Topic: Law and Civil Liberties

You’ve Come a Long Way, Baby

I just finished Steven Teles’s important new book, The Rise of the Conservative Legal Movement.  As far as legal nonfiction goes, this is not going to be the bestseller that Jeffrey Toobin’s or Jan Crawford Greenburg’s recent tomes on the Supreme Court have  become, let alone Clarence Thomas’s memoirs.  In part this is because more people are interested in the intense Kremlinology of the least public branch of government – the nine black-robed magistrates in their marble palace at One First Street – than in the nuts and bolts of the reaction to the left-wing excesses of the legal academy.

But more than that, this worthy study will fly under the radar more than it otherwise should because it is an academic book, written with the research methodology and citation practices of a social scientist investigating a particular phenomenon.  It is to Teles’s great credit that he avoided (for the most part) the political science jargon in which such a project could have gotten swallowed, but a journalistic narrative this ain’t.  Perhaps to even greater credit, Teles managed to write this book without once resorting to the often confusing and usually superfluous empirical models and regression analyses that are now demanded by practitioners of the “soft” sciences – probably because he already has tenure.

Teles ably takes us through the development of law and economics – the only way to get alternative voices into law schools resistant to anti-New Deal, anti-Warren Court views – and two generations of libertarian/conservative public interest law, as well as cataloguing the wealth of archival materials from what the Clintons considered the heart of the vast right-wing conspiracy, the Federalist Society.  Curiously, the only mentions of Cato are in a footnote describing Charles Koch as one of our founders and a brief reference to my boss, Roger Pilon, “fuming in his Washington office when the [Harriet] Miers [Supreme Court] nomination was announced.”

In any event, I do recommend the book to those interested in the successes, failures, and false starts of a broad movement to save the law – and consequently legal practice and the courts – from the radicalization that beset academia and public interest organizations in the 1960s.  Is it better to set up law & econ outposts in hostile institutions (Yale, Harvard) or takeover law schools wholesale (George Mason)?  Is it better to have businessmen (Mountain States Legal Foundation) or idealists (Institute for Justice) running a public interest litigation shop?  What sorts of cases are best taken up by the likes of IJ so as to have maximum long-term effect on the legal culture?  These are the sorts of questions Teles analyzes, providing some interesting answers and leaving, as one expects from an academic tract, room for further research.

Some Myth-Busting Is Quite Revealing

After DHS Secretary Chertoff’s testimony to the Senate Judiciary Committee this week (at which he was apparently rebuked for “bullying” states on REAL ID compliance) he sat down with a group of bloggers to discuss things.

Congratulations are due the Secretary for making himself available in an open forum like this, especially because it allows us some insight into his thinking. It makes more clear why he and his colleague Stewart Baker feel a need to engage in so much REAL ID “myth-busting.” Though I have assumed their comprehension of the problems with REAL ID, perhaps I have been mistaken, as Secretary Chertoff does not exhibit a good sense of information technology or the information economy.

Here’s the myth that Secretary Chertoff purports to bust:

I had someone say to me today, “Well, when you have these REAL ID licenses with a machine-readable zone … it’s gonna be used to track people. People can skim it. And they can steal it. And then they can use it to follow you around.” Now this is a fantasy. This is just not true.

The Secretary overstates the argument and so shades into attacking a straw man, but the context is conversational. So let’s look at what the real argument is, and then at the Secretary’s responses. I touched on the question of tracking in my testimony to the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee:

There are machine-readable components like magnetic strips and bar codes on many licenses today. Their types, locations, designs, and the information they carry differs from state to state. For this reason, they are not used very often. If all identification cards and licenses were the same, there would be economies of scale in producing card readers, software, and databases to capture and use this information. Americans would inevitably be asked more and more often to produce a REAL ID card, and share the data from it, when they engaged in various governmental and commercial transactions.

In turn, others will capitalize on the information collected in state databases and harvested using REAL ID cards. Speaking to the Department of Homeland Security’s Data Privacy and Integrity Advisory Committee last week, Anne Collins, the Registrar of Motor Vehicles for the Commonwealth of Massachusetts said, “If you build it they will come.” Massed personal information will be an irresistible attraction to the Department of Homeland Security and many other governmental entities, who will dip into data about us for an endless variety of purposes.

This is not an argument that the currently proposed REAL ID license would be read surreptitiously, as might happen with an RFID-chipped card. (The Secretary says that REAL ID currently does not require RFID, but neglects to mention that the “Enhanced Driver’s License,” which satisfies REAL ID, has one.) The argument is that a great deal more data about us will be collected.

This will include “meta-data” - information about the collection of information, such as time, place, purpose, collecting entity, and so on. Combined identity data and meta-data form footprints about our comings and goings. These footprints, collected in interoperable databases, combine to form tracks.

