Tag: Supreme Court

Our Sensitive President-Elect

Yesterday the President-elect of the United States tweeted:

Nobody should be allowed to burn the American flag - if they do, there must be consequences - perhaps loss of citizenship or year in jail!

This view directly contradicts First Amendment doctrine established in the case of Texas v. Johnson (1989). Texas had outlawed desecration of venerated objects including the American flag. The state argued this prohibition protected a symbol of national unity and precluded breaches of the peace by those who would take offense at the flag being burned.

Gregory Johnson, a demonstrator at the 1984 Republican Convention, burned a flag as part of a protest. Johnson and his fellow protesters chanted “America, the red, white, and blue, we spit on you” while the flag burned. He was convicted of destroying the flag and sentenced to a year in jail and fined $2,000. Texas thus did exactly what the President-elect wants concerning flag burning.

A five-member majority of the Supreme Court ruled that flag burning constituted “symbolic speech” protected by the First Amendment. Indeed, Johnson burned the flag in 1984 to express a series of political views. The Court ruled that prohibiting this speech did not and was unlikely to prevent violence. As to national unity, Justice William Brennan noted an earlier statement by the Court:

If there is any fixed star in our constitutional constellation, it is that no official, high or petty, can prescribe what shall be orthodox in politics, nationalism, religion, or other matters of opinion or force citizens to confess by word or act their faith therein.

Concurring with the opinion, Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote:

Though symbols often are what we ourselves make of them, the flag is constant in expressing beliefs Americans share, beliefs in law and peace and that freedom which sustains the human spirit. The case here today forces recognition of the costs to which those beliefs commit us. It is poignant but fundamental that the flag protects those who hold it in contempt.

This tweet marks at least the second time the President-elect has repudiated settled First Amendment doctrine. He earlier criticized the broad protection for free speech enunciated in New York Times v. Sullivan (1964), a decision that complicated suing speakers for libel.

Donald Trump wishes to criminalize flag burning for giving offense to those who value what the American flag represents. Many others have called for limiting speech that offends religions or ethnic groups. In The Tyranny of Silence, Cato’s own Flemming Rose recounts that some Muslim clerics in Europe called for censorship of speech giving offense to Islam. No doubt Mr. Trump would not join their calls for protecting the faith. But he does agree with those radical clerics that giving offense should justify government limits on free speech.

I wonder if the President-elect understands why his comments disturb so many people who differ otherwise about so much. He appears to oppose basic ideals underpinning liberal democracy. He is also the President-elect.

What Trump’s Win Means for the Supreme Court

Some thoughts, with thanks to Josh Blackman for getting the ball rolling:

  • The Garland nomination is dead. Does this mean that Trump will indeed pick someone from his list of 21 potential nominees? That list was perhaps most notable for including 9 state jurists; will we get one of those on the Supreme Court for the first time since Sandra Day O’Connor was picked in 1981?
  • Senate Republicans’ strategy of not even considering D.C. Circuit Judge Merrick Garland, of letting the American people decide who gets to fill Scalia’s seat, worked. Not only that, but it didn’t at all hurt vulnerable senators running for reelection.
  • Anthony Kennedy will almost certainly continue to be the “swing justice” on most controversial issues; he may have been the biggest winner last night.
  • I feel sorry for Garland, a respected jurist and honorable man who’s been in limbo for nearly eight months. That said, this wasn’t about him and I would’ve advised voting against him.
  • An open question is what happens when Trump realizes that the sorts of judges he’s been advised to appoint would rule against him on various matters.
  • If you live by executive action, you die by executive action—which means that many high-profile cases looming on the Supreme Court docket will simply go away. DAPA (executive action on immigration) and the Clean Power Plan will be rescinded, religious nonprofits will be exempt from Obamacare, Trump’s HHS won’t make the illegal payments that have led to House v. Burwell, and more. That may include the transgender-bathroom guidance, which if rescinded would remove the biggest controversy from the Court’s current term.
  • With the election of (my friend and University of Missouri law professor) Josh Hawley as Missouri’s new attorney general, the not-yet-scheduled Trinity Lutheran case will likely be settled.
  • The New York Times editorial board better include “It turns out that Ilya Shapiro was right” in its editorial urging senators to reject Trump’s judicial nominees. Also, I can’t wait for the Paul Krugman column making that point.

