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May 31, 2008 8:07AM

Kerr Defends the Third‐​Party Doctrine

Orin Kerr is a law professor at George Washington University and a blogger on the popular Volokh Conspiracy. He is a thoughtful, open-minded legal scholar, but I don’t think it’s unfair to say that he reliably sides with law enforcement on Fourth Amendment issues.

He recently posted a draft article defending the third-party doctrine, which is an interpretation of the Fourth Amendment holding that a person sharing information with a third party cannot make a Fourth Amendment claim to protection of that information. Use an ISP to transmit your email? No Fourth Amendment protection for its contents. Have a bank account? No Fourth Amendment protection for your banking records. Etc.

He treats as similar two issues that I see as separate: revelations gleaned from informants/agents and from business records. I have always thought of the third-party doctrine as being about business records. My remarks here apply to that area only.

I think the third-party doctrine was never right, and that it grows more wrong with each step forward in modern, connected living. Incredibly deep reservoirs of information are constantly collected by third-party service providers today. Cellular telephone networks pinpoint customers’ locations throughout the day through the movement of their phones. Internet service providers maintain copies of huge swaths of the information that crosses their networks, tied to customer identifiers. Search engines maintain logs of searches that can be correlated to specific computers and usually the individuals that use them. Payment systems record each instance of commerce, and the time and place it occurred. The third-party doctrine exempts law enforcement from the Fourth Amendment’s reasonableness and warrant requirements when it looks at these records.

It’s wonderfully contrarian to run against the grain and defend the third-party doctrine, which has plenty of detractors, but sometimes contrarians can be wrong. I think Professor Kerr is, and here I’ll briefly lay out a few of the fundamental differences I have with his paper—all toward the end of perfecting it before it’s published in the Michigan Law Review next year, of course!

Read the rest of this post »
May 30, 2008 2:30PM

Texas Supreme Court: Return the Children

Yesterday, the Supreme Court of Texas ruled that Child Protective Services (CPS) abused its discretion by seizing 468 children from the Fundamentalist Church of Latter Day Saints ranch in Eldorado. Eugene Volokh has a roundup of the legal analysis.

I wrote about this case a few days ago at NRO, but space limitations kept me from going into more detail about how the women and children were treated while in state custody. For those who have not followed this matter closely, the children were seized by CPS but the mothers were "permitted" to remain with their children on the condition that they comply with all CPS rules and commands. 

CPS invited some mental health workers to the various shelters to help care for the hundreds of children. The mental health workers were disturbed by what they saw of CPS's treatment of the women and children, and their written reports corroborate the bitter complaints of the FLDS mothers. I don't think the news media has given this aspect of the story the attention it deserves — so here are some excerpts from the various reports that have been made public:

  • "Women were constantly lied to about where their children [were] and when they could see their lawyers and about when they would be reunited with their children."
  • "Constant reminders that the adult women were only guests and that they were not in charge of the children and what CPS did to them. [The children] belonged to CPS now and they could talk, interrogate, separate and treat them any way [CPS] wanted. This included physical exams and x-rays without [parental] supervision."
  • "I sat with Audrey while three of her children were removed for six hours of questioning." 
  • "The children arrived healthy and happy and left sick and crying."
  • Read the rest of this post »
May 30, 2008 1:29PM

Patent Failure

This week I’m filling in for libertarian blogger Megan McArdle at the Atlantic. Yesterday I finished a three part discussion of Patent Failure, an excellent new book on the patent system by James Besson and Michael Meurer.


The use of the phrase “intellectual property” to describe patents and copyrights has become so commonplace that we barely give it a second thought. I think that’s unfortunate, because the question of whether patents can sensibly be considered a kind of property is an empirical question, not merely a matter of semantics or tradition.


In my first post, I discuss the key characteristics of a patents system — clear boundaries and positive incentives for innovation, and argue that the patent system tends to fulfill those characteristics with respect to the chemical and pharmaceutical industry. In my second post, I shift my attention to the rest of the patent system, and show evidence from Bessen and Meurer that the patent system seems to be creating dis-incentives for innovation in industries other than chemicals and pharmaceuticals. Finally, in my third post, I suggest that the problem is a lack of clear boundaries, and discuss some of the reform proposals Bessen and Meurer offer to fix the patent system’s problems.


