November 14, 2015

The US government has morphed from being part of “us” to being “them”

Filed under: Bureaucracy, Government, History, Liberty, USA — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas @ 04:00

Charles Murray explains why so many Americans are feeling alienated from their own government:

I have been led to this position by what I believe to be a truth about where America stands: The federal government is no longer “us” but “them.” It is no longer an extension of the people through their elected representatives. It is no longer a republican bulwark against the arbitrary use of power. It has become an entity unto itself, separated from the American people and beyond the effective control of the political process. In this situation, the foundational principles of our nation come into play: The government does not command the blind allegiance of the citizenry. Government is instituted to protect our unalienable rights. The more destructive it becomes of those rights, the less it can call upon our allegiance.

I won’t try to lay out the whole case for concluding that our duty of allegiance has been radically diminished — that takes a few hundred pages. But let me summarize the ways in which the federal government has not simply become bigger and more intrusive since Bill Buckley founded National Review, but has also become “them,” and no longer an extension of “us.”


In 1937, Helvering v. Davis explicitly held that the federal government could spend money on the “general welfare,” establishing that the government’s powers were not limited to those enumerated in the Constitution. In 1938, Carolene Products did what the Ninth Amendment had been intended to prevent — it limited the rights of the American people to those that were explicitly mentioned in the Constitution and its amendments. Making matters worse, the Court also limited the circumstances under which it would protect even those explicitly named rights. In 1942, Wickard v. Filburn completed the reinterpretation of “commerce” so that the commerce clause became, in the words of federal judge Alex Kozinski, the “Hey, you can do anything you feel like” clause.

Momentous as these decisions were, they were arguably not as crucial to the evolution of the federal government from “us” to “them” as the decisions that led to the regulatory state. Until the 1930s, a body of jurisprudence known as the “nondelegation doctrine” had put strict limits on how much power Congress could delegate to the executive branch. The agencies of the executive branch obviously had to be given some latitude to interpret the text of legislation, but Congress was required to specify an “intelligible principle” whenever it passed a law that gave the executive branch a new task. In 1943, National Broadcasting Co. v. United States dispensed with that requirement, holding that it was okay for Congress to tell the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to write regulations for allocating radio licenses “as public convenience, interest, or necessity requires” — an undefined, and hence unintelligible, principle. And so we now live in a world in which Congress passes laws with grandiose goals, loosely defined, and delegates responsibility for interpreting those goals exclusively to regulatory agencies that have no accountability to the citizenry and only limited accountability to the president of the United States.

The de facto legislative power delegated to regulatory agencies is only one aspect of their illegitimacy. Citizens who have not been hit with an accusation of a violation may not realize how Orwellian the regulatory state has become. If you run afoul of an agency such as the FCC and want to defend yourself, you don’t go to a regular court. You go to an administrative court run by the agency. You don’t get a jury. The case is decided by an administrative judge who is an employee of the agency. You do not need to be found guilty beyond a reasonable doubt, but rather by the loosest of all legal standards, a preponderance of the evidence. The regulatory agency is also free of many of the rules that constrain police and prosecutors in the normal legal system. For example, regulatory agencies are not required to show probable cause for getting a search warrant. A regulatory agency can inspect a property or place of business under broad conditions that it has set for itself.

There’s much more, but it amounts to this: Regulatory agencies, or the regulatory divisions within cabinet agencies, operate as self-contained entities that create de facto laws that Congress would never have passed on an up-or-down vote. They then act as both police and judge in enforcing the laws they have created. It amounts to an extra-legal state within the state.

I have focused on the regulatory state because it now looms so large in daily life as to have provoked a reaction that crosses political divides: American government isn’t supposed to work this way.

November 5, 2015

The high-church organic movement is feeling under threat

Filed under: Business, Environment, Health, Media, Politics, USA — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas @ 02:00

Henry I. Miller & Julie Kelly on the less-than-certain future of the organic farming community:

The organic-products industry, which has been on a tear for the past decade, is running scared. Challenged by progress in modern genetic engineering and state-of-the-art pesticides — which are denied to organic farmers — the organic movement is ratcheting up its rhetoric and bolstering its anti-innovation agenda while trying to expand a consumer base that shows signs of hitting the wall.

Genetic-engineering-labeling referendums funded by the organic industry failed last year in Colorado and Oregon, following similar defeats in California and Washington. Even worse for the industry, a recent Supreme Court decision appears to proscribe on First Amendment grounds the kind of labeling they want. A June 2015 Supreme Court decision has cleared a judicial path to challenge the constitutionality of special labeling — “compelled commercial speech” — to identify foods that contain genetically engineered (sometimes called “genetically modified”) ingredients. The essence of the decision is the expansion of the range of regulations subject to “strict scrutiny,” the most rigorous standard of review for constitutionality, to include special labeling laws.


