Topic: Law and Civil Liberties

FISA Applications Are Down, but Is Surveillance?

The invaluable Main Justice blog notes that we’ve just gotten our annual dribble of information from the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court, showing that the number of surveillance applications sought and approved by the court dropped for a second consecutive year, to their lowest  level since 2002. Applications fell to 1,376—down from 2007’s record high of 2,370.

So does that mean there’s less FISA surveillance going on? Nope—according to an anonymous source at the Justice Department, you can’t infer much from the raw numbers, especially given the passage of the FISA Amendments Act of 2008, which empowered the executive branch to authorize broad programs of surveillance with slight court oversight:

“The number of Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act applications submitted to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court decreased in 2008 and again in 2009 due to significant changes in the legal authorities that govern FISA surveillance — specifically, the enactment of the FISA Amendments Act in 2008 — and shifting operational demands, but the fluctuation in the number of applications does not in any way reflect a change in coverage,” the official said.

I note with some disappointment that the normally astute folks at Main Justice repeat the canard that the FISA Amendments Act were a response to a 2007 court ruling that “surveillance of purely foreign communications that pass through a U.S. communications node was illegal without a warrant.” Boosters of broader executive power trumpeted that line, but as we learned in 2008, the court’s limitations were really centrally about certain kinds of e-mail traffic; it has never been the case that purely foreign communications in general required a warrant if they passed through the U.S.—and indeed, nobody reading the plain text of the FISA law could possibly believe that to be the case.

In any event, as I suggested recently when last year’s criminal wiretap figures were released, this is one more reason to suspect that current reporting requirements amount to so much oversight theater—giving us the illusion that we have some understanding of the real scope of electronic surveillance, while providing (at best) a spotty and incomplete picture.

Kagan Nomination: Around the Web

  • Confirmation hearings are a “vapid and hollow charade”, or at least that’s what Elena Kagan wrote fifteen years ago. National Review Online invited me to contribute to a symposium on how Republican senators can keep the coming hearings from becoming such a charade, with results that can be found here.
  • The First Amendment has been among Kagan’s leading scholarly interests, and yesterday in this space Ilya Shapiro raised interesting questions of whether she will make an strong guardian of free speech values. Eugene Volokh looks at her record and guesses that she might wind up adopting a middling position similar to that of Justice Ginsburg. As Radley Balko and Jacob Sullum have noted, the departing John Paul Stevens ran up at best a mixed record on First Amendment issues, so the overall impact on the Court is far from clear.
  • Kagan’s other main scholarly topic has been administrative and regulatory law, and Nate Oman at Concurring Opinions warns that everything in her career “suggests that she is intellectually geared to look at the regulatory process from the government’s point of view.” Oman took an advanced seminar she taught, and brings back this cautionary report:

    It was an interesting class, mainly focused on the competition between bureaucrats and political appointees. In our discussions businesses were always conceptualized as either passive objects of regulation or pernicious rent-seekers. Absent was a vision of private businesses as agents pursuing economic goals orthogonal to political considerations. We were certainly not invited to think about the regulatory process from the point of view of a private business for whom political and regulatory agendas represent a dead-weight cost.

  • I’m not the only one who finds Kagan’s exclusion of military recruiters at Harvard wrongheaded, even while agreeing with her in opposing the gay ban. Peter Beinart made that argument in a widely noted post at The Daily Beast last month and now has a followup. Former Harvard law dean Robert Clark is in the Wall Street Journal today (sub-only) with an argument that Kagan’s policy was a continuation of his own and represented the sense of the law faculty as a whole. Emily Bazelon points out that the recruitment bar was overwhelmingly popular at top law schools at the time, an argument that as Ramesh Ponnuru points out may raise more questions than it answers. And Ilya Somin cautions against assuming that the wrongheadedness reflects any specifically anti-military bias.
  • One of John Miller’s readers recalls John Hasnas’s wise words on “empathy” in judging. David Brooks at the Times runs with the “Revenge of the Grinds” theme. SCOTUSblog rounds up some other reactions (with thanks for the link). And Brad Smith, writing at Politico, advises us to be ready should Citizens United come up at the hearing.

