Topic: Law and Civil Liberties

Breyer’s Gambit

In the Supreme Court’s ruling in Randall v. Sorrell, six justices agreed that Vermont’s campaign spending and contribution limits violated the First Amendment. That majority split, however, on what made the Vermont law invalid, resulting in what was in essence a plurality ruling.  Justices Breyer, Roberts and Alito affirmed Buckley v. Valeo’s finding that spending limits violated the First Amendment. In striking down Vermont’s contribution limits, the plurality sought to break new ground.

In the past, the Supreme Court has said contribution limits should not be so low as to prevent “effective advocacy.” In fact, the “effective advocacy” standard did not constrain legislatures; the Court approved contribution limits deferring to the legislature’s “expertise” in this matter.

Vermont’s contribution limits, however, went too far, according to Justice Breyer, because they harmed “the electoral process by preventing challengers from mounting effective campaigns against incumbent officeholders, thereby reducing democratic accountability.”

For Breyer, the First Amendment is not a constraint on state power expressed as “Congress shall make no law.” Rather, it is a means to realize the value of democratic accountability. That value requires that challengers be able to mount effective campaigns against incumbents. The government can prevent such effective campaigning through contribution limits. Hence, Vermont’s limits must be struck down.

Of course, the Constitution does not demand that Congress advance democratic accountability. But the language of the Constitution has not constrained the Court for some time. Five members of a future Court majority might well explicitly import “democratic accountability” into the First Amendment as a way of enlarging, rather than constraining, state power.

Citing Breyer’s opinion, a future Court might require taxpayers to fund campaigns as way to enable effective challenges against incumbents, thereby increasing democratic accountability. It might also cite democratic accountability as grounds for imposing draconian restrictions on groups that have “undue influence.”

People concerned about free speech welcomed the Randall v. Sorrell decision, but the plurality sought to affirm “democratic accountability” and not the idea of limited government spelled out in the First Amendment. This is not surprising. Justice Breyer is no friend of free speech in campaign finance. That Justices Roberts and Alito signed on to his opinion cannot be a good sign for the future of free speech.

Judge to Federal Prosecutors: Put Those Guns Away & Tell the Truth

In a closely watched case, a federal judge has finally called the Justice Department to account for its high-handed tactics against business firms and businesspeople that are under investigation. 

Prosecutors are increasingly using the threat of indictment to pressure firms into discharging certain employees and reneging on pre-existing company policies that would reimburse employees for attorneys’ fees associated with the business. When a CEO is convinced that some of his employees have engaged in criminal conduct, his decision is easy.  But if the CEO is unsure or is convinced of their innocence, shouldn’t he maintain a presumption of innocence and help the employees in question by honoring the company policy?  And what if prosecutors step up the pressure by leaking stories to press about the company’s “ongoing failure to cooperate with investigators”?

Here’s an excerpt from today’s NYT story:

In a strongly worded opinion, Judge Kaplan agreed with the defendants’ contention that KPMG, which was under criminal investigation, was improperly pressured to cut their legal fees.

KPMG refused to pay the defendants’ legal expenses, he wrote “because the government held the proverbial gun to its head.”

The government, he said, “has let its zeal get in the way of its judgment.”

In his ruling, the judge wrote that during negotiations with KPMG, the government violated the employees’ Fifth Amendment right to a fundamentally fair trial and their Sixth Amendment right to a lawyer.

An employer’s payment of legal fees is “very much part of American life,” he wrote, and applies to “bus drivers sued for accidents, cops sued for allegedly wrongful arrests, nurses named in malpractice cases, news reporters sued in libel cases and corporate chieftains embroiled in securities litigation.”

The right to legal fees is “as much a part of the bargain between employer and employee as salary or wages,” he wrote.

The judge also dressed down Manhattan prosecutors for being “economical with the truth” about pressuring KPMG to cut off the fees.

In his new book, Trapped, John Hasnas critiques the tactics of federal prosecutors because they so often put CEOs in catch-22 situations in which they must either act illegally or unethically.  To listen to a lecture by the author, go here.  For still more background, go here.

Is Bioethics an Oxymoron?

An emailer forwarded me a copy of an article in The New Republic by Ezekiel J. Emanuel, “a bioethicist and oncologist.” Emanuel argues against a recent DC Circuit Court ruling on a suit brought by a group called the Abigail Alliance. The ruling gives dying patients access to experimental drugs after they have passed some minimum safety tests but before they have been proven effective.

