Topic: Law and Civil Liberties

Supreme Court to Nation: Happy Tax Day!

In a fit of either highly coincidental timing or good humor, the Supreme Court today released opinions in two tax cases. In MeadWestvaco Corp. v. Illinois Department of Revenue, the Court limited the power of states to tax the money that a company based in another state earns when it sells off an investment in a division involved in a separate line of business. In U.S. v. Clintwood Elkhorn Mining Co., the Court decided that a taxpayer seeking a refund for an invalid tax under the Constitution’s Export Clause must seek a refund from the government before bringing a lawsuit.

So the taxpayers went 1-1 today, but the cases were both technical and not worth getting into. Perhaps the only interesting thing about them – aside from this whole Tax Day thing – is that they were both unanimous. This technicality and unanimity could be further evidence of Chief Justice Roberts trying to steer the Court to take on less high-profile (typically business) cases, with narrow issues that prevent the fractured 5-4 decision-making that make the Court seem more political than it really is (or should be).

Dispatch from the ASIL Annual Conference III

Some wrap-up notes from the ASIL conference that concluded on Saturday:

1. The second panel I attended Thursday covered the very timely “Civil Liberties in Times of Crisis.” Air Force Colonel Morris Davis – who resigned as chief prosecutor at Guantanamo – opened with a criticism of the military tribunals as unworkable; he agreed that terrorism detainees held in Gitmo (let alone Iraq) don’t have constitutional rights, but the politicization of the process has delegitimized what should be an open, transparent, and efficient processing of enemy combatants. Covington & Burling partner David Remes, who has represented many of the detainees, called for simply applying the criminal justice paradigm to international terrorists (as with the blind sheik after the first WTC bombing and with Timothy McVeigh). Hofstra’s Julian Ku continued that line by supporting the extension of constitutional rights to foreigners and applying international law domestically. Human Rights First’s Elisa Massimino called for the U.S. to be a shining city upon a hill (my characterization, certainly not her words) in terms of being an example on human rights – and linked American political power to its respect for international law.

Then came Q & A, which as it happened centered mostly on a very short question that I asked: Is there a difference between national security and law enforcement, and if there is what are the consequences for the handling of detainees suspected of being terrorists? Col. Davis said that national security is the correct paradigm but that the military commissions have been poorly executed by political appointees. David Remes, to his credit, explained that the real difference between national security and criminal justice is one of policy, and it is not up to the courts to make those kinds of decisions.

My view: I agree with Davis that national security courts (along the lines proposed by Jack Goldsmith and Neal Katyal) are the only way to go in this world of post-modern asymmetrical warfare. National security and law enforcement are different governmental functions, and to conflate the two (like John Kerry did in 2004) or to suggest that constitutional rights apply to everyone everywhere (but international law is supreme in the U.S.) is to throw out the most basic understandings of political theory.

2. On Friday I attended a very interesting panel on the Economic Security and the Committee on Foreign Investment in the U.S. (the latest reform of which I wrote about here). On CFIUS, everyone seems satisfied with the latest reform (which increased openness and aims to prevent political blow-ups like Dubai PortsWorld) and is comfortable with handling of Sovereign Wealth Funds, which Dan Ikenson and Jim Dorn have written about recently. [Also, note that last week Canada’s equivalent of CFIUS blocked a foreign acquisition for the first time time ever. The purchasing company was from… the US! The Canadian company is a leading satellite reconnaissance developer (e.g., sees through clouds and ice, apparently finding oil/mineral deposits in the Arctic).

3. I also attended a hugely overcrowded – people spilled out into the hallway, and I ended up sitting on the floor beside the panelists’ table – panel on “Restoring Rule of Law in Post-Conflict and Stabilization Operations.” I’ve written about these issues before in the context of Iraq, and this panel mainly provided anecdotes about Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Bosnia. A young British researcher also proposed international trusteeships as a useful mechanism (a la the old – or not so old, see Kosovo – UN protectorates). A difficult set of issues, not least because of questions over the legitimacy of outside intervention, how to achieve post-conflict justice and social reconciliation, and how to advise a legal system without being seen as imposing foreign values.

