Topic: Law and Civil Liberties

Nice Insurance Company. Shame If Anything Were to Happen to It.

Just days after the health-insurance lobby released a report criticizing the Senate Finance Committee’s health care overhaul (for not expanding government enough!), Democrats and President Barack Obama lashed out at health insurers, threatening to revoke what the Government Accountability Office calls the insurers’ “very limited exemption from the federal antitrust laws.”

Democrats say they’re motivated by the need to increase competition in health insurance markets.  Right.

According to Business Week:

David Hyman, a professor of law and medicine at the University of Illinois College of Law and adjunct scholar at the Cato Institute…considers it unlikely that repeal would fundamentally change the nature of the market. While it might increase competition in some markets, he says, it could actually decrease it in others, such as those where small insurers survive because they have access to larger providers’ data. Changes to the act could therefore hurt smaller companies more than larger ones, he says.

Because the act doesn’t outlaw the existence of a dominant provider but simply prohibits collusion, says Hyman, a repeal would fall short of breaking up existing market monopolies that are blamed for artificially inflating prices. The current move against [the] McCarran-Ferguson [Act], he says, “has more to do with the politics of pushing back against the insurance industry’s opposition to health reform than it does with increasing competition in health-insurance markets.”

Combined with what The New York Times described as the Obama administration’s “ham-handed” attempt to censor insurers who communicated with seniors about the effects of the president’s health plan – the Times editorialized: “the government’s Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services had to stretch facts to the breaking point to make a weak case that the insurers were doing anything improper” – it’s hard to argue that this is anything but Democrats threatening to use the power of the state to punish dissidents.

When Republicans were in power, dissent was the highest form of patriotism.  Now that Democrats are in power, obedience is the highest form of patriotism.

‘Is Obama Punting on Human Rights?’

That’s today’s Arena question over at Politico.

My response:

This morning, both Bret Stephens, in the Wall Street Journal, and Mona Charen, at Real Clear Politics, catalogue Obama’s silence on human rights – China, Tibet, Sudan, Iran, Burma, Honduras – and his backpedaling from his campaign rhetoric. Meanwhile, Eric Posner, at the Volokh Conspiracy, rightly credits Obama for, among other things, not backing the Goldstone Report and pressuring Spain to water down its undemocratic “universal jurisdiction” statute, even as he condemns the administration, again rightly, for its decision to join “the comically named U.N. Human Rights Council,” bastion of some of the world’s worst human rights abusers.

What’s missing, it seems, is any coherent and systematic approach to those matters. During the Reagan administration I served for a time at State as director of policy for the Bureau of Human Rights and Humanitarian Affairs – now called, interestingly, the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor. Things were simpler during the Cold War. We focused on totalitarian regimes, somewhat less on authoritarian regimes, since people were allowed to leave those. And, yes, realpolitik played at least a part in our thinking, as inevitably it must. But the basic principles were clear: If human rights were to be respected, not simply behavioral but systematic change would be required. And Reagan kept the pressure on, publicly. With the fall of the Berlin Wall, millions saw that kind of change, in varying degrees. But the contrast between totalitarianism and democratic capitalism is less clear today than it was then, and the Obama administration, in both its foreign and domestic policies, is doing little to clarify it.

The promotion of human rights starts at home, with allowing people to plan and live their own lives, not with vast public programs that compel people to live under government planning. And in foreign affairs it requires both private and public diplomacy, quiet and not-so-quiet attention to the conditions that give rise to human rights abuses. That doesn’t mean military intervention to change those conditions. But neither does it mean remaining silent, as the Obama administration too often has. Countless victims of abuse, from Cuba to China and far beyond, have written about how important it was that they knew that the world knew about them: When America speaks, the world listens. But equally important, history demonstrates that regimes that respect their own people respect other people as well. It’s time for Obama to speak out.

9/11: All the PSA We Needed

Right on the heels of my post the other day discussing the error in inviting terrorism reporting, here’s another video (and suspicious-activity-reporting Web site) produced by the Los Angeles Police Department.

The production values in this video are hipper, and L.A. appears to have its share of actors willing to look concerned about terrorism. But really, the attacks of September 11, 2001 were all the Public Service Announcement we needed to encourage reporting of genuine suspicions.

Asking amateurs for tips about terrorism will have many wasteful and harmful results, like racial and ethnic discrimination, angry neighbors turning each other in, and—given the rarity of terrorism—lots and lots of folks just plain getting it wrong. People with expertise—even in very limited domains—can discover suspicious circumstances in their worlds almost automatically when they find things “hinky.”

My impressions of the LAPD were formed up in the late 80’s and early 90’s when I lived in southern California. To encourage reporting, what that department needs most is to make the community confident of its own fairness and competence. Reporting of meritorious suspicions will naturally follow that. There’s no need for it to artificially gin up crime or terrorism reporting.

