Topic: Law and Civil Liberties

Campaign Finance Reform Meets Kurt Vonnegut

This morning, as Pennsylvania Democrats went to the polls in the last large primary before their nominating convention, the Supreme Court heard the latest challenge to the McCain-Feingold campaign finance law: Davis v. FEC, in which Cato filed an amicus brief, questions the “Millionaires’ Amendment,” which attempts to discourage candidates for election to Congress from spending more than $350,000 from their own personal funds. It penalizes campaign spending above that threshold by enhacing the political speech of the self-financing candidate’s opponent through increased contribution limits and unlimited coordinated party expenditures. This penalty unconstitutionally chills candidates from engaging in protected political speech beyond that personal funds ceiling, and does so without serving any governmental interest that the Supreme Court has recognized. The penalty doesn’t even prevent the “corruption” that was the rationale for McCain-Feingold, because there is no threat of quid pro quo from a candidates’s expenditure of her own funds. And the Court has expressly rejected “leveling the playing field” of financial resources as an interest sufficient to justofy the infringement of First Amendment rights. Ultimately, the “Millionaires’ Amendment” is nothing more than an incumbency protection mechanism designed by Congress for its own benefit.

Based on this morning’s argument, I think the Court will issue a narrow decision striking down the Millionaires’ Amendment based on the disclosure burden, with separate concurrences on broader First Amendment grounds. The most interesting questioning, not unexpectedly, came from Justice Scalia, who, evoked the reductio ad absurdum of the “leveling” provision (which reminded me of the old Vonnegut story about equality run amock, Harrison Bergeron): “What if one candidate is more eloquent than the other one? You make him talk with pebbles in his mouth?”

Note: John Samples and I visited Capitol Hill yesterday to give a public briefing on the law and policy of self-funded campaigns.

Cracking Down - on Legal Permanent Residents

Prepare for more of this if electronic employment eligibility verification goes national. Reports Dianne Solís of the Dallas Morning News:

Federal immigration agents executing arrest warrants for workers at the Pilgrim’s Pride poultry plant in Mount Pleasant arrested the wrong Jesus García at his home near the plant – despite his repeated assurances that he was a legal permanent resident.

Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents targeted workers at Pilgrim’s plants in Texas and four other states, and by Thursday, had arrested 311 workers on identity fraud charges or immigration violations.

“We think it is a case of mistaken identity,” said Fernando Dubove, Mr. García’s attorney. “It is the wrong Jesus García. It is really tough when you have a common name.”

This is probably just coincidence, but were an electronic employment eligibility verification system in place, illegal immigrants would affirmatively pursue this as a strategy, deepening the simple identity frauds they commit now to get ‘legal’ employment. They would acquire proof of identification as good or better than the true holder of a given identity.

In my recent paper, “Electronic Employment Eligibility Verification: Franz Kafka’s Solution to Illegal Immigration,” I discussed what would happen when mistaken identity/identity fraud situations arose in the EEV systems now being debated on Capitol Hill:

[L]aw-abiding citizens would regularly stand accused of identity fraud. The SSA and DHS would not know which user of a name-SSN pair was the genuine person and which was using a false identity. EEV would tentatively nonconfirm all users of that name-SSN pair. The “true” individuals attached to fraudulently used identities would learn of identity fraud in their names when they were refused work by EEV and plunged into a bureaucratic morass.

Luckily, these victims of the system would just be denied employment and not arrested - if that’s your idea of luck …

Sensors and Social Consequences

A “sensor” is a device that measures a physical quantity and converts it into a signal that can be read by an observer or instrument. Sensors that convert analog information into digital form are the most interesting. The information they collect is easy to store, transmit, and reuse.

Digital sensors are all around - the keyboard on your computer, your cell phone, the surveillance cameras in your office building, and so on.

Lots of good things come from having these sensors around, and the systems they attach to - that’s for sure. But they don’t always serve our interests. Let’s take a look at an example of digital sensing gone wrong.

A colleague of mine recently returned from a business trip, where he engaged in important and sober work. He arrived home late from his trip, and his patient and loving wife, already in bed, engaged him in some conversation. Fairly quickly, she asked him whether he had enjoyed himself at the strip bar (!). My hard-working and serious colleague was concerned. Why, on returning to the warm glow of his happy home-life, should he be asked this question?

As he tells it, he found himself short on cash one evening, and ducked into the nearest establishment looking for an ATM. The generous purveyors of this … nightclub - who could have known it was something more? - graciously allowed him entry for the few moments it took to get the cash and be on his way.

ATMs are digital sensors. They record usage information and tie it to other details, like location. This is known as “meta-data” - information about information, such as where and when a given piece of information was collected.

The ATM transmitted this data and meta-data back to my colleague’s bank and, through an online banking system, to his wife. The system identified the ATM as being at “Antics Topless Lounge” or something like that. You can understand the short string of inferences that his caring, truly lovely wife drew when presented with this single item of sensed data.

The reporting of ATM location information is a convenience to those who may have forgotten where they used the ATM, but it’s less welcome to someone whose sweet and lovely life-partner might draw unfortunate inferences from ATM use in certain locations. Sensors have social consequences, and they’re not all good.

So I was nonplussed by the cover of the latest issue of Government Technology magazine. It shows the front of a police car, photographed from a low angle to give it a pugnacious look. (Alas, I can’t find the image online.) The car is decked out with lights and sirens, of course, but also with sensors - on the roof and behind the windshield.

