Topic: Law and Civil Liberties

Commute These Sentences, Mr. President

President Bush has pushed the envelope of every aspect of executive power, except for two that might ease the burden of government, the veto and the pardon. Now he’s threatening to protect the taxpayers with his veto pen, and he’s just discovered his power to pardon or commute the sentences of people convicted of crimes. Whether Scooter Libby was an appropriate recipient of a commutation is subject to much debate.

But there are plenty of other people who deserve presidential pardons or commutations. Families Against Mandatory Minimums has highlighted a number of good cases here:

Mandy Martinson – 15 years for helping her boyfriend count his drug-dealing money.

DeJarion Echols – 20 years for selling a small amount of crack and owning a gun, causing Reagan-appointed federal judge Walter S. Smith, Jr. to say, “This is one of those situations where I’d like to see a congressman sitting before me.”

Weldon Angelos – 55 years for minor marijuana and gun charges, causing the George W. Bush-appointed judge Paul Cassell, previously best known for pressing the courts to overturn the Miranda decision, to call the mandatory sentence in this case “unjust, cruel, and even irrational.”

Anthea Harris – 15 years when members of her husband’s drug ring received sentence reductions to testify against her, although she had not been directly involved in the business.

A compassionate conservative should also use the pardon power to head off the DEA’s war against doctors who help patients alleviate pain. He could start by pardoning Dr. Ronald McIver, sentenced to 30 years for prescribing Oxycontin and other drugs to patients in severe pain. Or Dr. William Hurwitz of Virginia, sentenced to 25 years but then granted a retrial, convicted again, and awaiting sentencing, which could still be 10 years.

Commute these sentences, Mr. President.

Let a Hundred Flowers Bloom

The most fascinating story in the world is China today, as the world’s most populous country struggles toward modernity.

The Chinese rulers seem to be trying to emulate Singapore’s success in creating a dynamic modern economy while maintaining authoritarian rule. But can a nation of a billion people be managed as successfully as a city-state? Since 1979 China has liberated its economy, creating de facto and even de jure property rights, allowing the creation of businesses, and freeing up labor markets. The result has been rapid economic growth. China has brought more people out of back-breaking poverty faster than any country in history.

And, as scholars such as F. A. Hayek have predicted, the development of property rights, civil society, and middle-class people has created a demand for political rights as well. Every week there are reports of actual elections for local posts, lawyers suing the government, dissidents standing up and often being jailed, labor agitation, and political demonstrations. It’s reminiscent of the long English struggle for liberty and constitutional government.

And it would be great if it turns out that modern technology can make that struggle shorter than it was in England. A hopeful example was reported this week. According to the Washington Post, hundreds of thousands of “text messages ricocheted around cellphones in Xiamen,” rallying people to oppose the construction of a giant chemical factory. The messages led to “an explosion of public anger,” large demonstrations, and a halt in construction.

Leave aside the question of whether the activists were right to oppose the factory. The more significant element of the story is that, as the Post reported, “The delay marked a rare instance of public opinion in China rising from the streets and compelling a change of policy by Communist Party bureaucrats.”

Cellphones and bloggers fighting against the Communist Party and its Propaganda Department and Public Security Bureau — and the “army of Davids” won. Reporters and editors afraid to cover the story followed it on blogs, even as the censors tried to block one site after another. This isn’t your father’s Red China.

Citizen blogger and eyewitness Wen Yunchao

said he and his friends have since concluded that if protesters had been armed with cellphones and computers in 1989, there would have been a different outcome to the notorious Tiananmen Square protest, which ended with intervention by the People’s Liberation Army and the killings of hundreds, perhaps thousands, in the streets of Beijing.

The cause of freedom is not looking so good in Russia these days. But in China a hundred flowers are blooming, a hundred schools of thought contending.

Compulsion: The Only Tool for the Job?

Thursday’s Supreme Court ruling on race-based student assignment programs is pretty clear: public school districts cannot simply use racial balance targets to determine where children will go to school.