Flex Your Rights

Friends of the Cato Institute who closely follow the news about search and seizure and other civil liberties issues will probably know that there are simple, practical steps one can take to exercise our constitutionally guaranteed liberties, even when confronted by the police.

For everyone else, there’s Flex Your Rights. Founded by former Cato intern Steven Silverman, Flex Your Rights aims to teach ordinary citizens how to make good use of their civil liberties:

The vast majority of people are mystified by the basic rules of search and seizure and due process of law. Consequentially, they’re likely to be tricked or intimidated by police into waiving their constitutional rights, resulting in a greater likelihood of regrettable outcomes.

The sum of these outcomes flow into all major criminal justice problems – including racial and class disparities in search, arrest, sentencing and incarceration rates.

In order to ensure that constitutional rights and equal justice are upheld by law enforcement, we must build a constitutionally literate citizenry.

“Regrettable outcomes” aren’t limited to time behind bars for breaking the drug laws. Consider also damage to property during searches, loss of dignity and privacy, wasted law enforcement time, and police violence during what’s sure to be a nerve-wracking encounter. All of this can happen even when you’re not violating any laws at all, and that’s reason enough to refuse a search.

The police, and the laws themselves, should work for us, and if we don’t require their help, then that should usually be for us to decide. Flex Your Rights is here to help you do so. They’ve just launched a revamped website, which looks great, and they also have a new film in production titled 10 Rules for Dealing with Police. I look forward to seeing it!

Department of Bias

The Department of Justice just invalidated a move by the residents of Kinston, North Carolina, to have non-partisan local elections. Rationale?

The Justice Department’s ruling, which affects races for City Council and mayor, went so far as to say partisan elections are needed so that black voters can elect their “candidates of choice” - identified by the department as those who are Democrats and almost exclusively black.

The department ruled that white voters in Kinston will vote for blacks only if they are Democrats and that therefore the city cannot get rid of party affiliations for local elections because that would violate black voters’ right to elect the candidates they want.

This, coming from the same Department of Justice officials that wouldn’t know a civil rights violation if it picked up a club and barred them access to a polling place.

Next Move: Suing the Sun for Unseasonably Cool Weather

The New Orleans-based Fifth Circuit, the federal court of appeals where I once clerked, has allowed a class action lawsuit by Hurricane Katrina victims to proceed against a motley crew of energy, oil, and chemical companies.  Their claim: that the defendants’ greenhouse gas emissions raised air and water temperatures on the Gulf Coast, contributing to Katrina’s strength and causing property damage.  Mass tort litigation specialist Russell Jackson calls the plaintiffs’ claims “the litigator’s equivalent to the game ‘Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon.’”

In Comer v. Murphy Oil USA, the plaintiffs assert a variety of theories under Mississippi common law, but the main issue at this stage was whether the plaintiffs had standing, or whether they could demonstrate that their injuries were “fairly traceable” to the defendant’s actions.  The court dismissed several claims but held that plaintiffs indeed could allege public and private nuisance, trespass and negligence.  The court also held that these latter claims do not present a so-called “political question” that the court doesn’t have the authority to resolve.  You can read about the Court’s ruling in more detail at the WSJ Law Blog and Jackson’s Consumer Class Actions and Mass Torts Blog.

This is actually the second federal appeals court to rule this way; last month, the Second Circuit (based in New York) held that states, municipalities and certain private organizations had standing to bring federal common law nuisance claims to impose caps on certain companies’ greenhouse gas emissions.  Here’s the opinion in that case, Connecticut v. American Electric Power Company, and you can read a pretty good summary and analysis here.

Both of these cases, which herald a flood of global warming-related litigation, so to speak, owe their continuing vitality to the Supreme Court’s misbegotten 2007 decision in Massachusetts v. EPA.  The 2006-2007 Cato Supreme Court Review covered that case in an insightful article by Andrew Morriss of the University of Illinois.  (To get your copy of the latest (2008-2009) Review, go here.)

I should note from my own experience at the Fifth Circuit that the panel here consisted of the two worst judges on the court – Clinton appointees Carl Stewart and James Dennis – and one of Reagan’s weakest federal appellate appointments, Eugene Davis.  Even Davis, however, wrote separately to note that while he agreed on the standing issue, he would have affirmed the district court’s dismissal of the suit on a different ground (that pesky proximate cause issue).

I predict that the full (16-judge) Fifth Circuit will review this case en banc –and if not that the Supreme Court will eventually take it up (if the district court on remand doesn’t again dispose of the case on causation grounds).

