Topic: Law and Civil Liberties

Collins Still Working to Preserve REAL ID

No state will comply with the REAL ID Act’s requirement to begin issuing a national ID by the forthcoming statutory deadline, May 11th.

Because of that, the Department of Homeland Security is giving states deadline extensions just for the asking. Interestingly, it’s turning around and spinning the acceptance of those extensions as commitments to comply. Many of the states shown in green on this map have passed statutes outright refusing to implement the law. (For readers new to Planet Earth, the color green typically means “go.” Green is a strange choice of color for states that have legally barred themselves from issuing the DHS’s national ID.)

With her state — the first in the nation to pass anti–REAL ID legislation — considering refusing even the deadline extension, Sen. Susan Collins (R-ME) is once again working with DHS in support of the national ID law.

She has written a letter to the governor of her state, asking him to go ahead and take the waiver, playing into the DHS strategy. Followers of REAL ID know that delaying implementation helps a national ID go forward by giving the companies and organizations that sustain themselves on these kinds of projects time to shake the federal money tree and get this $11 billion surveillance mandate funded.

The cumulative profit margin of the airline industry is less than 1%. Should even a single state refuse to accept this national ID mandate, the airline industry, airport operators (faced with reconfiguring their operations), and travelers groups would be on the Hill in an instant. The Congress would have to revisit the issue.

Evidently, Senator Collins doesn’t want to risk the chance of an up-or-down vote on whether the United States should have a national ID. Her work behind the scenes in favor of REAL ID reveals where she stands.

One in 100: Behind Bars In America, 2008

A new report, One in 100, from the Pew Charitable Trusts is drawing attention to the remarkable growth in the U.S. prison population. The Washington Post reports: “With more than 2.3 million people behind bars, the United States leads the world in both the number and percentage of residents it incarcerates, leaving far-more-populous China a distant second.”

I do not think our prison population should be some function of the overall adult population in the United States. But, still, when the freest country in the world is locking up more people than a much more populous totalitarian state, policymakers ought to pause and ask themselves this question: Do so many Americans really need to be kept behind iron bars? I addressed that question in a Washington Post article a few years ago — just as our prison population was breaking the two-million-prisoner mark. The short answer is no. 

The subject is not that complicated. Social engineers thought that a ban on drug use would work. It has not. Federal and state drug laws are broken millions of times each and every month. The social engineers have tried increasing the penalties and stepping up enforcement in order to “send messages.” The courts and prisons are busier than ever, but the drug trade continues to thrive.  

When the prisons are overflowing in certain jurisdictions, the system starts backing up and the police will focus on the most violent offenders and only the “major drug traffickers.” In the jurisdictions where there is some extra prison bed space (such places are few and far between), the police can “crack down” on (low level) drug dealers and users. Given that reality, one must recognize the folly of the conservative policy prescription, which basically is: Let’s build some new prisons. The liberal policy prescription of “home monitoring” and “drug treatment” do not address the core problem. 

The costs of incarceration are keeping the most zealous drug warriors in check because they cannot persuade enough people to spend whatever it takes to enforce the law against the possession and ingestion of an arbitrary list of substances. The course we are now following is nothing but a series of stop-gap measures — i.e., the police will ignore some drug dealing, the judges will send more people into drug treatment (whether they need it or not), and the wardens will have the inmates set up cots and bunk beds in the cafeterias and exercise rooms at night. 

For additional Cato work on this subject, go here.

Don’t Make a Federal Case Out of It

Federal agents investigate, arrest, and prosecute local law enforcement agents on a fairly regular basis.  Unfortunately, state and local police rarely investigate, arrest, and prosecute federal agents.  I suspect the locals are just intimidated by the FBI, Secret Service, IRS, etc.  When something suspicious or questionable happens, the feds tell the locals something to the effect of “Back off.  We’ll handle this ourselves-internally.” 

So Arizona officials deserve some credit for pressing ahead and treating Border Patrol Agent Nicholas Corbett like any other suspect.  According to the local prosecutor, Corbett’s story does not hold up and sufficient evidence points toward his guilt.  If that is indeed the situation, this case should be simple: Prosecute.  The fact that the victim didn’t have a visa in his pocket does not matter.   It also does not matter that Corbett had a federal badge in his wallet.

The Arizona officials did mess up one important aspect of this caseWhy is this matter in federal court?  Well, I already know why because this typically happens in these rare circumstances when a federal agent is prosecuted.  The more precise question is: Why didn’t the Arizona officials object to the transfer to federal court?   One news story alludes to juror bias, but that does not hold up.  Where are the jurors in federal court coming from?  Rhode Island?  The issue isn’t really rural vs. big city either because, again, if you name any big city in Arizona, there are going to be Arizona courts there! 

The thinly veiled reason for the removal procedure is that the state process is supposedly rigged/biased against the federal agent.   Arizona officials should have recognized this and defended their justice system instead of just rolling over. 

