Topic: Law and Civil Liberties

The White House as Animal Farm

As George Orwell’s Animal Farm closes, the revolutionary pigs have been transformed into oppressive humans.  It took some time to occur on the Animal Farm.  It’s taken just a few months in the Obama White House.

Reports McClatchy Newspapers:

President Barack Obama is morphing into George W. Bush, as administration attorneys repeatedly adopt the executive-authority and national-security rationales that their Republican predecessors preferred.

In courtroom battles and freedom-of-information fights from Washington, D.C., to California, Obama’s legal arguments repeatedly mirror Bush’s: White House turf is to be protected, secrets must be retained and dire warnings are wielded as weapons.

“It’s putting up a veritable wall around the White House, and it’s so at odds with Obama’s campaign commitment to more open government,” said Anne Weismann, chief counsel for Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, a legal watchdog group.

Certainly, some differences exist.

The Obama administration, for instance, has released documents on global warming from the Council on Environmental Quality that the Bush administration sought to suppress. Some questions, such as access to White House visitor logs, remain a work in progress.

On policies that are at the heart of presidential power and prerogatives, however, this administration’s legal arguments have blended into the other. The persistence can reflect everything from institutional momentum and a quest for continuity to the clout of career employees.

“There is no question that there are (durable) cultures and mindsets in agencies,” Weismann acknowledged.

Conservatives once opposed executive aggrandizement.  Then with George W. Bush in office, they embraced the idea of the presidency as a kind of elective monarchy.  With President Barack Obama now pushing the executive power grab, will conservatives rediscover their inner-Constitution and again join the barricades for liberty?

Kristof: Drugs Won the War

New York Times columnist, Nicholas Kristof’s latest column is about the failure of the drug war.  Excerpt:

Here in the United States, four decades of drug war have had three consequences:

First, we have vastly increased the proportion of our population in prisons. The United States now incarcerates people at a rate nearly five times the world average. In part, that’s because the number of people in prison for drug offenses rose roughly from 41,000 in 1980 to 500,000 today. Until the war on drugs, our incarceration rate was roughly the same as that of other countries.

Second, we have empowered criminals at home and terrorists abroad. One reason many prominent economists have favored easing drug laws is that interdiction raises prices, which increases profit margins for everyone, from the Latin drug cartels to the Taliban. Former presidents of Mexico, Brazil and Colombia this year jointly implored the United States to adopt a new approach to narcotics, based on the public health campaign against tobacco.

Third, we have squandered resources. Jeffrey Miron, a Harvard economist, found that federal, state and local governments spend $44.1 billion annually enforcing drug prohibitions. We spend seven times as much on drug interdiction, policing and imprisonment as on treatment. (Of people with drug problems in state prisons, only 14 percent get treatment.)

I’ve seen lives destroyed by drugs, and many neighbors in my hometown of Yamhill, Oregon, have had their lives ripped apart by crystal meth. Yet I find people like Mr. Stamper persuasive when they argue that if our aim is to reduce the influence of harmful drugs, we can do better.

Good stuff.  Jeff Miron is a Cato senior fellow.  Here’s a link to Cato’s new study, “Drug Decriminalization in Portugal,” by Glenn Greenwald.  More Cato research here.

Good News: No Eminent Domain for Flight 93 Memorial

Whether the federal government should be building a $58 million memorial to the heroic passengers on United flight 93, who thwarted the plot to crash a fourth plane on September 11, is a question that has yet to be asked in Washington.  But it clearly is improper for the authorities to acquire land for the memorial through eminent domain.

Thankfully, Washington has backed down from its plans to seize the property. 