Online Privacy and the Commerce Clause

I fear that with the PATRIOT Act on the brain, I’ve been remiss in continuing the colloquy on behavioral ads and privacy regulation that I’d been having with Jim Harper—who flattered me by responding in a long and thoughtful essay a couple weeks back. Because there’s so much interesting stuff there, I hope he won’t mind if I restrict myself to the first part of his reply here, in the interest of making this all a bit more digestible to those whose fascination with the topic may not be quite as consuming as ours. I’ll consider briefly the constitutional issue Jim raises, and turn to some of the specifics of the issue—and the relative merits of the common law alternative—in another post.

So like every good dorm room bull session, we begin in the weeds of  policy and quickly find ourselves breathing the rarefied air of constitutional theory. Supposing for the moment that we thought it were a good idea on policy grounds, would it be within the power of Congress to set ground rules for online advertisers who gather personal data from Web browsers? Recall that there are two particular rules that I’ve said I’d be tentatively open to, but which Jim rejects: a requirement of notice when information is being collected (say via a small link from the adspace to a privacy policy) and a rule establishing that privacy policies are enforceable, so that individual users can sue for damages if a company knowingly  violates its stated policy (thus far, courts have not generally found these to be binding). Does this fall within the power to “regulate commerce … among the several states”? I think so. I’ll start with what I hope will be some uncontroversial arguments and go from there.

So first, let’s grant that there’s one type of “original intent” that everyone ought to care about, whatever their more general interpretive stance: what Ronald Dworkin calls the linguistic intent of the Framers. That is, if words like “commerce” and “regulate” had narrower meanings in 1787 than they do today, we must, of course, read them now in that light: “Commerce” means actual interstate traffic in goods and services, rather than economic activity more generally, and “regulation” is centrally about establishing uniform rules and procedures.  With these appropriately narrowed readings in mind, I think it’s still a slam-dunk that online ads are covered.

There are, in fact, at least three different senses in which behavioral ads might be classed as interstate commerce. First, the purchase of the ad space itself is obviously a commercial transaction—frequently though not necessarily between entities in different states—and there’s a reasonable question of whether a host site with posted privacy policy is implicitly committed to applying that policy as a condition on ad space sold to third parties. The ads themselves will typically propose a commercial transaction, and in a more direct way than other ads are, can plausibly be seen as the first step in the transaction itself, as clicking on the ad will often bring you directly to a page where you can complete the purchase it recommends. Finally, the personal and behavioral user data collected is itself a valuable commodity, and many sites function with a pretty explicit informational quid pro quo: You will receive access to our content in exchange for registering and providing us with certain data. Since the Internet is borderless, most sites will be getting most of their traffic from people located in different states or countries, and even narrowly state-focused sites are likely to have substantial border-crossing traffic. So on a pretty straight reading of the constitutional language, I find very little reason to doubt that Congress may set uniform default rules for these interstate transactions, rather than leaving it to a patchwork of state rules.

Now, Jim’s reason for questioning this seems to be that the primary concern of the Framers was to prevent states from creating trade barriers. That may be, but if we skip ahead to Article 1, Section 10, we find that Congress knew perfectly well how to enact general and purely prohibitory bans on such shenanigans  using more apt “no state shall” language. Instead, they used precisely the same language for interstate commerce as they did for international commerce, where history suggests that the Framers (many of them steeped in the mercantilist economic theories of the day) had been above all concerned to preserve the ability to erect protectionist trade barriers. So we’re left with a choice between ascribing to the Framers a frankly stunning level of linguistic incompetence or supposing that the Constitution actually does grant the affirmative power that a facial reading suggests.

Needless to say, this does not require us to adopt the post–New Deal reading that places anything with the least potential influence on economic activity under Congressional purview. But we’re pretty close to the core here. Indeed, one of the early cases I know Jim considers a lodestone for the “no trade barriers” reading, Gibbons v. Ogden, involves a congressional grant of a license to operate steamboats. The court found that this superseded the monopoly New York had sought to grant another steamboat operator, which fits Jim’s point to an extent, but it’s crystal clear from that (1824) ruling that the power of Congress here is a broad authority to grant or withhold a privilege to operate interstate vessels, and establish conditions on such vessels, including restrictions on ownership and personnel. It seems to me you’d have to get awfully creative to read the clause in a way that authorizes that kind of authority over an “instrumentality” of commerce (water navigation) but forbids Congress from specifying the kind of notice a merchant must provide when initiating an actual interstate commercial transaction.

A slightly more controversial suggestion: When the specific substantive intent of the Framers is not explicitly embedded in the Constitution’s language—by which I mean, the specific use they thought a wise Congress would make of enumerated powers in light of contemporary economic theories, whether liberal or mercantilist—I am not inclined to give it very great weight. Or more bluntly, when the legal language is abstract, I don’t think we’re bound by an original conception of how or where it applied in specific cases—to the extent such a consideration is even intelligible when we’re talking about Internet advertising. Manifestly, very few people at the time of the passage of the Fourteenth Amendment believed that the abstract guarantee of “equal protection” entailed a substantive right of black children to attend public schools the states restricted to whites. But insofar as what they wrote into law was the abstract guarantee, I don’t think we’re required to care what they believed. Our modern reading should be constrained by the original sense of the words used, and to some extent by the original structural purpose served (translated as necessary). But in specific application—whether privacy rules for online ads are encompassed within “regulation” of “commerce”—then even if you pulled out the Ouija board and got a personal verdict from James Madison, it would just be one more opinion.

