Topic: Law and Civil Liberties

Selective Taxation Is Tyranny

The House of Representatives has passed a 90 percent tax on the bonuses paid to AIG employees, seemingly forgetting President Obama’s admonition “that in a time of crisis, we cannot afford to govern out of anger, or yield to the politics of the moment.”

Everybody’s angry. But anger doesn’t make good law. And there are real questions about both the wisdom and the legality of such legislation. Bloggers like Conor Clarke, Megan McArdle, and Eugene Volokh have asked if the bonus tax is legal or constitutional. And thank goodness for bloggers who ask the questions that members of Congress and print journalists seem to ignore!

The bloggers wonder if after-the-fact taxes on specific people violate the constitutional ban on bills of attainder and ex post facto laws. (Ex post facto = after the fact.) Good questions indeed. But they should go further and ask, Are laws like this tyrannical? Ex post facto legislation isn’t just bad because it’s unconstitutional. It’s unconstitutional because it’s bad. (Nate Silver did raise these broader questions, arguing that the bonus tax bill was like the congressional intervention into the Terri Schiavo case: quite possibly legal and constitutional, but “it represented a gross overreach of the chamber’s authority, and ultimately undermined, at least a little bit, the rule of law.”)

Harvard law professor Laurence Tribe tells Conor Clarke, “It would not be terribly difficult to structure a tax, even one that approached a rate of 100%, levied on some or all of the bonuses already handed out (or to be handed out in the future) by AIG and other recipients of federal bailout funds so that the tax would survive bill of attainder clause challenge. …The fact that the individuals subject to the tax in its retroactive application would in principle be readily identifiable would not suffice to doom the tax either from a bill of attainder perspective or from a due process perspective.”

Which led liberal blogger Kevin Drum to this conclusion:

it looks like the answer here is simple: even though the purpose of this tax would pretty clearly be punitive with extreme prejudice, we need to carefully pretend that it’s not.  And we need to make sure the legislative history shows that it’s not (it should be “manifestly regulatory and fiscal” Tribe says).

Considering that the rage of the anti-bonus army is being egged on by New York Post headlines such as “Not So Fast You Greedy Bastards” and “Tax the Damn Bonuses to Hell,” it might be tough to persuade a judge that this was “regulatory and fiscal,” not punitive, legislation.

The rule of law requires that like people be treated alike and that people know what the law is so that they can plan their lives in accord with the law. In this case, a law is being passed to impose taxes on a particular, politically unpopular group. That is a tyrannical abuse of Congress’s powers. And in addition, it is retroactive legislation, changing the law upon which AIG and its employees had relied. As James Madison wrote in Federalist 62, “It will be of little avail to the people, that the laws are made by men of their own choice, if the laws … undergo such incessant changes that no man, who knows what the law is to-day, can guess what it will be to-morrow.”

Selective taxation is tyranny. Ex post facto legislation violates the spirit of the liberal order, even if a particular piece of legislation can be “structured” to pass constitutional muster.

Freedom for Yang Zili

Congratulations to Yang Zili, a Chinese advocate for political pluralism and human rights who has been set free after serving eight years in prison.

As I noted in the Fall 2007 edition of Cato’s Letter, Yang was an admirer of the libertarian thinker F. A. Hayek and described himself as a political liberal. A computer engineer by trade, Yang quickly recognized the power of the internet to spread ideas, founding a website, the “Garden of Ideas” (www.lib.126.com), where he forcefully condemned communism and argued for democratic reforms. “I am a liberal,” he wrote, “and what I care about are human rights, freedom and democracy.” Yang also participated in a discussion group called the New Youth Society, where he discussed the potential for political reform in China with young people who were similarly passionate. In 2001, Yang Zili and three of his colleagues were jailed for conspiring to overthrow the Chinese Communist Party.