Initial Kagan Critiques Miss the (First Amendment) Point

As I’ve been re-reading Supreme Court nominee Elena Kagan’s publications – of which there are surprisingly few for someone of her achievements and reputation – I’ve had half an eye on the TV punditry.  It seems that the leading critique from both the right (e.g., Fox News, Senator Jon Kyl – who’s usually excellent on these things) and extreme left (e.g., Jane Hamsher) is that Kagan doesn’t have judicial experience. 

This just completely misses the point.  As a solicitor general (the “Tenth Justice”) and former dean of Harvard Law – where she did a magnificent job and gained the respect of scholars from across the political spectrum – not to mention senior roles in the Clinton White House, teaching at the University of Chicago and clerking for Justice Thurgood Marshall, Kagan absolutely has the credentials and intellectual chops to be a Supreme Court justice.  Indeed, as I said this morning, her scholarly persona means she’s probably better suited to being a justice than to being solicitor general – especially given that her performance as an oral advocate has left something to be desired.  And we’ve had plenty of non-judges on the Court, people coming from the executive branch (William Rehnquist), academia (Felix Frankfurter), private practice (Lewis F. Powell, Jr.), and politics (Hugo Black).

I actually agree with President Obama that it’s not a bad idea to have somebody with a “different” professional background on the Court – although Kagan’s time in the ivory tower is no more likely to give her a common touch than a nominee coming from the “judicial monastery.”  And, as the president said, Kagan “has won accolades from observers across the ideological spectrum, not just for her intellect and record of achievement, but also for her temperament.”  So the problem really isn’t her supposed lack of relevant experience.

One problem is precisely her very short paper trail – though there are no indications she’s anything but a conventional modern liberal, on which more in future – but something to tease out of that trail, combined with her year as SG, is a certain hostility to the freedom of speech.  For example, in her article “Regulation of Hate Speech and Pornography After R.A.V.,” she attempts to find a constitutional way to restrict the sorts of speech that she personally finds offensive.  And in her defense of the federal “depiction of animal cruelty” statute – which the Supreme Court struck down 8-1 – she argued for a balancing test weighing the value of speech against its social harm.  Not to mention her arguments in Citizens United, the campaign finance statute that, until it was struck down could have banned books, flyers, and movies that contained political speech.  (Interestingly, in Citizens United, she abandoned the very “level political playing field” argument the president invokes to criticize the decision.)

I’m of course not criticizing her appearance as an advocate defending the federal laws at issue in Stevens and Citizens United – that’s her job as solicitor general – but if you read the argument transcripts, you see that she could have done so in ways less sweepingly inimical to free speech. There is other evidence to this effect (see her First Amendment articles here, here, and here, plus others lacking public links), but you get the idea.

Kagan: Revenge of the Grinds

I’ve been saying for a while that to understand the Obama administration specifically and much of today’s liberal Left more broadly, you need to conceive of it as a sort of extension of the intellectual and policy culture of high-end legal academia. The nomination of Elena Kagan, best known as a successful Harvard law dean, extends this familiar pattern. Assuming Kagan coasts to an easy confirmation, she’ll join a liberal caucus on the Court that more than ever resembles a faculty meeting.

To the dismay of some on the left, Kagan, like Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer, and Sonia Sotomayor before her, counts as a “cautious and confirmable” pick – a reliable liberal vote, almost certainly, but not particularly known for disturbingly big ideas or impassioned rhetorical gestures. (The Obama administration does contain plenty of law professors of the latter type – from big thinker Cass Sunstein to liberal firebrand Harold Koh – but has not yet chosen to nominate them to the Court.)