“FREEZE FRAME,” says the magazine cover, “License plate scanners extend the reach of local police.” Inside, an article describes how license plate scanning by U.S. police agencies is “the next big thing” for catching stolen cars and locating suspects. But the real benefit, according to the chief of detectives and commanding officer of the Detective Bureau at the Los Angeles Police Department, “comes from the long-term value of being able to track vehicles - where they’ve been and what they’ve been doing … .”

Make no mistake: there is value in that, just like there’s value in knowing where you used the ATM. But there’s risk in that, too. It’s not an unalloyed good to give people data about your comings and goings - other than your loving, caring family, of course.

Unlike my colleague and his saintly wife, it’s none of the police’s business where law-abiding citizens have been going and what they’ve been doing. When these sensors are used for mass surveillance and not just spotting bad guys, that crosses an important line.

This is not an argument against giving police these sensors. They will be a boon for law enforcement and an aid to our safety and security. But if the back-end systems put information about every vehicle’s location into a database for later use, that’s inappropriate surveillance of the law-abiding public. Unlike my colleague’s charming, gracious, and forgiving wife, the police shouldn’t be in a position to ask us whether we enjoyed ourselves at the strip bar.

Law and Order

The Virginia Supreme Court “reined in police searches yesterday, overturning convictions in two 2005 drug cases in which the court said police had conducted searches based on vague suspicions.” L. Steven Emmert, a Virginia lawyer-blogger, told the Washington Post he wasn’t surprised: “While Virginia is still one of the law-and-order states, the Supreme Court is very respective of Bill of Rights types of cases.”

I think “while” is the wrong conjunction in that sentence. Maybe it should be “Because Virginia is still one of the law-and-order states, the Supreme Court is very respective of Bill of Rights types of cases.”

“Law and order” is a phrase often used to imply “tough on crime” policies, perhaps suggesting harsh legal penalties harshly applied. Wikipedia notes, “The expression also sometimes carries the implication of arbitrary or unnecessary law enforcement, or excessive use of police powers.”

But law and order are necessary for the flourishing of human life. Advocates of liberty and limited government should not concede the concept of “law and order” to those who engage in “excessive use of police powers.” Those who actually believe in law and order would hold police and prosecutors, as well as criminal suspects, to the rule of law; and that seems to be what the Virginia Supreme Court did. So here’s to justices who understand that “law and order” and “the Bill of Rights” are allies, not enemies.

McCain on Judges

Cato scholars have increasingly been evaluating the respective policies of John McCain, Hillary Clinton, and Barack Obama. The trade shop understandably prefers McCain (see my colleague Sallie James’s new paper), as does, cautiously, our director of health and welfare studies, Michael Tanner. The foreign policy shop, meanwhile, doesn’t like McCain because he is ”wedded to perpetual war” and generally given to neoconservative tendencies.

On judges, I’ll go with the trade and health care folks: While John McCain’s views on  the First Amendment are unacceptable to freedom-lovers of any stripe, he has at least promised to nominate Supreme Court justices in the mold of John Roberts and Sam Alito (who have ruled against campaign finance restrictions). Obama and Clinton, meanwhile, are in the John Paul Stevens camp of relying on empathy, international opinion, and “my own experience” as a basis for constitutional interpretation.

Indeed, while defending his vote against Chief Justice Roberts’s confirmation, Obama explained that his standard for a justice must be “one’s deepest values, one’s core concerns, one’s broader perspectives on how the world works, and the depth and breadth of one’s empathy.”

As Jonah Goldberg says in a devastating column, “Now that is a pure expression of the principle of judicial fiat.”

Supreme Court justices take an oath to “administer justice without respect to persons, and do equal right to the poor and to the rich, and that I will faithfully and impartially discharge and perform all the duties incumbent on me as a justice of the Supreme Court of the United States under the Constitution and laws of the United States, so help me God.” Any contention that justices must tilt toward any particular type of party — the downtrodden (or privileged), the politically unpopular (or popular), the ethnic minority (or majority) — is an argument for judicial dictatorship instead of the rule of law.

As Roberts said when Senator Richard Durbin (D-IL) asked him whether he would be “for the little guy,” if the law says the little guy wins, then the little guy should win — and if the law says the big guy wins, then it would be a miscarriage of justice to rule for the little guy. And those who don’t like that result should complain to their elected officials and get the law changed.

Go Communists! Defend Freedom!

Responding to concerns over ultra-thin models in fashion magazines and advertisements, the French National Assembly has approved legislation that would make the promotion of extreme dieting a crime punishable by up to two years in jail.

France is not alone in its paternalist concern for young women lured into “unrealistic standards of beauty” by the fashion industry.

Spain has banned models with less than a specified body mass index. Last year, Italy barred girls under 16 from its runways and started requiring all models to present health certificates proving they do not suffer from eating disorders. New laws in Britain require models with anorexia or bulimia to prove they are being treated for the disorders before they can participate in London Fashion Week this September.

Some fashion editors objected to the bill. And there were a few opponents in the Assembly:

Most of the left-wing opposition deputies abstained on the vote, with some calling it repressive. “Criminalizing behaviour has no place in public health policy,” said Jacqueline Fraysse, a Communist Party lawmaker.

Vive la France, a country where the Communists denounce the un-libertarian policies of conservative President Nicolas Sarkozy, whose party voted unanimously for the bill.