Organic agriculture has become a kind of Dr. Frankenstein’s monster, a far cry from what was intended: “Let me be clear about one thing, the organic label is a marketing tool,” said then secretary of agriculture Dan Glickman when organic certification was being considered. “It is not a statement about food safety. Nor is ‘organic’ a value judgment about nutrition or quality.” That quote from Secretary Glickman should have to be displayed prominently in every establishment that sells organic products.

The backstory here is that in spite of its “good vibes,” organic farming is an affront to the environment — hugely wasteful of arable land and water because of its low yields. Plant pathologist Dr. Steve Savage recently analyzed the data from USDA’s 2014 Organic Survey, which reports various measures of productivity from most of the certified-organic farms in the nation, and compared them to those at conventional farms, crop by crop, state by state. His findings are extraordinary. Of the 68 crops surveyed, there was a “yield gap” — poorer performance of organic farms — in 59. And many of those gaps, or shortfalls, were impressive: strawberries, 61 percent less than conventional; fresh tomatoes, 61 percent less; tangerines, 58 percent less; carrots, 49 percent less; cotton, 45 percent less; rice, 39 percent less; peanuts, 37 percent less.

July 30, 2015

Perfect political imagery – the Senate as “our great constitutional appendix”

Filed under: Cancon, Government, Politics — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas @ 05:00

Richard Anderson explains why unlike most mature countries, Canada is unable to amend the constitution:

The Senate is our great constitutional appendix. It gets a bit inflamed from time to time but, a hundred and fifty years in, we’ve generally come to the conclusion that it’s too much of a hassle to get rid of. In other countries, normal nation states, amending a constitution is just one of those things. There’s a convention, people argue about it and eventually some words get swapped in and out of the country’s basic law. The Americans might go so far as to fight a civil war over such things, but for most countries it’s routine stuff.

Having successfully avoided civil wars, insurrections, coup d’etats and other assorted public disturbances, the Canadian project has retained one bizarre character flaw: Our inability to amend the constitution in anything like a sensible manner. For those old enough to have lived through the constitutional wars of the 1970s and 1980s the very mention of the C-word induces terrible flashbacks. Sometimes when I close my eyes I can see Joe Clark talking about amending formulas. In those moments I question the existence of a merciful God.

The latest idea to drift out of the PMO is that Stephen Harper will stop appointing Senators. This is actually quite similar to how the PM approaches maintenance on 24 Sussex Drive. The official residence is almost as old as Canada itself. Unfortunately so is much of the plumbing. The building is literally falling to bits and requires millions in renovations. Being a politician first and a government tenant second, Stephen Harper knows that doing more than the bare minimum to keep up his Ottawa home will provoke shrieks of outrage from the Opposition. Only when the building finally collapses will anything really be done. And at three times the original price.

This same logic will now be applied to the Senate. The PM will stop appointing senators until there is no more Senate. Sounds neat, eh? Except that the Senate is ensconced into the bedrock of our constitutional order. If the number of living breathing Senators drops below quorum the Supreme Court, the real rulers of our fair Dominion, will order the PM to appoint more. Then the PM of the day, perhaps Mr Harper or Mr Mulcair, will shrug their shoulders and do as their bosses tell them.

The only way to get rid of the Senate is to amend the constitution. Like going to the dentist this would be both painful and expensive. Unlike going to the dentist it would also be interminable. Dentists, you see, have golf games. Constitutional lawyers don’t play golf. It would interrupt from their fascinating work of discussing whether or not the power of disallowance is genuinely obsolete. If you don’t understand what that means don’t worry neither do they.

June 30, 2015

The Supreme Court and the rule of law

Filed under: Law, Liberty, Politics, USA — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 04:00

At Ace of Spades H.Q., Weirddave explains why — even if you are in favour of Obamacare continuing in its current form — you should be worried that the United States Supreme Court made a huge mistake with the ruling that kept Obamacare alive:

… If it had gone the other way, God knows Congress would have fallen all over itself to to reinstate the subsidy. No, what was so gobsmackingly amazing about the decision was that it was justified on the basis of “intent”. 6 out of 9 justices ignored the black letter written word of law in favor of “intent”

So why is this important? Well, let’s start by asking a simple question: Why has the USA been so prosperous? Expand the scope of the question: Historically, why has the Anglosphere been so successful? If one views all of the countries in the Anglosphere as branches growing off of a British trunk, underneath all of them, providing sustenance and support is one common root:

Rule of Law

Rule of Law is a concept that goes back to Greco-Roman times and earlier. The Bible introduces some Deuteronomic provisions to constrain the king that are perhaps the earliest iterations of the concept. Plato advocated a benevolent monarchy, placing his hopes on the willingness of the king to obey the law, Aristotle firmly rebuked him for such a Utopian concept. Things really got rolling in 1215 with the Magna Carta which limited the power of King John to act unilaterally. Samuel Rutherford turned traditional wisdom on its head with Lex, Rex (“The law is king” as opposed to the traditional Rex, Lex, “The king is law”) Locke discussed the concept in great detail, and the Founding Fathers of the US kept the concept as their guiding star as they wrote the Constitution. In every case, as the concept evolved, society became more prosperous, more just and more stable.

