Topic: Law and Civil Liberties

REAL ID Update

Lots of interesting things continue to happen with the REAL ID Act, America’s faltering national ID law. Passed in May 2005, it would have states issue drivers’ licenses and IDs to federal standards by May of next year.

The count of states rejecting implementation of this federal surveillance mandate has now reached 11, with Missouri, Georgia, and Nevada most recently joining the list of states opposed.

Interestingly, Department of Motor Vehicle bureaucrats in Nevada continue to move forward with REAL ID planning, despite the opinions of the state’s legislature. According to a Federal Computer Week article posted today, “Nevada’s Department of Motor Vehicles … is investigating facial recognition and various methods for sharing driver’s license information with other states and the federal government.” This, despite the legislature consistently cutting funding for implementation and passing legislation urging Congress to repeal REAL ID. But what’s a legislature to stand in the way of bureaucrats doing what they want to do?

Activity in other states continues. In Michigan, Rep. Paul Opsommer (R-DeWitt) has introduced a resolution urging Congress to repeal REAL ID. This has earned him plaudits from Lansing State Journal columnist Derek Melot, whose recent blog post about Opsommer’s bill was called “Somebody gets it.” Indeed Opsommer does. (Be sure to read the comments. Someone with behind-the-scenes knowledge has offered his take.)

At the federal level, Title III of the ballyhooed immigration reform bill might as well be called REAL ID II. It would spend $300 million trying to get states to implement the REAL ID Act. (This is both too much and too little. Too much, because REAL ID shouldn’t be implemented. Too little because implementation will cost the states and people over $17 billion dollars.) Most importantly, possession of a REAL ID-compliant license or ID card will be a condition of getting federal permission for working if Title III passes as written. The Department of Homeland Security is using immigration reform to try to resurrect its failed national ID plan, described by Senate Homeland Security Chairman Lieberman as “unworkable” when it originally passed.

Ashcroft: Closet Civil Libertarian?

A piece in yesterday’s Post points out that, contrary to John Ashcroft’s reputation as a lockstep defender of the administration’s war-on-terror policies, as attorney general, Ashcroft “at times resisted what he saw as radical overreaching”:

In addition to rejecting to the most expansive version of the warrantless eavesdropping program, the officials said, Ashcroft also opposed holding detainees indefinitely at the U.S. military base at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, without some form of due process. He fought to guarantee some rights for those to be tried by newly created military commissions. And he insisted that Zacarias Moussaoui, accused of conspiring with the Sept. 11 hijackers, be prosecuted in a civilian court.

All true, but the article leaves out one of the most important occasions on which Ashcroft pushed back.  In 2002, the adminstration seriously contemplated extending the Jose Padilla treatment–that is, indefinite confinement at the will of the president, without charges or access to counsel–to all Americans suspected of terrorist activity.  As Michael Isikoff and Daniel Klaidman reported in Newsweek three years ago, in addition to Padilla, “officials privately debated whether to name more Americans as enemy combatants—including a truck driver from Ohio and a group of men from Portland, Ore.,” as well as the Lackawanna Six

For Dick Cheney and his ally, Donald Rumsfeld, the answer was simple: the accused men should be locked up indefinitely as “enemy combatants,” and thrown into a military brig with no right to trial or even to see a lawyer. That’s what authorities had done with two other Americans, Yaser Hamdi and Jose Padilla. “They are the enemy, and they’re right here in the country,” Cheney argued, according to a participant. But others were hesitant to take the extraordinary step of stripping the men of their rights, especially because there was no evidence that they had actually carried out any terrorist acts. Instead, John Ashcroft insisted he could bring a tough criminal case against them for providing “material support” to Al Qaeda. 

Indeed, though Ashcroft seemed to have been on board with the transfer of Padilla out of civilian custody, he apparently helped prevent a much broader assault on the rule of law. 

Now I think calling John Ashcroft a civil libertarian for this would be setting the bar pretty low.  But after nearly six years of radical overreaching, it’s hard not to fall victim to the “soft bigotry of low expectations.” 

Solving the Organ Shortage: A Move in the Right Direction

Jon Christiansen, a former Republican congressman from Nebraska, has founded an organization to create grassroots initiatives to help overcome resistance to providing organ donors with financial compensation.

Currently, under the National Organ Transplantation Act, it is illegal to provide “valuable consideration” for an organ. As a result, only altruistic donations are allowed and an average of seven people die every day waiting for an organ that never comes.

Christiansen’s new organization is called the American Organ Coalition. Christiansen, who is the group’s executive director, can be contacted by e-mail at jonlc [at] united [dot] net">jonlc [at] united [dot] net.

Immigration Reform = National ID?

Yesterday’s “breakthrough” on comprehensive immigration reform is indeed salutary. But as the Washington Post editorializes this morning, “It’s critical that in addressing one set of immigration problems, the legislation doesn’t create a new set.”

One potential problem is the creation of a national ID in the process of expanding worker surveillance for intensified internal enforcement. This was the subject of a hearing in the House Immigration Subcommittee at which I recently testified.

