Topic: Law and Civil Liberties

Victim Shot While Calling 911

A California woman was shot to death as she pleaded with emergency dispatchers to come and help her. Her death will not make the network news programs this evening, but this is the latest reminder that we must take responsibility for our own safety and not rely on the police. 

Bill Masters, a libertarian and sheriff of a Colorado county tells the residents of his county, “It is your responsibility to protect yourself and your family from criminals. If you rely on the government for protection, you are going to be at least disappointed and at worst injured or killed.” 

Gun control puts honest citizens in the position of having to choose between protecting their lives or respecting the law. What kind of government would do such a thing

More on gun control here and here.

California Attempts to Silence State Contractors

Imagine that you do business in California.  Maybe you’re in construction, or health care, or auto repair.  Now imagine some or all of your income comes from state contracts; using the above examples, perhaps you build schools, or take care of patients on Medi-Cal, or fix broken-down LAPD squad cars.  Now imagine that the state comes in and says, aha, because we pay your bills – again, on contracts relating to construction, health care, auto repair, etc. – and we love unions, you can’t talk to your employees about any negative aspects of unionization.  Ridiculous, right?  Who is a customer to tell you what to do with money that’s already in your pocket?

Well, that’s precisely what the great state of California is trying to do with a new statute that small businesses are challenging in the case of Chamber of Commerce v. Brown.  It’s a little bit more complicated than I outline above because the case implicates highly technical provisions of the National Labor Relations Act (and previous Supreme Court interpretations thereof), but the gist is that California is attempting to silence employers by tying speech restrictions to unrelated state spending.  For reasons that the petitioners ably present in their briefs and that I summarize in a podcast and in Cato’s own amicus brief, the Supreme Court should strike down this statute.

In any event, that’s the background to my trip to the Court to hear argument in Chamber v. Brown today.  (The plaza in front of the courthouse steps was remarkably free of demonstrators after yesterday’s hoopla surrounding the DC Gun Ban case.)  I’ll save you the detailed summary of the argument, but suffice it to say that the outcome will almost certainly go against California.  It’s always dicey predicting the scorecard, but based on oral argument it will probably be 7-2, 6-3, or maybe 6-1-2.  On one side, Justices Scalia and Alito and Chief Justice Roberts were safely on the side of free speech; Justices Justice Souter surprisingly led the charge against California’s interpretation of labor law; Justice Breyer, though skeptical, will likely write his own opinion agreeing in the Court’s opinion for separate reasons or possibly calling for remand rather than strict reversal; and Justice Thomas was silent but is expected to join the majority.  On the other side, Justices Stevens and Ginsberg seem to have no problem with California’s regulation.  On his own side as usual, Justice Kennedy’s vote seems to be up for grabs, but – based on his decisions in previous labor and regulatory preemption cases – I would bet on him siding with the majority.

In short, California employers will live to speak another day.

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.