And then along came John Roberts.

So what is Rule of Law? Simply put, Rule of Law means that the laws apply to everyone equally. A law is written. It says what it says, and everyone must obey it. No exceptions. The law applies to everyone, regardless of social status, political position, wealth, situation. The law says that one may not drive drunk. If someone is pulled over and they blow 1.5, it doesn’t matter if they were really sad because their grandfather just died, or if their mother ruled Bartertown. They broke the law, they are arrested and tried. (I do realize that real life isn’t quite as straightforward and often times position, power or wealth DO determine how laws are applied in individual cases, but we’re talking theory here). Rule of Law creates a level playing field for everyone.

Real life example: You want to set up a toilet paper factory. You can set it up in America, where a codified set of laws protects your property rights and sets legal limits on what the government can do to you, or you can set up shop in Venezuela where what you build belongs to a corrupt government and can be taken from you at anytime. Where do you build your factory?

Exactly, and that’s why Wal-Mart carries dozens of different types of toilet paper and they are wiping their asses with pine cones in Caracas.

June 22, 2015

Are software APIs covered by copyright?

Filed under: Business, Law, Technology — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 03:00

At Techdirt, Mike Masnick looks at a recent Supreme Court case that asks that very question:

The Obama administration made a really dangerous and ignorant argument to the Supreme Court yesterday, which could have an insanely damaging impact on innovation — and it appears to be because Solicitor General Donald Verrilli (yes, the MPAA’s old top lawyer) is absolutely clueless about some rather basic concepts concerning programming. That the government would file such an ignorant brief with the Supreme Court is profoundly embarrassing. It makes such basic technological and legal errors that it may be the epitome of government malfeasance in a legal issue.

We’ve written a few times about the important copyright question at the heart of the Oracle v. Google case (which started as a side show to the rest of the case): are software APIs covered by copyright. What’s kind of amazing is that the way you think about this issue seems to turn on a simple question: do you actually understand how programming and software work or not? If you don’t understand, then you think it’s obvious that APIs are covered by copyright. If you do understand, you recognize that APIs are more or less a recipe — instructions on how to connect — and thus you recognize how incredibly stupid it would be to claim that’s covered by copyright. Just as stupid as claiming that the layout of a program’s pulldown menus can be covered by copyright.

The judge in the district court, William Alsup, actually learned to code Java to help him better understand the issues. And then wrote such a detailed ruling on the issue that it seemed obvious that he was writing it for the judges who’d be handling the appeal, rather than for the parties in the case.

May 26, 2015

Ilya Somin’s new book on eminent domain

Filed under: Books, Law, Liberty, USA — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 04:00

The book is being published in time to mark the tenth anniversary of the Supreme Court’s dreadful Kelo decision:

My new book, The Grasping Hand: Kelo v. City of New London and the Limits of Eminent Domain is now in print. It is the first book about the Kelo decision and the massive political backlash it generated, written by a legal scholar. The Grasping Hand is coming out just in time for the tenth anniversary of Kelo on June 23.

Kelo-Book-Cover-Final-Version-e1432095413354Here is a summary from the University of Chicago Press website (the book is also co-published by the Cato Institute):

    In 2005, the Supreme Court ruled that the city of New London, Connecticut, could condemn fifteen residential properties in order to transfer them to a new private owner. Although the Fifth Amendment only permits the taking of private property for “public use,” the Court ruled that the transfer of condemned land to private parties for “economic development” is permitted by the Constitution – even if the government cannot prove that the expected development will ever actually happen. The Court’s decision in Kelo v. City of New London empowered the grasping hand of the state at the expense of the invisible hand of the market.

    In this detailed study of one of the most controversial Supreme Court cases in modern times, Ilya Somin argues that Kelo was a grave error. Economic development and “blight” condemnations are unconstitutional under both originalist and most “living constitution” theories of legal interpretation. They also victimize the poor and the politically weak for the benefit of powerful interest groups, and often destroy more economic value than they create. Kelo itself exemplifies these patterns. The residents targeted for condemnation lacked the influence needed to combat the formidable government and corporate interests arrayed against them. Moreover, the city’s poorly conceived development plan ultimately failed: the condemned land lies empty to this day, occupied only by feral cats.

