Topic: Law and Civil Liberties

Is FISA about Trial Lawyers?

One of the biggest canards of the FISA debate is the notion that congressional Democrats who oppose telecom immunity do so because, as Dick Cheney put it recently, they want to “leave open the possibility that the trial lawyers can go after a big company that may have helped” with the administration’s illegal wiretapping program.

Glen Greewald points to an interview with Cindy Cohn of the Electronic Frontier Foundation, the organization spearheading one of the biggest lawsuits against AT&T:

GG: John Boehner, the House Minority Leader, was on Fox News on Sunday arguing for telecom immunity, and this is one of the things he said in explaining why he believed in amnesty: “I believe that [telecoms] deserve immunity from lawsuits out there from typical trial lawyers trying to find a way to get into the pockets of the American companies.”

Is that an accurate description of your lawsuit and your organization?

CC: No, we are not plaintiff’s attorneys… . He’s welcome to come and visit our offices and if he still thinks that we’re rich plaintiffs’ attorneys after he’s visited our little tiny Mission Street offices, then I have a bridge to sell him. We’re a small, struggling nonprofit with a very tiny budget — and we’re doing this because we’re committed to protecting people’s privacy in the digital age.

GG: I don’t know the salaries of EFF lawyers and I’m not asking that, but I assume it’s true that there are all kinds of private sector opportunities and large corporate law firms in San Francisco where lawyers working in those places are making a lot more money, and if EFF lawyers were motivated by the desire for profit — as Mr. Bohener dishonestly suggested — there are a lot of other jobs that you could get that would pay a lot more money.

CC: Oh yeah, absolutely. And in fact, our lawyers are just the opposite. Most of the EFF lawyers worked in those big fancy firms for big fancy salaries, and took big paycuts to join us, because they wanted to do personally fulfilling work and feel like they were making the world a better place.

What I tell young lawyers who come to me and say: “I really want to work for EFF — you have such great lawyers,” I say: “Take your current paycheck, rip it in three pieces, take any third, and that’s about what you’ll get working for EFF.” The lawyers who work for EFF are making some of the biggest contributions to this organization, because they are making far less than they could on the open market in exchange for being able to work on things they believe in every day.

Having visited EFF’s offices myself, I can confirm Cohn’s description — they’re anything but a swanky law firm. And EFF’s work has been vital to defending and expanding online freedom. The idea that the FISA debate is about trial lawyers, rather than privacy and the Constitution, is an insult both to the hard-working lawyers at organizations like EFF and the ACLU, and to everyone else’s intelligence.

McCain Undone?

John McCain has a campaign finance problem. When his campaign was down and out, he agreed to take public funding for the primaries. Public funding comes with spending limits overall and by state. Also, a candidate who accepts funding cannot raise money from private sources. Now that it is possible he will be the nominee, McCain will want to be free of those fundraising and spending limits, but he cannot withdraw from the public system. Or perhaps he could but only with the approval of the FEC, which is not operating because of a struggle over its nominees. The FEC does not now have a quorum to meet and regulate. (The lack of a quorum was caused by Barack Obama’s hold on a nominee to the FEC, but never mind).

McCain will want out of the public system because he is probably close to hitting the limit, and he could not get more money for his campaign until he received public funding after the GOP convention during the summer.  His “dark period” would thus be a period without campaign funding that would run from spring until after the GOP convention. During that “dark period” Obama or Hillary, both of whom have not accepted public funding for the primaries, would be able to continue spending money; some of that spending would be directed against McCain after Obama or Hillary has secured the party’s nomination.

So McCain needs to get out of the public system and fast. One way would be to refuse public funding for the fall campaign; he could then start raising money privately now; however, he pledged to accept public funding for the general election if his opponent did so. Obama has taken a similar pledge.   Also, McCain would get around some of this by using “outside groups” (527 groups and others ) to fund his effort, but he has been a fierce critic of such groups and tactics.

I have often noticed that people whom you would expect to support campaign finance regulation (e.g. liberal Democrats) often are strident critics of the system if they have had some personal contact with the web of regulation.  McCain is in a mess fostered in part by his own self-righteousness. Somehow I do not expect his personal contact with the system will make him a critic of it in 2009.

See also Mark Schmitt’s concise and informative report.

The Work Goes On, the Cause Endures, the Hope Still Lives, Etc., Etc.

