Topic: Law and Civil Liberties

Republican Strategy on the Supreme Court Vacancy

President Obama is not the only one with a difficult decision to make in the face of mounting pressure from various groups.  The Republicans will have to decide what posture to take: combative or deferential, political or analytical.

With Obama still at the height of his popularity, and with solid Democratic control of the Senate (even without Arlen Specter and Al Franken), the GOP is unlikely to sustain a filibuster or generate significant opposition to any but the most extreme nominee — such as the radical transnationalist Harold Koh, whose nomination to be the State Department’s head lawyer is currently pending.

What Republicans should do instead is force a full public debate about constitutional interpretation and judicial philosophy, laying out in vivid detail what kind of judges they want.  Instead of shrilly opposing whomever Obama nominates on partisan grounds, now is the time to show the American people the stark differences between the two parties on one of the few issues on which the stated Republican view continues to command strong and steady support nationwide.  If the party is serious about constitutionalism and the rule of law, it should use this opportunity for education, not grandstanding.

Al-Marri Pleads Guilty

Ali Saleh Kahlah al-Marri pleaded guilty to conspiring with al Qaeda leaders to commit acts of terrorism yesterday.  He could be sentenced up to 15 years in prison, though he has spent nearly half that awaiting trial and may get credit for the time already served.

Al-Marri was an exchange student who arrived in the United States on September 10th, 2001 as an al Qaeda sleeper agent.  Read the government’s declaration of facts used to detain him.  This is the stuff of movies; the FBI took a dangerous man off the streets when it arrested him.

Unfortunately, the government took him out of the criminal justice system and asked that the charges against him be dismissed with prejudice (meaning that they cannot be re-filed in the future).  He became a domestically detained enemy combatant and the test case for future domestic military detentions.  Just as attorneys seek sympathetic plaintiffs to overturn unjust laws, the government can find unsympathetic defendants to justify overbroad claims of power.  Al-Marri is about as unsympathetic as you can get.

The real tragedy is that al-Marri will serve a relatively short sentence.  Had the government prosecuted him on the seven charges alleged the first time around, he would have been put away for decades.  Related posts here, here, here, and here.

Who Will Replace Justice Souter?

You could call it the end of an error.  David Souter, the “stealth justice” who George H. W. Bush nominated mainly to avoid a confirmation battle and who so disappointed conservatives, is finally free to leave a city he never took to and return to his native New Hampshire. 

Little more can be said about Justice Souter. He has always been inscrutable, at first leaning right, shifting toward the middle in the landmark 1992 cases of Planned Parenthood v. Casey (abortion) and Lee v. Weisman (prayer at high school graduation), and ending up at the left end of the Court alongside Justices Stevens, Ginsburg, and Breyer – all the while employing an unpredictable jurisprudential method.  And he has always been reclusive, refusing reporters’ and scholars’ interview requests and being the biggest opponent of video cameras inside the Court.  Perhaps most memorably, Souter gained notoriety after his vote in Kelo v. New London (allowing the taking of a private home for the benefit of a developer) spurred property rights activists to petition for the use of eminent domain to turn his farm into the “Lost Liberty Hotel.”

Speculation now turns to possible replacements, and what President Obama will do with his first chance to fill a seat on the high court.  Will he risk a big political battle on this issue so early in his term, or will he appoint someone more confirmable but less pleasing to his base? 

He is under great pressure to appoint a woman, and the three leading female candidates are new Solicitor General Elena Kagan, Second Circuit Judge Sonia Sotomayor, and Seventh Circuit Judge Diane Wood.  Kagan would be an almost-certain pick a year from now, but having been just confirmed to be the so-called Tenth Justice, she might be seen as too green for elevation.  Sotomayor — because she is Hispanic and despite a mixed judicial record — was the odds-on favorite until the Court took up the employment discrimination case of Ricci v. DeStefano (argued just last week), an appeal of a bizarre opinion Sotomayor joined that denied the claims of firefighters who had been passed over for promotion because of their race.  That leaves Wood, a renowned authority on antitrust, international trade, and federal civil procedure, whose age (58) suggests that this is likely the last vacancy for which she will be considered.  Wood offers a seriousness of purpose and no ideological ax to grind, and is thus the best nominee supporters of constitutionalism and the rule of law can hope for at this time.  (Full disclosure: I took two classes from Judge Wood in law school.)

DoJ Fails to Report Electronic Surveillance Activities

Unlike with wiretaps, law enforcement agents are not required by federal statutes to obtain search warrants before employing pen registers or trap and trace devices. These devices record non-content information regarding telephone calls and Internet communications. (Of course, “non-content information” has quite a bit of content - who is talking to whom, how often, and for how long.)

