Topic: Law and Civil Liberties

Obama to Impose Tariff on Chinese Tires

From the quiet shadows of the White House, at around 10 pm on Friday night, came word that President Obama will impose prohibitive duties of 35% on imports of Chinese tires.

Well, we at Cato and elsewhere have warned repeatedly of the dangerous consequences of this outcome (June 18, July 24, August 13, September 9, September 11). Former Cato colleague and coauthor Scott Lincicome has an excellent analysis on the ramifications right here.

The good news is that we now have clarity about where the president stands on trade. The bad news is that his stance reflects his isolationist primary election campaign rhetoric and not the post-election messages of avoiding protectionism and repairing the damage done to America’s international credibility by unilateralist Bush administration policies. Short of armed hostilities or political subversion, no state action is more provocative than banning another’s products from entering your market. I guess this paper was too audaciously hopeful. We’re chastened.

Technically, the Chinese are not legally entitled to retaliate because the United States has legal recourse to restrictions under this so-called “China safeguard” law until 2013. But plenty of American exporting interests have been worried enough to write numerous letters to Obama urging restraint–but to no avail.

Restrictions have never been imposed under this law because in all previous cases – all during the previous administration – President Bush exercised his discretion to reject the recommended duties because of the likely cost of those restrictions on the broader economy. Thus, the Chinese know the decision is a matter of presidential discretion, unlike the antidumping and countervailing duty laws, which are on statutory autopilot and don’t require the president’s attention. Accordingly, the tire restrictions are the edict of the American president, and thus carries more profound meaning for the Chinese.

One of the more thrilling spectacles in all of this, if politicians were capable of humility, would be watching President Obama explain his decision to impose tire duties on China at the G-20 meeting he is hosting in Pittsburgh in 12 days. Recall the president’s pledge (along with the other G-20 leaders) at the last G-20 meeting in London to avoid new protectionist measures.

American credibility on trade is spent. And maybe Obama will find comfort in that fact because he won’t be burdened with that historic responsibility, as he signs off on the slew of new requests for trade restrictions (which are undoubtedly coming soon) under this law from other U.S. industries seeking handouts.

Strap on your armor; the die has been cast.

Wichita Witch Hunt

That’s the only appropriate term for the investigation of pain relief advocate Siobhan Reynolds. She is the widow of Sean Greenwood, a victim of a debilitating connective tissue disorder.

Greenwood’s doctor, William Hurwitz, prescribed the medicine that allowed him to function in spite of the condition until Hurwitz was indicted in 2003 for “illegal drug trafficking.” Greenwood could not find another doctor to prescribe his medication; doctors had been bullied into submission by vague federal statutes and aggressive prosecutors. Greenwood died three years later of a brain hemorrhage, likely brought on by the blood pressure build-up from years of untreated pain.

Siobhan Reynolds founded the Pain Relief Network, highlighting the plight of those afflicted with debilitating conditions who are unable to get the appropriate pain medication because of federal anti-drug efforts that make targets of doctors and patients alike.

The U.S. Attorney’s Office in Wichita, Kansas, indicted physician Stephen Schneider and his wife, Linda, a nurse, for illegal drug trafficking in December 2007. Reynolds found an eerie parallel between Schneider’s case and the prosecution that denied her husband pain medication, so she took action. Her public relations campaign on behalf of Dr. Schneider so annoyed Assistant U.S. Attorney Tanya Treadway that Treadway sought a gag order to bar Reynold’s advocacy. The presiding judge denied the gag order.

Now Treadway is investigating Reynolds for obstruction of justice. She has subpoenaed Reynolds and the Pain Relief Network for communications pertaining to the Schneider prosecution, and Reynolds is now being fined $200 a day for not complying with the subpoenas.

As Jacob Sullum notes:

Another item sought by the grand jury is a PRN documentary that discusses how the war on drugs affects pain treatment, a video [ACLU attorney Scott Michelman, who is helping represent Reynolds] calls “completely innocuous from a criminal perspective” and “absolutely protected speech.” Its title, especially apt in light of Treadway’s vindictive campaign against Reynolds, is The Chilling Effect.

