Topic: Law and Civil Liberties

What Militia Theory?

Here is an excerpt from today’s Washington Post regarding the arguments at the Supreme Court yesterday:

A majority of the Supreme Court indicated a readiness yesterday to settle decades of constitutional debate over the meaning of the Second Amendment by declaring that it provides an individual right to own a gun for self-defense.

Such a finding could doom the District of Columbia’s ban on private handgun possession, the country’s toughest gun-control law, and significantly change the tone and direction of the nation’s political battles over gun control.

During oral arguments that drew spectators who had waited for days to be in the courtroom, there was far more skepticism among the justices about the constitutionality of the District’s ban on private handgun possession than defense of it.

Read the whole thing. Cato Senior Fellow Bob Levy, Alan Gura, and Clark Neily did a superb job of advocacy–with their legal brief, the oral argument, and in media interviews.

Only one problem. They have so thoroughly demolished the notion that the right to keep and bear arms only pertains to persons serving in the militia or National Guard that most people will not truly appreciate their achievement. In two years (less?) people will say “wasn’t it always so?”

I expect a favorable ruling in the Heller case but I also expect DC Mayor Adrian Fenty to obstruct the ruling as much as he possibly can. So, if I’m right, the way in which to view this case is as an important victory in an on-going struggle.

Supreme Court Hears Second Amendment Case Today

This morning the Supreme Court will be hearing oral arguments in the landmark Second Amendment case, DC v. Heller. People started getting in line last night. (HT: Volokh Conspiracy). Here’s the story from today’s Washington Post. An audio of the argument will be released around 11:30 am EST for those of us who could not attend the live event. The attorneys who present the arguments must be prepared for three scenarios. Scenario I is a “cold bench” – which means few questions. In that scenario, the attorney must be ready to speak persuasively for about 30 minutes. Scenario II is the “hot bench” – which means lots of questions. In that scenario, the attorney must be ready for a barrage of questions and just hope that he/she can make a strong opening and closing without interruption. Scenario III is somewhere in between the two extremes. Everyone expects a hot bench today. Should be very interesting.

For additional background, go here and here.

Boiling the Voter-ID Teapot

Last week, former Federal Election Commissioner Hans A. von Spakovsky published a Heritage Foundation Legal Memorandum entitled Stolen Identities, Stolen Votes: A Case Study in Voter Impersonation. Contrary to claims made by prominent newspapers and attorneys, he argues, in-person voting fraud is a real problem.

The evidence he provides is a vote fraud ring that began operating in 1968 and that was broken up more than 25 years ago in 1982. Impersonation fraud can be committed at polling places, and a voter-ID requirement would make it a little harder, but a quarter-century-old case is hardly evidence of a significant problem.

How states secure their voting processes should turn on how they structure their voting processes. States might choose a voter ID requirement if they can do so in a way that balances security against access, convenience, and privacy. Absentee balloting is generally a far greater threat to the security of elections than weak or non-existent ID requirements at polling places.

The thing that matters most is avoiding a uniform national voter ID requirement. I wrote about this in my TechKnowledge piece Voter ID: A Tempest in a Teapot That Could Burn Us All: “To ensure that American voters enjoy their franchise in a free country, clumsy voter ID rules should be avoided. A national voter ID system should be taken off the table entirely.”

Rep. Bachman Misleads Her Constituents

Over the last few weeks, I’ve pointed out a few of the misleading arguments being deployed on behalf of expanding executive power in the wiretapping debate. But I think this op-ed in my home state’s largest newspaper, the Star Tribune, may take the cake. It’s written by Rep. Michelle Bachman (R-MN), and it’s a brazen effort to mislead my fellow Minnesotans about the wiretapping debate without saying anything that’s technically false. Rep. Bachman writes:

One of the critical tools that has allowed us to keep the homeland safe after 9/11 has been the Protect America Act. It updated the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) to deal with new, deadly challenges in this age of terror – enabling intelligence services to immediately listen to phone calls made between foreign terrorists.

Now, it’s true that the Protect America Act was passed “after 9/11.” It’s also true that the Protect America Act was passed after Pearl Harbor. And the Battle of Hastings, for that matter. The key point is that the Protect America Act was passed in August 2007, six years after 9/11.

This matters because, as Kurt Opsahl at EFF points out, Bachman goes on to imply that “attack after attack,” including the liquid explosives plot in the summer of 2006, was stopped by the Protect America Act. Indeed, she writes, “last year, the Heritage Foundation compiled a list of 19 confirmed terror plots against American targets that had been thwarted.”