It would make it much harder to get people to enroll in research studies and get the data necessary to show whether a drug really was effective or not. Why should people enroll in a randomized, controlled study–where they could be put in the group receiving only conventional treatment–when they could just get their insurance to pay for whatever drug they thought was best?

…Expanded access would also rob the rest of us who may never need a cancer treatment. Individuals and society in general are struggling to pay the nation’s $150 billion-plus drug bill. And that is for medications proven to work. Now add the requirement that insurance companies pay for drugs we don’t know work, and you have a formula for financial disaster. Costs would skyrocket as we pay billions through our insurance premiums and Medicare taxes for worthless drugs.

I agree that it would be wrong to force insurance companies to cover unproven medications–otherwise, there would be no reason to stop individuals from choosing their preferred method of treatment–but the relevant alternative to these patients is not participating in randomized trials. The relevant alternative is death.

Dr. Emanuel describes his approach in a similar case:

Getting Virginia another experimental drug was not going to stop her breast cancer from growing and eventually killing her. I gently explained to her that investing all her energy chasing after another unproven drug was not going to help her and her family. Virginia was disappointed and refused to consider hospice, because she saw it as giving up. Holding her hand, I talked to her about spending time with her husband and daughters and making a videotape for her future grandchildren. We also discussed getting visiting nurses to come to her house. I saw her once more in my office. She was more accepting and found at least some of the activities meaningful. Because of her failing liver, less than three months later, she lapsed into a coma and died with her family present.

If I decide that I want to fight rather than go down graciously with a terminal illness, I will look for a doctor who is not a bioethicist. I found this article so chilling that it leaves me nearly speechless.

Jefferson Was a Great Man, But He Didn’t Write the Constitution

Quotations from respected sources, such as the Founders and Tocqueville and Churchill, are often apocryphal. George Washington apparently didn’t say, “Government is not reason, it is not eloquence – it is force! Like fire, it is a dangerous servant and a fearsome master.” Jefferson, alas, doesn’t seem to have said, “That government is best that governs least,” though he certainly believed it. A tip: If you find the quote on the Internet without any source given other than the alleged speaker, then he probably didn’t say it.

Some quotations are hard to trace, and it’s hard to prove a negative. But this month some of our national leaders have revealed that they don’t know who wrote our most basic founding documents – and neither they nor their speechwriters apparently have access to Google.

At the Southern Baptist Convention two weeks ago, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said, “My ancestors in Mr. Jefferson’s Constitution were three-fifths of a man.” Then yesterday Senate minority whip Dick Durbin opposed a flag-burning amendment by saying, “In fact, [flag-burning] rarely, if ever, happens. And so why are we about to change the handiwork and fine contribution to America of Thomas Jefferson?”

Wrong again. Jefferson did not write the Constitution or the Bill of Rights. He was in France during the Constitutional Convention and during the congressional debate over the Bill of Rights.

As every schoolboy knows or should know, James Madison is known as the Father of the Constitution. He also introduced the Bill of Rights into the House of Representatives in 1789. So Rice and Durbin should have referred to “Mr. Madison’s Constitution” and “the handiwork of James Madison.” Perhaps someone should send them a Madison biography or a copy of James Madison and the Future of Limited Government.

Some Good News from the Court for a Change

The U.S. Supreme Court this morning struck down a set of restrictions on campaign finance enacted by Vermont. Six members of the court believed Vermont’s spending limits and extremely low contribution limits violated the First Amendment.

The six justices agreed that the Vermont law was invalid. But they disagreed about quite a bit, too. Justices Breyer, Roberts and Alito focused on the shortcomings of the Vermont law. Breyer and Roberts also rejected Vermont’s demand that Buckley v. Valeo be overturned. Justices Thomas and Scalia concurred in the opinion but rightly called for overturning Buckley in order to offer better protections for political speech. Justice Kennedy rightly expressed dismay with the Court’s recent campaign finance jurisprudence. In the larger picture, he seems closer to Thomas and Scalia than the other three in the majority.

This ruling was expected, but nonetheless good news. The majority opinion shows that we now have a majority of the court who recognize some limits on the power of the state over political speech. After McConnell v. FEC, it was far from clear than the judiciary would draw any lines limiting state restrictions on speech.