Agent Corbett has a right to a trial – like any other person accused of a crime.  The point here is that he would have had the opportunity to argue self-defense in the Arizona state courts.  And if he is convicted but thinks his trial was unfair, he can appeal and try to persuade a higher court with specifics.  This case belongs in state court, not federal court.  

Candor With the Court

President Bush and Attorney General Michael Mukasey owe the Supreme Court an explanation.  Four years ago, one of Bush’s top lawyers, Solicitor General Paul Clement, told the Supreme Court that the administration did not use coercive methods on prisoners to extract information.  Given the recent admission by CIA Director Michael Hayden that three prisoners were waterboarded, we now know that the Supreme Court was misled.  If Mukasey hopes to get the Justice Department back on track, he must find out how this happened and take corrective action.

In the spring of 2004, the Bush administration was advancing its sweeping vision of executive power before the Supreme Court.  An American citizen, Jose Padilla, a suspected terrorist, had been arrested at Chicago’s O’Hare airport.  Padilla was then moved to a military brig where he was held in solitary confinement for two years.  The government refused to allow Padilla to meet with anyone, including his lawyer.  According to the Bush administration, once a prisoner is designated an “enemy combatant,” he loses the legal protections of the American Constitution—even if the prisoner is an American citizen arrested in the United States.  Because of the grave issues involved, the Supreme Court decided to hear Padilla’s constitutional objections and rule on the controversy.

Although the central issue in the Padilla case concerned the president’s power to imprison American citizens, the Supreme Court wanted to examine the breadth of the Bush administration’s legal claims.  Solicitor General Clement argued that America was at war and that the president, as commander-in-chief, could not have his military decisions “second-guessed” by the judiciary.  A pivotal moment in the Padilla oral argument came when Clement was asked about torture (pdf)(pp. 20-23).  Testing the limits of Clement’s logic, the Supreme Court justices wanted to know if there was any legal check on the executive power to coerce prisoners to obtain military intelligence.  Clement tried to talk around the question, but then a member of the Court asked this blunt question, “Suppose the executive says mild torture we think will help get this information.  It’s not a soldier who does something against the Code of Military Justice, but it’s an executive command.  Some [foreign governments] do that to get information.”

This was supposed to be the moment of truth, but the White House representative faltered by saying, “Well, our executive doesn’t.”

That was doubletalk.  Four years later, the White House is telling a different story, albeit in dribs and drabs.  Waterboarding is not the same as water torture.  Only the CIA does it.  Only a few prisoners.

Clement could have said this to the Supreme Court, “Our Office of Legal Counsel has determined that the infliction of pain equivalent to organ failure is the legal limit.”  Or he could have said something similar to what Vice President Dick Cheney said recently—that the administration does have a tough program for “tough customers.”  Instead, Clement sought to assure the Supreme Court that there was no need to wrestle with such questions because even mild torture was beyond the pale to ”our executive.”  Satisfied with that answer, the Court moved on to other legal issues.

Professional legal obligations prohibit lawyers from making false statements of fact or law to a court.  And if a false statement is made, whether intentionally or by mistake, attorneys have an obligation to bring the error to the court’s attention even after the conclusion of the relevant proceeding.  As a former federal judge, Attorney General Mukasey must appreciate the importance of the legal rules requiring candor toward the courts.  Indeed, it was precisely that obligation that recently prompted Mukasey to initiate a criminal investigation into the CIA’s destruction of an interrogation videotape in another case.  That disclosure came to light when a Justice Department lawyer discovered the CIA’s action and took the appropriate corrective action by notifying a court of what transpired.  Keeping such facts from the court might have prevented the subsequent criminal inquiry and the negative publicity, but it would have violated the legal rules.

There is no evidence that the misrepresentation to the Supreme Court in the Padilla case regarding tough tactics against prisoners was deliberate—so this matter does not appear to warrant another special prosecutor or even an internal criminal inquiry.  But neither should this matter be permitted to slip by unnoticed.  Since the rule of candor toward the courts is unlikely to ever be openly attacked, it is imperative to defend this rule when we see it undermined—especially before the Supreme Court.    If the rule is worth preserving, and it is, it needs to be enforced.  At a minimum, Mukasey should officially inform the Supreme Court of the error.

The key point is this: Reasonable people can honestly disagree about what needs to be done about the threat posed by terrorists, but a conscientious discussion of our Constitution and laws must begin with a clear understanding of what our government is actually doing and what it is actually proposing to do next.

ACLU Provides Inadvertent Civics Lesson

Tuesday the Supreme Court declined to review the ACLU’s challenge to the Terrorist Surveillance Program (TSP), the NSA’s post-9/11 foreign intelligence-gathering initiative whose critics labeled “domestic spying.”

