Topic: Law and Civil Liberties

Red Team, Blue Team

In a report on Attorney General Eric Holder’s approach to seeking the death penalty, NPR reports:

A few months after Holder made that statement, he authorized a capital prosecution in Vermont, a state that does not have the death penalty. When Ashcroft brought a federal death penalty case in Vermont seven years ago, the mayor of Burlington called it “an affront to states’ rights” and “not consistent with the values of a majority of Vermonters.” But this time, there was hardly any outcry.

So the former antiwar movement doesn’t complain about President Obama’s expansion of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. And opponents of capital punishment don’t protest the Obama administration’s seeking the death penalty in liberal Vermont. It’s beginning to look a lot like the Bush years, when conservatives put up with a great deal from a Republican administration that would have sent them into apoplexy if it had been done by Democrats.

10 Rules for Dealing With the Police

Our friends at Flex Your Rights have a new film that is about to be released.  It’s called 10 Rules for Dealing with Police. Trailer for the film here.  I have seen the entire film and it is an outstanding work–accurate and useful information, great screenplay, and great acting.

Believe it or not, the police can lie to you and can try to trick you into giving up your constitutional rights.  Happens every day.  In less than 45 minutes, this film teaches you what you need to know about police encounters.  Every citizen should take an interest in learning about constitutional rights.  And experienced lawyers will tell you that you can save thousands of bucks in legal fees by avoiding common mistakes.  But you need to know the traps.   If you have teenagers in the family, make them watch it.  Knowledge is power.  Spread the word.

Are You a Criminal? Maybe You Are and Don’t Know It

Yesterday, Michael Dreeben, the attorney representing the U.S. government, tried to defend the controversial “honest services” statute from a constitutional challenge in front of the Supreme Court.  When Dreeben informed the Court that the feds have essentially criminalized any ethical lapse in the workplace, Justice Breyer exclaimed,

[T]here are 150 million workers in the United States.  I think possibly 140 [million] of them flunk your test.

There it is.  Some of us have been trying to draw more attention to the dangerous trend of overcriminalization.  Judge Alex Kozinski co-authored an article in my book entitled “You’re (Probably) a Federal Criminal.”  And Cato adjunct scholar, Harvey Silverglate, calls his new book, Three Felonies a Day to stress the fact that the average professional unknowingly violates the federal criminal law several times each day (at least in the opinion of federal prosecutors).  Not many people want to discuss that pernicious reality. To the extent defenders of big government address the problem at all, they’ve tried to write it all off as the rhetoric of a few libertarian lawyers.  Given yesterday’s back-and-forth at the High Court, it is going to be much much harder to make that sort of claim.

For more on this subject, go here, here,  and here.

Supreme Court Wastes Time, Money, and Opportunity to Protect Property Rights and Due Process

Yesterday the Supreme Court released its first four opinions in cases argued this term, the latest first-opinion release in recent history.  The only one that interests me – and it’s not Justice Sotomayor’s maiden effort – is the civil forfeiture case, Alvarez v. Smith.

Civil forfeiture, the practice in which the police seize cars, money and other kinds of property that they say has some connection to crime, can raise various legal and policy issues — from property rights to due process.  The question in Alvarez was the basic one of whether people seeking to get their property back are entitled to a prompt hearing before a judge.

I blogged about the case here, and Cato adjunct scholar Ilya Somin wrote about it here. Cato’s also filed a brief in the case supporting the individuals whose property was seized.

Unfortunately, because all underlying disputes had been resolved by the time of oral argument – cars had been returned and the individuals have either forfeited their cash or accepted the state’s return of some of it – the Court determined the case to be moot.  It thus vacated the lower court’s opinion and remanded with instructions for that court to dismiss the case.

And that’s a shame.  While the dispute does seem to be moot with respect to the particular petitioners, this is obviously a situation “capable of repetition” but “evading review” – along the lines of that little-known case of Roe v. Wade.  That is, just like the case of a pregnant woman is moot within nine months, disputes over civil forfeiture get resolved one way or the other long before the slow turn of litigation reaches the Supreme Court.  By avoiding the merits of this case, the Court guarantees that the important constitutional questions presented by this case remain perpetually unresolved.

What is more, by vacating the Seventh Circuit’s opinion – an extraordinary remedy – the Court deprives Illinoisans of a well-reasoned and just ruling that could be used as precedent in future cases.  It also – and this is no small matter – wastes the time, effort, and resources of the parties and their attorneys, taxpayers (who obviously paid for the petitioners’ legal work here, as well as that of the judiciary), and, of course, amici (including Cato).