Still, this is hardly a robust affirmation of the First Amendment, and it is somewhat discouraging that the new justices, Roberts and Alito, were unwilling to overturn past errors by earlier majorities on the Court.

Bush and Kelo

Per David’s Kelo anniversary posts below, skeptics are probably right to question the sincerity of the White House’s halfhearted embrace of property rights last week. Back in 2004, when Kelo was pending before the Supreme Court, the Bush administration not only refused to file an amicus brief on behalf of the property owners, but was actually on the verge of filing a brief on behalf of the land-seizing local governments.

The Institute for Justice’s Clint Bolick wrote at the time:

One would expect the Bush administration, with its professed support for strict constitutional construction and for property rights, to join the dozens of conservative and libertarian groups arrayed in this effort, or at worst to sit on the sidelines. But for reasons unfathomable to President Bush’s core constituency, the administration is seriously considering filing a brief opposing property rights.

[…]

So what is it that is impelling the administration to betray its principles?

Is it succumbing to pressure from federal bureaucrats born of solidarity with state and local power? Is it seeking to shelter big business interests that are beneficiaries of eminent domain abuse?

We can’t know because no one in the administration is saying. Even worse is the brazen disdain with which the administration has dismissed pleas from some of its staunchest allies to stay out of the case.

On Oct. 29, a letter signed by 44 conservative and libertarian luminaries — ranging from Grover Norquist to Paul Weyrich and David Keene, and encompassing such groups as the Free Congress Foundation, Family Research Council and National Taxpayers Union — sent the president a letter imploring him to stay on the sidelines. It would be nice to have the administration on the playing field on the side of its friends; but at this point, agnosticism is preferable to adopting the wrong religion.

When property-rights advocates presented a copy of the letter to Timothy Goeglein, the administration’s emissary to the conservative movement, he dismissively dropped it to the ground.

[…]

So when the arguments are submitted in the New London case, it will be jarring if we see the administration standing with the foes of property rights. Perhaps by then the administration will explain its betrayal — or maybe not, for its actions appear truly inexplicable.

Sadly, we now know that advocating for limitless government power isn’t “bizarre” for this administration, it’s routine.

Sam Walker in the L.A. Times

Last week I wrote about a conversation I had with Sam Walker, the University of Nebraska criminology professor whose research was abused by Justice Scalia in the Hudson case. I mentioned that conversation to ex-Reason associate editor Matt Welch, who’s now at the L.A. Times.

That turned into an op-ed for Walker in today’s paper. Excerpt:

The misuse of evidence is a serious offense — in academia as well as in the courts. When it’s your work being manipulated, it is a violation of your intellectual integrity. Since the issue at stake in the Hudson case is extremely important — what role the Supreme Court should play in policing the police — I feel obligated to set the record straight.

Scalia quotes my book, “Taming the System: The Control of Discretion in American Criminal Justice,” on the point that there has been tremendous progress “in the education, training and supervision of police officers” since the 1961 Mapp decision, which imposed the exclusionary rule on local law enforcement.

My argument, based on the historical evidence of the last 40 years, is that the Warren court in the 1960s played a pivotal role in stimulating these reforms. For more than 100 years, police departments had failed to curb misuse of authority by officers on the street while the courts took a hands-off attitude. The Warren court’s interventions (Mapp and Miranda being the most famous) set new standards for lawful conduct, forcing the police to reform and strengthening community demands for curbs on abuse.

Scalia’s opinion suggests that the results I highlighted have sufficiently removed the need for an exclusionary rule to act as a judicial-branch watchdog over the police. I have never said or even suggested such a thing. To the contrary, I have argued that the results reinforce the Supreme Court’s continuing importance in defining constitutional protections for individual rights and requiring the appropriate remedies for violations, including the exclusion of evidence.

I’m not familiar enough with legal scholarship to know just how much of an ethical breach it is for a judge to misuse academic research in an opinion. But Scalia was an academic before coming to the bench, so it seems to me awfully untoward — or awfully careless — to have invoked Walker’s research to further a point that the research pretty clearly disputes. Moreover, Scalia cited Walker in advancing a key argument in a case that could have some pretty significant repercussions.

Walker seems to think it’s a big deal. I find him convincing.