    The Supreme Court’s unpopular ruling triggered an unprecedented political reaction, with forty-five states passing new laws intended to limit the use of eminent domain. But many of the new laws impose few or no genuine constraints on takings. The Kelo backlash led to significant progress, but not nearly as much as it may have seemed.

    Despite its outcome, the closely divided 5-4 ruling shattered what many believed to be a consensus that virtually any condemnation qualifies as a public use under the Fifth Amendment. It also showed that there is widespread public opposition to eminent domain abuse. With controversy over takings sure to continue, The Grasping Hand offers the first book-length analysis of Kelo by a legal scholar, alongside a broader history of the dispute over public use and eminent domain, and an evaluation of options for reform.

December 16, 2014

America’s “terribly warped justice system”

Filed under: Law, Liberty, USA — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas @ 00:03

Conrad Black talks (partly from first-hand experience) of how badly served the United States is by its justice system:

… everyone in the United States, from the president and the wealthiest and most admired citizens down, is, in some measure, a victim of this now terribly warped justice system. No one is safe and everyone pays for it. The legal cartel is riveted on the back of the country like a horse-leech and extracts $1.8 trillion a year from the American economy as the legislators and regulators add 4,000 new measures with weighty sanctions each year, for the delectation of their confrères at the bar. At any time, 1 percent of the entire adult population is incarcerated, at a cost of about $150 billion annually and usually in unconstitutionally inhuman conditions; another 6 or so percent of all adults, male and female, are awaiting conviction (99.5 percent of those tried are convicted, an absurdly implausible number rivaled only by North Korea) or are under supervised release by often pettifogging probation officers at further great cost to the country. There are 48 million convicted felons in the United States, and even if decades-old unstigmatizing offenses such as failing a breathalyzer or being disorderly at a fraternity party are omitted, this means that approximately 15 percent of American adult males are designated felons. This is an absurd and barbarous number achieved by equal-opportunity multi-ethnic injustice, albeit unevenly applied. It presents African Americans a chance to form an invincible coalition in whose victory they would be the principal winners.

Though evidence of police and prosecution abuse pours in through the media every week, the majority of Americans, personally unaffected by the failings of the system, complacently believes that they live in a society of laws envied by the world. Neither supposition is correct. The United States has six to twelve times as many incarcerated people per capita as other prosperous democracies: Australia, Canada, France, Germany, Japan, and the United Kingdom. This appalling state of affairs has developed gradually over the last 40 years, as the percentage of prosecutions resolved by (very often) abusive applications of the plea-bargain system without a trial has risen from about 80 (an unheard of number in other democratic countries) to 97. The percentage of incarcerated people among the population has multiplied by five in that time, so the U.S. today has 5 percent of the world’s people, but 25 percent of its incarcerated people (and 50 percent of its lawyers – counting only those countries in which a serious professional entry course is required to practice that occupation).

The Supreme Court has sat like a shelf of suet puddings while the criminal-justice system has become a conveyor belt to the country’s bloated and corrupt prison system, and lawyers have become an immense industry, hiding its avarice behind a fog of insipid pieties about the rule of law (which, as the phrase was meant by the authors of the Bill of Rights, can scarcely be said to exist in the U.S.). New York federal judge Jed S. Rakoff wrote in the New York Review of Books on November 20 that the traditional American notion of the day in court is “a mirage” because of the corruption of the plea-bargain system, in which inculpatory evidence is extorted from witnesses in exchange for immunity from prosecution, including for perjury. Every week there is some new exposé of horror stories of prosecutorial abuse, yet prosecutors enjoy an absolute immunity, even when it is revealed that they have committed crimes of obstruction of justice, as in the infamous Connick v. Thompson decision of 2011: An innocent man spent 14 years on death row because prosecutors willfully withheld DNA evidence they knew would, and ultimately did, acquit him; the U.S. Supreme Court narrowly overruled the damage award to the wrongfully convicted Mr. Thompson on a spurious technicality.

December 12, 2014

Supreme Court swings and misses on cellphone privacy ruling

Filed under: Cancon, Law, Liberty — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas @ 07:00

Michael Geist on the most recent Supreme Court of Canada ruling on the ability of the police to conduct warrantless searches of cellphones taken during an arrest:

The Supreme Court of Canada issued its decision in R. v. Fearon today, a case involving the legality of a warrantless cellphone search by police during an arrest. Given the court’s strong endorsement of privacy in recent cases such as Spencer, Vu, and Telus, this seemed like a slam dunk. Moreover, the U.S. Supreme Court’s June 2014 decision in Riley, which addressed similar issues and ruled that a warrant is needed to search a phone, further suggested that the court would continue its streak of pro-privacy decisions.