I’ve taken issue with plenty of things Ted Kennedy has done in the past, most recently his suggested reforms to the judicial confirmation system.  My response [$] to his proposals was essentially that he ought to go back to Civics 101 and learn the difference between law and politics, and between the respective powers of the judicial and legislative branches.

Apparently, someone on Kennedy’s staff has done just that because this week the good senator introduced two bills designed essentially to remedy what he sees as Supreme Court error in the field of employment discrimination.  This action naturally caught the attention of the New York Times editorial page:

One of the most troubling rulings was in the case of Lilly Ledbetter, a supervisor at a Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company plant who was paid less than her male colleagues after she was given smaller raises over several years. The court’s conservative majority ruled that Ms. Ledbetter had not met the 180-day deadline to file her complaint. It insisted that the 180 days ran from the day the company had made the original decision to give her a smaller raise than the men.

….

The Fair Pay Restoration Act, one of Senator Kennedy’s bills, would undo the injustice of the Ledbetter decision by establishing that the 180-day deadline runs from when a worker receives the unequal pay, not when the employer decided to discriminate. It would make clear that each discriminatory paycheck restarts the clock.

Kennedy’s other bill, the Civil Rights Act of 2008, would reverse more bad decisions. One of these is a 2001 ruling that says that people who are discriminated against in programs using federal funds can sue only for intentional discrimination, not for actions that have a discriminatory effect.

Kennedy, wittingly or not, has just demonstrated how our constitutional system of checks and balances and separation of powers should work — as well as illustrating the difference between law and politics.

The Fair Pay Restoration Act is Congress’s proper (legislative) response to the Supreme Court’s proper (judicial) decision in the Ledbetter case.  The Court had no choice but to rule the way it did under the relevant (and constitutionally valid) law, even if the result was arguably unjust.  The correct response is, as has happened here, to propose a bill changing that law, not to urge judges to ignore it and rule as they see fit.

Similarly, the Civil Rights Act of 2008 is a legislative attempt to correct a perceived failing in employment discrimination law as correctly interpreted by the judiciary.  The wisdom of allowing people to sue for actions that have “discriminatory effect” without an intent to discriminate — whatever that means and however it can be established for legal purposes — is debatable, but it is only through congressional action (with the president’s assent or properly overridden veto) that the law can change.

The bottom line is that judges — including the highest court in the land — have the power only to interpret the law (constitutional and otherwise), not rewrite it or otherwise legislate from the bench.  I’m glad that Kennedy has thus decided, for this week at least, to use his lawful authority to legislate from the legislature — instead of merely railing against a judiciary that does nothing more nor less than its job.

Is The Domestic Terror Threat ‘Overblown’?

As Cato’s new research fellow for Defense and Homeland Security (and someone who’s written extensively on how the terror threat to the United States is hardly an “existential” one), I was glad to see this headline on the cover of latest Rolling Stone (right behind the left ear of Radiohead lead singer Thom Yorke): “The Fake Domestic Terror Threat: How the FBI Became a Factory of Fear” — even if it’s a bit hyperbolic. (The article is not online.)

The author, Guy Lawson, does not tell readers much that they could not have gathered from the Washington Post or the New York Review of Books. But he repeats something that bears repeating: Six plus years of fevered searching for terrorists on American soil has turned up precious little of the real thing.

The hunt, led by the FBI, has found several wanna-be jihadis willing to sign up for phony terror plots often organized by FBI informants, various illegal immigrants with shady overseas connections, a number of people gathering funds for foreign terrorist organizations, and only a handful of true terrorists (and not particularly formidable ones). A report from NYU’s Center for Law and Security finds that from September 11, 2001 through September 11, 2006, only “four individuals have been convicted of federal crimes of terrorism” in the United States and “no sleeper cell with logistical or tactical links to al Qaeda has been convicted of plotting an attack to be carried out within the U.S.” That means we have found no terrorist sleeper cells in the United States since September 11, as the FBI admitted.

Time and again, federal officials held press conferences to announce the break-up of a terrorist plot and vaguely described the disaster prevented. The evening news and the headlines repeated their lurid claims. Months later, the inside pages of the papers would report that the plot was not what we were told — and TV doesn’t even bother. The plans have turned out to be unfeasible or preliminary. On other occasions, it turned out the plotters visited a terrorist camp but did little plotting. Some charges have been dismissed. Some have been completely bogus.

