Topic: Law and Civil Liberties

Equal Justice?

Mary Winkler is out of jail. She served 67 days after her conviction for shooting her husband in the back as he lay in bed and killing him. Now she’ll go back to work at the dry cleaners in McMinnville, Tennessee, and seek to regain custody of her children.

Meanwhile, Will Foster was sentenced to 93 years for using marijuana to relieve the pain of his acute rheumatoid arthritis. An appeals court reduced the sentence to 20 years, and Gov. Frank Keating made him serve more than four years before granting him parole.

A few miles from Mary Winkler in Tennessee, 57-year-old Bernie Ellis has been confined for the past 18 months to a halfway house. His crime? Growing marijuana to treat a degenerative condition in his hips and spine. A public health epidemiologist specializing in substance abuse, he also provided pot to some other sick people.  10 officers of the Tennessee Marijuana Eradication Task Force swooped in to put a stop to that, and to try to seize his farm as well.

In a more just world, Tennessee would set up a Murder Eradication Task Force, leave Bernie Ellis alone, and give Mary Winkler a tad more than 67 days for shooting her husband to death.

A Snub for the Dying

On Tuesday, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit ruled 8-2 that terminally ill patients who have exhausted all available treatments have no constitutionally protected right to access experimental treatments not yet approved by the federal Food and Drug Administration.  A panel of the D.C. Circuit previously had ruled 2–1 in favor of the terminally ill patients who brought the case, Abigail Alliance for Better Access to Developmental Drugs v. Eschenbach

The Abigail Alliance is named for Abigail Burroughs, who died of head and neck cancer in 2001 after failed attempts to access Erbitux (cetuximab) through the FDA’s existing channels.  (In 2006, the FDA approved Erbitux for treatment of head and neck cancer.)  The Abigail Alliance now represents similarly situated, terminally ill patients who only want one last shot at life.  Eschenbach is commissioner of the FDA.

In an op-ed [$] in today’s Wall Street Journal, my colleague Roger Pilon discusses the tortured legal reasoning that led to the perverse conclusion that terminally ill patients do not have a fundamental right to save their own lives. 

The scientific and economic argument supporting the FDA’s case is that we would get far less information about drug safety and efficacy if terminally ill patients could access unapproved drugs, because there would then be no incentive for patients to participate in the clinical trials that generate such information.  There are a number of problems with this argument, the greatest being that it reduces Abigail Burroughs to a cog in some bureaucrat’s grand machine.

On September 25 from noon to 2pm, the Cato Institute will host a forum on Abigail Alliance for Better Access to Developmental Drugs v. Eschenbach.  Speakers will include Scott Ballenger, lead counsel for the Abigail Alliance; Ezekiel Emanuel, chair of the Department of Bioethics at the National Institutes of Health; and yours truly.  Keep watching Cato@Liberty or the Cato website for further details.

This week’s ruling brought to mind a quote from Mark Twain that appeared in the New York Times on February 28, 1901, and that Mike Tanner and I included in our book Healthy Competition:

The State stands a Gibraltar between me and anybody who insists upon prescribing for my soul what I don’t want to take… . Why shouldn’t I have equal liberty with regard to my body, which is of so much less concern? … Now what I contend is that my body is my own, at least I have always so regarded it. If I do harm through my experimenting with it, it is I who suffer, not the State.

The Roberts Court

Doug Bandow has a terrific article about the Roberts Court and judicial philosophy over at the American Spectator.  Excerpt:

Washington is rife with awful arguments, shameless demagoguery, and flagrant hypocrisy, of course. But Smith’s concern lest “a majority of Supreme Court justices adopt a manifestly ideological agenda” and plunge “the court into the vortex of American politics” is almost too hilarious to repeat. Apparently the Warren and Burger Courts were merely following popular values when they overturned decades and even centuries of precedent to transform sizable areas of constitutional law. When they turned the law into a matter of judicial preference rather than constitutional interpretation, they presumably did so in a nonideological and nonpolitical fashion. …

Judicial philosophy obviously matters. Here the right long has gotten the argument much more correct than the left. Conservatives can and do argue about exactly what “original intent” should constitute – I believe that constitutional and legislative provisions must be understood in terms of the political compromises from which they sprang. What did the voters and ratifiers as well as drafters believe to be true? That may not always be easily discoverable, of course. Nevertheless, constitutional (and legal) understandings must be rooted in what the provisions meant when enacted. Otherwise there is little to prevent courts from becoming mini-legislatures, enacting their preferences through shameless sophistry disguised as judicial opinions.

Learned liberal treatises on jurisprudence abound, justifying judicial activism on behalf of any number of ends. But all of these arguments lead to the same basic result: a much-expanded state built on the tenets of modern liberalism. Once the official meaning of law is cut loose from what its specific provisions were originally expected to mean, the only restraint on judges is their personal temperament. If the Constitution means what judges say it does, it means nothing at all. A court that can eviscerate the property takings clause, for instance, can eviscerate the First Amendment guarantees for free speech and religious liberty, and the Fourth Amendment’s bar on unreasonable searches and seizures.