Like many, I’ll be watching carefully to see if a national ID system is part of the ineluctable logic of the immigration reform deal that has been struck. Ineluctably, I’ll be calling it like I see it.

What’s Legal at the New York Times?

The New York Times reports that Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez “is carrying out what may become the largest forced land redistribution in Venezuela’s history…in a process that is both brutal and legal.” In what way is this process legal? The article never says. Presumably the Venezuelan congress has passed legislation authorizing the seizure and redistribution of land. But Chavez controls all 167 members of the National Assembly, and the Assembly has granted him the power to rule by decree. It’s hard to call anything in Venezuela “legal” at this point. One might as well say that Stalin’s executions or Pinochet’s disappearances were “legal.” (And by the way, have you noticed that the Times always refers to Pinochet as a dictator, but to Chavez and Fidel Castro as President or leader?)

If the term “legal” has any meaning other than “the ruler has the power to do it,” then it means that something is done in accordance with the law. The Oxford English Dictionary defines law as “the body of rules, whether proceeding from formal enactment or from custom, which a particular state or community recognizes as binding on its members or subjects.” One of the key elements of law is that it provides stability and certainty. I doubt that all the people of Venezuela recognize land seizures as proceeding in accordance with a body of rules. And certainly the arbitrary rule of a president or a rubber-stamp congress does not provide any certainty in the law.

At least the Times paused to tell us that the process was legal, even if it failed to specify just how. The Wall Street Journal article on the same topic doesn’t bother to consider the question of legality; perhaps that’s just a clearer recognition that in Venezuela there is no law, there is only Chavez.

And the rest of the Times article makes the process pretty clear:

The squatters arrive before dawn with machetes and rifles, surround the well-ordered rows of sugar cane and threaten to kill anyone who interferes. Then they light a match to the crops and declare the land their own….

Mr. Chávez’s supporters have formed thousands of state-financed cooperatives to wrest farms and cattle ranches from private owners. Landowners say compensation is hard to obtain. Local officials describe the land seizures as paving stones on “the road to socialism.”

“This is agrarian terrorism encouraged by the state,” said Fhandor Quiroga, a landowner and head of Yaracuy’s chamber of commerce, pointing to dozens of kidnappings of landowners by armed gangs in the last two years….

But while some of the newly settled farming communities are euphoric, landowners are jittery. Economists say the land reform may have the opposite effect of what Mr. Chavez intends, and make the country more dependent on imported food than before.

The uncertainties and disruptions of the land seizures have led to lower investment by some farmers. Production of some foods has been relatively flat, adding to shortages of items like sugar, economists say.

John R. Hines Freyre, who owns Yaracuy’s largest sugar-cane farm, is now trying desperately to sell the property and others in neighboring states. “No one wants this property, of course, because they know we’re about to be invaded,” said Mr. Hines, 69….

“The double talk from the highest levels is absurd,” Mr. Machado said. “By enhancing the state’s power, the reforms we’re witnessing now are a mechanism to perpetuate poverty in the countryside.”

To be sure, the Times does stress the concentration of land ownership in Venezuela and the delight of many of the squatters at getting the seized land. But it’s a balanced article, other than that pesky word “legal.”

As I’ve written before, too many journalists are treating Chavez’s growing dictatorship in a guarded way. They report what’s happening – nationalizations, land seizures, the unanimous assembly, the rule by decree, the demand to repeal presidential term limits, the installation of military officers throughout the government, the packing of the courts – but they still treat it as normal politics and even report with a straight face that “Chavez stresses that Venezuela will remain a democracy.” Some law, some democracy.

McCain says GOP is Corrupt

Last night in the Republican presidential debate, Sen. John McCain said, in response to Mitt Romney’s criticism of McCain-Feingold:  ”Is there anyone who believes there’s not enough money washing around money in politics, which has corrupted our own party?

His “we have enough money in politics” argument has become a standard defense of McCain-Feingold. The idea here is that while McCain-Feingold may have restricted spending on politics, there is still “enough” money in politics. But McCain characteristically misses the point. In a free society, the question is not whether citizens collectively produce “enough” spending on politics. It is rather whether they are free to spend on politics as they wish. McCain-Feingold abridged political liberties even if Sen. McCain believes we have “enough” political speech left over. 

McCain’s charge that the GOP is corrupt also recalls the debates surrounding McCain-Feingold. The Senator then charged the entire Senate with corruption, but when Sen. McConnell challenged him to name a single corrupt individual, he could not. Now McCain thinks the GOP itself was corrupted by money in politics. That seems like a strange way to appeal for the votes of active Republicans. But Sen. McCain should be required to say exactly how campaign finance corrupted the entire Republican party.  

REAL ID Is a Dead Letter

Ten states have now passed legislation rejecting the REAL ID Act, the national ID law Congress passed without a hearing in May 2005.

Massachusetts may be next. According to the Boston Globe, the registrar of motor vehicles in that state issued scathing comments to the DHS on the regulations implementing the law. Apparently, there were 12,000 comments in total – quite a few of them negative, I’ll wager.

I have testified on REAL ID twice in the U.S. Senate, both times calling the law a “dead letter” – once in the Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs and once in the Judiciary Committee.