Topic: Law and Civil Liberties

DC Government to Petition Supreme Court

The Mayor of Washington DC just announced that the city will ask the Supreme Court to reverse a landmark Second Amendment ruling from the DC Court of Appeals.

This is great news–as the whole idea of this lawsuit has been to get a good case up to the Supreme Court.  Had DC officials not filed an appeal, they would have had to amend DC’s 30 year ban on guns, but they could have kept the case out of the Supreme Court.  By filing an appeal, DC officials are hoping that the lower court will be reversed, but the risk is that the High Court will rule otherwise.  For opponents of the DC firearm ban, it is nice to have a favorable precedent from the DC Court of Appeals–but it is even better to have a favorable precedent from the Supreme Court.

The ball is now with the Supreme Court.  DC has decided to appeal but review by the High Court is hardly automatic.  The Supreme Court declines to hear hundreds of cases every year.   To hear a case, four justices must agree that a particular case ought to be heard.  We will likely learn whether this case, Parker v. District of Columbia, will be reviewed when the Court reconvenes in early October, after its summer recess.

Background on the lawsuit here.  Cato’s Second Amendment work is here.

Should We Execute Bad Regulators?

I just sent this letter to the editor of the Washington Post:

The lack of outrage about China’s horrific execution of a corrupt food and drug regulator in a recent editorial [“Rough Justice,” July 14] was itself outrageous.
 
Zheng Xiaoyu was put to death for (allegedly) taking bribes that enabled unsafe products to reach the market. The death toll thus far is hundreds of lives lost in China and Panama.
 
Dr. David A. Kessler was commissioner of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) from 1991 through 1996. In 1988, researchers at Harvard University had demonstrated that widespread use of aspirin at the onset of a heart attack and daily for 30 days afterward could save 5,000 lives per year in the United States. Yet Dr. Kessler’s FDA refused to let aspirin manufacturers advertise that extremely important information until 1996. That policy resulted in as many as 30,000 unnecessary deaths during Dr. Kessler’s tenure. No one has ever accused Dr. Kessler of taking bribes. But he surely benefited personally from his position and from his aggressive regulatory policies, going on to be named dean of Yale University’s medical school.
 
If Dr. Kessler’s political opponents in the U.S. government had put Dr. Kessler to death for his actions as a regulator, I think the Post would denounce his execution as barbaric. But then why be so blithe about an equally barbaric execution in China?

I’m used to people valuing the lives of the FDA’s Type I victims more than the lives of its Type II victims. But valuing the lives of Type I victims more than the lives of the regulators themselves is a new one by me.

Hearing on the Drug Enforcement Agency

This morning there is a congressional hearing about the DEA’s campaign against pain doctors.  The drug war is a disaster in so many ways–but this aspect of the war is particularly cruel.  Siobhan Reynolds of the Pain Relief Network will give members of Congress an earful as to what the government is actually doing.

For Cato work on this DEA campaign, read this and this.

Anti-Money Laundering Laws Impose Heavy Costs, yet Do Not Hinder Crime and Terrorism

The Associated Press reports that financial institutions in North America are paying 71 percent more over the past three years to comply with government anti-money laundering rules and regulations. Even supporters of the current approach admit that the costs are enormous, totaling about $7 billion yearly (and that estimate is three years old). This steep burden might be worthwhile if it led to a reduction in crime and/or terrorism, but as I have explained elsewhere, there is scant evidence that anti-money laundering laws reduce underlying criminal/terrorist behavior. Indeed, because law enforcement resources are being used to spy on everybody rather than targeted at those who want to harm the country, it is possible that the misallocation of resources required by anti-money laundering policy actually makes America less safe:

Complying with anti-money laundering laws has been much more expensive than banks anticipated, and some still aren’t meeting all requirements, a new survey says. …Among the six regions surveyed, North American banks saw the highest percentage cost increase, with costs rising 71 percent over the last three years. …Many governments require that banks take steps to prevent money laundering. Money laundering involves making certain financial transactions to hide the source, nature or destination of illegal funds. The United States has the Bank Secrecy Act, which was passed in 1970 and amended by the USA Patriot Act of Oct. 26, 2001. It has since been used increasingly to stop the flow of financing to terrorist organizations.

A First Amendment for Broadcasting

Bill Monroe, who was moderator for NBC’s Meet the Press for about 10 years, is a longtime advocate of extending the First Amendment to broadcasting. Actually, I’m sure he thought that the First Amendment did cover all forms of the news media — but he knew that Congress and the courts didn’t see it that way, so he wanted an explicit amendment to make that clear.