Reports Tony Norman of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette:

Yesterday, the U.S. government announced that it wouldn’t resort to eminent domain to seize land in Somerset, Pa for the proposed Flight 93 memorial. This is good news for fans of the concept of private property. When the National Park Service announced that it would seize the land from the seven property owners for the memorial rather than pay the landowners what they were asking for the lots, you didn’t have to be a libertarian to know something unjust was happening. The National Park Service was engaging in behavior that was fundamentally un-American, anti-democratic and an affront to the concept of property rights. Sure, the U.S. Supreme Court affirmed the government’s right to do such a thing in the name of the public good, but it was questionable whether a memorial to a plane load of heroes that crashed in a field on 9-11 outweighs the rights of the current owners to use the land as they see fit. Fortunately, the government has declined to grab the final 500 acres it needs for its $58 million, 2,200 acre 9-11 memorial and national park.

The United 93 passengers embody the best of America.  Commemorating their heroism should be done in a manner that best reflects the values they were defending.

End War—At Least the Drug War

War is an awful thing.  Yet, to show they are serious, politicians constantly use the “war” analogy.  A “war on poverty.”  An “energy war.”  The “drug war.”

Yet militarizing these and other issues is precisely the wrong way to deal with them.  So it is with the drug war, which has come most to resemble a real war.  Indeed, more Mexicans have been dying in their “drug war” than Americans have been dying in Iraq.

It’s time to call a truce.  Writes Sherwood Ross:

Gil Kerlikowske, Obama’s new head of the Office of National Drug Control Policy, has renounced even the use of the phrase “War on Drugs” on grounds it favors incarceration of offenders rather than treatment. But talk is no substitute for action.

To his credit, Obama has long appeared to be open to a fresh approach. In an address at Howard University on Sept. 28, 2007, then Sen. Obama said, “I think it’s time we took a hard look at the wisdom of locking up some first time nonviolent drug users for decades.” 

“We will give first-time, non-violent drug offenders a chance to serve their sentence, where appropriate, in the type of drug rehabilitation programs that have proven to work better than a prison term in changing bad behavior,” he added. “So let’s reform this system. Let’s do what’s smart. Let’s do what’s just.”
And as prison overcrowding worsens and governors currently whine they can’t balance budgets, the public might get some real relief.

Last year, more than 700,000 of the country’s 20-million pot smokers were arrested for marijuana possession, according to NORML, an advocacy lobby that works for decriminalization. Over the past decade, 5-million folks got arrested on marijuana charges, 90% of which were for “simple possession, not trafficking or sale,” NORML says.

“Regardless of whether one is a ‘drug warrior’ or a ‘drug legalizer,” writes Bob Barr in the May 25 Atlanta Journal Constitution, “it is difficult if not impossible to defend the 38-year old war on drugs as a success.”

Drug abuse is a serious social problem.  But so is alcoholism.  And many other social (mis)behaviors.  We should start treating it as a social, health, and moral problem, not as a matter for the criminal law.  

President Obama:  End this war!

This Is Not from The Onion, but the UN

Cuba recognized in the UN Human Rights Council

The HRC’s press release states that:

Cuba had withstood many tests, and continued to uphold the principles of objectivity, impartiality and independence in pursuance of the realisation of human rights. Cuba was and remained a good example of the respect for human rights, including economic, social and cultural rights. The Universal Periodic Review of Cuba clearly reflected the progress made by Cuba and the Cuban people in the protection and promotion of human rights, and showed the constructive and responsive answer of Cuba to the situation of human rights. Cuba was the victim of an unjust embargo, but despite this obstacle, it was very active in the field of human rights.

Senate Hearings on Prison Reform

The Senate Judiciary Committee is holding hearings today on Sen. Jim Webb’s (D-VA) bill to create a National Criminal Justice Commission. Senator Webb is a long-time student of what has gone wrong with American criminal justice.

The bill provides for an 18-month review of the nation’s criminal justice system and recommendations for reform. I plan to attend, and the proceedings will be available on video here. Click here to read The Sentencing Project’s endorsement of the legislation.

My colleague Tim Lynch recently published a book on crime and punishment, In the Name of Justice. Notable authors such as Court of Appeals Judges Alex Kozinski and Richard Posner, Professor James Q. Wilson, and veteran defense attorney and law professor Harvey Silverglate weigh in on how the American criminal justice system has deviated from its moral foundations.