This case shows the interplay of the foundational legal doctrine of “standing” with one of the privileges courts recognize as being more important than allowing full discovery of information during the litigation process – and it also shows the proper relationship between the political and judicial branches in our constitutional system. To maintain a legal claim a plaintiff must show that he was injured in a unique and concrete way. Here, a motley crew of plaintiffs – who also included the Council on American-Islamic Relations (CAIR), journalist Christopher Hitchens, various lawyers, and others – cannot demonstrate that they have been harmed in any but a generalized, speculative way by the TSP. They simply have no idea whether their international communications had been monitored.

While the plaintiffs previously argued that they were denied the opportunity even to find out about possible violations of their civil liberties because the relevant evidence is classified, the lower court correctly ruled that the government’s “state secrets privilege” prevented the dissemination of this information that, if disclosed, could compromise national security. Further, the state secrets at issue here relate to foreign intelligence, involving the monitoring of cross-border communications of people suspected of affiliation with a foreign enemy. As Justice Robert Jackson (commonly cited by those who would curtail executive authority over intelligence gathering) wrote in 1948:

The President, both as Commander-in-Chief and as the Nation’s organ for foreign affairs, has available intelligence services whose reports neither are nor ought to be published to the world. It would be intolerable that courts, without the relevant information, should review and perhaps nullify actions of the Executive taken on information properly held secret. Nor can courts sit in camera in order to be taken into executive confidences. But even if courts could require full disclosure, the very nature of executive decisions as to foreign policy is political, not judicial. Such decisions are wholly confided by our Constitution to the political departments of the government, Executive and Legislative. They are delicate, complex, and involve large elements of prophecy. They are and should be undertaken only by those directly responsible to the people whose welfare they advance or imperil. They are decisions of a kind for which the Judiciary has neither aptitude, facilities nor responsibility and have long been held to belong in the domain of political power not subject to judicial intrusion or inquiry.

Ultimately – and wherever you put the dividing line between executive and legislative authority – this case is just such a disagreement over policy that should be handled in the political branches, rather than as unnecessary litigation in the courts. Much like disputes over high tax rates, immigration enforcement, earmarks, and a host of other issues now being debated by the presidential candidates, the TSP presents a classical political (not legal) question. The plaintiffs were not more affected by the policy than other Americans, so their recourse, as ACLU legal director Steven Shapiro (no relation to me) correctly noted, is to petition Congress (and the executive). Ironically, this is exactly what the ACLU and its allies already did successfully, contributing to the political pressure that led the Bush administration to shut down the program in January 2007. For good or ill, this is the way our democracy is supposed to function.

FISA Non Sequiturs

Julian Sanchez notes this absurd post at The Corner about the Supreme Court’s refusal to review a decision of the Sixth Circuit ruling that the ACLU lacked standing to sue the NSA over the president’s warrantless wiretapping program. Andy McCarthy thinks that…

This underscores that the President had constitutional authority to order warrantless surveillance; that the cooperating telecoms were not only being patriotic but exercising sound judgment when they complied with requests for assistance; and that the House Democrats are acting reprehensibly by refusing to consider the intelligence reform bill passed overwhelmingly in the Senate.

Julian is right to call this an insane non sequitur. The amazing thing is the number of levels on which it’s nonsensical. Let me see if I can count them.

In the first place, the Supreme Court gets thousands of appeals every year, and only accepts a few dozen of them. So the Supreme Court declining to hear a case, in and of itself, tells us absolutely nothing about the merits of the case. It simply suggests that the justices had other cases they were more interested in hearing.

Second, the Sixth Circuit decision the Supreme Court allowed to stand didn’t address the merits of the ACLU’s lawsuit—i.e. the legality of the so-called Terrorist Surveillance Program—either. Rather, the Sixth Circuit held that because the plaintiffs couldn’t prove that they personally had been spied upon, they lacked standing to bring the lawsuit. This has absolutely nothing to do with whether the program is legal or constitutional.

Third, the telecoms were not a party to this lawsuit at all, so I’m baffled as to how it could have any implications for whether what they did was legal. The legality of the program and the legality of the telecoms’ participation in it are distinct questions. One could perfectly well argue that the program was legal but the telecoms’ participation in it was not, or vice versa. So the fact that a lawsuit against the government failed tells us nothing about whether the lawsuits against the telecoms will succeed.

Fourth, the lawsuits that have been filed against the telecoms are different in important respects from this decision. The EFF suit against AT&T, for example, is based on specific evidence that AT&T is diverting traffic from its fiber-optic network into a secret room controlled by the NSA. This is the kind of concrete evidence that was missing from the ACLU v. NSA case.

Finally, and most obviously, none of this has anything to do with the merits of the competing House and Senate FISA reform bills, or with any ulterior motives Democrats might have. And indeed, if McCarthy is right that all of the lawsuits are groundless, then it’s a little bit of a mystery why he’s so anxious for telecom immunity. If the telecoms didn’t break the law, or if the law they broke was unconstitutional, then they should be able to make that argument in court. It’s only if their arguments aren’t likely to stand up in court that immunity becomes important.