4. The final events I attended were a roundtable discussion by various foreign ministries’ legal advisers and an address by Zalmay Khalilzad, the U.S. ambassador to the U.N. Both of these were disappointing in that all these people are learned and experienced but didn’t really have anything new to say. If only John Bolton were up there…

Dispatch from the ASIL Annual Conference II

This morning I attended two panels at the ongoing American Society of International Law Conference. The first was “The Politics of War Crimes Tribunals,” which refreshingly did not simply rehash the formation of the International Criminal Court but dealt with the meatier issues of how to decide whom to prosecute, what kind of justice to pursue, etc. The panelists, all academics who had played various roles associated with, for example, the Special Court for Sierra Leone, discussed precisely the issue that most interests me: how to draw the line between law and politics. If you overshoot and try to prosecute thousands of perpetrators of unspeakable crimes, spread across multiple countries, your political support will collapse. If you amnesty everyone, there is no justice. Tough decisions have to be made such that there is some justice, which is better than no justice.

One interesting anecdote from this first panel involved the quixotic attempt by Col. Luke Lea and a motley band of doughboys to capture Kaiser Wilhelm at the end of World War One. The panelist who told this story – which was relevant because the plan was to prosecute the Kaiser as a war criminal – misnamed Col. Lea as having been a Texan, when anyone worth his salt knows that it’s “Luke Lea of Tennessee.”

(Ok, ok, the only reason I knew this factoid was because when I interned for former Senator Bill Frist (R-TN) over a decade ago, I was charged with writing an essay on Lea as part of a project to document the lives of all Tennessee senators. Lea was a one-termer who, upon losing the Democratic nomination after the passage of the Seventeeth Amendment – direct election of senators – volunteered for the Great War.)

Dispatch from the ASIL Annual Conference

Wednesday afternoon marked the beginning of the 102nd meeting of the American Society of International Law (ASIL).  ASIL is a venerable organization that takes international law seriously, inviting vigorous discussion and rigorous study of a panoply of issues.  Which is not to say that its members don’t skew in a particular way on many issues of the day.  Generally speaking, cosmopolitans and those who study and promote international law – especially in academia – are toward the left side of the political spectrum.  A left-wing bias in this field means a favorable disposition toward universal norms, global jurisdiction by a world court, and otherwise the imposition of elite consensus on domestic courts and polities.  Still, the ASIL membership is not nearly as bad in those tendencies as, say, the ABA’s international law practice group – and, as I said, it invites speakers and writers from a variety of perspectives.  Moreover, a fair bit of ASIL’s activities relate to private and commercial international law, with which libertarians should have little beef.

In any event, this year’s conference kicked off with the tenth annual Grotius Lecture, given by Jordan’s ambassador to the United States, Prince Zeid Ra’ad Zeid Al-Hussein.  Prince Zeid, educated exclusively in the West, has had a truly distinguished career, and seems to be a voice of enlightenment from a dark part of the world.  His remarks, however, on the topic “For Love of Country and International Criminal Law,” skewed both technocratic and rhetorical: He implored the world community to overcome legal obstacles to helping the victims of genocide and war crimes while at the same time recognizing that international courts are not welfare agencies.  And of course, somehow, yes somehow, we have to reconcile somewhat outmoded notions of sovereignty with a brave new world of globalized crime.  I don’t pretend to give his lofty discourse justice, but in the end it was both intellectual and bland.