A Nation of Lawlessness

The matter of Chrysler’s bankruptcy seems to have rendered quaint our system of checks and balances. President Obama is breaking the law and the other two branches are letting him get away with it. One can probably understand how a smitten public might casually allow this president a stipend of unconstitutional acts, since he doesn’t scowl like Nixon or stutter like Bush. But, even a popular president (in particular, a popular president) must be held in check by the legislative and judicial branches.

And that’s not happening.

On Tuesday at 4:00 pm, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg “stayed pending further order” the bankruptcy-related transactions of Chrysler, giving hope the Supreme Court might hear the appeal filed on behalf of certain Indiana state pension and construction funds, who claim that their property rights as secured creditors were violated by the forced sale and that the use of Troubled Asset Relief Program funds to support Chrysler and facilitate its restructuring was illegal. Only 28 hours later, the Supreme Court decided against taking the appeal, despite the seemingly compelling issues at hand.

Just as the Bush administration was telling Congress last September that there was no time to debate the merits of a financial bailout and that the only course was to give Treasury Secretary Paulson carte blanche immediately to spend $700 billion, the Obama administration was telling the Supreme Court this week that time was of the essence and that Fiat would walk away from the Chrysler deal if it wasn’t allowed to proceed right away. Was that the decisive factor in the Supreme Courts rejection of the appeal? It seems to me the appeal contains some serious constitutional issues worthy of judicial consideration (consideration that goes beyond merely rubber-stamping the Obama administration’s pre-packaged, politically-driven bankruptcy plan for Chrysler, which is what Judge Gonzalez appears to have done).

But it’s now a done deal, possibly facilitated by illegalities.

I’m struck by the relative quiet about this issue (in the mainstream media and the blogosphere). Maybe we’re all just too numb and shell shocked by the blitzkrieg of government interventions over the past 9 months that it’s no longer possible to feel alarmed or outraged by just another government act that would have been unthinkable this time last year.

Well wake up!

There is a compelling legal argument against using TARP funds to support automobile producers. (Obviously, there is a compelling economic argument, as well.) Convincing the courts to hear the argument and subsequently persuading judges (probably up to the Supreme Court) of its merits will likely be the last chance to spare us the nationalization of General Motors.

As you may recall, there wasn’t a whole lot of clarity about how the Treasury’s use of TARP funds would be limited or defined. Lots of discretion was granted the Treasury Secretary. However, Section 101(a)(1) of the law establishing the TARP stipulates:

“The Secretary is authorized to establish the Troubled Asset Relief Program (or ‘TARP’) to purchase, and to make and fund commitments to purchase, troubled assets from any financial institution, on such terms and conditions as are determined by the Secretary, and in accordance with this Act and the policies and procedures developed and published by the Secretary.” (My emphasis).

Neither Chrysler nor GM is a financial institution and therefore neither can receive TARP money.  There’s the argument, plain and simple.  Congress authorized funds for a defined use; the executive breached those boundaries, and thus acted illegally. Is it more complicated than that?

President Bush was the first to break the law by authorizing $17.4 billion in TARP funds for GM and Chrysler, circumventing the wishes of Congress, which had recently voted against an auto bailout.  And President Obama has followed suit, providing funding the Chrysler and GM during bankruptcy.

If there’s any doubt that TARP funds were not to be used for automobile companies, consider the fact that the same House of Representatives that passed the legislation creating the TARP in October also passed a bill specifically authorizing the use of TARP funds for automobile companies in December. (There was never a vote in the Senate so it never became law.)  Such legislation wouldn’t have been necessary if the intent of Congress was to allow TARP funds to be used for automakers originally.  Thus, there are two conclusions to draw here. First, the 110th Congress didn’t think the TARP legislation, which it had passed two months earlier, allowed TARP funds to be used for automakers; and second, Congress was too cowardly to bring the matter to the Supreme Court, thereby exercising its constitutional responsibility and allowing the judiciary an opportunity to exercise its.

Let’s hope the judiciary finds the opportunity to check the legality of the executive’s implementation of the legislature’s instructions, as far as the people’s money is concerned.