Topic: Law and Civil Liberties

Virginia’s National ID Tax

The Washington Post had a story yesterday on whether Virginia would implement the REAL ID Act, the national ID law that has been rejected by other states across the country. They object to its formidable costs, bureaucratic burdens, insoluble privacy problems, and ineffectiveness as a security tool. Why might Virginia go along?

“The vast majority of 9/11 terrorists used Virginia licenses,” Gov. Timothy M. Kaine (D) said. “I think that’s why you haven’t seen as much of a push back.”

It’s the hairshirt theory of policymaking - never mind whether making the driver’s license into a national ID will add to our protections.

Noting the governor’s proposal for a $10 increase in the fee to renew a Virginia driver’s license, the Roanoke Times editorializes today with a little more clarity:

Americans should not have to wait weeks for a driver’s license. They should not have to worry about a massive database tracking their every move. They should not have some wannabe national ID card sloughed onto states.

If you think a national ID tax and all this nonsense somehow adds to the country’s protections, then, yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus.

Lipstick on a Pig

The Fair, Accurate, Secure and Timely Redress Act of 2007 is a recently introduced bill that would establish a dedicated agency within the Department of Homeland Security to coordinate and streamline the appeals of people who believe they have been wrongly watch-listed by DHS or the Department of Justice. This office would maintain a “Cleared List” of names that have been identified as not representing a risk.

This is not an answer. As I’ve written before, watch-listing is alien to our system of justice and law enforcement. And because of the potential for opening holes in the pseudo-security watch-listing provides, getting “cleared” by this office would be a bureaucratic nightmare.

This proposal is lipstick on a pig. The pig is watch-listing.

Big Money Lurches Left

Last Friday, the Federal Election Commission ruled that money raised for John Edwards’ presidential bid by an organization called ActBlue was not eligible for matching funds from taxpayers. ActBlue is registered as a federal political action committee which means its fundraising cannot be matched by the presidential taxpayer financing program. The loss is not trivial for Edwards. ActBlue’s fundraising composed 15 percent of his total fundraising.

The facts of this case and the FEC’s technical ruling are not especially important. Edwards was unlikely to become the Democratic nominee, and this turn of events will not change the race for the presidency.

But the world is changing. The traditional story about money in politics goes like this. Rich people and corporations – overwhelming conservative and Republican – contribute almost all the money candidates need to run, thereby tilting the government toward their interests. Noble “reformers” enact campaign finance restrictions to limit the power of business and the rich. Then the little guy (that is, the Democratic party and especially its left wing) can rule in pursuit of everyone’s interest, a category that does not include the interests of the rich, the conservative, and the non-liberal, all of whom have no legitimate standing in a democracy.

Now the “little guy” has become Big Money. ActBlue and the Democratic party in general are raising money hand over fist. Republicans are far behind and appear to have little idea how to catch up. But the old rules which were designed to harm the “bad guys” reached out and harmed John Edwards, populist extraordinaire. This is not a new irony. The struggle over regulating the Internet in 2005 saw the left opposing campaign finance strictures. The left used 527 groups to work around campaign finance rules that threatened their political activities. And so on.

The traditional story about money in politics is starting to lose credibility. When reality has completely undermined the traditional story, how long before campaign finance deregulation becomes politically correct?

Bill of Rights Day

Since today is Bill of Rights Day, it seems like an appropriate time to pause and consider the condition of the safeguards set forth in our fundamental legal charter.

Let’s consider each amendment in turn.

The First Amendment says that Congress “shall make no law … abridging the freedom of speech.” Government officials, however, insist that they can make it a crime to mention the name of a political candidate in an ad in the weeks preceding an election.

The Second Amendment says the people have the right “to keep and bear arms.” Government officials, however, insist that they can make it a crime to keep and bear arms.

The Third Amendment says soldiers may not be quartered in our homes without the consent of the owners. This safeguard is doing so well that we can pause here for a laugh.

The Fourth Amendment says the people have the right to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures. Government officials, however, insist that they can storm into homes in the middle of the night after giving residents a few seconds to answer their “knock” on the door.

The Fifth Amendment says that private property shall not be taken “for a public use without just compensation.” Government officials, however, insist that they can take away our property and give it to others who covet it.

