Topic: Law and Civil Liberties

Florida High Court Defeats Threat to its Sovereignty

With barely a moment’s reflection, the Florida Supreme Court has stricken two amendment questions from the state’s November ballot. The first would have allowed religious institutions to participate in state programs, subject to the limits imposed by the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. The second would have overturned a 2006 Florida Supreme Court decision that essentially forbids the legislature from creating any alternative education programs alongside the required public school system.

The written decision has yet to be published, but whatever it says, it will be hard not to see this ruling as the latest turf battle between the Court and the voters – with the Court coming out on top yet again. This is bad news for Florida families, whose elected representatives will continue to have their hands tied on education policy.

When it comes to education in Florida, the state’s high court has asserted its sovereignty, and seems earnestly dedicated to preserving it. First it shackled the people of Florida to their troubled public school system, and now it has taped their mouths shut so that they cannot overturn its decision.

Speedy Trial?

Joseph Shepard sat in local jails for almost two years on drug related charges.  According to the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, he’s a man the system forgot–ignored by prosecutors, judges, and his own attorney. (Via How Appealing).

In North Carolina, the Courts have ruled that the busier the state gets, the more we need to forget about the constitutional rule requiring speedy trials.  And the drug war makes the courthouse a very busy place indeed.

TSA: Not Even Good at Getting it Wrong

Bruce Schneier has a very good op-ed on the Transportation Security Administration’s airport security programs in the Los Angeles Times today. The winner line: “That’s the TSA: Not doing the right things. Not even doing right the things it does.”

In fairness, security is hard. By their nature, federal agencies aren’t smart and nimble. I argued that the TSA should be scrapped in a March, 2005 Reason magazine debate.

Justice Dept Backs Up After KPMG Ruling

The New York Times reports that the Justice Dept. is rolling back its bullying tactic of penalizing companies that reimburse their employees’ legal fees during investigations and trials.  This move is mostly show–to make the feds seem reasonable and open to suggestions.  But it is really just a reaction to the department’s defeat in today’s KPMG case (pdf) and a lame attempt to stave off legislation that would be more meaningful and permanent.

Attorney Richard Janis details these issues in this new Cato report.

For still more background, go here, here, and here.

Joe Biden and Limited Government

Barack Obama and Joe Biden both get a perfect 100 from the big-government liberal Americans for Democratic Action, which probably tells you all you need to know. But I remember a dramatic moment back in 1991 when Biden made his commitment to unlimited government clear and dramatic. Clarence Thomas had been nominated for the Supreme Court, and Biden, then chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, was questioning him. Biden bore in on the possibility that Thomas might believe in “natural law,” the idea, as Tony Mauro of USA Today summarized it, that “everyone is born with God-given rights - referred to in the Declaration of Independence as ‘inalienable rights’ to ‘life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness’ - apart from what any law or the Constitution grants.” Biden singled out Cato adjunct scholar Richard Epstein and Cato author Stephen Macedo and demanded to know if Thomas agreed with them that the Constitution protects property rights. Waving Epstein’s book Takings in the air like Joe McCarthy with a list of communists, Biden demanded to know, as we very loosely paraphrased it in Cato’s 25-year Annual Report (pdf; page 14), “Are you now or have you ever been a libertarian?” As most judicial nominees do when pursued by a senator roused to defend his power like a mama bear, Thomas assured Senator Biden that he wouldn’t take the Constitution too seriously. Here’s Biden on the warpath:

Was Biden right to worry? Well, as we said in the Annual Report, four years later Thomas joined the Court in declaring, “We start with first principles. The Constitution creates a Federal Government of limited powers.” But ten years later the Court finally considered whether the Constitution protects property rights and said, “Ehh, not so much.” Thomas protested, “Something has gone seriously awry with this Court’s interpretation of the Constitution. Though citizens are safe from the government in their homes, the homes themselves are not.” Biden was right to worry that Thomas’s understanding of individual rights and the Constitution just might put some limits on the power of government.

Drinking Age

Yesterday, over a hundred college presidents called for a reexamination of the current minimum drinking age and suggested it should be lowered. This is great news and could serve as an opportunity to begin an intelligent national dialogue on improving alcohol policies.

Unfortunately, the neoprohibitionists at Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD) and elsewhere have already sprung into action in an attempt to squelch any reform-minded opinions. MADD National President Laura Dean-Mooney said in a press release that any discussion of the minimum drinking age “must honor the science behind the 21 law which unequivocally shows that the 21 law has reduced drunk driving and underage and binge drinking.”

Of course, MADD’s preferred “science” ignores a very interesting working paper published by the National Bureau of Economic Research that shreds the oft-cited correlation between adoption of the Federal Uniform Drinking Age Act (FUDAA), which forced all states to have a minimum drinking age of 21, and a reduction in alcohol-related traffic fatalities.

How could this study’s findings differ so greatly from the research that MADD touts?

The paper, penned by Jeffery A. Miron and Elina Tetelbaum, points out that prior research consistently errs by including states that were unaffected by the law – the 12 states that had adopted a minimum drinking age of 21 long before FUDAA was passed and forced states to do so. Those states – for reasons unrelated to the federal law – experienced a dramatic decrease in alcohol-related traffic fatalities in the 80s and their inclusion in previous studies led many researchers to falsely conclude that the FUDAA was the key factor in the national trend.

That trend, however, began well before the FUDAA was passed in 1984. As the study notes: “[T]he decline began in the year 1969, the year in which several landmark improvements were made in the accident avoidance and crash protection features of passenger cars.” The study also recognizes that medical advances probably deserve a great deal of credit for the reduction.

While drunk driving statistics tend to attract the most attention in discussions of the minimum drinking age, the core purpose of such laws is to prevent minors from accessing alcohol. To this end, these laws have been an abject failure on college campuses. Even high school students seem to have little problem obtaining alcohol. A survey by the University of Michigan reveals that 8th and 10th graders find it easier to get alcohol than cigarettes.

Still, anti-drinking advocates cling to the notion that the minimum drinking age is effective and that state governments are unable to make sound decisions for their residents.