Topic: Law and Civil Liberties

Gun Rights Secure, Liberty Less So

This morning the Court heard argument in McDonald v. Chicago, the case asking whether the right to keep and bear arms extends to protecting against actions by state and local governments.  Just as importantly, it asked whether the best way to extend that right would be through the Due Process Clause of Privileges or Immunities Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment (because the Second Amendment doesn’t apply directly to the states).

From the initial questioning through the end, it was quite clear that those living in Chicago – and, by extension, New York, San Francisco, and other places with extreme gun restrictions – will soon be able to rest easy, knowing that they will be able to have guns with which to protect themselves.  Unfortunately, the Court did not seem inclined to adopt the arguments propounded by petitioners’ counsel Alan Gura (and supported by Cato) that the Privileges or Immunities Clause was the way to go.   Chief Justice Roberts expressed reluctance at having to overturn the 1873 Slaughterhouse Cases and other justices joined in concerns over how activist judges would use the Clause if the Court revived it – even if that were the path that hewed more closely to the constitution’s true meaning.

This turn of events is unfortunate because reviving the Privileges or Immunities Clause, far from giving judges free reign to impose their policy views, would actually tie them closer to the text, structure, and history of the Constitution.  As it stands now – and as it seems will be the case after McDonald is decided – many of our most cherished rights are protected only to the extent that judges are willing to label them as sufficiently “fundamental” to warrant such protection.  That is an unprincipled jurisprudence and one that hurts the rule of law.

In short, it is a shame that the Supreme Court seems to be wasting a perfect opportunity to bring constitutional law closer to the Constitution.  It is an even greater shame that it is wasting this chance to use guns to protect liberty.

Civil Liberties Advocates, Not ‘Gun Advocates’

In this NPR story Nina Totenberg gives both sides their say.  But twice she refers to the people advocating Second Amendment rights as “gun advocates” (and once as “gun rights advocates”). That’s not the language NPR uses in other such cases. In 415 NPR stories on abortion, I found only one reference to “abortion advocates,” in 2005. There are far more references, hundreds more, to “abortion rights,” “reproductive rights,” and “women’s rights.” And certainly abortion-rights advocates would insist that they are not “abortion advocates,” they are advocates for the right of women to choose whether or not to have an abortion. NPR grants them the respect of characterizing them the way they prefer.

Similarly, NPR has never used the phrase “pornography advocates,” though it has run a number of stories on the First Amendment and how it applies to pornography. The lawyers who fight restrictions on pornography are First Amendment advocates, not pornography advocates.

And the lawyers who seek to guarantee our rights under the Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution should be called Second Amendment advocates, or advocates of the right to self-defense, or civil liberties advocates. Or even “gun rights advocates,” as they do advocate the right of individuals to choose whether or not to own a gun. But not “gun advocates.”

Wars, Crimes, and Underpants Bombers

I’ve been meaning to follow up on Gene Healy’s post from last week on the interrogation and prosecution of terror suspects.  I share Gene’s bemusement at the howls emanating from Republicans who have abruptly decided that George Bush’s longstanding policy of dealing with terrorism cases through the criminal justice system is unacceptable with a Democrat in the White House.  But I also think it’s worth stressing that the arguments being offered – both in the specific case of Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab and more generally – aren’t very persuasive even if we suppose that they’re not politically motivated.

Two caveats.  First, folks on both sides would do well to take initial reports about the degree of cooperation terror suspects are providing with a grain of salt. For reasons too obvious to bother rehearsing, investigators won’t always want to broadcast accurately or in detail the precise degree of cooperation a suspect is providing.   Second, as Gene noted, given that it seems unlikely we’ll need to use Abdulmutallab’s statements against him at trial, the question of whether the civilian or military system is to be preferred can be separated from the argument about the wisdom of Mirandizing him. That said, the facts we have just don’t seem to provide a great deal of support for the conclusion that, warning or no, criminal investigators are somehow incapable of effectively questioning terrorists.