The Sixth Amendment says that in criminal prosecutions, the person accused shall enjoy a speedy trial, a public trial, and an impartial jury trial. Government officials, however, insist that they can punish people who want to have a trial. That is why 95% of the criminal cases never go to trial. The handful of cases that do go to trial are the ones you see on television — Michael Jackson and Scott Peterson, etc.

The Seventh Amendment says that jury trials are guaranteed even in petty civil cases where the controversy exceeds “twenty dollars.” Government officials, however, insist that they can impose draconian fines against people without jury trials. (See “Seventh Amendment Right to Jury Trial in Nonarticle III Proceedings: A Study in Dysfunctional Constitutional Theory,” 4 William and Mary Bill of Rights Journal 407 (1995)).

The Eighth Amendment prohibits cruel and unusual punishments. Government officials, however, insist that jailing people who try in ingest a life-saving drug is not cruel.

The Ninth Amendment says that the enumeration in the Constitution of certain rights should not be construed to deny or disparage others “retained by the people.” Government officials, however, insist that they will decide for themselves what rights, if any, will be retained by the people.

The Tenth Amendment says that the powers not delegated to the federal government are to be reserved to the states, or to the people. Government officials, however, insist that they will decide for themselves what powers are reserved to the states, or to the people.

It’s a depressing snapshot, to be sure, but I submit that the Framers of the Constitution would not have been surprised by the relentless attempts by government to expand its sphere of control. The Framers themselves would often refer to written constitutions as mere “parchment barriers” or what we would describe as “paper tigers.” They nevertheless concluded that putting safeguards down on paper was better than having nothing at all. And lest we forget, that’s what millions of people around the world have — nothing at all.

Another important point to remember is that while we ought to be alarmed by the various ways in which the government is attempting to go under, over, and around our Bill of Rights, the battle will never be “won.” The price of liberty is eternal vigilance. To remind our fellow citizens of their responsibility in that regard, the Cato Institute has distributed more than three million copies of our “Pocket Constitution.” At this time of year, it’ll make a good stocking stuffer. Each year we send a bunch of complimentary copies to the White House, Congress, and the Supreme Court so you won’t have to.

Finally, to keep perspective, we should also take note of the many positive developments we’ve experienced in America over the years. And for some positive overall trends, go here.

Chicago Police Scandal

The Chicago Tribune shines a light on the Chicago Police Department and how it handles police shootings: 

 Law enforcement officials at all levels, from the detectives who investigate cases to the superintendent, as well as the state’s attorney’s office, have failed to properly police the police.

Promises to improve the system also haven’t touched another fundamental flaw: the hasty meetings, known as roundtables, led by police commanders in the charged hours after a Chicago officer shoots a civilian. Witnesses are not sworn. The discussions are not recorded. When the sessions conclude, officials nearly always decide the officer was justified in pulling the trigger.

And if evidence eventually contradicts the officers’ versions of events, the Tribune found that cases aren’t reopened and the officers escape serious punishment.

Chicago police shoot a civilian on average once every 10 days. More than 100 people have been killed in the last decade; 250 others have been injured. But only a tiny fraction of shootings are ruled unjustified — less than 1 percent, police records and court testimony indicate.

I strongly suspect that similar findings would be found in many other cities. Kudos to the Tribune for this reporting.

Hat tip: Radley Balko.

Cult Kidney Donations

Today’s Wall Street Journal has an article on live kidney donation as a form of charity. Half the members of a Christian sect have gone through the surgical operation of donating a kidney to a stranger. The article questions whether pressure from “cult” members creates undue influence. Social and government pressure to donate both at death and while living is mounting. See Cato’s recent Policy Analysis “A Gift of Life Deserves Compensation.”

Changes in Federal Sentencing

The U.S. Sentencing Commission is going to give thousands of drug offenders an opportunity to reduce their sentences.   Yesterday’s move is in reaction to the disparate manner in which federal law handles persons dealing in powder cocaine vis-a-vis persons dealing in crack cocaine.  This is a modest step in the right direction.  The drug war represents a gross misallocation of limited resources (police, courts, jails) and it should be ended immediately.

For Cato work on the drug war, go here.  For Cato work on federal sentencing, go here.  For more information on yesterday’s development, go to Families Against Mandatory Minimums