Harvey Silverglate has a good summary of the case. Reynold’s prosecution is another example of how the federal court system has deviated from providing justice and become a system where innocent people can lose their freedom to overly broad and intentionally vague criminal statutes. Silverglate’s book, Three Felonies a Day: How the Feds Target the Innocent, provides an excellent survey of federal injustice.

For related Cato scholarship, check out Ronald Libby’s Policy Analysis, Treating Doctors as Drug Dealers: The DEA’s War on Prescription Painkillers.

Preventive Detention: What Would Thomas Jefferson Do?

Glenn Greenwald writes,

By all accounts, the White House is going to unveil its proposal for indefinite detention within the next four to eight weeks, and it has begun dispatching proponents of that scheme to lay the rhetorical groundwork. In The Washington Post today, one of the proposal’s architects – Law Professor Robert Chesney, a member of Obama’s Detention Policy Task Force – showcased the trite and manipulative tactics that will be used by advocates of indefinite detention to win support for their radical program [anyone doubting that detention without trials is radical should recall that Obama’s own White House counsel Greg Craig told Jane Mayer back in February that it’s “hard to imagine Barack Obama as the first President of the United States to introduce a preventive-detention law”; New York Times reporter William Glaberson wrote that “Obama’s detention policy “would be a departure from the way this country sees itself”; Sen. Russ Feingold warned that it “violates basic American values,” “is likely unconstitutional,” and “is a hallmark of abusive systems that we have historically criticized around the world”; The New York TimesBob Herbert said that “Americans should recoil as one against the idea of preventive detention”; and the Obama policy’s most vigorous Congressional proponents are Tom Coburn and Lindsey Graham].

According to Chesney, though, the real extremists are those “on the left” who oppose preventive detention; those who believe that radical liberties such as criminal charges, trials and due process are necessary before the state can put someone in a cage for life; those who agree with Thomas Jefferson that trial by jury is “the only anchor ever yet imagined by man, by which a government can be held to the principles of its constitution.” Chesney insists that such people (these “leftists”) are (as always) the mirror images of the extremists on the Right, who “carelessly depict civil-liberties advocates as weak-kneed fools who are putting American lives at risk.” These two equally partisan, radical, extremist sides (i.e., those who believe in due process and trials and those who oppose them) are – sadly – “shrink[ing] the political space within which reasonable, sustainable policies [i.e., Chesney’s preventive detention scheme] might be crafted with bipartisan support.”

…This is how political debates are typically carried out in Washington by the Serious Centrists and Responsible Adults. Chesney writes an entire Op-Ed defending the soon-to-be-unveiled preventive detention policy without describing a single aspect of it. To Serious people, the substance of the policy is irrelevant. What matters is that anyone who opposes it is a radical, partisan, shrill extremist. Conversely, as long as the Obama administration stays somewhere in the middle of the two sides – between Tom Coburn and Russ Feingold – then it proves they are being sensible, moderate and responsible, regardless of how extreme and dangerous their proposal actually is, and regardless of how close to Coburn and as far from Feingold as they end up.

No system of justice is perfect. But it’s no improvement to decide that in certain cases we can just do better without one.

All that such a policy does is to move the act of judging back one level – and to locate it at the point where someone, somewhere decides that this particular case doesn’t get judged in the usual way. And so the accused gets “detention” rather than “trial, followed possibly by prison.” But we are still putting a person, and perhaps a dangerous person, in a cage, are we not? The acts of judging and of punishing are still there, and we have hidden them only from ourselves.

It is no improvement to shift the fundamental problem of justice to a different location – out of open courtrooms, out of review, out of established legal tradition – and into a shadowy realm where potentially anything goes. We’re deluding ourselves if we think that it is a step forward or a refinement in the criminal law to have its work done somewhere else, by someone else. The work goes on, and with it all of the associated dangers. Western legal philosophy has spent centuries forcing these dangers out into the open, so that we may confront them directly.