As the Washington Post reported in 2004, the small group met for only a few months, and during that time one of its members was reporting to the Ministry of  State Security. Indeed, the Post reported:

What happened to the New Youth Study Group offers a glimpse into the methods the party uses to maintain its monopoly on power and the difficult moral choices faced by those caught in its grip. The fate of the study group also illustrates the thoroughness with which the party applies one of its most basic rules of survival: Consider any independent organization a potential threat and crush it.

The eight members of the New Youth Study Group never agreed on a political platform and had no real source of funds. They never set up branches in other cities or recruited any other members. They never even managed to hold another meeting with full attendance; someone was always too busy.

And yet they attracted the attention of China’s two main security ministries. Reports about their activities reached officials at the highest levels of the party, including Luo Gan, the Politburo member responsible for internal security. Even the president then, Jiang Zemin, referred to the investigation as one of the most important in the nation, according to people who have seen an internal memo summarizing the comments of senior officials about the case.

Such is life in a police state.

Yang Zili spent eight years in prison for being brave enough to speak out against an authoritarian regime, which is 8 years too many in my book. Still, we can take comfort that he got out, and that his colleagues are slated to be released from prison next year.
Unfortunately, many young internet activists brave enough to stand up for freedom still languish in jail.

Federal Enforcement Policy Is Up in Smoke

Attorney General Eric Holder’s announcement that the federal government will end raids on medical marijuana distributors is terrific news.

The Bush administration’s scorched-earth approach to the enforcement of federal marijuana laws was a grotesque misallocation of law enforcement resources. The U.S. government has a limited number of law enforcement personnel, and when a unit is assigned to conduct surveillance on a California hospice, that unit is necessarily neglecting leads in other cases that possibly involve more violent criminal elements.

This shift in policy is also more mindful of the constitutional principle of federalism by allowing the states to try different policy approaches, and it is more respectful of the division of opinion within the medical community about the benefits of marijuana for certain patients. This de-escalation of the drug war is good policy and is long overdue.

Obama’s First Signing Statement

obama-signs-billPresident Obama issued his first signing statement last week. While approving the $410 billion omnibus appropriations bill, he reserved the right to reinterpret, evade, or ignore a number of the bill’s provisions. To some conservatives, that smelled like vindication; and some liberals found it fishy. Who’s right? Both, to some extent.

During the Bush years, “signing statements” came to stand for a much broader set of issues than the practice itself. After President Bush used one to basically announce that, veto-proof majority or no, he didn’t have to follow the McCain Detainee Treatment Act, “signing statements” in the public mind became shorthand for the Bush theory that the president is sole constitutional “decider” on all matters related to national security—in much the same way that the PATRIOT Act became shorthand for overzealousness in homeland security. The obnoxiousness of each—open defiance in the signing statement case, the dopey Orwellianism of the acronym with PATRIOT—made them symbols, even though neither represented the worst abuses in the fight against terrorism.

But what really matters is the underlying constitutional theory, not the particular quasi-legislative device it’s reflected in. Which is worse: openly announcing that you’re not going to obey new congressional restrictions on torture—as Bush did with the 2006 McCain Amendment—or secretly violating the old ones for years? The latter, clearly. At least a signing statement puts you on notice.

On the campaign trail in 2008, Obama, unlike McCain, never promised to end the practice of signing statements entirely. Obama’s position was more nuanced. When it comes to signing statements, some nuance is appropriate. I don’t agree with the ABA’s blanket condemnation of the practice. As the Congressional Research Service has pointed out, despite the Supreme Court’s 1983 repudiation of the legislative veto, Congress continues to smuggle legislative vetoes into omnibus spending bills. One could argue that the president’s only recourse is to veto the bill–and more vetoes of spending bills would surely be welcome. But it seems to me that in such cases, issuing a signing statement is a venial sin at worst. There’s a vast difference between that sort of signing statement and one that asserts that the president cannot be bound by a law barring torture.