The best thing about the book, from my perspective, is that it takes the idea of patents as property seriously and then tries to bring some empirical evidence to bear on whether the patent system behaves the way we expect a property rights system to behave. Because of the analytical clarity of their approach, it gives us a meaningful yardstick with which to judge potential reforms.

May 30, 2008 7:51AM

Alaska Will Not Implement REAL ID

Passed into law Wednesday:

Section 1. AS 44.99 is amended by adding a new section to article 1 to read:


4 Sec. 44.99.040. Limitation on certain state expenditures. A state agency may not expend funds solely for the purpose of implementing or aiding in the implementation of the requirements of the federal Real ID Act of 2005 (P.L. 109–13, Division B).

May 29, 2008 3:39PM

High Wire

I recently received a complimentary copy of Peter Gosselin’s new book, High Wire: The Precarious Financial Lives of American Families.  Mr. Gosselin is the national economics correspondent for the Los Angeles Times. Here is an excerpt from the book jacket:

The recent downturn seems to have brought an end to some of the strongest, smoothest growth in American history–a performance that economists found so sweet they dubbed it the “Great Moderation.” Yet even in boom times, the economy was caught in a cross‐​current. … [T]he cross‐​current was neither the product of a misapprehension nor the nation’s normal ups and downs. Instead, it was the result of a quarter‐​century long conversion of the nation’s economy from one of checks and balances to barely tempered free markets.

Interesting. Query: What baseline (pdf) is Mr. Gosselin using?

May 29, 2008 2:25PM

“Dog Bites Man” Passes for Legal News These Days

“The Supreme Court this week made big news because it hardly changed the law at all,” reports The Washington Post. “The court broke no new ground in deciding that workers are protected from retaliation for complaining about discrimination, just as they are protected from discrimination itself.” The story goes on to quote part of this press release that I wrote yesterday:

The Gómez‐​Pérez and Humphries rulings reinforce what should be readily apparent to objective Court‐​watchers: The Roberts Court is neither necessarily “pro‐​business” nor “conservative.” Instead, the Court evaluates the legal merits of each case and rules accordingly. Even where the Chief Justice disagreed with his colleagues (and notably with an opinion written by Justice Alito), in the Gómez‐​Pérez case, the disagreement was a technical one over statutory language and structure — and not anything that involves judicial philosophy or competing theories of constitutional interpretation. The most interesting thing to note from these cases is the difference in the justices’ views of stare decisis, the principle that the Court places heavy weight on its own precedent. Whereas Chief Justice Roberts and Justice Alito (and perhaps others) no doubt disagreed with the precedent upon which the Humphries decision relied, they went along with Justice Breyer’s reasoning that such disagreement over statutory interpretation does not justify overturning precedent. Justices Scalia and Thomas, on the other hand, consider that the risk to legal stability from overturning precedent to be less than the harm from perpetuating the earlier error. Whatever the significance of this difference of opinion, it is not an ideological dispute.

Perhaps more importantly, as I (and apparently others) said to this reporter over the phone, Roberts and Alito are likely to be more accommodating of incorrect but established precedent when they pertain to statutory interpretation rather than constitutional rights. This is because Congress can always itself “overrule” an erroneous body of statutory construction by passing a new law — but of course the Court has the final word on constitutional issues (barring a constitutional amendment).


More generally, though, the above analysis, relating as it does to technical statutory construction that only reinforces existing law, would not normally be front‐​page (or, in this case, page A2) news. The nature of the cases to which the Roberts Court grants review, however — more technical, business issues instead of red‐​meat “culture war” stuff — suggests that we could be in for more “dog bites man” stories in future.

May 29, 2008 11:09AM

The Global Flat Tax Revolution

There’s good news and bad news in the world of tax policy. The good news is that a growing number of nations now have flat tax systems instead of so‐​called progressive tax schemes that punish people for contributing more to economic growth. The bad news is that the United States is conspicuously absent on the list of flat‐​tax jurisdictions. Defenders of the internal revenue code often argue that a flat tax is an impractical idea, but this new video (narrated by yours truly) demonstrates that the flat tax is working very well and spreading rapidly as nations compete to offer more attractive tax policy to the world’s investors and entrepreneurs.

One small correction is already necessary. The video states that there are 24 flat tax jurisdictions, but it has recently been shown that Trinidad & Tobago is now a member of the flat tax club. Hopefully, the list will grow rapidly and the video will quickly be outdated.