But oddly, Professor Chesney is actually right in one respect:

The problem is twofold. First, the national dialogue has been dominated by a pair of dueling narratives that together reduce the space available for nuanced, practical solutions that may require compromise from both camps. On the one hand, critics of the government’s policies promiscuously invoke the post-Sept. 11 version of the Imperial Presidency narrative, reflexively depicting security-oriented policies in terms of executive branch power aggrandizement (with de rigueur references to former vice president Dick Cheney; his chief of staff, David Addington; or Justice Department attorney John Yoo, if not all three). On the other hand, supporters of the government’s policies just as carelessly depict civil-liberties advocates as weak-kneed fools who are putting American lives at risk.

Second, individual issues in the debate over detention policy are often framed in stark and incompatible terms. Take, for example, the Guantanamo detainees, who are portrayed in some quarters as innocent bystanders to the last man and in other quarters as the “worst of the worst.” While both extremes are misleading, their influence is pervasive.

True enough. A reasonable middle position? Give the detainees trials in which they can individually prove their guilt or innocence. Surely they aren’t all guilty, and I don’t believe I’ve ever seen anyone claim that they are all innocent, either. The truth really is somewhere in between, and it just so happens that we already have a mechanism for sorting out muddled cases like these.

‘We Don’t Put Our First Amendment Rights In the Hands of FEC Bureaucrats’

I (and several colleagues) have blogged before about Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, the latest campaign finance case, which was argued this morning at the Supreme Court.  The case is about much more than whether a corporation can release a movie about a political candidate during an election campaign.  Indeed, it goes to the very heart of the First Amendment, which was specifically created to protect political speech—the kind most in danger of being censored by politicians looking to limit the appeal of threatening candidates and ideas.

After all, hard-hitting political speech is something the First Amendment’s authors experienced firsthand.  They knew very well what they were doing in choosing free and vigorous debate over government-filtered pablum.  Moreover, persons of modest means often pool their resources to speak through ideological associations like Citizens United.  That speech too should not be silenced because of nebulous concerns about “level playing fields” and speculation over the “appearance of corruption.”  The First Amendment simply does not permit the government to handicap speakers based on their wealth, or ration speech in a quixotic attempt to equalize public debate: Thankfully, we do not live in the world of Kurt Vonnegut’s Harrison Bergeron!

A few surprises came out of today’s hearing, but not regarding the ultimate outcome of this case.  It is now starkly clear that the Court will rule 5-4 to strike down the FEC’s attempt to regulate the Hillary Clinton movie (and advertisements for it). Indeed, Solicitor General Elena Kagan – in her inaugural argument in any court – all but conceded that independent movies are not electioneering communications subject to campaign finance laws.  And she reversed the government’s earlier position that even books could be banned if they expressly supported or opposed a candidate!  (She went on to also reverse the government’s position on two other key points: whether nonprofit corporations (and perhaps small enterprises) could be treated differently than large for-profit business, and what the government’s compelling interest was in prohibiting corporations from using general treasury funds on independent political speech.)

Ted Olson, arguing for Citizens United, quickly recognized that he had his five votes, and so pushed for a broader opinion.  That is, the larger – and more interesting – question is whether the Court will throw out altogether its 16-year-old proscription on corporations and unions spending their general treasury funds on political speech.  Given the vehement opposition to campaign finance laws often expressed by Justices Scalia, Kennedy, and Thomas, all eyes were on Chief Justice Roberts and Justice Alito, in whose jurisprudence some have seen signs of judicial “minimalism.”  The Chief Justice’s hostility to the government’s argument – “we don’t put our First Amendment rights in the hands of FEC bureaucrats” – and Justice Alito’s skepticism about the weight of the two precedents at issue leads me to believe that there’s a strong likelihood we’ll have a decision that sweeps aside yet another cornerstone of the speech-restricting campaign finance regime.

One other thing to note: Justice Sotomayor, participating in her first argument since joining the Court, indicated three things: 1) she has doubts that corporations have the same First Amendment rights as individuals; 2) she believes strongly in stare decisis, even when a constitutional decision might be wrong; and 3) she cares a lot about deferring to the “democratic process.”  While it is still much too early to be making generalizations about how she’ll behave now that she doesn’t answer to a higher Court, these three points suggest that she won’t be a big friend of liberty in the face of government “reform.”

