Topic: Law and Civil Liberties

The FBI versus the Citizens

This Thursday at Cato, we’re hosting an event for a remarkable new book: Betty Medsger’s The Burglary: The Discovery of J. Edgar Hoover’s Secret FBI (RSVP here). As I explain in the Washington Examiner today, it’s a story as riveting as any heist film, and far more significant:  

Forty-three years ago last Saturday, an unlikely band of antiwar activists calling themselves “The Citizens Commission to Investigate the FBI” broke into a Bureau branch office in Media, Pennsylvania, making off with reams of classified documents. Despite a manhunt involving 200 agents at its peak, the burglars were never caught, but the files they mailed to selected journalists proved that the agency was waging a secret, unconstitutional war against American citizens.  

As a young Washington Post reporter, Medsger was the first to receive and publish selections from the files—over the protests of then-attorney general (and later Watergate felon) John Mitchell, who called the Post three times falsely claiming that publication would jeopardize national security and threaten agents’ lives. 

Four decades later, those claims echo in former NSA head Michael Hayden’s assertion that the US is “infinitely weaker” because of Snowden’s leaks. Like the apocryphal old saw suggests, if history doesn’t repeat itself, at least it rhymes.

“As if arranged by the gods of irony,” Medsger writes, the very morning Hoover learned of the break-in, then-assistant attorney general William H. Rehnquist (later Chief Justice), in testimony the FBI had helped prepare, told a Senate subcommittee that what little surveillance the government engaged in did not have a “chilling effect” on constitutional rights. Among the first documents Medsger reported weeks later, was a memo urging agents to “enhance the paranoia… get the point across there is an FBI agent behind every mailbox.”

Ironies abound. The burglars timed the heist for March 8, 1971, when the country would be distracted by the “Fight of the Century” between Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier. Medsger notes the “poetic justice” that the much-spied upon Ali would unwittingly help provide cover for exposure of FBI spying. Oddly, it’s acting attorney general Robert Bork–survivor of the “Saturday Night Massacre” and nobody’s idea of a civil libertarian)–who orders the release of key documents on the COINTELPRO program and urged the incoming attorney general to investigate the program. There’s another vignette where President Nixon speaks to an FBI Academy graduating class about “reestablishing respect for the law”–and the next evening orders Haldeman to have someone break into the Brookings Institution and steal a purloined copy of the Pentagon Papers (a zealous Chuck Colson suggested firebombing the think tank to create a distraction).  

How Much Tax Revenue from Legalized Marijuana?

Some marijuana legalizers push the argument that legalization will generate additional tax revenue. Opinions differ widely, however, on exactly how much revenue.

In mid-February, Colorado Governor John Hickenlooper predicted that the taxes, licenses, and fees on medical-plus-recreational marijuana would generate $134 million for the fiscal year starting in July.

In my 2010 Cato White Paper, I predicted that full legalization (federal and state) would generate roughly $55-60 million per year for Colorado.

Now just released data from Colorado for January, the first month of fully legal marijuana sales, show about $2 million from recreational marijuana and about $3.5 million for medical-plus-recreational marijuana.  The latter figure implies annual revenues of about $42 million.

This January figure may turn out to be misleading.  On one hand, the industry could grow over time, boosting revenues. On the other hand, initial hoopla over legalization may have inflated January sales.  And, longer term, sales in Colorado could decline if other states legalize or medicalize.

If the lower revenue numbers persist, does that weaken the case for legalization?

No: Increased tax revenue was never the main reason for legalization. Instead, the crucial goals of legalization are greater freedom for marijuana users and elimination of prohibition’s unintended consequences (crime, corruption, poor quality control, diminished civil liberties, restrictions on medical uses, and expenditure on enforcement).

Collecting revenue on legalized marijuana is perfectly sensible; it allows lower tax rates on everything else. But this appears to be a small effect, and it is not the main benefit of legalization in any case.