To the surprise of many, a divided court upheld the ability of police to search cellphones without a warrant incident to an arrest. The majority established some conditions, but ultimately ruled that it could navigate the privacy balance by establishing some safeguards with the practice. A strongly worded dissent disagreed, noting the privacy implications of access to cellphones and the need for judicial pre-authorization as the best method of addressing the privacy implications.

The majority, written by Justice Cromwell (joined by McLachlin, Moldaver, and Wagner), explicitly recognizes that cellphones are the functional equivalent of computers and that a search may constitute a significant intrusion of privacy. Yet the majority cautions that not every search is a significant intrusion. It ultimately concludes that there is the potential for a cellphone search to be intrusive, it does not believe that that will be the case in every instance.

Given that conclusion, it is prepared to permit cellphone searches that are incident to arrest provided that the law is modified with some additional protections against invasion of privacy. It proceeds to effectively write the law by creating four conditions: a lawful arrest, the search is incidental to the arrest with a valid law enforcement purpose, the search is tailored or limited to the purpose (i.e., limited to recent information), and police take detailed notes on what they have examined and how the phone was searched.

December 7, 2014

A Supreme Court decision that actually improved privacy rights for Canadians

Filed under: Cancon, Law, Liberty, Technology — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 12:08

The courts have far too often rolled over for any kind of police intrusions into the private lives of Canadians, but a decision from earlier this year has actually helped deter the RCMP from pursuing trivial or tangential inquiries into their online activity:

A funny thing happens when courts start requiring more information from law enforcement: law enforcers suddenly seem less interested in zealously enforcing the law.

Back in June of this year, Canada’s Supreme Court delivered its decision in R. v. Spencer, which brought law enforcement’s warrantless access of ISP subscriber info to an end.

    In a unanimous decision written by (Harper appointee) Justice Thomas Cromwell, the court issued a strong endorsement of Internet privacy, emphasizing the privacy importance of subscriber information, the right to anonymity, and the need for police to obtain a warrant for subscriber information except in exigent circumstances or under a reasonable law.

The effects of this ruling are beginning to be felt. Michael Geist points to a Winnipeg Free Press article that details the halcyon days of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police’s warrantless access.

    Prior to the court decision, the RCMP and border agency estimate, it took about five minutes to complete the less than one page of documentation needed to ask for subscriber information, and the company usually turned it over immediately or within one day.

Five minutes! Amazing. And disturbing. A 5-minute process indicates no one involved made even the slightest effort to prevent abuse of the process. The court’s decision has dialed back that pace considerably. The RCMP is now complaining that it takes “10 hours” to fill out the 10-20 pages required to obtain subscriber info. It’s also unhappy with the turnaround time, which went from nearly immediate to “up to 30 days.”

In response, the RCMP has done what other law enforcement agencies have done when encountering a bit of friction: given up.

    “Evidence is limited at this early stage, but some cases have already been abandoned by the RCMP as a result of not having enough information to get a production order to obtain (basic subscriber information),” the memo says.

July 14, 2014

When unions took over the public sector

Filed under: Bureaucracy, Business, Economics, Government, USA — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas @ 09:09

Dmitri Melhorn says the union movement is missing an opportunity to be more relevant in the private sector, because public sector unions don’t help poorer workers (because public sector union members are middle class professionals, not working class):

Progressive hostility to [Harris v. Quinn], however, is shortsighted. Harris and decisions like it have the potential to revitalize progressive politics by restoring the relevance and political potency that labor held in the early-to-mid-20th century. The great labor leaders of that era — AFL-CIO President George Meany, President Franklin D. Roosevelt, and the like — agreed with the majority in Harris: it was both impractical and inadvisable to afford public employees compulsory collective bargaining rights.

Roosevelt said that collective bargaining and public workers’ right to strike would be “unthinkable and intolerable.” Meany said it would be “impossible.” In the view of these leaders, civil service laws from the Progressive Era of the 1890s to 1920s had made government jobs good and safe. Labor and progressives, therefore, needed to focus on blue-collar workers’ need to fight collectively for basic safety, dignity and living wages. Through this focus, the United States saw historic gains in the well-being of workers and the country’s middle class.

That labor heyday lasted through the 1950s, but starting in the late 1960s labor lost ground. Public-sector unions grew rapidly, but private-sector unions shrank. By 2012, public-sector workers had union membership rates more than five times higher than rates among private-sector workers.

Essentially, the public-sector unions sucked up all the oxygen. Talented labor organizers opted to work with government workers: their members were relatively prosperous and well connected, so they were easy and lucrative to organize. As explained in Jake Rosenfeld’s book What Unions No Longer Do from earlier this year, this shift to public-sector unions meant that unions no longer fought primarily for the working poor. Instead, much of their muscle was devoted to improving the status of middle-class professionals.

July 5, 2014

So how would they react to a strong pro-liberty Supreme Court decision?