Although unbridled judicial activism is an unsatisfactory jurisprudential principle, the left has nowhere else to go because the Constitution is fundamentally, though not purely, a libertarian-conservative document. The nation’s basic law is meant to constrain politics, to put many issues, centered around an expansive and expensive national government, out of bounds of the democratic process. In short, to be a liberal and believe in original intent is to be eternally frustrated.

Read the whole thing.

I Got Hooked on the White Stuff Back in the ’70s

disco-stu.bmpNo, not that white stuff. And not the white stuff that Disco Stu bought from Garth Motherloving. The white stuff I got hooked on (growing up on the family dairy farm) is raw milk — milk that has not been pasteurized or homogenized. Today’s NYT has an article on the growing black and gray markets in raw milk, which the Food and Drug Administration and 15 state legislatures want to shut down.

Yes, that’s right — Uncle Sam and 15 state governments prohibit consumers from buying milk fresh from the cow. And in the nannies’ defense, milk was responsible for much food-borne illness in the era before universal pasteurization. Most consumers likely prefer protection from nasty bugs like E. coli and salmonella.

But others are willing to risk exposure to those illnesses. Some raw milk enthusiasts claim the white stuff is more healthful than processed milk. Others (I count myself among these) say simply that it tastes better that the milk you buy at the store — people who try raw milk for the first time often comment that it tastes more like melted ice cream than the stuff that comes in cartons.

So why should raw milk fans be prohibited from buying the product they want?

That question also underlies Tim’s post, yesterday, about another FDA prohibition — keeping terminally ill patients from accessing experimental medicines. There is no public health issue with these products (my drinking raw milk might make me sick, but it’s not going to make sick the people I interact with on the street). And there is no fraud and abuse issue — these consumers know that they’re buying raw milk; indeed, they want raw milk. Consumers of raw milk (or experimental drugs to fight their cancers or HIV) realize that there is risk to these products but, given their medical conditions and their preferences, they’re willing to bear that risk in exchange for the products’ (possible) benefits.

Government prohibition of the sale of these products is nothing more than bureaucracy’s blanket imposition of its own risk preference on a large, heterogenous population that includes many people with differing preferences. One of the chief virtues of a free market is that it does a far better job of satisfying the heterogenous preferences of a population of consumers than a central planner ever could. Unfortunately, government often intervenes in markets and diminishes that virtue.

As Tim writes in his post, the FDA and its state-level imitators put a happy face on that intervention, claiming they are looking out for the public’s health. But in these cases, why aren’t members of the public permitted to look out after their own health?

A Tragic Legacy

Bestselling author Glenn Greenwald spoke here at Cato on Tuesday on his latest book, A Tragic Legacy: How a Good vs.  Evil Mentality Destroyed the Bush Presidency.  There was a sharp, but civil, exchange with guest commentator, Lee Casey, who has published many articles in defense of Bush administration policies.  C-SPAN was here to tape the event and it will be airing soon.  Of course, all Cato events are archived on the website, so you can watch or listen to this event at your convenience.  For a sneak preview, check out today’s podcast interview with Greenwald.

Greenwald’s blog posts can be found over at Salon.  For related Cato work on the legacy of the Bush administration, read this and this.

No Right to Life?

Open the newspaper, turn on the television, or surf the net, and you’ll find people saying the government can solve our problems and make life better.  This is the happy face of government:

Behind the happy face is an institution that is willing to strip of us of our right to self-defense, and, worse, deprive dying patients of life-saving drugs.   Who do these politicians and bureaucrats think they are?

For more on the right to life, go here, here, and here (pdf).

More on the Spying Bill

I’ve got a write-up of this weekend’s spying bill up at Ars Technica. It’s pretty bad:

Before undertaking surveillance activities, intelligence officials would need to obtain a certification from the Attorney General and the Director of National Intelligence—both subordinates of the president—that there were “reasonable procedures” in place for ensuring that the eavesdropping “concerns” persons located outside the United States, and that the foreign intelligence is a “significant purpose” of the surveillance activities. That certification would only be reviewed after the fact, and only to determine if the procedures were, in fact, “reasonable.” A single certification could approve a broad surveillance program covering numerous individuals, and no judge would review the list of individual targets.

Moreover, the requirement that surveillance “concern” non-U.S. persons could plausibly permit spying on the relatives, friends, and business associates of a foreign target. Indeed, the administration might argue that the only way to obtain all information regarding foreign targets is to conduct dragnet surveillance of American communications and sift through them to find relevant information.

The legislation empowers the administration to “direct” individuals to “provide the government with all information, facilities, and assistance necessary” to carry out foreign surveillance. These quasi-subpoenas would not be subject to judicial review before they were issued. The targets of such orders—who will typically be telecom company executives, not terrorism suspects—have the option of appealing the order to the FISA court, but given the broad scope of surveillance activities authorized by the legislation, it seems unlikely that such challenges would succeed. Moreover, the legislation offers legal immunity to those who comply with such orders, so telecom providers will have little incentive to resist them.

The only real bright spot is that the legislation sunsets after six months. That will give Congress the opportunity to do what it should have done this weekend: require that no surveillance of domestic communications occur without prior judicial approval of each surveillance target. I’m not going to hold my breath.