Perhaps it’s a complicated argument, but it’s a coherent one: REAL ID would lead to tracking of law-abiding Americans.

Nothing the Secretary says conveys that he’s aware of meta-data or actual data collection processes. He says that the machine-readable zone (or MRZ) is “nothing more than the information on the face of the license. I already have a reader for the license - it’s called my eye - and I can read what’s on your license. So therefore there’s nothing I’m going to get out of the MRZ that I can’t get from the face of the license.”

Alas, even this isn’t quite true. The regulation prescribes certain minimum data elements for the MRZ, but doesn’t restrict the use of others, and it doesn’t require states to restrict the content of the MRZ to only what is on the face of the license. The MRZ could lead to tracking of people and their activities based on their race, for example, a data element many states currently include in their MRZs. Despite receiving comments concerned with this during the rulemaking process - oh, and in congressional testimony - DHS declined to prohibit including race in the MRZ of REAL IDs.

Card readers are not just little electric eyeballs. They record information in digital form. This means that identical copies of these records are easy to store, easy to compile, easy to transfer, and easy to reuse. Collecting information in digital form is materially different from collecting information in analog form. Most people who work with technology know that implicitly. To be credible on identification technology issues, one must know this and acknowledge its significance.

Finally, the Secretary says that the DHS is not going to create a lot of databases using REAL ID. That may be his intention, but he’s in office for about ten more months. And whether DHS creates them or not, databases of information harvested using REAL ID would likely be available to DHS.

It is very hard to design information technology systems that do not collect and retain information. The current secretary’s personal opinion about databases just isn’t good evidence of whether or not there will be databases of information about the comings and goings of law-abiding Americans. Chances are very good if REAL ID is implemented that there will be.

Superlative REAL ID Editorial

The Orange County Register has an editorial on the REAL ID Act this morning that captures the issues magnificently. Among other gems:

The big trouble is that there’s no evidence that this Draconian act, even if fully implemented, would be more than a minor inconvenience for a determined terrorist. But having all that information – including copies of birth certificates and Social Security cards – available in one database would make an irresistible target for identity thieves. And it would be a major inconvenience for millions of innocent Americans and a major expense for state governments – meaning taxpayers.

The Register’s conclusion? Congress should “bite the bullet and repeal this useless, intrusive, money-wasting law.”

RIP Herb Alexander

Herbert Alexander was the founder of the study of campaign finance in political science. Long before mandatory disclosure of contributions, Herb published a review of campaign fundraising and spending after each presidential election year. Those volumes remain an invaluable resource for scholars studying American political history. These books were thorough and thoughtful, genuine scholarship on a topic that generates more than a little bluster. I remember reading Herb’s work and thinking what fine work they were, especially considering the law did not mandate disclosure.

I first met Herb in the late 1980s. He had some sympathy in those days for efforts to regulate campaign finance. Later he was much more skeptical, and I like to think it was a skepticism born from experience. I remember a lunch I had with Herb a few years ago. We were discussing some aspect or the other of McCain-Feingold and suddenly Herb said, “You know, John, there’s such a thing as free speech. These people have rights!” Indeed.

Herb was a fine scholar who did his work with integrity and care. He was also a good friend to those who came to know him. I and many others will miss his scholarship and his company.

Will They Turn Themselves In?

British prime minister Gordon Brown has announced that he supports increasing the penalties for the use of marijuana, reversing the slight liberalization of the law under his predecessor, Tony Blair.

I touched on this topic about nine months ago in my posting “Hash Brownies and Harlots in the Halls of Power.” As the Brown government began a review of the marijuana laws, it was revealed that at least eight members of Brown’s cabinet –including the Home Secretary (or attorney general), who was charged with studying the idea of increased penalties, the police minister, and the Home Office minister in charge of drugs – had themselves used marijuana. They were dubbed the “Hash Brownies,” in honor of their service in Brown’s government. I wrote at the time:

In the United States many leading politicians including Al Gore, Newt Gingrich, Bill Bradley, and Barack Obama have admitted using drugs, while Bush and Bill Clinton tried to avoid answering the question.

In both Britain and the United States, all these politicians support drug prohibition. They support the laws that allow for the arrest and incarceration of people who use drugs. Yet they laugh off their own use as “a youthful indiscretion.”

These people should be asked: Do you think people should be arrested for using drugs? Do you think people should go to jail for using drugs? And if so, do you think you should turn yourself in? Do you think people who by the luck of the draw avoided the legal penalty for using drugs should now be serving in high office and sending off to jail other people who did what you did?