Filed under: Law, Liberty, USA — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 10:43

Shikha Dalmia says that the relatively mild pro-liberty decisions from the US Supreme Court in this session have driven progressives wild. It’s hard to justify going to DEFCON-5 over Hobby Lobby or Harris … isn’t it?

This week, the United States Supreme Court handed down two rulings that are a victory for the liberties of religion, speech, and association enshrined in the First Amendment. That ought to be cause for a double celebration on July 4. But instead, the rulings, issued on the narrowest possible grounds, constitute a victory so modest — and have elicited a response from the left so hysterical — that anyone serious about liberty can’t help but be a little depressed right now.

The case that has attracted disproportionate attention is informally known as Hobby Lobby, and it challenged ObamaCare’s contraceptive mandate. This mandate requires all for-profit companies to provide all 20 forms of birth control approved by the FDA, including pills and “abortifacients,” even though they violate the Christian (Assembly of God, to be precise) convictions of the owners of Hobby Lobby, an arts and crafts chain in Texas, who were willing to cover “only” 16.


None of this, however, prevented the left from throwing a collective hissy-fit. Social media erupted into tiresome taunts of fascism. Ann Friedman called the ruling a “blow to reproductive rights” that made her want to issue “an outraged scream, sort of a combination groan-wail…while beating my fists against the desk on either side of my laptop.” (Hey Ann, be careful: A new laptop will cost you several years’ of contraceptive pills. Generic versions sell at Costco for $25 a month.)

Such moral huffing and puffing was also on display in response to the Supreme Court’s ruling in Harris vs. Quinn. That case involved the right of family members of disabled loved ones to offer care without having their state aid garnished by public unions. Harris, a mom who was providing home care to her 25-year-old disabled son, had sued the state of Illinois for forcing her to pay dues to a government union.

But what in the name of Jimmy Hoffa does looking after her son have to do with the union?

Apparently, because she receives state subsidies for caring for her son, Illinois, along with a dozen other states, considers her a “home health care worker.” This means she must submit to the exclusive representation of a government union in collective bargaining negotiations — even though she supports neither the union nor its goals.

The Tsilhqot’in Nation and British Columbia, now with legal standing and everything

Filed under: Britain, Cancon, History, Law — Tags: , , — Nicholas @ 10:32

When I saw the initial reports on the Supreme Court’s decision in Tsilhqot’in Nation versus British Columbia it sounded like the Supremes were ordering the province to pack up and move out … that most (all?) of the land previously known as British Columbia was now to be handed back to the First Nations bands. I guess it’s not quite so apocalyptic, although it will complicate things. Colby Cosh talks about the historical record that informed the decision:

Like everyone else who has studied the Supreme Court’s dramatic decision in the case of Tsilhqot’in Nation v. British Columbia, my response largely amounts to “Well, sure.” “Tsilhqot’in” is the new accepted name of the small confederacy of B.C. Indian bands long called the Chilcotin in English. They live in a scarcely accessible part of the province, and one reason it is scarcely accessible is that the Chilcotin prefer it that way. In 1864, they fought a brief  “war” against white road builders, killing a dozen or so. The leaders of the uprising were inveigled into surrendering and appearing before the “Hanging Judge,” Matthew Begbie. True to his nickname, he executed five of the rebels. But that road never got finished.

In most of Canada, occupancy by “settlers” whose ancestors arrived after Columbus has been formally arranged under explicit treaties. There is a lot of arguing going on about the interpretation of these treaties. But, broadly speaking, most of us white folks outside B.C. have permission to be here. Our arrival, our multiplication and the supremacy of our legal system were all explicitly foreseen and consented to by representatives of the land’s Aboriginal occupants. The European signatories of those treaties recognized that First Nations had some sort of property right whose extinction needed to be negotiated.

Oddly, this concept was clearer to imperial authorities in the 18th and early 19th centuries than to those who came later. The Royal Proclamation of 1763, for instance, recognized the right of Indians to dispose of their own lands only when they saw fit. By the time mass colonization was under way in British Columbia, the men in charge on the scene had absorbed different ideas. Concepts of racial struggle were in vogue, and so were straitlaced, monolithic models of human progress.

And the problems going forward?

The biggest problem for large infrastructure projects in the B.C. Interior may not be the collective nature of “Aboriginal title” alone, but the fact that it is restricted in a way ordinary property ownership isn’t. “It is collective title,” writes the chief justice, “held not only for the present generation but for all succeeding generations. This means it cannot be alienated except to the Crown, or encumbered in ways that would prevent future generations of the group from using and enjoying it.” The special category of legal title devised for First Nations turns out to have a downside: Even completely unanimous approval of some land use by a band or nation may not suffice if people who do not yet exist are imagined disagreeing with it. Would you care to own a car or a house on such terms?