Certainly if you ask veteran FBI interrogators, they don’t seem to share this concern that they won’t be able to extract intelligence their military counterparts would obtain. You might put that assessment down to institutional pride, but it’s consistent with the evidence, as the FBI has had impressive successes on this front already. And if you don’t want to take their word for it, you can always ask Judge Michael Mukasey who, before becoming attorney general under George W. Bush, ruled that military detainees were entitled to “lawyer up” – as critics of the Bush/Obama approach are wont to put it – explicitly concluding that “the interference with interrogation would be minimal or nonexistent.”

Nor, contra the popular narrative, does it appear to have interfered in the Abdulmutallab case.  Republicans leapt to construe sketchy early reports as implying that the failed bomber had been talking to investigators, then clammed up upon being read his Miranda rights and provided with counsel. But that turns out to have gotten the order of events wrong. In reality, Abdulmutallab was initially talkative – perhaps the shock of having set off an incendiary device in his pants overrode his training – but then ceased cooperating before being Mirandizied. Rather, it was the urging of his family members that appears to have been crucial in securing his full cooperation – family members whose assistance would doubtless have been far more difficult to secure without assurances that he would be treated humanely and fairly within the criminal justice system. It’s possible, one supposes, that the emo terrorist might have broken still more rapidly in military custody, but it seems odd to criticize the judgment of the intelligence professionals directly involved with the case, given that their approach has manifestly worked, on the basis of mere speculation about the superior effectiveness of an alternative approach.

Stepping back from this specific case, there seem to be strong reasons to favor recourse to the criminal systems in the absence of some extraordinarily compelling justification for departing from that rule in particular cases. Perhaps most obviously, few terror suspects are quite so self-evidently guilty as Abdulmutallab, and so framing the question of their treatment as one of the due process rights afforded “terrorists” begs the question. The mantra of those who prefer defaulting to military trial is that “we are at war” – but this is an analytically unhelpful observation.  We’re engaged in a series of loosely connected conflicts, some of which look pretty much like conventional wars, some of which don’t. This blanket observation tells us nothing about which set of tools is likely to be most effective in a particular case or class of cases – any more than it answers the question of which battlefield tactics will best achieve a strategic goal.

For the most part, the insistent invocation of the fact that “we’re at war” seems to be a kind of shibboleth deployed by people who want to signal that they are Very, Very Serious about national security without engaging in serious thought about national security. If it came without costs, I would be loath to begrudge them this little self-esteem boosting ritual. But conflict with terrorists is, by definition, a symbolic conflict, because terrorism is first and foremost a symbolic act. As Fawaz Gerges documents in his important book The Far Enemy, jihadis had traditionally been primarily concerned with the fight to impose their rigid vision in the Muslim world, and to depose rulers perceived as corrupt or too secular.  The controversial – and even among radical Islamists,quite unpopular – decision to strike “the Far Enemy” in the United States was not motivated by some blind bloodlust, or a desire to kill Americans as an end in itself. Rather, Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri hoped that a titanic conflict between Islam and the West could revive flagging jihadi movement, galvanize the ummah, and (crucially) enhance the prestige of Al Qaeda, perceived within jihadi circles as a fairly marginal organization.

This has largely backfired. But it’s important to always bear in mind that attacks on the United States, especially by sensational methods like airplane bombings, are for terror groups essentially PR stunts whose value is ultimately instrumental. They don’t do it for the sheer love of blowing up planes; they do it as a means of establishing their own domestic credibility vis a vis more locally-focused Islamist groups (violent and peaceful) with whom they are competing for recruits. While our response to these attempts will often necessarily have some military component, there is no reason to bolster their outreach efforts by making a big public show of treating Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula as tantamount to a belligerent foreign state.  Better, when it’s compatible with our intelligence gathering and security goals, to treat Abdulmutallab and his cohorts as just one more band of thugs.

Using Guns to Protect Liberty

Tomorrow the Supreme Court will hear oral argument in McDonald v. Chicago – the Second Amendment case with implications far beyond gun rights.  The Court is quite likely to extend the right to keep and bear arms to the states and thereby invalidate the Chicago handgun ban at issue, but the way in which it does so could revolutionize constitutional law.

In response to the oppression of freed slaves and abolitionists in southern and border states after the Civil War, the Fourteenth Amendment’s drafters sought to protect individual rights from infringement by state and local governments.  The amendment’s Due Process Clause and Privileges or Immunities Clause provided overlapping but distinct protections for these rights.  The Court decided in the 1873 Slaughter-House Cases, however, that the Privileges or Immunities Clause only protected Americans’ rights as national, not state, citizens.  This reactionary holding eviscerated the clause, rendering it powerless to protect individual rights from state interference.