Here is the report Bachman is presumably referring to. The 19 attacks range from the Richard Reid shoe bomb attack in December 2001 to the JFK Airport plot in June 2007. In other words, all 19 thwarted attacks occurred before the Protect America Act was enacted in August 2007. Bachman never explicitly says otherwise, but she’s obviously doing her best to give her constituents the impression that the PAA was enacted sometime in 2001 or 2002. Reasonable people could disagree about whether this qualifies as a lie. But I think it’s hard to escape the conclusion that Rep. Bachman has a low opinion of her constituents’ intelligence.

The Dangers of Warrantless Wiretapping

My friend (and Cato alum) Julian Sanchez has a great op-ed in the Los Angeles Times on the history of wiretapping abuse. Supporters of warrantless wiretapping act as though it’s outrageous to suggest that unchecked surveillance powers might be abused. But history suggests that abuses of wiretapping power was the norm, rather than the exception, in the pre-FISA legal regime:

In 1945, Harry Truman had the FBI wiretap Thomas Corcoran, a member of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s “brain trust” whom Truman despised and whose influence he resented. Following the death of Chief Justice Harlan Stone the next year, the taps picked up Corcoran’s conversations about succession with Justice William O. Douglas. Six weeks later, having reviewed the FBI’s transcripts, Truman passed over Douglas and the other sitting justices to select Secretary of the Treasury (and poker buddy) Fred Vinson for the court’s top spot.

“Foreign intelligence” was often used as a pretext for gathering political intelligence. John F. Kennedy’s attorney general, brother Bobby, authorized wiretaps on lobbyists, Agriculture Department officials and even a congressman’s secretary in hopes of discovering whether the Dominican Republic was paying bribes to influence U.S. sugar policy. The nine-week investigation didn’t turn up evidence of money changing hands, but it did turn up plenty of useful information about the wrangling over the sugar quota in Congress – information that an FBI memo concluded “contributed heavily to the administration’s success” in passing its own preferred legislation.

Julian also describes abuses in the Harding, Johnson, and Nixon administrations. He concludes:

It’s probably true that ordinary citizens uninvolved in political activism have little reason to fear being spied on, just as most Americans seldom need to invoke their 1st Amendment right to freedom of speech. But we understand that the 1st Amendment serves a dual role: It protects the private right to speak your mind, but it serves an even more important structural function, ensuring open debate about matters of public importance. You might not care about that first function if you don’t plan to say anything controversial. But anyone who lives in a democracy, who is subject to its laws and affected by its policies, ought to care about the second.

Harvard University legal scholar William Stuntz has argued that the framers of the Constitution viewed the 4th Amendment as a mechanism for protecting political dissent. In England, agents of the crown had ransacked the homes of pamphleteers critical of the king – something the founders resolved that the American system would not countenance.

In that light, the security-versus-privacy framing of the contemporary FISA debate seems oddly incomplete. Your personal phone calls and e-mails may be of limited interest to the spymasters of Langley and Ft. Meade. But if you think an executive branch unchecked by courts won’t turn its “national security” surveillance powers to political ends – well, it would be a first.

The Toilet Paper Police

This story from a Florida TV station probably calls for some serious analysis about over-regulation and the need for cost-benefit analysis. But that presupposes a level of maturity that I don’t have. Instead, I’ll just note that it’s about time that politicians address issues where they have genuine expertise:

A proposed law currently making its way through the Florida legislature might help you with what can be an embarrassing problem. Here’s the bottom line, the bill would be a mandate that all eating establishment must have enough toilet paper when you go into the restroom. The only problem is the bill doesn’t dictate how much toilet paper is “enough.” State Senator Victor Crist, a Republican from Tampa, felt the problem was so important, a law must be passed to protect the backsides of anyone in Florida. The measure will also try to regulate the cleanliness of restrooms in eating establishments.

Keystone Cops, D.C. Auxiliary

In a new plan to combat crime on the streets of our fair city, Mayor Adrian Fenty and Police Chief Cathy Lanier are encouraging residents to submit to voluntary searches of their homes in exchange for amnesty if the residents have illegal guns (or drugs).  (“Excuse me, ma’am, mind if I take a look around… “)

Well, this isn’t illegal – consent is, after all, one of the exceptions to the warrant requirement – but it is head-scratchingly poor public policy.  Those who don’t want to give up their contraband won’t consent to searches, those who want to get rid of it will find a way to do that without signaling “check here again next week,” and the police will waste their resources rifling through the homes of people with nothing to hide.

Maybe D.C. should pass a law outlawing gun ownership.  Oh wait, they already did that and are fighting to keep it in the face of, um, the Second Amendment.  (The Supreme Court hears argument in D.C. v. Heller next Tuesday.)

The bottom line is that voluntary home searches, like outright gun prohibitions, only hurt law-abiding citizens.  Those who have already chosen to engage in crime will not be deterred merely because their actions violate gun-related ordinances in addition to the laws against robbery, rape, murder, etc.  The only guns swept up in this “amnesty” will be those kept by people trying to protect their families from the criminals the police fail to catch.