Update, 11 July: Perhaps I spoke too soon that this ruling didn’t mean the non-First Nation inhabitants need to move out of the province.

British Columbia First Nations are wasting no time in enforcing their claim on traditional lands in light of a landmark Supreme Court of Canada decision recognizing aboriginal land title.

The hereditary chiefs of the Gitxsan First Nations served notice Thursday to CN Rail, logging companies and sport fishermen to leave their territory along the Skeena River in a dispute with the federal and provincial governments over treaty talks.

And the Gitxaala First Nation, with territory on islands off the North Coast, announced plan to file a lawsuit in the Federal Court of Appeal on Friday challenging Ottawa’s recent approval of the Northern Gateway pipeline from Alberta.

The Kwikwetlem First Nation also added its voice to the growing list, claiming title to all lands associated with now-closed Riverview Hospital in Metro Vancouver along with other areas of its traditional territory.

They cite the recent high court ruling in Tsilhqot’in v. British Columbia.


In the short term, the ruling will impact treaty negotiations and development in the westernmost province, where there are few historic or modern treaties and where 200 plus aboriginal bands have overlapping claims accounting for every square metre of land and then some.

“Over the longer term, it will result in an environment of uncertainty for all current and future economic development projects that may end up being recognized as on aboriginal title lands,” wrote analyst Ravina Bains.

June 17, 2014

BC supreme court attempts to extend jurisdiction over Google’s global services

Filed under: Cancon, Law, Liberty, Media, Technology — Tags: , , , , , — Nicholas @ 08:10

Michael Geist talks about another court attempting to push local rules into other jurisdictions online — in this case it’s not the European “right to be forgotten” nonsense, it’s unfortunately a Canadian court pulling the stunt:

In the aftermath of the European Court of Justice “right to be forgotten” decision, many asked whether a similar ruling could arise in Canada. While a privacy-related ruling has yet to hit Canada, last week the Supreme Court of British Columbia relied in part on the decision in issuing an unprecedented order requiring Google to remove websites from its global index. The ruling in Equustek Solutions Inc. v. Jack is unusual since its reach extends far beyond Canada. Rather than ordering the company to remove certain links from the search results available through Google.ca, the order intentionally targets the entire database, requiring the company to ensure that no one, anywhere in the world, can see the search results. Note that this differs from the European right to be forgotten ruling, which is limited to Europe.

The implications are enormous since if a Canadian court has the power to limit access to information for the globe, presumably other courts would as well. While the court does not grapple with this possibility, what happens if a Russian court orders Google to remove gay and lesbian sites from its database? Or if Iran orders it remove Israeli sites from the database? The possibilities are endless since local rules of freedom of expression often differ from country to country. Yet the B.C. court adopts the view that it can issue an order with global effect. Its reasoning is very weak, concluding that:

    the injunction would compel Google to take steps in California or the state in which its search engine is controlled, and would not therefore direct that steps be taken around the world. That the effect of the injunction could reach beyond one state is a separate issue.

Unfortunately, it does not engage effectively with this “separate issue.”

June 13, 2014

Supreme Court rules unanimously in favour of internet privacy

Filed under: Cancon, Law, Liberty, Technology — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas @ 13:11

Some great news on the privacy front, this time a decision handed down by the Supreme Court of Canada, as reported by Michael Geist:

This morning another voice entered the discussion and completely changed the debate. The Supreme Court of Canada issued its long-awaited R. v. Spencer decision, which examined the legality of voluntary warrantless disclosure of basic subscriber information to law enforcement. In a unanimous decision written by (Harper appointee) Justice Thomas Cromwell, the court issued a strong endorsement of Internet privacy, emphasizing the privacy importance of subscriber information, the right to anonymity, and the need for police to obtain a warrant for subscriber information except in exigent circumstances or under a reasonable law.

I discuss the implications below, but first some of the key findings. First, the Court recognizes that there is a privacy interest in subscriber information. While the government has consistently sought to downplay that interest, the court finds that the information is much more than a simple name and address, particular in the context of the Internet. As the court states:

    the Internet has exponentially increased both the quality and quantity of information that is stored about Internet users. Browsing logs, for example, may provide detailed information about users’ interests. Search engines may gather records of users’ search terms. Advertisers may track their users across networks of websites, gathering an overview of their interests and concerns. “Cookies” may be used to track consumer habits and may provide information about the options selected within a website, which web pages were visited before and after the visit to the host website and any other personal information provided. The user cannot fully control or even necessarily be aware of who may observe a pattern of online activity, but by remaining anonymous – by guarding the link between the information and the identity of the person to whom it relates – the user can in large measure be assured that the activity remains private.

Given all of this information, the privacy interest is about much more than just name and address.

