Topic: Law and Civil Liberties

When Are You Going to Get Married?

The Wall Street Journal today reports a policy shift that I had predicted and recommended 20 years ago. Rachel Emma Silverman writes:

Amid a push that has made same-sex marriage legal in 37 states and the District of Columbia, some employers are telling gay workers they must wed in order to maintain health-care coverage for their partners. About a third of public- and private-sector employees in the U.S. have access to benefits for unmarried gay partners, according to a federal tally, but employment lawyers say the fast-changing legal outlook is spurring some employers to rethink that coverage.

“If the Supreme Court rules that suddenly there is marriage equality in 50 states, the landscape totally changes,” says Todd Solomon, a law partner in the employee-benefits practice group at McDermott Will & Emery in Chicago, who has been tracking domestic partnership benefits for nearly two decades.

Such a decision will likely result in more employers dropping same-sex partner benefits in favor of spousal benefits, according to Mr. Solomon.

Over the past decade, a growing share of companies has offered coverage for gay employees and their partners as a way to provide equal benefits for couples who couldn’t legally wed. Others companies offer coverage more broadly to unmarried domestic partners, regardless of sexual orientation. 

Now, some employers who offer benefits targeting same-sex partners say it is only fair to require those couples to marry where legal, just as their straight co-workers must do to extend coverage.

I anticipated that eventuality in a January 4, 1995, op-ed in the New York Times, as the movement for marriage equality, civil unions, and domestic partnership was just beginning:

Peculiar Politics in the USA

The controversy over the upcoming military exercise called “Jade Helm 15” is unfortunate.  It is unfortunate because there really are some alarming trends underway here in the United States, but instead of finding common ground, the Right and the Left too often talk past each other.  Some examples:

Recall the militaristic raid to snatch Elian Gonzales?

The Right said, “That’s outrageous!”

The Left’s reply was, “What are you talking about?  That’s just law enforcement.”

Recall the militaristic police response in Ferguson last summer?

The Left said, “That’s outrageous!”

The Right’s reply was, “What do you mean?  That’s just law enforcement.”

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Let’s take a step back from specific incidents and look at some of the broader trends that have been underway.  First, the line between the police and the military has become badly blurred.  The military itself is more involved in policing and the civilian police are now more militarized.  This is worrisome because the military does not typically concern itself with rights of persons on the other side of the battlefield.  Second, the National Security Agency’s powers used to be directed outward, but we now know those powers are directed inward, on the communications of Americans.  Third, presidents (red & blue) claim the power to take our country to war, and that when we are at war, presidential power trumps constitutional rights.  High-ranking officials tell us that America–from Seattle to Miami (and all the tiny towns in between)–is a “battlefield.”  That’s a bold and disturbing claim since there are no rights on the battlefield, only raw power.

As the next presidential contest gets underway, let us hope these important matters get the attention they deserve. 

ALJs and the Home Court Advantage

The SEC has come under fire lately for its use – some might say overuse – of internal administrative proceedings.  The SEC’s use of administrative proceedings and administrative law judges (ALJs) is by no means unique within the federal government.  Thirty-four agencies currently have ALJs.  Nor is the SEC the heaviest user of administrative proceedings or ALJs; the Social Security Administration has that distinction, with more than 1,300 ALJs according to the most recent data available.  The SEC, by comparison, has only five ALJ positions, two of which are recent additions. 

The SEC’s ALJs have been in the spotlight due to a provision in Dodd-Frank that expands their ability to impose fines.  In the past, the SEC could impose monetary sanctions only on individuals and entities registered with the Commission – typically brokers, investment advisors, and similar entities and their employees.  By registering with the SEC, it was reasoned, these individuals and organizations had submitted to the SEC’s jurisdiction.  Others could be brought before the SEC’s tribunals for violating federal securities laws, and the ALJs could make findings of fact (that is, decide which side’s version of the facts was correct) and issue cease and desist orders, but could not impose fines.  Instead, the SEC’s lawyers would have to bring a separate case in federal district court.  Under Dodd-Frank, registered and unregistered persons are treated the same.

Administrative proceedings have their advantages.  Like a federal judge, an ALJ can issue subpoenas, hold hearings, and decide cases.  Because an ALJ’s cases deal with a very narrow area of law – only that related directly to the ALJ’s agency – the ALJ’s knowledge of that area tends to be deeper than that of a federal judge who hears a broad range of civil and criminal cases.  The proceedings before ALJs tend to be somewhat truncated, with fewer procedural requirements than federal district court, allowing the case to be decided more quickly. 

Appealing President Obama’s Executive Action on Immigration

On November 20, 2014, President Obama unveiled DAPA, an executive policy that would defer the deportation of up to four millions illegal aliens and afford them work authorization. One week later, Texas, joined by 25 other states, filed a lawsuit against this unprecedented expansion of executive power.

Cato, joined by law professors Josh Blackman, Jeremy Rabkin, and Peter Margulies, filed an amicus brief supporting the challenge. While we broadly support comprehensive immigration reform, we argued that DAPA violated the president’s constitutional duty to take care that the laws were faithfully executed because this action went far beyond merely setting priorities on who will be pursued and deported given finite enforcement resources. It was highly unusual for Cato to file in a district court—amicus briefs of any kind are rare at this level—but this was a highly unusual situation.

On February 16, 2015, Judge Andrew Hanen blocked DAPA from going into effect, finding that the executive branch did not follow the proper administrative procedures—such as seeking comments from the public—before implementing what is effectively a substantive change in established immigration law.

Against Racial Preferences in Contracting

Since before the Declaration of Independence, equality under the law has long been a central feature of American identity—and was encapsulated in the Constitution. The Fourteenth Amendment expanded that constitutional precept to actions by states, not just the federal government.