Communications and Data Meet the Fourth Amendment

This week and last, the Cato Institute filed amicus briefs urging the Supreme Court to take up two cases dealing with the constitutional status of “cell site location information,” or “CSLI.” This data, collected of necessity by cellular communications providers, creates detailed records of their customers’ movements. The briefs invite the Court to accept these cases so it can revise Fourth Amendment practice to eschew doctrine and more closely adhere to the language of the Fourth Amendment.

The Fourth Amendment states that “[t]he right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated.” Presumably, when called upon to determine whether a Fourth Amendment violation has occurred, courts would analyze the elements of this language as follows: Was there a search? Was there a seizure? Was any such search or seizure of “their persons, houses, papers, [or] effects”? Was any such search or seizure reasonable?

And in cases involving familiar physical objects, courts usually do a sound textual analysis, at least implicitly. But in harder cases dealing with unfamiliar items such as communications and data, courts retreat to “reasonable expectation of privacy” doctrine that emerged from Katz v. United States in 1967, and offshoots of it like the “third-party doctrine.” The “reasonable expectation of privacy” test asks whether defendants’ feelings about things government agents accessed were reasonable. The corollary “third-party doctrine” cancels Fourth Amendment interests in information and things that are shared on the theory that expectations of privacy evaporate in that context.

The “reasonable expectation of privacy” test is the product of one non-essential concurrence in Katz, and the third-party doctrine was wrong when the Supreme Court created it in 1976 to ratify a law that deputized banks into financial surveillance. That doctrine grows further out of synch with each step forward our society takes in modern, connected living. Today, third-party service providers collect incredibly deep reservoirs of information about us: Cellular telephone networks, Internet service providers, search engines, and payment systems have data that can throw open windows onto our relationships, feelings, health conditions, business dealings, sexuality, emotions, and more.

One Police Video, Many Interpretations

Members of the public should be able to access the body camera footage related to Tuesday’s police-involved shooting that left Keith Scott dead and prompted violent protests in Charlotte, North Carolina. But we shouldn’t be under any illusion that everyone who watches the footage will arrive at the same opinion about the police officer’s behavior. Two people can watch the same video and come to different moral conclusions. A study on video footage that proved instrumental in a Supreme Court case helps illustrate this fact.

In Scott v. Harris (2007) the Supreme Court considered whether a police officer (Scott) had violated the Fourth Amendment when he deliberately ran Harris’ car off the road during a high-speed chase, which resulted in Scott being left a quadriplegic. An 8-1 majority found that, “a police officer’s attempt to terminate a dangerous high-speed car chase that threatens the lives of innocent bystanders does not violate the Fourth Amendment, even when it places the fleeing motorist at risk of serious injury or death.”

Against Judicial Restraint

That’s the provocative title of my new essay in National Affairs, out this week. I’m mostly addressing conservatives who believe that judges ought to be “restrained,” as opposed the in contradistinction to the “liberal judicial activism” of the Supreme Court in the 1960s and ’70s. It’s puzzling that the attack would be that judges should have a bias towards inaction, towards sitting on their hands, when it’s precisely this deference to the political branches that allowed progressives to rewrite the Constitution during the New Deal. As I explain:

Under the founders’ Constitution, under which the country lived for its first 150 years, the Supreme Court hardly ever had to strike down a law. The Congressional Record of the 18th and 19th centuries shows a Congress discussing whether legislation was constitutional much more than whether it was a good idea. Debates focused on whether something was genuinely for the general welfare or whether it served only a particular state or locality. “Do we have the power to do this?” was the central issue with any aspect of public policy… .

Insider Trading: The Unknowable Crime

Under our criminal justice system, ignorance of the law is no defense.  But what if the law is undefined?  Or what if it seems to change with every new case that’s brought?  What if unelected judges (with life tenure) started to invent crimes, piece by piece, case by case?  Holding people accountable for knowing the law is just only if the law is knowable, and only if those creating the law are accountable to the people. 

On Friday, Cato filed an amicus brief in Salman v. U.S. that is aimed at limiting the reach of just such an ill-defined, judicially created law. “Insider trading” is a crime that can put a person away for more than a decade, and yet this crime is judge-made and, as such, is ever-changing. Although individuals may know generally what is prohibited, the exact contours of the crime have remained shrouded, creating traps for the unwary.