Consider the likeliest speed bump on Kagan’s road to confirmation, her decision to bar military recruiters from Harvard, which resulted in a prolonged and losing showdown with Congress. That episode will be the hardest thing on her record for many Democratic senators to accept (though accept it they will). But it was an overwhelmingly, even near-unanimously popular position to take at top law schools. By way of comparison, recall the mini-furor over Sonia Sotomayor’s “wise Latina” comments, which she’d repeatedly delivered in various versions on the academic conference circuit. There, the notion that a judge’s ethnic background could and should make for different and better decisions was met with predictable applause and little challenge; when aired in wider public debate, it proved hotly controversial and the nominee prudently backed away.

Obama spokespeople spent much of last week rumbling about the need for judges with a common touch who’d stand up for the people. This fed speculation that they might mix up the Court by picking an elected official, trial lawyer or crusading prosecutor. Just kidding! For better or worse, we’re in for more law made by Harvard, Yale and Chicago intellectuals.

Does Elena Kagan Support Limited Government?

After Justice Stevens announced his retirement from the Supreme Court, President Obama spoke of wanting to nominate someone with a “keen understanding of how the law affects the daily lives of the American people.” If Solicitor General Elena Kagan has that understanding, she probably got it from books.

We get a glimpse of that in this morning’s New York Times. Drowning her sorrow in vodka and tonic after Ronald Reagan took the White House in 1980 – during that summer she’d worked on the losing Senate campaign of liberal Democrat Liz Holtzman – the young Ms. Kagan would write in the Princetonian, “Where I grew up – on Manhattan’s Upper West Side – nobody ever admitted to voting for Republicans.” She described “the Manhattan of her childhood,” the Times adds, as a place “where those who won office were ‘real Democrats – not the closet Republicans that one sees so often these days but men and women committed to liberal principles and motivated by the ideal of an affirmative and compassionate government.’”

Ms. Kagan would go on from Princeton to Oxford, Harvard Law, clerkships with Judge Abner Mikva and Justice Thurgood Marshall, a stint in private practice in Washington, a professorship at the University of Chicago Law School, then back to Washington for service in the Clinton White House, and finally a return to Harvard Law as professor, then as dean, before being tapped by Obama as solicitor general.

That’s an impressive rise, to be sure. Whether it has acquainted Ms. Kagan with the lives of ordinary Americans is open to question. But it surely has acquainted her with the modern conception of the Constitution, which is at some remove from the document itself. Whereas the Constitution as written creates a government of limited powers, modern “constitutional law” has allowed an all but unlimited federal government – nowhere more evident than in Ms. Kagan’s sponsor’s cardinal achievement to date, ObamaCare.

In this time of the Tea Party movement (witness this weekend’s developments in Utah), when the cry is “Give us back our Constitution,” the question, “Are there any longer any limits on federal power?” will doubtless be prominent during the upcoming Senate confirmation hearings. Ms. Kagan has a slim publishing record for someone with her background, so the hearings will be especially important for answering that question. One hopes that at least the Republicans on the Senate Judiciary Committee will be resourceful and diligent in pressing the question.

Kagan Nomination Launches Constitutional Debate

As expected, and despite an exhaustive review of shortlist candidates, dead-end leaks about Hillary Clinton, and other distractions, President Obama settled on the long-time prohibitive favorite to be his next Supreme Court nominee.  Elena Kagan became the justice-in-waiting the moment Sonia Sotomayor was confirmed, so you didn’t have to be Tom Goldstein to have predicted this.  The president wanted a highly credentialed non-judge who would serve for a long time and wouldn’t cost too much political capital.  He got a 50-year-old solicitor general and former dean of Harvard Law School – the first female in each post – whose record the Senate (and media, and activists) already examined in a confirmation process that put her into her current post.  That her appointment would put three women on the high court for the first time also doesn’t hurt.