The Electronic Privacy Information Center points out in a letter to Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Patrick Leahy (D-VT) that the Department of Justice has consistently failed to report on the use of pen registers and trap and trace devices as required by law:

The Electronic Communications Privacy Act requires the Attorney General to “annually report to Congress on the number of pen register orders and orders for trap and trace devices applied for by law enforcement agencies of the Department of Justice.” However, between 1999 and 2003, the Department of Justice failed to comply with this requirement. Instead, 1999-2003 data was provided to Congress in a single “document dump,” which submitted five years of reports in November 2004. In addition, when the 1999-2003 reports were finally provided to Congress, the documents failed to include all of the information that the Pen Register Act requires to be shared with lawmakers. The documents do not detail the offenses for which the pen register and trap and trace orders were obtained, as required by 18 U.S.C. § 3126(2). Furthermore, the documents do not identify the district or branch office of the agencies that submitted the pen register requests, information required by 18 U.S.C. § 3126(8).

EPIC has found no evidence that the Department of Justice provided annual pen register reports to Congress for 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, or 2008. “This failure would demonstrate ongoing, repeated breaches of the DOJ’s statutory obligations to inform the public and the Congress about the use of electronic surveillance authority,” they say.

It’s a good bet, when government powers are used without oversight, that they will be abused. Kudos to EPIC for pressing this issue. Senator Leahy’s Judiciary Committee should ensure that DoJ completes reporting on past years and that it reports regularly, in full, from here forward.

State Secrets Case Proceeds

A three-judge panel from the Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit ruled yesterday that the State Secrets Privilege, a doctrine barring the introduction of sensitive information as evidence, did not bar a suit by former CIA detainees.  (H/T SCOTUSBlog)

The plaintiffs allege that the defendant, a contract airline associated with the extraordinary rendition program, knowingly flew them to countries where they would be tortured.  The panel held that individual pieces of evidence may be subject to the Privilege, but a suit could not be entirely barred by a government assertion that sensitive information could be revealed.

This presents a split in federal circuit rulings on the State Secrets Privilege.  The Fourth Circuit held that the Privilege could bar a civil suit entirely.  This expansion of the State Secrets Privilege, started under Bush and continued under Obama, is a departure from the fact-specific evaluation described by the Supreme Court in U.S. v. Reynolds.  “Judicial control over the evidence in a case cannot be abdicated to the caprice of executive officers.”

As my colleague Tim Lynch has written before, the State Secrets Privilege often has little to do with keeping secrets and a lot to do with avoiding liability.  All that remains to be seen is whether the Obama administration will appeal the ruling, either to an en banc rehearing by the full Ninth Circuit or at the Supreme Court.

NAMUDNO v. Holder Update

Editor’s Note: Cato scholar Ilya Shapiro is blogging about the NAMUDNO v. Holder case from the Supreme Court, and will provide dispatches throughout the Court’s session.

As I walk away from the Court, with the sounds of the NAACP rally fading in the distance, I’m no clearer on how this case will be resolved than when I went into the building early this morning.

This uncertainty mostly results from the rather technical issues surrounding the Voting Rights Act’s “bailout” provision, as well as how narrowly the Court will want to construe the municipal utility’s challenge (as-applied, facial, or some other novel formulation).

What is clear is that the “liberal” justices, especially Ginsburg and Breyer, were downright hostile to the idea of curtailing federal supervision of state voting practices, while the “conservative” justices (not including Thomas, who was characteristically silent) found disingenuous assertions that VRA violations were systemic, or any more pervasive in the covered (mostly southern) jurisdictions than in non-covered ones.

Justice Kennedy sided strongly with the latter group, but, again, that may not mean much for the final contours of the Court’s decision.

However the case comes out, it is important to remember that even a complete striking of Section 5 does not leave voters who have been discriminated against without recourse in federal court; Section 2 has and will continue to be used to remedy VRA violations on a case-by-case basis (and without Section 5’s onerous preclearance requirements).

Blogging from the Supreme Court - NAMUDNO v. Holder

I write this from the Bar Members’ line waiting to be let into the Supreme Court courtroom for the final argument of the term.

Today the Court hears Northwest Austin Municipal Utility District No.1 (“NAMUDNO”) v. Holder. This is a challenge to the controversial Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, which requires, among other things, any change in election administration in certain states and counties to be “precleared” by the Department of Justice in Washington. This is, of course, a remnant of the Jim Crow era, and southern states’ massive resistance to attempts to enforce the 15th Amendment.

In 1965, Congress included Section 5 – which would otherwise be an unconstitutional infringement on peoples’ right to run their own elections locally – as a temporary remedy to an emergency situation. The section has been amended and extended several times (e.g., to add linguistic minorities, Pacific Islanders, etc.), most recently in 2006. But in this last renewal, Congress, despite introducing more than 15,000 pages into the record, failed to even allege the existence of the type of systemic voting discrimination as existed in the 1960s – because, of course, it doesn’t exist any more, and other parts of the VRA exist to cover specific discriminatory incidents.

Accordingly, a small utility district in Austin, Texas, contests Section 5’s continuing validity (if it cannot escape the section’s clutches via a confusing and little-used “bailout” provision). Specifically, NAMUDNO wants to change the location of its polling station to a public garage (from a less convenient location) – a move that obviously lacks discriminatory intent, and showcases the minutiae that the DOJ now has to micromanage.

Cato legal scholars support NAMUDNO’s challenge because, barring the widespread systemic unconstitutional actions of the Civil Rights Era, Section 5 violates our most basic principles of self-government and federalism, and is emblematic of governmental overreach.