Those are still good questions. I noted at the time that they might also be asked of Sen. David Vitter, a patron of prostitutes who believes that prostitution should be illegal. And of course now they should be asked – if he were to reappear and take questions – of former New York governor Eliot Spitzer, who not only supported the laws he was breaking but aggressively enforced those very laws during the same period in which he was enthusastically violating them.

Hypocrisy may be the tribute that vice pays to virtue in matters of advice. But it’s entirely unbecoming when the coercive force of law is involved.

April Fools for Skilled Workers

Quite appropriately, today exposes another facet of the foolishness that is U.S. immigration policy. April 1st is the day each fiscal year when employers are allowed to begin filing petitions with the US Citizen and Immigration Services for highly skilled workers to be given what are known as H-1B visas. For the second consecutive year, the quota of these visas was reached on this first day of eligibility.

H-1Bs allow employers to hire foreign workers in certain professional occupations. They are good for three years and can be renewed for another three. Though an H-1B cannot lead to a green card, it’s still a pretty good deal.

The problem is that, even in this apparent economic downturn, there aren’t enough visas: Congress limits the number of annual H-1Bs grants, and that magic number has been set at 65,000 for five years now. Before that, and in response to the technology boom of the late ’90s, Congress temporarily raised the H-1B cap to 195,000. But that expansion expired in 2004, and the cap has been reached earlier and earlier each year since.

In 2005, that meant August. In 2006, May 26. Last year, by the afternoon of April 2, 2007 (April 1 was a Sunday), USCIS had received over 150,000 H-1B applications. Officials quickly announced that they would randomly select 65,000 petitions from all those the agency had received in the first two days of eligibility.

Last week, with demand for the prized work permits only increasing, the powers that be decreed that this year’s lottery would accept all entries received in the first five business days. USCIS simultaneously promulgated a rule prohibiting employers from trying to game the lottery by filing multiple petitions for the same employee.

As for the vast majority of employers and employees who will be out of luck, the immigration laws say, like so many “rebuilding” baseball teams this opening week, “wait till next year.” Except, in this case, next year means putting your business or career on hold until October 1, 2009—the day people who secure H-1Bs for fiscal year 2010 can start work.

If only this were all a bad April Fools’ joke.

Read more on this in the article I have up on National Review Online today.

Failed, Self-Contradictory REAL ID Myth-Busting

Today finds another post on the DHS Leadership blog attempting to defend the REAL ID Act. Despite never having made the affirmative case for REAL ID, Assistant Secretary for Policy Stewart Baker is attempting to defeat the arguments against it.

The “myth” he purports to dispell this time is that REAL ID creates a national ID:

REAL ID is simple. The regulation requires that states meet minimum security standards when they issue driver’s licenses and identification cards necessary for “official purposes,” like getting on a plane or entering federal buildings. That’s it. The federal government’s role is to make sure that states meet minimum standards of security, so that banks and airports in one state can count on the quality of licenses issued in another.

Once again, I believe savvy Stewart Baker is playing at the role of ingenue. He’s pretending to lack the common knowledge that government programs grow in size and power.

It’s true that REAL ID allows states to issue driver’s licenses and identification cards that don’t meet the federal standards. They won’t be acceptable for “official purposes,” which are defined as follows in the statute:

The term “official purpose” includes but is not limited to accessing Federal facilities, boarding federally regulated commercial aircraft, entering nuclear power plants, and any other purposes that the Secretary shall determine.

(emphasis added)

Once REAL ID is in place, the secretary of homeland security has the power to require it for any purpose beyond the ones listed in the statute. What might those be? The immigration bill debated in Congress last summer would have required possession of a REAL ID–compliant card in order to work in the United States. If Congress doesn’t do it, perhaps the DHS secretary would do it on his own once REAL ID is at his disposal.

Baker himself recently proposed that REAL ID could be required for buying cold medicine. Wherever the federal government requires the use of identification, it could require possession of a REAL ID. In the very post where he seeks to debunk the fact that REAL ID is a national ID, he mentions the use of REAL ID by banks. The USA-PATRIOT Act extended “know your customer” regulations deep into the financial services sector. The DHS and Treasury could require possession of a REAL ID to access banking.

Strangely, Baker’s post says, “the federal government does not have the authority to regulate how or whether a bank, grocery store, retailer, or school requires REAL ID.” This directly contradicts a premise of his proposal to require REAL ID for cold medicine. It’s unfortunate that the federal government has this power — it shouldn’t — but Baker knows darn well that it does.

It’s technically true that you wouldn’t have to have a REAL ID–compliant national ID card under current law, but refusing one may not be too practical. You’d have to live in a state that gives you that option and then be willing to do without air travel, legal employment, financial services, medicine, and whatever else the Department of Homeland Security decides.

What looks like a duck, walks like a duck, and quacks like a duck, tends to be a duck. REAL ID is a national ID.