What was not bland was the commentary of the good prince’s discussant, David Scheffer of Mayer Brown and Northwestern University Law School.  Prof. Scheffer, a high-ranking official in the Albright State Department, first drew a round of applause by announcing that the previous speaker was, without doubt “a future Secretary-General of the United Nations.”  (Sounds about right.)  Then he crescendoed into an excoriation of pretty much every lawyer in the Bush administration for ignoring international law and making the United States into the red-headed stepchild of the community of nations.  Again, it would take more time than it’s worth to fisk his entire approach but suffice it to say the learned professor seems to have a hard time distinguishing law from policy and politics.  There is much for which to criticize the Bush administration, but violating international law wouldn’t make my top 100 list.

And that is where the rubber hits the rubber on so many of these issues: Much, if not most, if not all, of international law comes down to diplomacy – the willingness of countries to adhere to their obligations and convince others to do so.  As described by Jack Goldsmith and Eric Posner in their brilliant book The Limits of International Law, the behavior of nation-states cannot be predicted, and should not be judged, based on whether they sign this piece of paper or that one.  For example, states have interests and there is no international mechanism to force states to comply with treaties that at any given time contravene those interests.  Period.  (It is often in their interest to comply with their international or binational obligations, of course, because few states want to become, literally, pariahs.)  There is so much to say on this, and I will certainly be writing about it in future.

And when it comes to the International Criminal Court (ICC) – the chief bone of contention that many of the attendees to this week’s conference have with the American practice of public international law – what’s important is that U.S. troops treat people much better than their Congolese or Indonesian or Venezuelan counterparts, regardless of which countries submit to the jurisdiction of the ICC.  That’s some reality-based law for you.

In sum, an eyebrow-raising start to the conference – and a reminder of the strange position of those of us interested and educated in international legal and political issues but skeptical of public international law.

John Yoo’s Neoconstitution

I’ve read through most of the John Yoo torture memo released last week (Part 1, Part 2 [.pdfs]). As I’d gathered from the news reports, there’s not much new here: the core of the argument has been known since at least 2004, with the release of the infamous August 1, 2002 torture memo, also drafted by Yoo. At the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel from 2001 to 2003, Yoo was the key figure in advising the executive branch as to the limits–if any–to its powers. As Georgetown’s David Cole has put it, Yoo “was the right person in the right place at the right time…. Here was someone who had made his career developing arguments for unchecked power, who could cut-and-paste from his law review articles into memos that essentially told the president, ‘You can do what you want.’”

In the memo released last week, once again we see a breathtakingly narrow interpretation of what constitutes torture under US law. To rise to the level of torture, the abuse must, Yoo argues, inflict pain equivalent to that associated with “death, organ failure, or serious impairment of body functions.” Presumably, the rack qualifies under that definition, but hey, what about the thumbscrew?

Such questions ultimately don’t matter much under Yoo’s analysis, because, in his view, Congress lacks the constitutional power to prevent the president from ordering torture: “Any effort by Congress to regulate the interrogation of enemy combatants would violate the Constitution’s sole vesting of the Commander-in-Chief authority in the President.” As Yoo sees it, telling the executive branch not to abuse prisoners is like telling the CINC what weapons can be used to take a hill occupied by the enemy: “Congress can no more interfere with the President’s conduct of the interrogation of enemy combatants than it can dictate strategic or tactical decisions on the battlefield.”

One of the problems Tim Lynch and I experienced talking about our 2006 paper on the administration’s constitutional theories is that when you describe the implications of those theories in calm, sober tones, people tend to think you’re being strident and hysterical. Luckily John Yoo is willing to serve as his own reductio ad absurdum. If you don’t have the time for an 81-page memo, try this short, cringe-inducing YouTube clip:

Let’s stipulate that neither the rack, the thumbscrew, nor testicle-crushing have been tactics approved of nor employed by the US government in prosecuting the war on terror. The tactics we’re talking about–stress positions, sleep deprivation, waterboarding, and the like–are far less dramatic. Under the Yoo theory, though, those tactics and more are available for use even against American citizens accused of terrorist involvement. And reading the latest memo, with its detailed and tendentious discussion of what might be permissible under existing law (assuming existing law exists), it’s hard not to be reminded of US citizen Jose Padilla’s claim that during his confinement he was subjected to stress positions, forced hypothermia, and mind-altering drugs. Was Padilla making it up? Quite possibly. We’ll likely never know. At one stage of the Padilla case, asked by Justice Ginsburg whether the administration’s theory would permit torture, then-deputy solicitor general Paul Clement answered:

You have to recognize that in situations where there is a war – where the government is on a war footing – that you have to trust the executive to make the kind of quintessential military judgments that are involved in things like that.

