Topic: Law and Civil Liberties

Overlawyered’s 17th Birthday

Overlawyered reaches the end of its 17th year of publication today. I launched it on July 1, 1999, and it’s regularly described as the oldest law blog; at least, no one seems to be able to name one that’s older that’s been continually published for as long in blog form. Cato has published it since 2013, which has greatly helped in keeping it up-to-date on the technical side and running smoothly.

Some recent stories and items at the site: 

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Cato Batted .500 at the Supreme Court, Still Besting the Government

It was an odd and sad year at the Supreme Court. Most years, reporters and pundits devise a “theme” that’s mostly an artificial construct driven by the vagaries of the docket: “The Court moved left/right/minimalist/unanimous …” But this year there actually is a real theme: the loss of Justice Antonin Scalia. Justice Scalia’s passing “deflated” what would otherwise have been yet another blockbuster term in many ways, defusing several high-profile cases as well as removing the most quotable pen on Earth from media coverage these last weeks of June.

In practical terms, however, Scalia’s absence was felt in ways different than most people assume. For example, of the major cases, only Friedrichs (worker rights) came out the other way, affirming the lower court by a 4-4 vote that would’ve been a 5-4 reversal with Scalia. United States v. Texas (immigration) would’ve been a 5-4 affirmance of the lower-court injunction instead of a 4-4 affirmance. Fisher II (affirmative action) would’ve been a 4-4 affirm instead of 4-3. Zubik (contraceptive mandate) would’ve been 5-4 reversal instead of a weird 8-0 decision to vacate that effectively forces a compromise that the challengers can accept. Whole Women’s Health (abortion) would’ve been a 5-4 reversal instead of a 5-3. To be sure, there would’ve been interesting nuances from the opinions in Scalia’s presence – which may have set precedents for, say, future executive actions – but the direct results wouldn’t have really changed except in Friedrichs (which was a big deal, don’t get me wrong) and a handful of lower-profile cases.

Also, this was a term of very few surprises; the conventional wisdom was borne out in every case that I followed except Fisher II. I still can’t figure out what Justice Kennedy was doing there, reversing himself from Fisher I regarding deference to administrators and voting to uphold a use of racial preferences for the first time ever. Maybe he was just tired of the case. Indeed, both Fisher and Whole Women’s Health, while making national news due to their fraught subject matter, are minimalistic and sui generis, dealing with very specific government policies.

But regardless of the good, bad, and ugly, when the dust cleared, there was one aspect of continuity that’s particularly gratifying to me: Cato continued its successful streak in cases in which we filed amicus briefs. While not as dominating as two terms ago, we still managed to pull off a 4-4 (or 3-3-2, as I’ll explain shortly) record.

McDonnell Ruling Is a Victory for Constitutional Due Process

Today, the Supreme Court issued a unanimous ruling on the closely watched corruption case concerning former Virginia governor, Robert McDonnell. McDonnell and his wife were charged with a Hobbs Act violation and honest services fraud. The McDonnells had accepted $175,000 in loans and gifts from the CEO of Star Scientific, a nutritional supplement developer. Merely accepting gifts is not a crime, however. Under the honest services statutes and the Hobbs Act, a government official must have exchanged “official acts” for those gifts. The crux of the case boiled down to what, exactly, constitutes an “official act”.

The prosecution argued that McDonnell made five official acts, all in furtherance of getting Star Scientific’s new supplement, Anatabloc, tested by Virginia’s public universities, which would greatly assist the FDA-approval process. The acts included sending aides to view and take notes at meetings between the CEO and others, hosting events where he encouraged state universities to conduct studies on Anatabloc, contacted other officials within the governor’s office to encourage the same studies, allowing the CEO to invite business partners to events at the governor’s mansion, and suggesting that Anatabloc be a part of the state healthcare plan.

Another “official act” was an email saying “pls see me about Anatabloc issues at VCU and UVA.”

Jonnie Williams, the CEO, failed in his attempts to get state universities to conduct his studies, but according to the prosecution, it was the intention to influence the process which triggers the corruption charges.

The situation does look suspicious on its face, but a problem stems from the fact that if the government construes the term “official acts” this broadly, it could criminalize many actions which officials take in order to make government function more smoothly for any and all of its constituents. If the prosecution succeeded in its argument (and it had succeeded in two lower courts before making its way to SCOTUS), it could punish any official who sends or forwards an email to a slow-moving bureaucracy urging them to remedy the problems of an aggrieved citizen. It could punish any official who invites business leaders to an event. It could punish any official who attends an event which is promoted by business leaders. And it could punish an official who asks any of his subordinates to take notes at any of these meetings. During oral arguments, Justice Breyer said, “For better or for worse, it puts at risk behavior that is common.”