Justice Stevens was correct in his partial dissent: if the Court disagrees with the argument I made in the preceding paragraph, it should have applied the general rule against vacating judgments that have become moot because the parties settled.  The proper disposition here would have been to DIG the case – dismiss the writ of certiorari as improvidently granted (which allows the lower court ruling to remain on the books undisturbed).

A Dubious Record in Mexico’s Drug War

In 2008, there were some 6,300 drug war killings in Mexico, double that of the previous year. El Universal newspaper in Mexico reports that deaths related to the drug war have just surpassed 7,000 since the beginning of 2009, with more than 1000 of those homicides in the last 48 days. That’s a daily rate of 21.3 deaths for the year.

Drug traffickers have long operated in Mexico, but the rise in drug violence is a direct result of President Calderon’s all out war on the drug trade, which he announced upon coming into office December 2006. Annual drug war deaths have more than tripled since then. As Washington starts to spend the bulk of the $1.3 billion Merida Initiative to help Mexico fight drugs (Washington has spent $24 million so far), we can expect the violence to continue increasing. (For a review of Mexico’s futile war on drugs, see Ted Carpenter’s study.)

Use Your Law Deferment to Work for Liberty!

Many law firms are asking their incoming first-year associates to defer their start dates (from a few months to a full year) and are offering stipends to these deferred associates to work at public interest organizations. Cato has been running a deferred associates program for the last few months and we are now extending it for as long as top-notch candidates want to ride out the economy with us.

The Cato Institute invites third-year law students and others facing firm deferrals to apply to work at our Center for Constitutional Studies. This is an opportunity to assist projects ranging from Supreme Court amicus briefs to policy papers to the Cato Supreme Court Review. Start and end dates are flexible. Interested students and graduates should email a cover letter, resume, transcript, and writing sample, along with any specific details of their deferment (timing, availability of stipend, etc.) to Jonathan Blanks at jblanks [at] cato.org.

Please feel free to pass the above information to your friends and colleagues. For information on Cato’s programs for non-graduating students, contact Joey Coon at jcoon [at] cato.org (.)

Big Out-of-Control Government Has Had Better Days at the Supreme Court

This morning at the Supreme Court, the federal government argued for the continued existence of the Public Company Accounting Oversight Board (PCAOB, pronounced peek-a-boo) – and by extension the nefarious financial regulatory scheme known as Sarbanes-Oxley.  Cato filed a brief supporting a free market advocacy group and an accounting firm, who sued PCAOB for violating both the Appointments Clause and general constitutional separation-of-powers principles.

Passed with scant deliberation in the wake of the Enron and WorldCom scandals, the Sarbanes-Oxley Act of 2002 established PCAOB to oversee the accounting practices of the nation’s public companies.  As my piece with Cato legal associate Travis Cushman details today, PCAOB enjoys the rare authority to make its own laws, collect taxes, inspect records, prosecute infractions, make judgments, and impose sanctions.

Traditionally, independent agencies that serve such executive functions must be accountable to the president.  PCAOB members, however, may only be removed “for cause” by members of the Securities and Exchange Commission, who in turn may only be removed “for cause” by the president.  I previously blogged about the case, Free Enterprise Fund v. PCAOBhere, here, and here.

As far as how the argument went, I think the forces of limited constitutional government have eked out a 5-4 victory.  Justices Ginsburg, Breyer, and Sotomayor were extremely hostile to the challengers’ argument, while the Chief Justice and Justices Scalia and Alito were supportive.  (Scalia at one point joked that he had no less power than the president – meaning not very much – to influence PCAOB.)  Justice Stevens only spoke up once but seemed to show a leaning towards the government position.  Justice Thomas, while remaining silent, can be expected to support the view of D.C. Circuit Judge Brett Kavanaugh – whose blistering yet scholarly dissent likely prompted the Court to take up the case.

And so the ruling rests, as often happens with the most interesting cases, on the shoulders of Justice Kennedy.  I remain cautiously optimistic that Kennedy will decide to uphold constitutional checks and balances and strike down what has become an unholy new branch of government.

Two curious notes from the argument: 1. Petitioners’ counsel Michael Carvin referenced Cato’s brief in discussing PCAOB’s overreach internationally – seeking to regulate even foreign accounting standards – without oversight from the State Department or the SEC, let alone the president; 2. PCAOB brought its own lawyer to argue alongside the solicitor general, begging the question: if PCAOB is subservient to the SEC and/or the president, why does it need its own counsel to represent its own views?