Finally, and maybe most controversially: What kind of recommendations should we make in a world where our preferred interpretation of the Constitution lost the fight a long time ago? If the question is what we should recommend to judges, presumably we want to recommend that they start shifting back in the direction of a reading we regard as better justified. But what about when, as Jim imagines, we’re advising legislators? Should we only recommend what we believe to be authorized by what we hold to be the best reading of the Constitution, or will it sometimes make sense to endorse legislation that is plainly allowed by the current regnant interpretation, but that might be outside the scope of the interpretation we regard as superior? I think it will, partly for theoretical, and partly for pragmatic reasons.

At a practical level, both legislators and citizens widely believe Congress to have broader policy discretion than most of the authors here. So very generally speaking, I don’t think it serves limited government to refrain from weighing in on the relative merits of policy options that wouldn’t be on the table at all if our arguments had fared better at the meta-level. (Recall the old joke about the principled pacifist answer to how to respond to World War II: Don’t sign the Treaty of Versailles!) Now, on this particular question it’s not a sure thing that Congress or the FTC will act, and maybe “hands off” is the best advice to give. But there are plenty of areas where there’s no realistic chance that Congress is going to abstain altogether, even if we think that’s what the best interpretation of the Constitution requires. In those cases, I think it’s at least sometimes appropriate to flag the meta objection and then say something about the policy merits. Obviously there are limits—I don’t expect I’ll ever express a view on the “best” way to run a torture chamber—but there are plenty of issues where it seems perverse for the people most concerned with limited government to sit out the day-to-day debates and focus on getting Wickard v. Filburn overturned, glad as I am that there are folks hammering that.

That dovetails with the theoretical reason, which has to do with the broader question of why constitutional principles are binding on us at all. I assume it is not because the Founders, brilliant though they were, enjoyed some divine right of command that the inheritors of their institutions are compelled to obey. Partly it’s that the principles embedded in the Constitution are good ones, but a substantial piece of the answer, I think, is that they provide a stable framework within which we conduct our political and private lives. Judges give weight to stare decisis even when they think the case at the fountainhead of a line of precedent was poorly decided, in part because the legitimacy and authority of law are to a great extent a function of its predictability, of the way it allows us to take actions and make agreements and know pretty much what the legal consequences will be, however much else may remain unpredictable. Constitutional restraints do this one level up, establishing (albeit roughly) a domain of legal variation over the longer term. This is  not, for what it’s worth, wacky postmodern Critical Legal Studies stuff; it’s an extrapolation from Hayek. To imagine that you can remake a society’s institutions wholesale—even if your guide is the best interpretation of a founding document, and even if you’re pretty sure that interpretation held sway a couple centuries ago—is the fallacy of constructivist rationalists.

Now, I think the right account of why we should regard the Constitution as binding starts with considerations along these lines, but this has the (perhaps unfortunate) consequence that even if you had a super-awesome unanswerable argument for why the Constitution mandates libertopia, at least when read properly absent the accretions of precedent, you still wouldn’t have an argument that judges, legislators, and government officials must all start acting on this understanding as of tomorrow. What you’d have is a good starting point for a much more gradual process of paring government back down. Not, to be clear, because I think the Constitution “means whatever the Supreme Court says it does”—that would be incoherent, since the court’s practice is unintelligible, and its legitimacy illusory, unless we assume there’s an independent meaning for them to strive toward.  But an “independent” meaning can be located in a community of interpretation and practice that extends beyond the framing generation. By analogy: If I want to use language “correctly” to communicate, I don’t get to just assign whatever meanings I like to words. It’s even possible to make a strong argument that the majority of speakers at a particular historical moment are using a word—like “decimate” or “hopefully” or “brutalize”—improperly. But neither does it mean that the first person to coin the term gets to specify its legitimate uses forever. And, in fact, anyone who insisted on using “decimate” to mean only “reduce by ten percent” would probably find his attempts at communication misfiring badly. To say that meaning is necessarily public and independent—consult Hayek’s cousin Wittgenstein here—does not require a baptismal view of meaning. Or at any rate, whether it does or not depends on the function your interpretive practice serves.

So yeah, that’s all pretty far removed from our original discussion—and I’m hoping far enough below the fold that it doesn’t put me on the wrong end of another dozen arguments with colleagues. I’ll do another post later this week where I actually get to the policy question, and some potent objections that both Jim and Tim Lee have raised.