Topic: Law and Civil Liberties

On ObamaCare, Don’t Put Your Faith in the Courts

Now that the Obama health plan is law, more than a dozen states are asserting that Congress has exceeded its Commerce Clause power in imposing a mandate on individuals to purchase health insurance from private companies. No doubt, individual citizens will challenge the individual mandate on their own behalf.

States are also asserting that the threat to withhold all Medicaid payments if the states do not set up health insurance exchanges and enact other regulations amounts to coercion and unconstitutional commandeering of states by the federal government.

No one who opposes ObamaCare should put their faith in the Supreme Court to strike down an act of Congress, no matter how unprecedented and unconstitutional it may be. Nor should those who support ObamaCare be confident that the Supreme Court will uphold these provisions.

Legal challenges cannot take the place of political action. The Court hates to strike down popular legislation, but if the legislation is unpopular, one or both houses of Congress have changed parties and only a filibuster or presidential veto is preventing repeal, then the Court may feel more comfortable upholding the Constitution.

One Nation Under Arrest

Brian Walsh of The Heritage Foundation and Paul Rosenzweig have a new book out, One Nation Under Arrest: How Crazy Laws, Rogue Prosecutors, and Activist Judges Threaten Your Liberty.

For an example of how our federal criminal laws have morphed into a leviathan that threatens the liberty of average citizens, take the case of inventor and entrepreneur Krister Evertson:

In May 2004, FBI agents driving a black Suburban and wearing SWAT gear ran Evertson off the road near his mother’s home in Wasilla, Alaska. When Evertson was face down on the pavement with automatic weapons trained on him, an FBI agent told him he was being arrested because he hadn’t put a federally mandated sticker on a UPS package.

A jury in federal court in Alaska acquitted Evertson, but the feds weren’t finished. They reached into their bag of over 4,500 federal crimes and found another ridiculous crime they could use to prosecute him: supposedly “abandoning” hazardous waste (actually storing, in appropriate containers, valuable materials he was using for the clean-fuel technology he was developing). A second jury convicted him, and he spent 21 months in an Oregon federal prison.

Draconian enforcement of regulatory offenses is just the tip of the iceberg. For additional information on the creep of federal criminal law, check out In the Name of Justice: Leading Experts Reexamine the Classic Article “The Aims of the Criminal Law” by Tim Lynch, Three Felonies a Day: How the Feds Target the Innocent by Harvey Silverglate, and Go Directly to Jail: The Criminalization of Almost Everything by Gene Healy.

Will Debate Constitutionality of Obamacare Anytime, Anywhere

Zaid Jilani at the Center for American Progress put up a blog post titled, “College debate organizers unable to find any law professors to argue health reform is unconstitutional.” Indeed, it seems that none of the four panelists at the University of Washington Law School event had any issues with Obamacare.

Maybe the UW organizers, who couldn’t find anyone with the opposing view, are talking to the same folks who told John Conyers about the “Good and Welfare Clause.” Because, as I said before, it’s not that hard to find constitutional scholars who have problems with this legislation.

OK, look, I’ll make it easier:  I hereby announce that I am willing to travel anywhere at anytime to debate the constitutionality of Obamacare. Whoever sets up the debate has to pay my travel expenses, but that’s it.  Any takers?

Internet Privacy Law Needs an Upgrade

Imagine for a moment that all your computing devices had to run on code that had been written in 1986. Your smartphone is, alas, entirely out of luck, but your laptop or desktop computer might be able to get online using a dial-up modem. But you’d better be happy with a command-line interface to services like e-mail, Usenet, and Telnet, because the only “Web browsers” anyone’s heard of in 1986 are entomologists. Cloud computing? Location based services? Social networking? No can do, though you can still get into a raging debate about the relative merits of Macs and PCs.

When it comes to federal privacy law, alas, we are running on code written in 1986: The Elecronic Communications Privacy Act, a statute that’s not only ludicrously out of date, but so notoriously convoluted and unclear that even legal experts routinely lament the “mess” of electronic privacy law. Scholar Orin Kerr has called it “famously complex, if not entirely impenetrable.” Part of the problem, to be sure, lies with the courts.  It is scandalous that in 2010, we don’t even have a definitive ruling on whether or when the Fourth Amendment requires the government to get a search warrant to read e-mails stored on a server. But the ECPA statute, meant to fill the gap left by the courts, reads like the rules of James T. Kirk’s fictional card game Fizzbin.

Suppose the police want to read your e-mail. To come into your home and look through your computer, of course, they’d need a full Fourth Amendment search warrant based on probable cause. If they want to intercept the e-mail in transit, they have to go still further and meet the “super-warrant” standards of the Wiretap Act. Once it lands on your Internet Service Provider’s server, a regular search warrant is once again the standard—assuming your ISP is providing access “to the public.” If it’s a more closed network like your work account, your employer is permitted to voluntarily hand it over. But if you read the e-mail, or leave it on the server for more than 180 days, then suddenly your ISP has become a “remote computing service” provider rather than an “electronic communications service provider” vis a vis that e-mail. So instead of a probable cause warrant, police can get a 2703(d) order based on “specific and articulable facts” showing the information is “relevant and material” to an investigation—a much lower standard—provided they notify you. Except they can ask a judge to delay notification if they think that would impede the investigation. Oh, unless your ISP is in the Ninth Circuit, where opened e-mails still get the higher level of protection until they’ve “expired in the normal course,” whatever that means.

