidelines as to how that determination should be made.

And while it unconstititionally treats all parents as possible criminals, the Home School Legal Defense Association argues that “Teddy’s Law” likely would not have even saved Teddy:

Even if, as SB 248 would require, his mother had sought social service’s approval to homeschool and was denied, he still would have been at home subject to abuse after school. Regardless of where he went to school, Teddy was left by authorities in a home where they knew abuse was occurring.

Clearly, SB 248 would not have saved Teddy.

SB 248 turns fundamental American values upside down. Parents have been deemed by the United States Supreme Court in Parham v. JR to act in their children’s best interests. In Pierce v. Society of Sisters, the Court ruled that parents have a fundamental right to direct the education of their children. This law replaces parents with unqualified social workers to make educational decisions for children.

Moreover, as HSLDA notes, by treating all parents as child abusers, “Teddy’s Law” diverts scarce resources away from focusing on parents actually suspected of child abuse. Instead of protecting children like Teddy, the misguided law would make it more likely that future Teddys would fall through the cracks.

Vigilantes in Mexico: Another Reason to Repudiate Drug Prohibition

A relatively new development in Mexico’s ongoing drug wars is the increasingly active role of vigilante groups.  That is especially true in Michoacán and other states in the western portion of the country.  I discuss that development in a new article over at the National Interest Online.

The initial temptation might be to cheer on the vigilantes.  After all, the rise of “self defense militias” indicates that a growing number of Mexicans are now willing to resist the power of the brutal cartels and fight back, if necessary.  But for two reasons one ought to resist the temptation to applaud.  First, the nature of many of the militias is exceedingly murky.  Some of them may even be front groups for rival trafficking organizations seeking to displace the dominant cartel in a particular region.

Second, even in cases where the vigilante groups are genuine anti-cartel forces, the growth of vigilantism is a worrisome sign.  It is an emphatic vote of “no confidence” in the government’s ability to maintain order and the rule of law.  That is similar to what occurred in Colombia from the late 1980s through the early years of the 21st century.  As the power of drug gangs and their radical leftist guerrilla allies surged, frightened and angry Colombians formed right-wing militias in many rural areas.  But some of those groups soon became little more than death squads, and for a time, Colombia seemed to be heading down the path toward becoming a failed state.  We certainly do not want to see a comparable trend in our next door neighbor.

The rise of vigilantism in Mexico is yet another reminder of the disastrous consequences of drug prohibition.  That strategy greatly raises the retail price of a product that a large number of consumers insist on using.  Creating such a lucrative black market premium fills the coffers of those willing to defy the law to traffic in that product.  And the vast majority of individuals and groups willing to take that path are ruthless criminal elements.  Prohibition, in short, empowers and enriches thugs.

Washington’s enthusiasm for and insistence upon preserving an international drug prohibition policy has caused enormous problems for Mexico and other drug-source countries. As the leading consumer of illegal drugs and the most powerful member of the international community, the United States largely determines the direction of policy on this issue.  Fortunately, there are signs of changing attitudes on both the domestic and international fronts.  Public opinion surveys show that a majority of Americans are now in favor of legalizing marijuana, the mildest of illegal drugs, and such states as Colorado and Washington have already adopted modest legalization measures.  Uruguay has gone even further, legalizing not only the possession and use of marijuana but also commerce in that drug.

Uruguay’s course is the correct one.  It’s not enough to legalize drug possession—the trade itself needs to be taken out of the hands of criminal syndicates.  And if we wish to defund the cartels, abolishing prohibition must apply to all currently illegal drugs, not just marijuana.  Our policy makers need to internalize the lesson that prohibition not only does not work, it causes horrific unintended consequences.  That was true of America’s foolish crusade against alcohol in the 1920s and early 1930s, and it is true in spades of the current crusade against illegal drugs.  The surge of vigilantism in Mexico and the threat of chaos it embodies should spur policy makers to finally recognize that reality.