Because his articles on this topic were published in the pre-Internet Dark Ages (yes, children, there are great ideas not online), I can’t link to any of them. But he briefly reprised the argument in the letters column of the Washington Post today, concluding:

Broadcasters are also open to government pressure through the Federal Communications Commission, whose members are appointed by the president. Newspapers are specifically protected against government interference by the granite wall known as the First Amendment.

When the present form of broadcast regulation was set up early in the previous century, nobody understood what powerful instruments of news and information would evolve from the primitive radio stations of that day. Now that we do understand it, we can repair that historic mistake. We can extend the clear, stirring language of the First Amendment to equal protection for freedom of the electronic media. The problem of allocating broadcast licenses does not have to cost the American people the benefit of free broadcasting.

Murdoch vs. The Man

There’s been a lot of hand-wringing lately about Rupert Murdoch’s drive for total world domination. I’d be as disappointed as anyone if he took over the Wall Street Journal and wrung out of it what makes the Journal a great paper.

But a recent New York Times story on “Murdoch, Ruler of a Vast Empire” rather off-handedly made clear what real power is — and it isn’t what Murdoch has. As the Times reported,

Shortly before Christmas in 1987, Senator Edward M. Kennedy taught Mr. Murdoch a tough lesson in the ways of Washington.

Two years earlier, Mr. Murdoch had paid $2 billion to buy seven television stations in major American markets with the intention of starting a national network. To comply with rules limiting foreign ownership, he became an American citizen. And to comply with rules banning the ownership of television stations and newspapers in the same market, he promised to sell some newspapers eventually. But almost immediately he began looking for ways around that rule.

Then Mr. Kennedy, Democrat of Massachusetts, stepped in. Mr. Kennedy’s liberal politics had made him a target of Murdoch-owned news media outlets, particularly The Boston Herald, which often referred to Mr. Kennedy as “Fat Boy.” [This is an unfair claim by the Times; one columnist at the Herald calls Kennedy that. This is like saying “The Times often refers to Cheney as ‘Shooter’ ” because Maureen Dowd does.] He engineered a legislative maneuver that forced an infuriated Mr. Murdoch to sell his beloved New York Post.

Murdoch could spend $2 billion on American media properties and change his citizenship — but one irritated senator could force him to sell his favorite American newspaper. The Times continued,

“Teddy almost did him in,” said Philip R. Verveer, a cable television lobbyist. “I presume that over time, as his media ownership in this country has grown and grown, he’s realized that you can’t throw spit wads at leading figures in society with impunity.”

Well, actually you can in a free society. That’s what makes it a free society — that you can criticize the powerful. And true, nobody tried to put Murdoch in jail. They just forced him to change his citizenship and sell his newspaper.

He ran into similar problems in Britain. His newspapers there, unsurprisingly, usually supported the Conservative Party. But in 1997 two of them endorsed Labour Party leader Tony Blair for prime minister. Blair reacted warmly to the support, but some Labour leaders still wanted to enact media ownership limits, which might have forced Murdoch to sell some of his properties.

“Blair’s attitude was quite clear,” Andrew Neil, the editor of The Sunday Times under Mr. Murdoch in London from 1983 to 1994, said in an interview. “If the Murdoch press gave the Blair government a fair hearing, it would be left intact.”

Is this what the long British struggle for freedom of the press has come to? A prime minister can threaten to dismantle newspapers if they don’t give him “a fair hearing”?

Murdoch has been a realist about politics. He knows that while he may buy ink by the barrel, governments have the actual power. They can shut him down at the behest of a prime minister or a powerful senator. So he plays the game, in Britain and the United States and even China.

After the 2006 elections, for instance, News Corporation and its employees started giving more money to Democrats than Republicans.

“We did seek more balance,” said Peggy Binzel, Mr. Murdoch’s former chief in-house lobbyist. “You need to be able to tell your story to both sides to be effective. And that’s what political giving is about.”

Rupert Murdoch’s empire may become yet more vast, but he’ll still be subject to the whims of powerful politicians. This is hardly surprising in China. But one would hope that in the country of John Milton and the country of John Peter Zenger, and especially in the country of the First Amendment, a publisher would be free to say whatever he chooses without fear of government assault on either his person or his property.