Experts, like an FBI agent Lawson quotes, say that just because you haven’t found something, it doesn’t mean it’s not there. That’s indisputable. But when several federal agencies, local police, alarmed citizens, and ambitious federal prosecutors search for terrorists for years and find almost none, you have good evidence that there just aren’t many to find. To that some will say that absence of evidence isn’t evidence of absence. But that expression is illogical. If you spent two hours spent searching your car for your lost wallet, it is good evidence that it’s not there, though it’s not proof.

Don’t mistake me. The domestic terror threat is not altogether false. Most of those the government has prosecuted in the name of counter-terrorism should have gone to prison or been deported, and the FBI should not quit looking. The point is simply that the threat is greatly exaggerated.

Without that exaggeration it would be harder, obviously, to justify illegal wiretapping and other brazen assertions of unconstitutional executive power. Lawson mentions another consequence of overreaction to domestic terrorism; one that is mostly ignored: fewer resources devoted to fighting good old-fashioned crime. He quotes a Northern Illinois police officer frustrated by the funds the FBI devotes to chasing terrorists when there is plenty of real federal crime going unsolved and wonders if this is the best use of our tax dollars. He could have gone further.

The FBI has shifted about 2,400 agents from crime to counter-terrorism in recent years, despite the doubling of its topline budget — now $6.4 billion. The result is likely more fraud, more racketeering, more mafia. In a 2005 report, Justice Department inspector general Glenn Fine notes that the FBI opened 45 percent fewer criminal investigations in 2004 than 2001 and referred 27 percent fewer cases to a U.S. Attorney for prosecution. Cases opened on violent crime dropped 47 percent, financial crimes 40 percent, public corruption 42 percent and American criminal enterprises — often the mafia — 50 percent.

Even readers skeptical about the merits of federal policing ought to agree that it is wiser for the feds to chase real criminals than imaginary terrorists. As Jim Harper recently said here, terrorists usually impose large costs only by inducing the unwitting help of their victims. By encouraging the FBI to ignore its traditional responsibilities, we magnify the costs of terrorism. A recalibration of priorities is in order. But American politics being what they are, that will take a few hundred more articles like Lawson’s.

E-Verify: Slow and Unsteady in Arizona

I’ll soon have a paper out on “electronic employment eligibility verification.” This is the idea of requiring every employer in the country to check the immigration status of employees against Department of Homeland Security and Social Security Administration databases.

A nationwide EEV program, building on the current Basic Pilot/”E-Verify” program, was treated as a matter of near consensus at the beginning of this past summer’s immigration debate, and the Department of Homeland Security continues to promote it.

My paper goes into the practical and technical problems with a full-fledged EEV system, as well as the question whether such a thing is appropriate for a free country. But I’ve already become aware of problems I didn’t think of.

A law went in to effect in Arizona January 1st requiring all employers to use the E-Verify system. The Arizona Republic reports that just 17,000 of the state’s 150,000 businesses have signed up for E-Verify. (January is a slow month for hiring, but employers may be holding off on hiring too. And a lawsuit has been brought challenging the Arizona law.)

Among employers using E-Verify, the question has arisen what to do when an employee has worked for a few days, but then is deemed ineligible by the database. Should the employee who is either an illegal immigrant are a citizen with bad paperwork be paid? “[E]mployers could look for workers who are at risk of failing E-Verify, the online database that checks employment eligibility, and fire those workers without paying them for up to three days of labor,” says the report.

The simple idea of “internal enforcement” of immigration law using employers as Border Patrol agents turns out not to be so simple. E-Verify puts fair-minded employers between a rock and a hard place, while facilitating unscrupulous behavior by others.

National Review on the FISA Overhaul

Yesterday, National Review Online ran a misleading and misguided editorial on the FISA debate. The editorial states that “Last year, a FISA-court decision required judicial authorization even in those cases where the government sought to monitor terrorists communicating with each other outside the United States.” This is doubly misleading.

On the one hand, the FISA ruling only held that a warrant was needed to install wiretaps on US soil to intercept foreign-to-foreign communications as they pass through US infrastructure. No one has ever claimed that FISA has jurisdiction over communications that occur entirely outside of the United States. Second, both sides of the FISA debate in Congress agree that the law should be changed to explicitly exempt foreign-to-foreign communications from FISA oversight. Every serious legislative proposal in Congress, including the one the House passed last November, changes this aspect of the FISA rules. So it’s extremely misleading to present this as if it’s the heart of the dispute.