The Constitution Still Applies on College Campuses

Few could imagine a more troubling free speech and due process case than that of Hayden Barnes. Barnes, a student at Valdosta State University in Georgia, peacefully protested the planned construction of a $30 million campus parking garage that was the pet project of university president Ronald Zaccari. A “personally embarrassed” Zaccari didn’t take kindly to that criticism and vowed to retaliate.

Ignoring longstanding legal precedent, the Valdosta State University Student Handbook (a legally binding contract), and the counsel of fellow administrators, Zaccari ordered staff to look into Barnes’s academic records, his medical history, his religion, and his registration with the VSU Access Office. The federal district court found that Barnes’s due process rights had been violated and denied Zaccari qualified immunity from liability for his actions, but also interpreted Barnes’s First Amendment claim narrowly and sharply reduced his award of attorney’s fees.

In the first appeal of this case to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Eleventh Circuit (decided in 2012), Cato joined a brief filed by the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education on behalf of 15 organizations arguing that qualified immunity was inappropriate given Zaccari’s brazen violation of Barnes’s constitutional rights to free speech and due process. The Eleventh Circuit affirmed the denial of qualified immunity, restating that malicious public officials aren’t entitled to special protections when they clearly violate the rights of another.

Now again before the Eleventh Circuit on the question of damages, Barnes is appealing the district court’s narrow interpretation of his First Amendment claim and the way it handled attorney’s fees. Cato has again joined with FIRE and numerous other groups on a brief supporting the full vindication of Barnes’s freedom of speech.

In this latest brief, we argue that the district court’s ruling threatens to encourage further First Amendment violations by inexplicably letting the defendants off on lesser claims (which weren’t even pled)—even though Barnes’s complaint clearly set forth detailed allegations of First Amendment-violating retaliation. We also argue that the district court erroneously applied a severe across-the-board reduction of its attorney’s fees award, even though that amount was supposed to address costs already deducted from the total. The court even granted reverse attorney’s fees for some of the defendants who were held not liable, going so far as calling those claims frivolous solely because they were unsuccessful.

The Eleventh Circuit should rework the attorney’s fees award, especially given the incalculable public benefit derived from such suits. Students who stand up for their constitutional rights are rare, and imposing unfavorable fee awards will only make it more difficult for them to secure strong representation. (Barnes’s counsel is the renowned First Amendment lawyer, and friend of Cato, Robert Corn-Revere.) While the district court did acknowledge that Hayden Barnes’s First Amendment rights were violated, its remedy consisted of half-hearted half-measures  We hope that the Eleventh Circuit corrects that mistake, sending university officials the loud, clear message that constitutional protections don’t stop at the edge of campus.

D.C. Court: Smith Is Not Good Law

In debates about the NSA’s mass surveillance of all our phone calling, pro-government lawyers have often tried to play a trump card called Smith v. Maryland. Smith is a 1978 Supreme Court decision as right for our times as laws requiring public buildings to provide spittoons. But lawyering rightly relies heavily on precedent, so there it was, the argument that people don’t have a constitutional interest in data about their phone calling because a suspected burglar and obscene phone-caller didn’t have such an interest back in 1976.

D.C. district court judge Richard Leon ruled today that Smith is not an appropriate precedent for considering the constitutionality of the NSA’s mass surveillance program. “[T]he Smith pen register and the ongoing NSA Bulk Telephony Metadata Program,” he concluded, “have so many significant distinctions between them that I cannot possibly navigate these uncharted Fourth Amendment waters using as my North Star a case that predates the rise of cell phones.”

When phone calling was home- or office-bound and relatively rare, people’s interest in the information about their calling was not as great as it is today. Cell phones now accompany most people everywhere they go every single day. “[T]he ubiquity of phones has dramatically altered the quantity of information that is now available and, more importantly, what that information can tell the Government about people’s lives.” (emphases omitted)

Judge Leon applied the “reasonable expectation of privacy” test in finding that he is likely to determine that the NSA’s data seizures are a Fourth Amendment violation, even though that standard has been thrown into doubt by recent Supreme Court decisions. But what is important is that his decision breaks the circular logic adopted by the panels of judges ratifying mass domestic surveillance under the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act. These panels believed they could act in secret because of the premise that Americans don’t have a constitutional interest in data about their calls. Their secret operations barred Americans from contesting that premise. And the band played on. Until someone leaked this mass domestic spying to the public.