A key point in the ruling is that districts must exhaust racially neutral means of achieving their diversity and minority achievement goals before race-based student assignment can even be contemplated. In both cases before the court, the districts failed to do that.

This central point of the ruling apparently escaped CNN judicial analyst Jeffrey Toobin, who made the following statement in a live interview: “the school districts were told they couldn’t integrate their schools.”

Live TV is an unforgiving medium, especially when covering breaking news, so it’s not entirely clear that this is what Toobin meant to say. What is clear is that it is 100% nonsense.

Integration is a goal. There are many possible ways of achieving it besides government compulsion. As I pointed out in a blog post on Thursday afternoon, it can in fact be much better achieved through voluntary school choice programs that make both public and private schools financially viable options for all families. Summaries of some of the relevant studies, along with links to the full text in several cases, can be found here.

Liberals, Conservatives, and Free Speech

Libertarians sometimes say that they are “liberal on free speech but conservative on economic freedom,” or that “liberals believe in free speech and personal freedom, while conservatives believe in economic freedom.” That proposition got another test in the Supreme Court yesterday. Conservatives and liberals split sharply on two free-speech cases.

And let’s see … in two 5-4 decisions, the Court’s conservative majority struck down some of the McCain-Feingold law’s restrictions on campaign speech and upheld a high-school principal’s right to suspend a student for displaying a “Bong Hits 4 Jesus” banner. Liberals disagreed in both cases.

So the liberals strongly defend a student’s right to engage in nonsensical speech that might be perceived as pro-drug, but they approve a ban on speech criticizing political candidates in the 60 days before an election.

Now I’m for free speech in both these cases. But if you had to choose, which is more important–the right of a high-school student to display silly signs at school-sponsored events, or the right of citizen groups to criticize politicians at the time voters are paying attention? Political speech is at the core of the First Amendment, and conservatives are more inclined to protect it than are liberals. That’s a sad reflection on today’s liberals.

The liberal attitude toward speech is also on display on the front pages of our leading liberal newspapers. A banner headline in the Washington Post reads “5-4 Supreme Court Weakens Curbs on Pre-Election TV Ads/Ruling on McCain-Feingold Law Opens Door for Interest Groups in ‘o8.” This long headline mentions “TV Ads” and “Interest Groups” but never uses the words “speech” or “First Amendment.” But the sidebar on the high-school case is headed “Restrictions on Student Speech Upheld.” For that issue, a straightforward understanding that speech is involved. And the New York Times website leads with “Justices Loosen Ad Restrictions in Campaign Finance Law,” while the sidebar on the school case reads, “Vote against Banner Shows Divide on Speech in Schools.” Though I should note that the old-fashioned, tree-destroying version of the Times does have a subhead reading “Political Speech Rights.”

Maybe libertarians should try to describe their philosophy by saying “libertarians believe in the free speech that liberals used to believe in, and the economic freedom that conservatives used to believe in.”

The Great Writ of Habeas Corpus

A few weeks ago, when I introduced ACLU executive director Anthony Romero at a Cato Book Forum, I began by asking

which right the American Founders considered most basic, that is, indispensable to securing all the others. Is it the right to property, which Arthur Lee described as “the guardian of every other right,” because without it we are all at the mercy of whoever controls all the resources? Is it the right to keep and bear arms, without which resistance to the state is rendered toothless? Is it, as Thomas Jefferson said, the right to trial by jury that protects citizens from the arbitrary power of the state? Is it the case that, as Winston Churchill said – not an American Founder, of course, but always good for a quote – “A free press is the unsleeping guardian of every other right that free men prize”? Or could it be the writ of habeas corpus, known as the Great Writ, which in 1969 the Supreme Court called “the fundamental instrument for safeguarding individual freedom against arbitrary and lawless state action”?

Afterward, my smarter colleague said, “It’s habeas.”

So that’s why it’s good that the ACLU has declared today a “Day of Action to Restore Law and Justice.”  ACLU members and others are rallying on Capitol Hill and visiting congressional offices asking Congress to restore the right of habeas corpus.