That’s for e-mail contents.  But maybe they don’t actually need to read your e-mail; maybe they just want some “metadata”—the equivalent of scanning the envelopes of physical letters—to see if your online activity is suspicious enough to warrant a closer look.  Well, then they can get what’s called a pen/trap order based on a mere certification to a judge of “relevance” to capture that information in realtime, but without having to provide any of those “specific and articulable facts.” Unless it’s information that would reveal your location—maybe because you’re e-mailing from your smartphone—in which case, well, the law doesn’t really say, but the Justice Department thinks a pen/trap order plus one of those 2703(d) orders will do, unless it’s really specific location information, at which point they get a warrant. If they want to get those records after the fact, it’s one of those 2703(d) orders—again, unless a non-public provider like your school or employer wants to volunteer them. Oh, unless it’s a counterterror investigation, and the FBI thinks your records might be “relevant” somehow, in which case they can get them with a National Security letter, without getting a judge involved at all.

Dizzy yet? Well, a movement launched today with the aim of dragging our electronic privacy law, kicking and screaming, into the 21st century: The Digital Due Process Coalition.  They’re pushing for a streamlined law that provides clear and consistent protection for sensitive information—the kind of common sense rules you’d have thought would already be in place.  If the government wants to read the contents of your letters, they should need a search warrant—regardless of the phase of the moon when an e-mail is acquired. If they want to track your location, they should need a warrant. And all that “metadata” can be pretty revealing in the digital age—maybe some stricter oversight is in order before they start vacuuming up all our IP logs.

Reforms like these are way overdue. You wouldn’t trust your most sensitive data to software code that hadn’t gone a few years without a security patch. Why would you trust it to legal code that hasn’t had a major patch in over two decades?

Why Do Libertarians Care about Federalism?

That’s the question NYU law professor Rick Hills asks over at PrawfsBlaws:

So why do American libertarians think that federalism is consistent with their commitment to individual liberty? Why not, instead, support a strong national government that can suppress subnational trade wars and protect a robust set of national liberties? What’s the payoff, in terms of individual liberty, from protecting subnational jurisdictions’ exclusive jurisdiction over certain topics?

In other words, if government is bad, why do we want a multiplicity of governments – federal, state, local – all presumably restricting individual liberty in some way?

Well, with all due respect to Prof. Hills – who also graciously commended Cato’s brief in Comstock, in which we argue that that Congress cannot enact a civil commitment statute for sexual predators because there is no such enumerated power and it cannot be inferred from the Necessary & Proper Clause – his analysis erroneously assumes that libertarians (he specifically mentions Cato, our senior fellow Randy Barnett, and our adjunct scholar Ilya Somin) are results-oriented in our approach to constitutional interpretation.  And we shouldn’t pursue federalism, he says, because it’s against our interests.

Both of these premises are flawed.  I won’t go into much detail because Randy and (the other) Ilya have already provided reactions at the Volokh Conspiracy here and here, with which I agree.  First , we like federalism because that’s the system the Constitution set up and luckily, the Constitution is, for the most part, a libertarian document.  Second, the Framers set up the Constitution that way because the different levels of government would exist not to multiply power-hungry bureaucrats’ opportunities for mischief but precisely to disallow dangerous aggregations of power.  So from the get-go there was no possibility of federal tyranny and, after the Fourteenth Amendment empowered Congress and federal courts to protect individual rights against state infringement, there was to be no state tyranny either.

And so, much as we like the strict limitations on Congress’s power – the express enumerations of Article I, section 8, the Commerce Clause, etc. – we also like the Due Process, Equal Protection, and Privileges or Immunities Clauses of the Fourteenth Amendment.  There is thus no conflict between federalism as a structural constitutional provision that promotes liberty and other, “anti-federalist” provisions that also promote liberty.  In practice that means there is no conflict between arguing that Obamacare exceeds the federal government’s authority while asking the Supreme Court to strike down Chicago’s handgun ban.  The original meaning of the relevant constitutional provisions support both arguments – and both arguments enhance liberty!

It really is a remarkable document, this Constitution.  Too bad its proper understanding has been lost

For related thoughts on this fascinating debate, Randy proposes a constitutional amendment that might get us back to the federalism we once knew while (the other) Ilya dispels another of Prof. Hills’s minor premises, that European libertarians diverge from Americans on the issue of federalism.

Pot, Protectionism, and Unions

Lobbying reporter Tim Carney notes that some California marijuana growers are worried that a proposed legalization initiative could drive down the price of the product and adversely affect their incomes. They’re holding meetings to deal with the threat.  Some growers are just talking about creating an official Humboldt seal of approval. Maybe they could even get legal restrictions on who can use the Humboldt name, like Champagne and Roquefort. But some local stores sport bumper stickers reading “Save Humboldt County — keep pot illegal.”

The story reminds Carney of this Reason.tv video featuring a spokeswoman for the purported American Marijuana Growers Association, who urge smokers to buy only American-grown bud:

And that video reminds me of this classic Saturday Night Live video, from those heady days in the ’70s when television shows could joke about marijuana, featuring the American Dope Growers Union reminding viewers that when you buy pot from Mexico or Colombia, “you’re putting an American out of work.” (The SNL sketch was based on a much-broadcast commercial by the International Ladies Garment Workers Union singing “Look for the Union Label,” to discourage Americans from buying foreign-made products.)

Union rules, protectionist laws, and sometimes even outright bans are all ways of avoiding the rigors of competition, seeking to prevent consumers from buying products and services where they’re cheapest. Sometimes there are laws banning or taxing the purchase of goods from another country. Sometimes there are appeals to compassion and patriotism, like “Buy American” or “Buy Local” campaigns. Sometimes an outright ban on the sale of a product actually products the market for established illegal sellers, as the Humboldt County marijuana growers are thinking, and as economist Bruce Yandle theorized in his work on “bootleggers and Baptists.”