Judge Leon’s assessment of the government’s interest is notable. He picked up on the fact that the government’s collection of data about all our calls is simply to make things a little quicker when they want to do an investigation.

“[T]he Government’s interest,” he writes, “is not merely to investigate potential terrorists, but rather, to do so faster than other methods might allow. … Yet … the Government does not cite a single instance in which analysis of the NSA’s bulk metadata collection actually stopped an imminent attack, or otherwise aided the Government in achieving any objective that was time-sensitive in nature.” (emphases omitted)

Databasing of all our calls is a convenience and not a necessity. That stacks up poorly against the privacy costs all Americans suffer by having their phone-calling catalogued in government databases.

There will almost certainly be an appeal, and there will be more cases coming up through the courts that explore the many dimensions of this issue. But now we can tell our lawyer friends who have been a little too slavish to precedent that Smith v. Maryland is not good law.

Today Is Bill of Rights Day!

Today is Bill of Rights Day. So it’s an appropriate time to consider the state of our constitutional safeguards.

Let’s consider each amendment in turn.

The First Amendment says that “Congress shall make no law… abridging the freedom of speech.” Government officials, however, have insisted that they can gag recipients of “national security letters” and censor broadcast ads in the name of campaign finance reform.

The Second Amendment says the people have the right “to keep and bear arms.” Government officials, however, make it difficult to keep a gun in the home and make it a crime for a citizen to carry a gun for self-protection.

The Third Amendment says soldiers may not be quartered in our homes without the consent of the owners.  This safeguard is one of the few that is in fine shape – so we can pause here for a laugh.

The Fourth Amendment says the people have the right to be secure against unreasonable searches and seizures. Government officials, however, insist that they can conduct commando-style raids on our homes and treat automobile drivers like prison inmates by conducting body cavity searches.

The Fifth Amendment says that private property shall not be taken “for public use without just compensation.” Government officials, however, insist that they can use eminent domain to take away our property and give it to other private parties who covet it.

The Sixth Amendment says that in criminal prosecutions, the person accused is guaranteed a right to trial by jury. Government officials, however, insist that they can punish people who want to have a trial—“throwing the book” at those who refuse to plead guilty—which explains why 95 percent of the criminal cases never go to trial.

The Seventh Amendment guarantees the right to a jury trial in civil cases where the controversy “shall exceed twenty dollars.” Government officials, however, insist that they can impose draconian fines on people without jury trials.

The Eighth Amendment prohibits cruel and unusual punishments. Government officials, however, insist that a life sentence for a nonviolent drug offense is not cruel.

The Ninth Amendment says that the enumeration in the Constitution of certain rights should not be construed to deny or disparage others “retained by the people.” Government officials, however, insist that they will decide for themselves what rights, if any, will be retained by the people.

The Tenth Amendment says that the powers not delegated to the federal government are reserved to the states, or to the people. Government officials, however, insist that they will decide for themselves what powers they possess, and have extended federal control over health care, crime, education, and other matters the Constitution reserves to the states and the people.

It’s a disturbing snapshot, to be sure, but not one the Framers of the Constitution would have found altogether surprising. They would sometimes refer to written constitutions as mere “parchment barriers,” or what we call “paper tigers.”  They nevertheless concluded that having a written constitution was better than having nothing at all.

The key point is this: A free society does not just “happen.”  It has to be deliberately created and deliberately maintained.  Eternal vigilance is the price of liberty.  To remind our fellow citizens of their responsibility in that regard, the Cato Institute has distributed more than five million copies of our pocket Constitution.  At this time of year, it’ll make a great stocking stuffer.

Let’s enjoy the holidays–but let’s also resolve to be more vigilant about defending our Constitution.  To learn more about Cato’s work in defense of the Constitution, go here.  To support the work of Cato, go here.