In reality, the president has threatened to veto the House’s legislation for two reasons that have nothing to do with foreign-to-foreign communications: judicial oversight of calls that originate on US soil and the lack of amnesty for telecom companies. National Review’s take on the latter issue is particularly wrongheaded:

Some Democrats oppose the legislation because they want the FISA court to have more authority. They laud it as a responsible manager of intelligence collection, even though tribunal is unaccountable and has a spotty record. (The most important part of the Patriot Act was its dismantling of the “wall” between agencies that obstructed intelligence gathering before 9/11. The FISA court tried to undo that part of the act, but was thankfully unsuccessful.) We have less confidence in the judiciary’s ability to manage wartime intelligence operations.

Other Democrats oppose the measure (Sen. Chris Dodd is threatening a filibuster) in no small part because of the telecom immunity provision. This objection is specious. The bill provides protection only for companies that acted on assurances from the administration that the program was lawful. If the companies cannot bank on such assurances, they have no incentive to cooperate in the intelligence collection that is a must if Americans are to be protected.

Rather than complaining about courts being “unaccountable,” most of us call this “judicial independence” and consider it a virtue of our system of government. And an important part of judicial independence is the principle that a warrant from an independent judge, not merely “assurances from the administration,” are required to permit searches of Americans on American soil. That’s the whole point of having a warrant process. AT&T and Verizon’s lawyers probably know this area of the law as well as anyone in the country. They can and should have done what Qwest did and told the NSA to come back when they had a warrant. Reports suggest that telecom companies that have chosen to cooperate with the government have made a healthy profit from doing so, while firms like Qwest have taken a financial hit for obeying the law.

If Congress lets the lawbreaking firms off the hook this time, they will have absolutely no incentive to obey the law (and protect their customers’ rights) in the future. National Review’s advocacy of amnesty for telecom companies is especially ironic because for the last year, they’ve been banging on about how amnesty for illegal immigrants “rewards lawbreaking” and breeds disrespect for the law. At least under the leading immigration reform proposals, immigrants would have been required to admit their lawbreaking and pay a fine. In contrast, NRO believes that lawbreaking telecom companies deserve immediate, blanket amnesty with no penalty or even admission of guilt. If we want to foster a culture of respect for the law, there’s no better place to start than with some of the largest, most powerful companies in America.

Common Sense, Free Enterprise Values in Virginia

The Richmond Times-Dispatch issues a stirring editorial call today for free-enterprise insurance reform. It’s worth quoting in full:

In a state that ostensibly is a bastion of capitalism, government intervention in the marketplace turns up surprisingly often. Two parties who are negotiating a contract for a good or service often find a third party – the commonwealth – sticking its nose in where it doesn’t belong.

For decades, Virginia law prevented insurance companies and policyholders from deciding who could receive health coverage. Not until three years ago did the General Assembly pass legislation allowing group accident and sickness policies to cover any class of persons mutually agreed upon by the insurance company and the policyholder.

Before then, health-insurance coverage was limited to spouses and dependent children. If a worker wanted to include someone else in his or her coverage, the law said he couldn’t – even if the worker’s employer and the insurance company both were happy to fulfill the request.

This year Del. Adam Ebbin is sponsoring legislation (HB 865) that would open up life-insurance coverage in much the same way: It would allow insurance companies to offer group coverage to anyone policyholders wished to cover – brother or sister, elderly parent, life partner, or third cousin twice removed – not just spouses and children.

Note well what this bill is not: a mandate. Insurance companies would not be required to cover anybody they did not wish to. They would remain free to reject coverage they did not care to offer. They simply would not be prohibited from covering persons they are willing to cover.

In a free market, that is precisely how insurance ought to work: The buyer and the seller of the policy work out the terms between themselves. The state’s job is merely to enforce the contract – not to write it. Ebbin’s bill deserves a resounding and unanimous aye.

The Times-Dispatch is well known as a conservative editorial page, so it’s gratifying to see them endorsing this pro-free enterprise, pro-business bill – even though some conservatives might object to it on the grounds that it will allow, though not compel, businesses to offer group life insurance to employees with same-sex partners. The Times-Dispatch commendably wants such issues worked out within companies, not by a state legislative ban.