Topic: Law and Civil Liberties

Unequal Justice?

There it was, emblazoned across the front page of the Washington Post, a headline made especially disturbing by its publication on July 4:

Justice Is Unequal for Parents Who Host Teen Drinking Parties

What did it mean, I wondered. Poor parents go to jail, rich parents walk? The law is enforced in black neighborhoods, winked at in white suburbs?

Not exactly. In fact, the Post reported,

In Virginia and the District, parents who host such parties can be charged with contributing to the delinquency of a minor, a misdemeanor that can carry jail time. In Maryland, hosting an underage drinking party is punished with a civil penalty, payable with a fine, even for multiple offenses.

So it’s not a story about unequal justice, just about different jurisdictions with different laws. But the Post sees it differently:

The stark contrast in punishments is just one inconsistency in a patchwork of conflicting legal practices and public attitudes about underage drinking parties.

“Inconsistency.” “Patchwork.” “Conflicting legal practices.” This is ridiculous. Move along, folks, nothing to see here. On the Fourth of July, let’s pause to remember: The United States is a federal republic, not a unitary centralized state. Different states and even different cities and counties have different laws.

One of the benefits of a decentralized republic is that laws can reflect people’s different values and attitudes. Decentralism also allows states and counties to be “laboratories of democracy.” If voters in Maryland and the District of Columbia read about how Virginia sentences parents to 27 months in jail for serving alcohol to teenagers after taking away their car keys — and they think that sounds like a good idea — then they can change their own laws. Or if Virginia voters notice that Maryland has a slightly lower highway fatality rate, then they might decide to change their laws.

States in our federal republic have different laws about lots of things, certainly including alcohol since the repeal of national Prohibition. I grew up in a dry county in Kentucky — no legal sales of alcohol of any kind — but neighboring counties were wet. The old joke was that Bourbon County was dry while Christian County was wet, but that seems not to be true any more. First cousins can marry in some states but not in others. The rules used to vary on interracial marriage until the Supreme Court stepped in and banned laws against it. In the past couple of years we have begun to experience different state laws on same-sex marriage.

Some people seem to want all laws to be uniform across this vast nation, from California to the New York Island, from the redwood forest to the Gulf stream waters, from sea to shining sea. They use their power in Congress to impose national speed limits, national environmental rules, national school testing laws, national marijuana bans, and so on. But the beauty of America is that we have resisted many of those pressures, and there are still real differences in the laws of San Francisco and San Antonio; Manhattan, New York, and Manhattan, Kansas; Wyoming and Wyomissing, Pennsylvania.

The laws are even different in Virginia and nearby Maryland. That does not mean that justice is unequal.

Hillary’s Chutzpah

Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton denounces the Libby commutation as “disregard for the rule of law” and a “clear signal that in this administration, cronyism and ideology trump competence and justice.”

She has a point. But hello?! Wasn’t she part of the Clinton administration? Speaking of disregarding the rule of law.

And abusing the pardon power? The Clinton administration was notoriously stingy in pardoning real victims of unjust sentences. When it did use the pardon power, it seemed to have an unerring instinct for scandalous and undeserving beneficiaries. In 1999, as Hillary Clinton began her Senate campaign, President Clinton pardoned 16 members of the Puerto Rican terrorist organization FALN, raising questions about whether the pardons were intended to curry favor with New York’s Puerto Rican electorate. And then there was the infamous last day in office, when Clinton managed to pardon or commute the sentences of

  • Marc Rich, a fugitive tax evader whose ex-wife was a major contributor to the Clintons;
  • Susan McDougal, who loyally refused to testify in the Whitewater scandal;
  • Child-molesting Democratic congressman Mel Reynolds;
  • Post Office-molesting Democratic congressman Dan Rostenkowski;
  • Cocaine kingpin Carlos Vignali, whose father was a major Democratic contributor;
  • Four Hasidic shysters alleged to have promised and delivered Hasidic votes to Hillary Clinton’s first campaign;
  • Clinton’s half-brother Roger;
  • and various crooks who paid fees to Hillary Clinton’s brothers Hugh and Tony Rodham to lobby the First Family.

With so many people in jail who deserve a pardon, as Gene Healy and I have discussed in earlier Cato@Liberty posts, it’s appalling that both President Clinton and President Bush have used their pardon powers in such ways. And if anyone lacks credibility to criticize the Libby pardon, it would be President Clinton and Senator Clinton.

Why People Hate the IRS

My wife and I received a notice from the IRS yesterday regarding our 2006 income tax return. At first glance, I thought it said we underpaid by $107, which would be no big deal and I’d go ahead and pay.

Then I looked closer at the calculations the notice showed:

Total Tax On Return: $xx,242.00

Total Payments and Credits: $xx,241.63

Underpaid Tax: $0.37

Penalty: $106.65

Interest: $0.01

Total Amount You Owe: $107.03

You’ve got to be kidding–we underpaid our taxes by 37 cents and the IRS is dinging us with a $107 penalty?!

Page 22 of the 1040 instruction book clearly says that rounding to the nearest whole dollar is OK.  I think this needs more investigation. 

Unpardonable

You could make a case either way on the Scooter Libby commutation.  On the one hand, the jury found that Libby had perjured himself and obstructed justice–the sorts of offenses that Republicans thought were serious as recently as, oh, 1999.   On the other hand, special prosecutor Patrick Fitzgerald wasn’t able to charge anyone with the underlying crime (leaking CIA agent Valerie Plame’s name), so the prosecution had a bogus Martha-Stewart-case aspect to it. 

What you cannot do–at least with a straight face–is argue that of the over 160,000 federal prisoners and thousands more awaiting sentencing, Scooter Libby was the most deserving of clemency.   

As the Sentencing Project reports [.pdf], “Nearly three-fourths (72.1%) of the [federal prison] population are non-violent offenders with no history of violence.” Some of them, like Weldon Angelos and others on the FAMM list David Boaz links to below, fell victim to the federal jihad against drugs (55 percent of federal prisoners are serving time for drug offenses). Others, like David Henson McNab (who has filed a clemency petition with the president, to no avail)  fell victim to the prosecutorial zeal combined with the increasingly bewildering array of federal crimes that make a mockery of the rule of law. 

The pardon power is one that unquestionably makes the president the sole “decider.”  It does so in part, as Hamilton explains in Federalist 74, because without room for mercy, “justice would wear a countenance too sanguinary and cruel.”  Yet President Bush has shown little interest in wielding this power.  His 113 clemency actions thus far place him below all two-term presidents save George Washington, who, in fairness, didn’t have a lot federal crimes to work with. 

The Libby commutation isn’t anywhere near the worst abuse of the pardon power in American history.  James Hoffa, Richard Nixon, the FALN terrorists–all stink worse than the president’s action yesterday.  But that doesn’t mean the Libby commutation smells good.  ”Compassionate conservatism” is a notably mushy and amorphous concept.  Yet we now have a better idea of what it means in the criminal justice context: something like, ”Prison?   That’s not for our people!” 

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.