Cato Keeps Challenging an Illegal IRS Rule Regarding Obamacare

Last month, Cato filed a brief in the D.C. Circuit case of Halbig v. Sebelius, supporting a challenge to the IRS’s unilateral and unauthorized decision to extend tax credits to individuals who purchased health insurance from exchanges that were not established by their state. Now we’re continuing out advocacy in this area by filing a brief, joined by the Pacific Research Institute and the American Civil Rights Union, supporting the challengers in a similar Fourth Circuit case.

Here’s the background: To encourage the purchase of health insurance, the Affordable Care Act added a number of deductions, exemptions, and penalties to the federal tax code. As might be expected from a 2,700 page law, these new tax rules have the potential to interact in unforeseen and counter-intuitive ways. As first discovered by Michael Cannon and Jonathan Adler, one of these new tax provisions, when combined with state decision-making and IRS rule-making, has given Obamacare yet another legal problem. The legislation’s Section 1311 provides a generous tax credit for anyone who buys insurance from an insurance exchange “established by the State”—as an incentive for states to create the exchanges—but only 16 states have opted to do so. In the other states, the federal government established its own exchanges, as another section of the ACA specifies. But where § 1311 only explicitly authorized a tax credit for people who buy insurance from a state exchange, the IRS issued a rule interpreting § 1311 as also applying to purchases from federal exchanges. This creative interpretation hurts individuals like David King, a 63-year-old resident of Virginia.

Because buying insurance would cost King more than 8% of his income, he should be immune from Obamacare’s tax on the decision not to buy insurance (the “tax” that you’ll recall Chief Justice Roberts devised in his NFIB v. Sebelius opinion). After the IRS expanded § 1311 to subsidize people in states with federal exchanges (like Virginia), however, King could have bought health insurance for an amount low enough to again subject him to the Roberts tax. King argues that he faces these costs only because the IRS exceeded the scope of its powers.

In our latest brief, we argue that the IRS’s decision wasn’t just unauthorized, it was a blatant invasion of the powers exclusively awarded to Congress in Article I of the Constitution. This error was compounded by the district court’s holding that the IRS actions were lawful because, even if Obamacare explicitly restricts the availability of tax credits to states which set up their own exchanges, the expansion of tax-credit availability serves the law’s general purpose of making healthcare more affordable. By elevating its own perception of congressional purpose over the statutory text, the district court ignored the cardinal principle that legislative intent must be effected by the words Congress uses, not the words it may have meant or should have chosen to use.

In other words, if Congress wants to extend the tax credit, it can do so by passing new legislation. The only reason for executive-branch officials not to go back to Congress for clarification, and instead legislate by fiat, is to bypass the democratic process, thereby undermining constitutional separation of powers. This case ultimately isn’t about money, the wisdom of individual health care decision-making, or even political opposition to Obamacare. It’s about who gets to create the laws we live by: the democratically elected members of Congress, or the bureaucrats charged with no more than executing the laws that Congress passes and the president signs.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit (based in Richmond) will hear argument in King v. Sebelius in May.

…In Which Katz Is Not Cited

The Supreme Court is gradually coming to terms with the effect information technology is having on the Fourth Amendment. In 2001, the Kyllo court curtailed the use of high-tech devices for searching homes. In its early 2012 decision in United States v. Jones, a unanimous Court agreed that government agents can’t attach a GPS device to a vehicle and track it for four weeks without a warrant.

But the Court was divided as to rationale. The majority opinion in Jones found (consistent with Cato’s brief) that attaching the device to the car was at the heart of the Fourth Amendment violation. Four concurring members of the Court felt that the government’s tracking violated a “reasonable expectation of privacy.”

What is the right way to decide these cases? Fourth Amendment law is at a crossroads.

The next round of development in Fourth Amendment law may come in a pair of cases being argued in April. They ask whether government agents are entitled to search the cell phone of someone they’ve arrested merely because the phone has been properly seized. Riley v. California and Wurie v. United States have slightly different fact patterns, which should allow the fullest exposition of the issues.