Kagan is certainly not the worst possible nominee from among those in the potential pool – that would’ve been Harold Koh, had President Obama been most inclined to appoint the first Asian-American justice – but others would have been better in various ways.  Although all Democratic nominees would be expected to have similar views on hot-button “culture war” issues like abortion, gay rights and gun control, Diane Wood is a renowned expert on antitrust and complex commercial litigation, for example, and Merrick Garland would almost certainly bring a stronger understanding of administrative law.  Although some on the left are concerned that replacing Justice John Paul Stevens with Kagan “moves the Court to the right,” there is no indication that the solicitor general is anything but a standard modern liberal, with all the unfortunate views that entails on the scope of federal power.  Another concern is her mediocre performance in her current position – the choices of which legal arguments to make from those available to her in defending federal laws in Citizens United and United States v. Stevens, for example, were not strategically sound – though she may well be better suited to a judicial rather than advocacy role.

In any event, with Democrats still holding a 59-seat Senate majority, Elena Kagan’s confirmation is in no doubt whatsoever.  The more interesting aspect of the next couple of months, culminating in hearings before the Judiciary Committee, will be the debate over the meaning of the Constitution and what limits there are to government action.  In an election year when a highly unpopular and patently unconstitutional health care “reform” was rammed through Congress using every procedural gimmick imaginable, voters are more sensitive to constitutional discourse now than they have been in decades.  From bailing out the financial and auto industries to fining every man, woman and child who doesn’t buy a government-approved health insurance policy – and, coming soon, regulating carbon emissions – the Obama administration is taking over civil society at a rate that alarms Americans and fuels both Tea Party populism and interest in libertarian policy solutions (which Cato is happy to offer but wishes were implemented on the front end instead of being invoked as a response to destructive statism).  The Kagan nomination is the perfect vehicle for a public airing of these important issues.

Senators should thus ask questions about the meaning of the Commerce Clause, the Necessary and Proper Clause, and the General Welfare Clause, to name but three provisions under which courts have ratified incredible assertions of federal power divorced from those the Constitution discretely enumerates.  If Elena Kagan refuses to answer such queries substantively – employing the usual dodge that she may be called upon to interpret these clauses as justice – we can rightfully hold that response against her, as she herself counseled in a law review article 15 years ago.

The Welfare State and Terrorism

Here are some very depressing stories showing the corrosive — and perhaps even deadly — effect of redistibutionist policies.

We begin with a story of a government that actually tried to do the right thing, but was thwarted by a supra-national court. The Daily Mail reports that a European Court has ruled that the UK no longer can impose restrictions on welfare payments to women married to suspected terrorists:

A European court has instructed Britain to drop restrictions which limit social security benefits paid to the wives of terror suspects. Ministers imposed tight rules on payouts to stop the money falling into the hands of alleged Al Qaeda fanatics. Under the restrictions, cash payments were strictly limited and families had to show receipts to justify every penny of spending. But yesterday the European Court of Justice said there was no danger of the handouts being used to fund terror and branded the measures unlawful.

Unfortunately, this story is not an isolated incident. Here’s a report from the Express about a Muslim cleric who collected welfare from the Brits while (to put it mildly) being a reprehensible jerk:

The twisted cleric provoked outrage by comparing British troops to Nazi stormtroopers and telling parents of dead soldiers that their children had died in vain. …Choudary, a former lawyer…rakes in more than £25,000 a year in welfare handouts.

CNN reports, “Since the mid-90s, London has been a haven for foreign jihadi preachers, organizers, agitators and propagandists, many of them recipients of generous welfare benefits.”  And the BBC notes that:

In November 2000, Mr Kaplan was convicted for incitement to murder and sentenced to four years in jail. Since then, intelligence reports say his followers have become even more devoted to Mr Kaplan, considering him a martyr for the cause of Allah. …Mr Kaplan is believed to have a fortune worth millions. Nonetheless, he claimed social benefits in Cologne for many years until 2m Deutschmarks (1m euros, £700,000) in cash was found in his flat.

This Mickey Kaus blog post has more nauseating details.

The most amazing story comes from Australia. Here’s a Youtube copy of a report showing that Aussie taxpayers gave $1 million in welfare over 19 years to an Islamic extremist who planned to kill thousands of innocent people.