John Yoo has written, unironically, of “the president’s right to start wars.” Coupled with the other elements of the Yoo theory–which is to say, the Bush administration’s constitutional theory–the result is a jaw-dropping doctrine of unchecked presidential power. When we’re at war, anything goes. And the president gets to say when we’re at war.

The Vote: Ease? Security? Or Enough Already?

The Universal Right to Vote by Mail Act of 2007 (H.R. 281) recently passed the House Committee on House Administration. It would amend the Help America Vote Act of 2002 to require states to allow eligible voters to request a mail-in ballot for all federal elections without having to provide a reason.

In a TechKnowledge piece called “Voter ID: A Tempest in a Teapot that Could Burn Us All,” I shared some thoughts that are relevant to this bill:

Increasing voter participation has been a policy fetish for the last decade or two-never mind whether more voting for its own sake makes a better democracy… . The growth in absentee balloting has undone some of the protections against voter impersonation and multiple voting that previously existed. People are much more reticent to commit fraud in person - it’s riskier - so in-person voting was a natural security against impersonation fraud. Voting in multiple jurisdictions is simply too time-consuming to do on any scale when it has to be done in person.

The bill would require states to verify signatures on absentee ballots by cross-checking them with voters’ signatures on the official list of registered voters, but this only begins to shore up the security hole opened by mass absentee balloting.

The people who want this bill undoubtedly believe it will improve both the political discourse and their electoral prospects. Folks on the other side - the proponents of identification requirements for voting - will only be energized by these efforts, which lower the bar for both legitimate voting and for voter fraud.

Both sides should just drop this food-fight-to-the-death and work on substantive policies that they believe will win voters to their sides. Hopefully, those policies are centered on limited government, free markets, and peace.

“Biggest … Lie … Ever”

A friend and supporter of my work on REAL ID sent me a link to this WebMemo from the Heritage Foundation, entitled “All Aboard: Fifty States Now Compliant with Real ID.” I’m using the subject line of his email as the title of this post.

There certainly seems to be confusion in some quarters about REAL ID’s current status. Let’s take a brief look at how states stand in terms of compliance.

Because not a single state will comply with REAL ID on the statutory deadline, May 11th, the Department of Homeland Security has been giving out deadline extensions willy-nilly the last few months. It gave extensions just for the asking to states that have statutorily barred themselves from complying, for example.

Some states refused to even ask for extensions. When this happened, DHS quickly switched to issuing states extensions if the states were independently changing their driver’s licensing processes in ways that would meet any of the requirements of REAL ID. States like Montana and New Hampshire wrote to DHS expressing no intention to comply with the law, but stating what they had done on their own. These DHS interpreted as requests for extensions, and granted them.

When the governor of Maine last week finally sent DHS a letter stating his intention to submit legislation relating to REAL ID compliance, the DHS took that as a request for an extension and granted it. The Maine legislature will have to consider any such bills, of course. Maine’s is the legislature that was the first in the country to reject REAL ID.

Getting deadline extensions by hook and by crook out to all 50 states is a pretty long way from getting all 50 states to comply. The actual state of things is reflected well on this map, maintained at the ACLU-run Web site RealNightmare.org. It shows seven states still self-barred from complying, and many others protesting the law. An eighth - Idaho - recently saw legislation barring compliance with REAL ID move through the Senate and to the governor’s desk.