Cato’s brief in Riley, filed this week, again seeks to guide the Court toward using time-tested principles in Fourth Amendment cases. Rather than vague pronouncements about privacy and people’s expectations around it, we invite the Court to apply the Fourth Amendment as a law.

Supreme Court to Government: Stop Railroading Property Owners

Today, in Marvin M. Brandt Revocable Trust v. United States, the Supreme Court rebuked another attempt by the Obama administration to adopt a novel and extreme litigating position that was contrary to well-established precedent. Eight justices agreed with Cato’s amicus brief, holding that the United States does not retain a property interest in former railroad lands that are no longer used by railroads. Although this may seem like an arcane issue for Cato to be involved in, the case actually resembles a typical takings case, but this time the government tried to define a property right out of existence rather than pay compensation to the owners.

To be fair to the Obama administration, this case began in 2006, and both Republican and Democratic administrations have been litigating similar cases for some time. Brandt is a best seen as an example of how governments of all stripes will find the path of least resistance to accomplish its goals, including defining a property right out of existence to avoid paying for it.

Fifty Years Ago Yesterday…

…the U.S. Supreme Court handed down what was to become one of its most celebrated tort reform decisions. A profitable national manufacturer had been sued in a distant rural state in which it was decidedly unpopular, resulting in a runaway jury verdict which it sought to challenge on appeal. Pointing out the disadvantages of unpredictable and locally variable tort standards, the corporation’s lawyers pushed for a more uniform and modern standard of liability suited to a nationwide market, which the high court agreed unanimously to develop for the occasion and impose on state courts. And ever since 1964, the winning party in the case — that is to say, the New York Times Company — has taken a sympathetic editorial interest in the plight of other national businesses subjected to runaway verdicts in local courts.

Well, OK, maybe not that last sentence. But the rest of it did happen, in the celebrated libel case of New York Times v. Sullivan. [adapted slightly and re-posted from Overlawyered in January]

Kansas Court Wrests School-Budget Decisions from Voters

Many public schooling advocates chafe at our constitutional tradition that public moneys be appropriated only at the behest of voters or their elected lawmakers, since it means school budgets often wind up getting rejected, trimmed, or balanced off against other budgetary priorities. As I’ve noted previously in this space, a well-organized, foundation-backed movement has pursued litigation around the 50 states urging courts instead to seize control of school funding in the name of “equitable” or “adequate” school funding.

Such an effort succeeded last week in Kansas, where the state supreme court ruled in favor of a challenge and “ordered increases by July 1 that, according to the state Department of Education, would total $129 million annually.” The case will go back to litigation in a lower court and conceivably could result in further court decrees that could be broader and much more expensive. The Kansas affiliate of the National Education Association can hardly contain its jubilation, while the Associated Press writes that “If the courts order more spending in the future, lawmakers may have to reconsider personal income tax cuts in 2012 and 2013 that were championed by [Gov. Sam] Brownback.”

As I wrote a while back on New Jersey’s Abbott school finance litigation (one broken link removed):

school reform lawsuits like Abbott are much more than just vehicles for inefficiency and waste of tax dollars: they’re examples of an alternative method of governance…. Typically, successful litigation of this sort transfers control over an important issue like school funding from branches of government that are accountable to taxpayers and voters to a cluster of private litigators, expert witnesses, special masters, consultants, law professors, backers in liberal foundations, and so forth. The legal basis for the power grab is often flimsy in the extreme; in the Garden State, for example, the state constitution vaguely mandates that there be a “thorough and efficient” system of public education, and “educational equity” lawyers have prevailed on the courts to erect the whole thirty-year edifice of Abbott orders on a filling in of those mysterious blanks, a process that Gov. Christie has accurately described as “legislating from the bench”. (Our friend Hans Bader at CEI has more here.) In New Jersey, as in many other states and cities subject to these suits, governors and legislators may come and go, but the permanent government of court orders and negotiated consent decrees grinds on and on, conferring a curiously unaccountable power on the lawyers who manage and advance the litigation and their circle of allies.