Topic: Law and Civil Liberties

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.

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.”