The courts, in creating this crime, have relied on a section of the securities laws that prohibits the use of “any manipulative or deceptive device or contrivance” in connection with the purchase or sale of a security. The courts’ rationale has been that by trading on information belonging to the company, and in violation of a position of trust, the trader has committed a fraud.  The law, however, does not mention “insiders” or “insider trading.”  And yet, in 2015 alone, the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) charged 87 individuals with insider trading violations.  

Broadly speaking, insider trading occurs when someone uses a position of trust to gain information about a company and later trades on that company, without permission, to receive a personal benefit.  But what constitutes a “benefit”?  The law doesn’t say.

Left to their own devices, the SEC has pushed the boundaries of what constitutes a “benefit,” making it more and more difficult for people to know when they are breaking the law.  In the case currently before the Court, Bassam Salman was charged with trading on information he received from his future brother-in-law, Mounir Kara, who had, in turn, received the information from his own brother, Maher.  The government has never alleged that Maher Kara received anything at all from either his brother or Salman in exchange for the information.  The government has instead claimed that the simple familial affection the men feel for each other is the “benefit.”  Salman’s trade was illegal because he happens to love the brothers-in-law who gave him the inside information.

Under this rationale, a person who trades on information received while making idle talk in a grocery line would be safe from prosecution while the same person trading on the same information heard at a family meal would be guilty of a felony.  Or maybe not.  After all, if we construe “benefit” this broadly, why not say that whiling away time chit-chatting in line is a “benefit”?    

No one should stumble blindly into a felony.  We hope the Court will take this opportunity to clarify the law and return it to its legislative foundation.  Anything else courts tyranny. 

Murr v. Wisconsin: When the Government Redefines Property Rights in Order to Avoid Paying Just Compensation

In 1960, the Murr family purchased a 1.25-acre lot (Lot F) in a subdivision on the St. Croix River in Wisconsin. They built a recreation cabin on the lot. Three years later, the family decided to purchase an adjacent 1.25 acre lot (Lot E) as an investment. The family did not build on Lot E, and the parents later gave their children the property. When the children began to look into selling Lot E, the government said that they couldn’t. Why? Because regulations passed after both lots were purchased require a bigger “net project area” (the area that can be developed) than either lot had by itself. Because the lots were commonly owned, the government combined them into one unit and, consequently, prohibited the development or sale of what was once Lot E.

Combining the lots essentially eviscerated the independent value that Lot E once had. The Murrs filed suit against Wisconsin and St. Croix County, arguing that the governments’ action violated the Fifth Amendment Takings Clause by depriving the Murrs of the value of the property (Lot E) without just compensation. Regulatory takings cases like this one are analyzed under the Penn Central test, which applies its three factors to “the parcel as a whole,” thus making the definition of “the whole parcel” highly relevant and even determinative, as it was here. The governments’ defense in the Murr case is a tricky mathematical manipulation: By considering Lot E and Lot F together, the government argues that the taking is not unconstitutional because it affects only half of “the parcel.” But, the Murrs argue, if Lot E is analyzed individually, then the government took the whole thing.

Defining “the parcel as a whole” has been a long-disputed issue, so the Murrs, represented by the Pacific Legal Foundation, sought, and received, Supreme Court review after the Wisconsin Supreme Court declined to hear the appeal from the Wisconsin Court of Appeals, which is a pretty unique way for the Court to take a case. This gives property rights advocates hope that the Supreme Court will bring some clarity to the muddied waters that are the Penn Central test’s three factors. The government should not be allowed to combine lots simply because they have a common owner, and it should especially not be allowed to do so in order to avoid paying the “just compensation” required by the Fifth Amendment. The Cato Institute has filed a brief in support of the Murrs urging the Court to clarify Penn Central. Although the Court has attempted in a few other cases to clarify its test, it remains unclear what the factors even mean, how they are to be measured, how they relate to one another, and how they are to be weighted. Despite, or perhaps because of, the muddled nature of the test, the government wins the vast majority of regulatory takings cases.

Adopting a bright-line rule here in the narrow context of determining what constitutes “the parcel as a whole” would bring some clarity to the Penn Central test and help protect property rights. Any rule permitting the combination of adjacent parcels would exacerbate Penn Central’s problems by leaving the lower courts to determine when combination is permissible and when it is not. Already the lower courts disagree on this issue, leading to greater uncertainty and less protection for property rights. This destabilizes property owners’ reliance interests and discourages property investment. State and local governments across the country have been using the vagueness of Penn Central to facilitate taking private property without just compensation. By clarifying the “parcel as a whole,” the Court can curtail one type of eminent domain abuse.

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