New Report on Police Misconduct

At the Washington Post, Tom Jackman highlights a new report documenting arrests of police officers across the country. The report, entitled “Police Integrity Lost: A Study of Law Enforcement Officers Arrested” and written by scholars at Bowling Green State University, estimates that three American police officers are arrested per day every year. The years covered in the study cover 2005-2011.

From the WaPo story:

The most common crimes were simple assault, drunken driving and aggravated assault, and significant numbers of sex crimes were also found. About 72 percent of officers charged in cases with known outcomes are convicted, more than 40 percent of the crimes are committed on duty, and nearly 95 percent of the officers charged are men.

[…]

“This is probably the tip of the iceberg,” said Cara Rabe-Hemp, a professor at Illinois State University who has studied police deviance. She said the effort is the “first-ever study to quantify police crime” and shows it is “much much more common than what police scholars and police administrators previously thought.”

A representative of the National Fraternal Order of Police union stated that the numbers are small when put in the context of 900,000 police officers nationwide. But there is nothing contradictory between his statement and that of Professor Rabe-Hemp. The raw numbers the BGSU researchers found are interesting, but we can be sure that they do not tell the whole story.

DAPA Non-Ruling Shows Why We Need Legislative not Executive Immigration Reform

The deadlocked Supreme Court couldn’t issue an opinion, but still left in place the block on President Obama’s immigration actions. The lower courts had correctly found that the executive actions implementing DAPA violated both administrative law and immigration statutes so, for practical purposes, it wouldn’t have mattered if Justice Scalia had still been on the bench to make this a 5-4 decision against the government. In any case, DAPA is now dead and so is any chance for immigration reform until the next president. That’s why those of us favoring reform in this area counseled against the president’s attempt to rewrite the law via executive action. This country’s immigration system is a mess - not serving anyone’s interests, let alone national security - but changing the law requires a new law. 

Affirmative Action Ruling Disappointing but Narrow

The Supreme Court’s 4-3 ruling upholding UT-Austin’s use of racial preferences in admissions was surprising and disappointing. Justice Alito does well to call out the majority’s imperial opinion as having no clothes. “Something strange has happened since our prior decision in this case,” he begins in his magisterial dissent - referring to the Court’s 2013 ruling directing the lower court to scrutinize university officials’ self-serving justifications for their policy.

“Even though UT has never provided any coherent explanation for its asserted need to discriminate on the basis of race,” Alito concludes in a way I can’t improve upon, “and even though UT’s position relies on a series of unsupported and noxious racial assumptions, the majority concludes that UT has met its heavy burden.” (He cites Cato’s two amicus briefs for the proposition that UT’s misleading legal arguments can’t be trusted.)

The best that can be said about this decision is that it’s limited to the weird affirmative action program that UT-Austin uses, which is unique in the country. Future lawsuits are still possible, and will depend on the type of racial preferences challenged and, of course, the composition of the Supreme Court. 

Sotomayor’s Dissent

Yesterday, the Supreme Court decided the case of Utah v. Strieff, which involved the power of the police to detain and search citizens, and what the courts should do when the police break the law in the course of their investigations.  Washington Post reporter, Robert Barnes, writes, “the low profile case more likely will be remembered for a fierce and personal dissent from Justice Sotomayor, who said the ruling would exacerbate illegal stops of minorities.”  He’s right.

Here’s an excerpt from Sotomayor’s dissenting opinion:

[T]his case tells everyone, white and black, guilty and innocent, that an officer can verify your legal status at any time. It says that your body is subject to invasion while courts excuse the violation of your rights. It implies that you are not a citizen of a democracy but the subject of a carceral state, just waiting to be cataloged. We must not pretend that the countless people who are routinely targeted by police are “isolated.” They are the canaries in the coal mine whose deaths, civil and literal, warn us that no one can breathe in this atmosphere. See L. Guinier & G. Torres, The Miner’s Canary 274–283 (2002). They are the ones who recognize that unlawful police stops corrode all our civil liberties and threaten all our lives. Until their voices matter too, our justice system will continue to be anything but.

Regular visitors to the Cato web site will already be very familiar with many of the points Sotomayor made in her opinion.  We have been trying to draw more attention to the problem of confrontational police stops since the death of Amadou Diallo in 2000.  Sotomayor cites several scholars that have presented their research findings at Cato.  Last year, Professor James Jacobs discussed his book, The Eternal Criminal Record.  In 2014, Professor Alice Goffman, discussed her book, On the Run, at a Cato forum titled Lessons from Ferguson.

To stay ahead of the news, keep following Cato’s work. 

Related items, here, here, and here.