One of the most frightening elements of the powers asserted by the Bush administration in the war on terror is the power it claims to arrest American citizens and hold them without access to a lawyer or a judge. The conservatives of the American Freedom Agenda have joined the ACLU in calling for repeal of the Military Commissions Act and restoration of the right of habeas corpus. Cato adjunct scholar Richard Epstein petitioned Congress not to curtail habeas corpus as it considered the Military Commissions Act last fall, to no avail. This issue will provide a good test of the proposition that divided government is a good thing. Will the Democratic Congress do the right thing and restore our constitutional rights?

Enough is Enough

Three years ago the U.S. Supreme Court handed down McConnell v. FEC, a decision that upheld McCain-Feingold’s restrictions on political speech. The future seemed bleak for any limits on government regulation of speech and association.

But things are looking up. Today the Supreme Court handed down its decision in Federal Election Commission v. Wisconsin Right to Life.

McCain-Feingold made it a federal crime for any corporation to broadcast, 30 to 60 days before an election, any communication that mentions a federal candidate for elected office and is aimed relevant voters.  Wisconsin Right to Life (WRTL) is an ideological corporation that accepted funding from other corporations. Its members wanted to run ads in 2004 urging citizens of their state to contact its two senators and urge them to oppose a filibuster of judicial nominees. Sen. Russ Feingold, one of the senators and a co-author of the law in question, was running for re-election. Wisconsin Right to Life’s advertising plans thus constituted a federal crime. At least, they were a crime if the relevant part of McCain-Feingold was constitutional as applied to WRTL. In fact, McCain-Feingold was constitutionally invalid in this case and probably many others.

To understand why requires a quick summary of campaign finance law. Congress long ago prohibited contributions to candidates from the general treasuries of corporations and labor unions. But corporations could fund ads commenting on the issues of the day. However, if those ads directly advocated the election or defeat of a candidate, they became an attempt to circumvent the ban on corporate contributions and thus a federal crime. In Buckley v. Valeo, the Court said such “express advocacy” contained words like “elect” and “defeat.” If an ad did not use the words, it was not express advocacy and hence, not subject to campaign finance regulation.

In the 1990s some businesses and labor unions started funding advertising that met the legal standards for issue advocacy. The ads were legal and often highly critical of vulnerable members of Congress in the run up to an election. McCain-Feingold made such speech illegal. It said corporations could not fund ads that mentioned a candidate for federal office with 30 to 60 days of an election. The McConnell Court went along arguing that the ads in question were the “functional equivalent of express advocacy.” In the WRTL decision, the author of the majority opinion, Justice Roberts, has contracted rather than expanded the scope of government regulation. He has done so by redefining the meaning of express advocacy: “a court should find that an ad is the functional equivalent of express advocacy only if the ad is susceptible of no reasonable interpretation other than as an appeal to vote for or against a specific candidate.” The WRTL ad seemed to a reasonable person to be attempt at grassroots organizing. Hence, WRTL wins.

But this standard implicates more than this case. Many of the ads in the 1990s that were the target of McCain-Feingold might have been free of regulation under this standard. Reasonable people could have believed that the ads were attempts to persuade voters to contact their representatives. The political space free of government regulation seems to have expanded. Indeed, it seems possible that many fewer ads will be judged the “functional equivalent of express advocacy” in the future.

So, the good guys won one at last. “Enough is enough,” as Justice Roberts writes in considering efforts to further expand government control of politics.

But still there is reason to worry. The majority did not declare the relevant part of McCain-Feingold unconstitutional. Justice Alito did suggest a willingness to hear constitutional challenges to the McConnell decision (and hence, to McCain-Feingold). Justice Roberts also set out some criteria for the “express advocacy” that are fairly broad. An ad that mentions “an election, candidacy, political party, or challenger; or [that takes] a position on a candidate’s character, qualifications, or fitness for office” could become express advocacy depending on future judgments by the Court and perhaps, by the Federal Election Commission.

An important battle has been won. The war continues.