Another (less serious) thing to note: My seat – in the last row of the Supreme Court bar members area – was almost directly in front of Senators John McCain and Russ Feingold (who were seated in the first row of the public gallery).  I didn’t notice this until everyone rose to leave, or I would’ve tried to gauge their reaction to certain parts of the argument.

Finally, you can find the briefs Cato has filed in the case here and here.

Citizens United and Supreme Court Precedent

My old friend E. J. Dionne of the Washington Post writes that the Citizens United v. FEC rehearing on Wednesday is “A Test Case for Roberts.” Because, you see, Chief Justice John Roberts said in his confirmation hearings that “it is a jolt to the legal system when you overrule a precedent. Precedent plays an important role in promoting stability and evenhandedness. It is not enough – and the court has emphasized this on several occasions – it is not enough that you may think the prior decision was wrongly decided.”

Dionne says that if Roberts and the Court overturn the precedents that seem to point to banning a movie with a political agenda because it was produced by a nonprofit corporation, “he will unleash havoc in our political system and greatly undermine the legitimacy of the court he leads.”

I disagree with Dionne on the scope of the First Amendment’s protection of free speech. But I sort of admire him for staking out such a strong stand in favor of precedent and “settled expectations.” After all, a firm commitment to precedent can lead to some uncomfortable positions. Given the firmness of Dionne’s reliance on the importance of precedent and “settled expectations” to “the legitimacy of the court,” I assume he has opposed previous cases where the Court overturned settled law and its own precedent. Such as Brown v. Board of Education, which overturned a 58-year-old case, Plessy v. Ferguson. And Lawrence v. Texas, which overturned a 17-year-old precedent that had upheld state sodomy laws.

Or surely he does not mean that only precedents he approves of are deserving of respect and vital to the legitimacy of the court?

Reviving the First Amendment

The U.S. Supreme Court hears arguments this week in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission.  The case features the Federal Election Commission ruling that for the group Citizens United to run its documentary on Hillary Clinton would violate McCain-Feingold.  The decision was a constitutional travesty, since this is precisely the sort of political speech that constitutes the core of the First Amendment.

Theodore B. Olson has given us a taste in the Wall Street Journal of the argument that he will be making before the Court tomorrow:

The idea that corporate and union speech is somehow inherently corrupting is nonsense. Most corporations are small businesses, and they have every right to speak out when a candidate threatens the welfare of their employees or shareholders.

Time after time the Supreme Court has recognized that corporations enjoy full First Amendment protections. One of the most revered First Amendment precedents is New York Times v. Sullivan (1964), which afforded publishers important constitutional safeguards in libel cases. Any decision that determines that corporations have less protection than individuals under the First Amendment would threaten the very institutions we depend upon to keep us informed. This may be why Citizens United is supported by such diverse allies as the ACLU, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the AFL-CIO, the National Rifle Association and the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press.

Persons of modest means often band together to speak through ideological corporations. That speech may not be silenced because of speculation that a few large entities might speak too loudly, or because some corporations may earn large profits. The First Amendment does not permit the government to handicap speakers based on their wealth, or ration speech in order somehow to equalize participation in public debate.

Tomorrow’s case is not about Citizens United. It is about the rights of all persons—individuals, associations, corporations and unions—to speak freely. And it is about our right to hear those voices and to judge for ourselves who has the soundest message.

Medium Tobacco Fights Back

The New York Times has an editorial today titled “Big Tobacco Fights Back,” criticizing tobacco companies’ lawsuit against new advertising restrictions. Repeatedly, the Times attributes the lawsuit to “the [tobacco] industry.”

But as my former Cato colleague Jacob Grier notes, the biggest tobacco company (Philip Morris) is on the Times’s side in opposing the lawsuit. So wouldn’t it make more sense to title the editorial “Medium-Size Tobacco Fights Back”?