Topic: Law and Civil Liberties

Politics in Massachusetts Just Got a Bit Freer

Regular readers might recall a Supreme Court brief Cato filed last year in SBA List v. Driehaus, which involved a challenge to an Ohio law that made it a crime to “lie” about a politician during an election. That case predictably resulted in the law being overturned as an unconstitutional violation of the First Amendment.

But that wasn’t the end of the story. Because SBA List reached the Supreme Court on procedural grounds – and the law was only declared unconstitutional by the district court on remand – the ruling didn’t automatically invalidate similar laws across the nation. Over a dozen states still have criminal laws almost identical to Ohio’s, letting thin-skinned politicians haul their critics into court whenever they think politics attacks against them are unfair.

One of these states was Massachusetts. Earlier this year, Cato filed an amicus brief in the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court to argue that there was no way that the law could withstand any level of First Amendment scrutiny. The SJC agreed. In an opinion released this past Thursday, the court invalidated the law for being “antagonistic to the fundamental right of free speech,” and chilling “the very exchange of ideas that gives meaning to our electoral system.”  

While a victory, the facts of Commonwealth v. Lucas show just how odious and dangerous these law are in practice. The case began with Brian Mannal, a sitting state representative. When he was last up for reelection (he won by 205 votes), Mannal took issue with a series of flyers distributed by his critics.  Instead of engaging in a debate about the underlying issues, Mannal initiated criminal proceedings against the treasurer of the organization that published the flyers. This demonstrates one of the most dangerous aspects of these laws: any politician whose ego has been bruised can file a complaint in order to silence and intimidate opponents. 

States Must Preserve Voter Equality

When you go to vote for state legislators, you don’t expect that some other voters in your state will have their votes weighed double yours, just because they happen to be neighbors with people who can’t vote. But that, in effect, is what Texas is trying to do.

When Texas draws its state legislative districts, it looks only to equalize the total population in each district, ignoring how many of those people are actually citizens of voting age. The result is a plan that would create one senate district where 74% of the residents can vote and another where only 47% can vote. Depending on where you live, you might be one of 383,000 people who get to choose a senator, or one of 611,000.

This is a blatant violation of the principle of “one person, one vote” (OPOV) that the Supreme Court established 50 years ago under the Fourteenth Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause: no matter where you live in your state, your vote should have the same weight. Nonetheless, a three-judge federal district court upheld the plan, following a flawed Fifth Circuit precedent holding that the Equal Protection Clause was ambiguous as to whether total population or voter population should be equalized.

But if a state really only has to care about total population, it could create districts of 10%, 5%, or even 1% eligible voters—and the tiny groups of voters in those districts would each be able to choose one senator all the same. Cato, joined by the Reason Foundation, has filed an amicus brief in the Supreme Court arguing against this absurd result, focusing on rebuttals to two supposed justifications for allowing states to violate OPOV.

First, many have argued that the method by which members of Congress are apportioned to the states—according to total population—provides an important “federal analogy” that justifies using total population to allocate political power within a state. But history shows that the federal rule was created to solve a uniquely federal problem. Since states define suffrage for themselves, a rule based on eligible voters would provide states with a perverse incentive to expand suffrage as much as possible (for example, by lowering their voting age to 12) and thus artificially acquire more representatives.

States, however, are not mini-nations; one county in Texas cannot lower its voting age below that of the other counties in a bid to gain more state senators. The primary justification for the federal rule simply does not exist at the intra-state level. In fact, the true federal analogy is to that part of the Fourteenth Amendment which was designed to remove the newly freed but still disenfranchised slaves from their states’ apportionment total, so as not to give more voting power to their former owners. The Fourteenth Amendment confirms the principle that when unfranchised persons are not “virtually” represented by the votes of their neighbors, they should not be used to give more weight to the voting power of those neighbors.

Second, besides the misunderstood federal analogy, it has also been argued that Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act, as currently interpreted, requires states to gerrymander districts along racial lines in ways that will make low-percentage-voter districts inevitable. But a statute can’t trump the Equal Protection Clause. States should not be tied in knots with statutory requirements when drawing their districts such that OPOV is reduced to, at best, a secondary or tertiary consideration.

To the extent statutory barriers are preventing states from treating their voters equally, the Supreme Court must remove them. In this case, the Court should to equalize the weight of each vote.

The Supreme Court will hear the case of Evenwel v. Abbott late this fall.

No, There Isn’t A “Dred Scott Case” of Our Times

Former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum, who has declared “I am not a libertarian, and I fight very strongly against libertarian influence within the Republican Party and the conservative movement,” is also unlikely to win any prizes for temperateness of rhetoric. Last night at the Fox News debate he likened the Supreme Court’s jurisprudence on gay marriage to the infamous case of Dred Scott v. Sandford, a line he’s been using for a while.