Most of the objections Obama lodged in his signing statement fall well short of the Bush-Cheney end of the spectrum. But there’s at least one that looks particularly dodgy:

United Nations Peacekeeping Missions. Section 7050 in Division H prohibits the use of certain funds for the use of the Armed Forces in United Nations peacekeeping missions under the command or operational control of a foreign national unless my military advisers have recommended to me that such involvement is in the national interests of the United States. This provision raises constitutional concerns by constraining my choice of particular persons to perform specific command functions in military missions, by conditioning the exercise of my authority as Commander in Chief on the recommendations of subordinates within the military chain of command, and by constraining my diplomatic negotiating authority. Accordingly, I will apply this provision consistent with my constitutional authority and responsibilities.

Here Obama echoes Bushian claims about the extent of the president’s authority under the commander-in-chief clause. But given the context, perhaps the better parallel is with Bill Clinton. President Clinton also asserted the power to ignore congressional restrictions on his ability to place U.S. troops under foreign command. That sort of executive unilateralism in the service of multilateralism was distinctly troubling. As one commentator noted in 2000:

Responding to congressional efforts to stop the new policy, the Clinton administration has claimed a broad constitutional power in the president to delegate military command authority to any person. According to the administration, the president’s commander in chief power allows him to select whomever he believes necessary for military success…. That position has serious constitutional and policy defects. First, the administration’s legal justification for its recent multilateral command policy fails to account for the Constitution’s limitation on the delegation of federal power outside of the national government….

You know who wrote that? John Yoo. My head hurts.

Wednesday Podcast: ‘The Science of Medical Marijuana’

Photo: Kelly Anne CreazzoSpeaking at a Cato forum Tuesday, Dr. Donald Abrams, director of Clinical Programs at the University of California Osher Center for Integrative Medicine, discussed the science behind medicinal marijuana, and explained why the drug should be allowed for patients who suffer from a variety of symptoms.

After the event, Abrams spoke with Caleb Brown for Wednesday’s Cato Daily Podcast, explaining the promise of marijuana as medicine:

One of the reasons I am in favor of people using the plant is because… we no longer have a health care system in the United States, we have a disease management system, and it is very expensive largely due to pharmaceuticals. If there is a plant that is a medicine that people can grow for themselves in their own backyard then I think we can really go a long way to decrease some of the costs of health care. But if we are saying that a physician is going to be able to prescribe this entity to a patient then unfortunately, or fortunately depending on how you look at it, it does need to be regulated or approved and the only way to do that is through the standard route.

An Eminent Domain Injustice

“My name is Susette Kelo, and the government stole my home.”

That was how former New London, Connecticut resident Susette Kelo, who lost her home in one of the most troubling legal battles against eminent domain abuse, began her talk at the Cato Institute in January.

The court ruled that Susette Kelo’s little pink house in New London, and the homes of her neighbors could be taken by the government and given over to a private developer based on the mere prospect that the new use for her property could generate more taxes or jobs.

At this time, the property is still empty.

In this new mini-documentary produced by Austin Bragg and Caleb Brown, those who fought on Kelo’s behalf tell her story.

For an in depth look at Kelo’s case, read Little Pink House: A True Story of Defiance and Courage by Jeff Benedict.

For more videos like this one, subscribe to Cato’s YouTube channel.

Tuesday Podcast: “Labor Relations, Collective Choice and ‘Card Check”’

Congress introduced the “Employee Free Choice Act” last week, which would end the secret ballot system currently in place for workers who vote on whether to start a union.

The bill could have disastrous effects on companies and would throw another wrench in U.S. labor relations, says University of Chicago law Professor and Cato Adjunct Scholar Richard A. Epstein in Tuesday’s Cato Daily Podcast:

It would be a major transformation of the American labor force, all for the worse as far as I’m concerned. Because it would mean that the monopoly model of the labor statutes that were intro under the Wagner Act would now become gov policy to the extent that a card check could allow a union essentially to contain partial ownership rights over the management and prerogatives of the firm.

A worse piece of legislation I cannot imagine, with respect to this field.

Epstein offers a more detailed look at the card-check legislation in the Spring issue of Cato’s magazine Regulation, which will be released March 26.