McDonald provides the Court an opportunity to overturn the Slaughter-House Cases and finally restore the Privileges or Immunities Clause to its proper role as a check against government intrusion on individual rights.  Doing so would secure Americans’ natural rights, such as the freedom of contract and the right to earn an honest living, without enabling judges to invent constitutional rights to health care or welfare payments.  For a more detailed discussion of McDonald’s potential implications, and how the Court should rule, see my recent op-ed here.

I will also be participating in several public events this week on McDonald, the Fourteenth Amendment, and firearm regulation.  Today at 4:00 p.m., I will be speaking at a Cato policy forum, which will be broadcast live on C-SPAN and which you may watch online here.  Tomorrow at 3:30 p.m., I will participate in a post-argument discussion of McDonald at the Georgetown University Law Center, which event is cosponsored by the Federalist Society and the Georgetown Journal of Law and Public Policy (where Josh Blackman and I recently published a lengthy article on the subject).  And on Wednesday at noon, I will be participating in a Cato Capitol Hill briefing on McDonald and the future of gun rights at the Rayburn House Office Building, room B-340 (more information here).

Patriot Act Update

It looks as though we’ll be getting a straight one-year reauthorization of the expiring provisions of the Patriot Act, without even the minimal added safeguards for privacy and civil liberties that had been proposed in the Senate’s watered down bill.  This is disappointing, but was also eminently predictable: Between health care and the economy, it was clear Congress wasn’t going to make time for any real debate on substantive reform of surveillance law. Still, the fact that the reauthorization is only for one year suggests that the reformers plan to give it another go—though, in all probability, we won’t see any action on this until after the midterm elections.

The silver lining here is that this creates a bit of breathing room, and means legislators may now have a chance to take account of the absolutely damning Inspector General’s report that found that the FBI repeatedly and systematically broke the law by exceeding its authorization to gather information about people’s telecommunications activities. It also means the debate need not be contaminated by the panic over the Fort Hood shootings or the failed Christmas bombing—neither of which have anything whatever to do with the specific provisions at issue here, but both of which would have doubtless been invoked ad nauseam anyway.

On Fourth Amendment Privacy: Everybody’s Wrong

Everybody’s wrong. That’s sort of the message I was putting out when I wrote my 2008 American University Law Review article entitled “Reforming Fourth Amendment Privacy Doctrine.”

A lot of people have poured a lot of effort into the “reasonable expectation of privacy” formulation Justice Harlan wrote about in his concurrence to the 1967 decision in U.S. v. Katz. But the Fourth Amendment isn’t about people’s expectations or the reasonableness of their expectations. It’s about whether, as a factual matter, they have concealed information from others—and whether the government is being reasonable in trying to discover that information.

The upshot of the “reasonable expectation of privacy” formulation is that the government can argue—straight-faced—that Americans don’t have a Fourth Amendment interest in their locations throughout the day and night because data revealing it is produced by their mobile phones’ interactions with telecommunications providers, and the telecom companies have that data.

I sat down with podcaster extraordinaire Caleb Brown the other day to talk about all this. He titled our conversation provocatively: “Should the Government Own Your GPS Location?

Ending Don’t Ask Don’t Tell

Contrary to the claims of some conservatives, gays can and do serve in the military. This video highlights the story of a combat medic at Fort Hood, Texas, one of the major troop installations in the United States. Warning: long video (13 minutes).

Sergeant Darren Manzella served as a combat medic, and his chain of command investigated the claim that he was gay. Manzella provided pictures and video of him with his boyfriend, but found “no evidence of homosexuality.”

The story makes clear that Manzella gave them plenty evidence of homosexuality, but it didn’t make any sense to get rid of a good soldier in a critical field when he wanted to continue serving and there was a war going on.

The British and Israeli armed forces allow gays to serve openly and still have first-rate combat units.  When Admiral Mullen, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, says it is time to repeal DADT and believes that we can do so without compromising readiness, objections based on domestic politics, and not on military grounds, lose a lot of credibility.