For example, if a state government wants to use race as a factor in pursuing a certain policy, it must do so in the furtherance of a compelling reason—like preventing prison riots—and it must do so in as narrowly tailored a way as possible. This means, among other things, that race-neutral solutions must be considered and used as much as possible.

So if a state were to, say, set race-based quotas for its construction contracts and claim that no race-neutral alternatives will suffice—without showing why—that would fall far short of the high bar our laws set for race-conscious government action.

Yet that is precisely what Montana has done. Montana’s Disadvantaged Business Enterprise (“DBE”) program implements a federal program aimed at remedying past discrimination against minority and women contractors by granting competitive benefits to those groups. While there may be a valid government interest in remedying past discrimination, in its recent changes to the program, Montana blew through strict constitutional requirements and based its broad use of racial preferences on a single study that involved weak anecdotal evidence—a study that recommended more race-neutral alternatives, not fewer.

When Billionaires Play Politics (As Is Their Right), Pundits Can Criticize Them

Free speech can get awfully expensive when billionaires are involved. Just ask the International Crisis Group, a charity that seeks to prevent war and related atrocities by monitoring conditions in the world’s most dangerous regions.

In 2003, ICG published a report on the political and social climate of Serbia following the assassination of Zoran Đinđić, the country’s first democratically elected prime minister after the fall of Slobodan Milošević. One of the issues noted there was the concern of “average Serbs” that powerful businesses were still benefiting from corrupt regulatory arrangements that dated back to the Milošević regime.

One of several oligarchs mentioned was Milan Jankovic, who also goes by the name Philip Zepter. With an estimated net worth of $5 billion, Jankovic is widely believed to be the richest Serb (and one of the 300 wealthiest men in the world). His holdings include Zepter International, which sells billions of dollars of cookware each year and has more than 130,000 employees.

One might think that a man responsible for running a vast business empire would have better things to do than suing a charity, but you’d be wrong. For the last decade, Jankovic has hounded ICG, relentlessly pressing a defamation suit, first in Europe and now in the United States. After 10 years of litigation, the case finally comes down to a single question: Is Milan Jankovic a public figure?

The Supreme Court has long held that the First Amendment’s protection of speech (and political criticism) requires libel plaintiffs who are public figures—like politicians and celebrities—to show that potentially defamatory statements were not only false but also published with “actual malice.” Under this standard, the defendant must have actually known that the statements were false; a negligent misstatement or the innocent repetition of another’s falsehood isn’t enough.

In an amicus brief filed in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit, Cato, along with a diverse group of organizations including the Brookings Institution, Council on Foreign Relations, and PEN American Center, argues that while Jankovic is not a politician or other government official, he should still be treated as a public figure for the purpose of this case.

Under the “limited public figure” doctrine, the Supreme Court holds that private citizens become public figures when they “thrust themselves to the forefront of particular public controversies in order to influence the resolution of the issues involved.” As we argue, Jankovic is in his own words one of Serbia’s most powerful and influential citizens, whose vast wealth and political connections gives him a near-unparalleled ability to shape the outcome of public debates. What’s more, Jankovic has played an active role in Serbian politics. He describes himself as one of the men responsible for overthrowing Milošević, and he once hired American lobbyists to represent the Serbian government in Washington. He’s even rumored to have used his own money to fund the government during a budget crisis!

In short, Jankovic is the very definition of a public figure—and criticism of public figures, whether they be elected officials like Frank Underwood or shadowy powerbrokers like Raymond Tusk, must be privileged. Unless the weakest are free to criticize the most powerful, democracy is nothing but a house of cards.

The D.C. Circuit will hear argument in Jankovic v. International Crisis Group later this spring or summer.

Second Circuit Declares NSA’s Telephone Dragnet Unlawful

In a ruling certain to profoundly shape the ongoing debate over surveillance reform in Congress, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit today held that the National Security Agency’s indiscriminate collection of Americans’ telephone calling records exceeds the legal authority granted by the Patriot Act’s controversial section 215, which is set to expire at the end of this month.  Legislation to reform and constrain that authority, the USA Freedom Act, has drawn broad bipartisan support, but Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell has stubbornly pressed ahead with a bill to reauthorize §215 without any changes.  But the Second Circuit ruling gives even defenders of the NSA program powerful reasons to support reform.

McConnell and other reform opponents have consistently insisted, in defiance of overwhelming evidence, that the NSA program is an essential tool in the fight against terrorism, and that any reform would hinder efforts to keep Americans safe—a claim rejected even by the leaders of the intelligence community. (Talk about being more Catholic than the Pope!)  Now, however, a federal appellate court has clearly said that no amount of contortion can stretch the language of §215 into a justification for NSA’s massive database—which means it’s no longer clear that a simple reauthorization would preserve the program. Ironically, if McConnell is determined to salvage some version of this ineffective program, his best hope may now be… the USA Freedom Act!

The Freedom Act would, in line with the Second Circuit opinion, bar the use of §215 and related authorities to indiscriminately collect records in bulk, requiring that a “specific selection term,” like a phone number, be used to identify the records sought by the government.  It also, however, creates a separate streamlined process that would allow call records databases already retained by telephone companies to be rapidly searched and cross-referenced, allowing NSA to more quickly obtain the specific information it seeks about terror suspects and their associates without placing everyone’s phone records in the government’s hands.  If the Second Circuit’s ruling is upheld, NSA will likely have to cease bulk collection even if Congress does reauthorize §215.  That makes passage of the Freedom Act the best way to guarantee preservation of the rapid search capability McConnell seems to think is so important—though, of course, the government will retain the ability to obtain specific phone records (albeit less quickly) under either scenario.  With this ruling, in short, the arguments against reform have gone from feeble to completely unsustainable.