Police Misconduct — The Worst Case in July

Over at Cato’s Police Misconduct web site, we have selected the worst case for the month of July.  It was the case involving Officer Eric Paull.

Paull worked as a sergeant for the Akron Police Department.  He also taught a course on criminal justice at the University of Akron.  One of his students was a single mom.  According to news reports, the woman (name withheld) says they started a romantic relationship.  But after a year or so, that relationship turned ugly and violent.  After he beat her up on a Thanksgiving holiday, Paull told her that he was legally “untouchable.”

She believed him–so she did not file a complaint right after the beating.  Instead, she just tried to avoid him.  But Paull stalked her and her boyfriends, using police databases to discover addresses, phone numbers, and vehicle information.  Paull would also text pictures of himself holding his gun and leave bullets on their automobiles.  There were threats to kill the woman and her boyfriend.  The woman did lodge complaints with the police and would later obtain a protective order, but the police department seemed indifferent.  Paull would not stop.

Finally, after months of harassment, Paull was charged with stalking, aggravated menacing, felonious assault, and burglary, among other charges.  His trial is expected to begin in a few weeks.

Paul Hlynsky, the police union leader, says he will try to have Paull back on the police force if he can avoid a felony conviction.

Results from the Libertarianism vs. Conservatism Post-Debate Survey

The Cato Institute and Heritage Foundation recently co-hosted a debate in which interns from both organizations debated whether conservatism or libertarianism is the better philosophy. At the conclusion of the debate, the Cato Institute conducted a survey of debate attendees finding important similarities and striking differences between millennial conservative and libertarian attendees.

Full LvCDebate Attendee Survey results found here

The survey finds that libertarian and conservative millennial attendees were similar in skepticism of government economic intervention and regulation but were dramatically different in their stances toward immigration, LGBT inclusion, national security, privacy, foreign policy and perceptions of racial bias in the criminal justice system.

While the survey is not a representative sample, this survey offers a snapshot of engaged conservative and libertarian millennial “elites” who have higher levels of education and political information, and who chose to come to this event. To date, little information exists on young conservative and libertarian elites. Since these attendees are politically engaged millennials, their responses may provide some indication of the direction they may take both movements in the future.

Eighty-percent of millennial respondents self-identified as either conservative (41%) or libertarian (39%): This post will focus on these conservative and libertarian millennial attendees.

The Federal Reserve’s War on Drugs

That’s right: the Federal Reserve is now in the business of enforcing the U.S. government’s drug laws, even if that means making a mockery of both state governments’ right to set their own drug policies and the Fed’s own governing statutes.

The Fed’s involvement in drug prohibition became official last month, when the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City informed Denver’s Fourth Corner Credit Union — a non-profit cooperative formed by Colorado’s state-licensed cannabis manufacturers — of its decision to deny its application for a master account.  Since asking any sort of depository institution to operate without such an account, and hence without access to the Fed’s payment facilities, including its check clearing, wire transfer, and ACH facilities, is like asking a commercial airline to make do with propeller-driven biplanes, and established banks don’t want the extra hassle that comes with dealing with pot growers, the Kansas City Fed’s action forces Colorado’s marijuana industry to do business on a cash-only basis, with all the extra risk and inconvenience that entails.[1]

The Fourth Corner Credit Union isn’t taking this sitting down.  On the contrary: it is suing the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City.  Your typical civil action isn’t exactly a page turner.  But this one reads like a chiller, largely because that’s exactly what it is.  If you like a good horror story, I suggest you read the whole thing.  But for the sake of those in a hurry, here are the Cliff Notes.   Unless otherwise indicated, the details are as alleged by the lawsuit itself.

The basic legal facts as set forth in that document are, first, that it is the essence of the so-called “dual” banking system that both state governments and the Federal government have the right to grant charters to banks and other depository institutions, and, second, that, according to the 1980 Monetary Control Act, “All Federal Reserve bank services…shall be available to nonmember depository institutions and such services shall be priced at the same schedule applicable to member banks.”

Set Judicial Terms to Balance Accountability and Independence

The judiciary has been described as the least dangerous branch.  But that isn’t true.  The Supreme Court has become a continuing constitutional convention, in which just five votes often turns the Constitution inside out.

The latest Supreme Court term was seen as a shift to the left. These decisions set off a flurry of promises from Republican Party presidential candidates to confront the judiciary.

For instance, Jeb Bush said he would only appoint judges “with a proven record of judicial restraint.” Alas, previous presidents claiming to do the same chose Anthony Kennedy, David Souter, and John Roberts, among many other conservative disappointments.

Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) called for judicial retention elections. Even more controversially, he suggested that only those before the justices had to respect Supreme Court rulings.

Extreme measures seem necessary because a simultaneously progressive and activist judiciary has joined the legislature and executive branches in forthrightly making public policy.  The influence of judges has been magnified by their relative immunity from political pressure, including life tenure.