Second, the court expands our understanding of informational privacy, concluding that there three conceptually distinct issues: privacy as secrecy, privacy as control, and privacy as anonymity. It is anonymity that is particularly notable as the court recognizes its importance within the context of Internet usage. Given the importance of the information and the ability to link anonymous Internet activities with an identifiable person, a high level of informational privacy is at stake.

Third, not only is there a significant privacy interest, but there is also a reasonable expectation of privacy by the user. The court examines both PIPEDA and the Shaw terms of use (the ISP in this case) and concludes that PIPEDA must surely be understood within the context of protecting privacy (not opening the door to greater disclosures) and that the ISP agreement was confusing at best and may support the expectation of privacy. With those findings in mind:

    in the totality of the circumstances of this case, there is a reasonable expectation of privacy in the subscriber information. The disclosure of this information will often amount to the identification of a user with intimate or sensitive activities being carried out online, usually on the understanding that these activities would be anonymous. A request by a police officer that an ISP voluntarily disclose such information amounts to a search.

Fourth, having concluded that obtaining subscriber information was a search with a reasonable expectation of privacy, the information was unconstitutionally obtained therefore led to an unlawful search. Addressing the impact of the PIPEDA voluntary disclosure clause, the court notes:

    Since in the circumstances of this case the police do not have the power to conduct a search for subscriber information in the absence of exigent circumstances or a reasonable law, I do not see how they could gain a new search power through the combination of a declaratory provision and a provision enacted to promote the protection of personal information.

Update, 7 July: A few weeks later, the US Supreme Court also made a strong pro-privacy ruling, this one mandating a warrant for police to search the contents of a cellphone.

Politico‘s Josh Gerstein has more on the ruling in in Riley v. California:

The Supreme Court’s blunt and unequivocal decision Wednesday giving Americans strong protection against arrest-related searches of their cell phones could also give a boost to lawsuits challenging the National Security Agency’s vast collection of phone call data.

Chief Justice John Roberts’s 28-page paean to digital privacy was like music to the ears of critics of the NSA’s metadata program, which sweeps up details on billions of calls and searches them for possible links to terrorist plots.

“This is a remarkably strong affirmation of privacy rights in a digital age,” said Marc Rotenberg of the Electronic Privacy Information Center. “The court found that digital data is different and that has constitutional significance, particularly in the realm of [the] Fourth Amendment…I think it also signals the end of the NSA program.”

Roberts’s opinion is replete with rhetoric warning about the privacy implications of access to data in individuals’ smart phones, including call logs, Web search records and location information. Many of the arguments parallel, or are virtually identical to, the ones privacy advocates have made about the dangers inherent in the NSA’s call metadata program.

May 22, 2014

Dickens 2.0 – debt prisons of the 21st century

Filed under: Law, USA — Tags: , , , , — Nicholas @ 00:01

At Outside the Beltway, James Joyner calls attention to the widespread practice of sending minor offenders to prison for failing to pay minor fines:

NPR’s “Morning Edition” has been running a series called “Guilty and Charged,” chronicling the plight of Americans forced to go to jail because they’re unable to pay the court fees and fines associated with very minor infractions. The Supreme Court ostensibly outlawed the practice three decades ago but left the determination as to whether defendants are truly to poor to pay or simply unwilling to trial court judges. Not shockingly, perhaps, they almost invariably presume the latter.

You can listen to Tuesday’s segment, “Unpaid Court Fees Land The Poor In 21st Century Debtors’ Prisons,” at the link. Unfortunately, they only have the audio and not a transcription. Aside from what I’ve already written in the introduction above, what really stood out to me was the sheer contempt judges displayed to indigent defendants. Despite being highly educated professionals supposedly trained in the law and selected for their ability to dispassionately way evidence and reach just results, those featured on the program were positively knee-jerk and sneering. It was as if they’d plucked some random yahoo from a Denny’s, dressed him in a black robe, and had him preside over the trial.

Today’s follow-up, “Supreme Court Ruling Not Enough To Prevent Debtors’ Prisons,” was if anything more infuriating. It dove deep into the case of Kyle Dewitt, an Iraq War vet who went to jail and got caught up in an unending series of problems with the law over catching the wrong species of bass at the wrong time of year.


I’ve long been of mind that we ought to do away with fines as a means of punishment altogether. Whether paying $150 for exceeding the speed limit (almost always some nominal fine for the offense and a much higher amount for “court costs,” owed even if one just mails in the fine and never goes to court) is a deterrent depends entirely on one’s financial circumstances. It was a big deal when I was in college; it’s a nuisance now. Further, those with the means will often spend far more than the fine plus court costs to hire an attorney to plead it to an offense that doesn’t come with points that go against their license or their insurance record. It’s incredibly inequitable.

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