Quotulatiousness

November 18, 2016

QotD: The delicate nature of the United States Supreme Court

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

This is first-class flummery: What they really mean is that they will be very angry at the Supreme Court if the case goes against them. This is completely true. It is not completely true that the Supreme Court will somehow destroy itself, or its place in American society, if it offers a ruling that American liberals don’t like. I realize that it may feel this way if you are an American liberal. But if the institution survived Roe v. Wade‘s “emanations and penumbras,” and the sudden discovery after a couple of centuries that capital punishment violated the Constitution, it can certainly survive a narrow statutory case that overturns a still-unpopular program.

To listen to most commentators, the legitimacy of the Supreme Court is a delicate flower. It blooms fiercely whenever the court does something they like — stand by for sonorous pronouncements from these same illegitimacy-mongers that “the highest court in the land has spoken” should the court rule in favor of gay marriage this term. But if it issues a single ruling that they don’t like, then it is a despotic institution mired in bad ideology. These things obviously cannot both be true. If the Supreme Court loses its legitimacy, then its rulings about gay marriage and civil liberties will be exactly as illegitimate as its rulings about Obamacare and the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.

In fact, all these rulings are well within the scope of a perfectly legitimate court. I may disagree with some of them — hell, I’m still mad about Wickard v. Filburn. But the Constitution and 200 years of legal precedent give the court the power to make these rulings. And frankly, the biggest threat to democracy is not the court; it is commentators declaring that they’re going to take their ball and go home if the institution starts producing rulings they don’t like. Democracy can survive badly reasoned court rulings. It cannot survive a polity, or a policy elite, that thinks support for our institutions is optional, to be withdrawn should the court have the audacity, the sheer unmitigated gall, to stymie that elite’s agenda.

Megan McArdle, “Obamacare Will Not Kill the Supreme Court”, Bloomberg View, 2015-03-04.

November 13, 2016

“All it would take would be a repudiation of Wickard v Filburn…”

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

Ed Morrissey on the strange new respect being shown on the left to the concept of checks and balances in the US federal system:

For the past six years, the media has lionized Barack Obama for his increasing autocratic acts in pushing executive power to its limits — or past them — rather than compromise with Republicans in control of Congress. “I’ve got a pen, and I’ve got a phone,” Obama declared, “and I can use that pen to sign executive orders and take executive actions and administrative actions.” Despite serious rebukes by courts over his attempts to bypass the Senate on recess appointments and flat-out violate the law on immigration, the media has always cast Republicans as villains for frustrating Obama’s agenda rather than focus on his abuses of executive authority.

Suddenly, though, an epiphany has begun to dawn on the media. Pens and phones are old and busted, and checks and balances are the new hotness. […]

Under a true federalist system, Californians could run their own state, as could Coloradans, Minnesotans, and also Texans, Floridians, New Yorkers, and, er … whatever people from Wisconsin call themselves. All it would take would be a repudiation of Wickard v Filburn to reduce federal authority over economic activity to commerce that actually takes place across state lines. Each state could have their own EPA, if they desire it, and maintain their own land in the manner they see fit.

In such a system, the authority of the president would greatly diminish on domestic affairs, allowing voters to consider candidates for such a position based on issues such as diplomacy and national defense rather than which of the two will be the biggest busybodies. Rather than trying to run a nanny state and failing as miserably as F. A. Hayek predicted, Congress could focus on a much narrower range of tasks and do those well. Most importantly, states could keep much of the revenue pouring into Washington and provide a lot more effective accountability over its use.

Does that appeal to all the special snowflakes looking for safe space in the Age of Trump, and to all of those protesting because they just found out what it feels like to lose an election? Sound like a novel idea that could shield you from the potential side effects of a presidential election? Well, then congratulations — you are well on your way to becoming a conservative, or perhaps a libertarian. Feel free to ask us about the principles that we have (imperfectly to be sure) espoused all along while Barack Obama set all the precedents that Donald Trump will expand to your detriment. We’ll try not to snicker when explaining them to you … much, anyway.

November 12, 2016

David Warren’s election postmortem

Filed under: Humour, Politics, USA — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 03:00

Unusually for David, he’s resorted to a numbered list this time:

1. How easily the college-educated go barking mad.

2. The most reliable “safe space” is a padded cell. The least reliable ought to be on campus.

3. The new administration might want to consider “transitioning” several Ivy League universities into mental homes to serve an urgent public need.

4. If you think Trump is bad, you should read some history. It wouldn’t take much. His views, in the main (as stated, not as falsely attributed), would have passed as middle-of-the-road liberal about one generation ago. On many of the issues, Trump is farther Left. By traditional standards for despots and demagogues, he strikes me as fey.

5. Which is why I despise him. I didn’t like liberal mediocrities then, and I don’t like them now.

6. On the specific question of his taste in fixtures and furnishings (including likely cabinet choices), we must be firm. On the basis of his Manhattan apartment alone, I’d be inclined to appoint a Special Prosecutor.

7. I will hope he is sufficiently Machiavellian to nominate Ted Cruz for the Scalia vacancy on the Supreme Court.

8. And then he could make a personal appearance there, shouting and waving his little hands. That could create three more vacancies.

9. Melania and Michelle should do a sitcom together. (“Transition Team.”)

10. As of three-thirty a.m. the night before last, I achieved a state of happiness I had not enjoyed for a long time. And this was with the help of only one (1) 750mL bottle of strong Belgian monastic ale. (Chimay, the red label, from the Pères Trappistes of Scourmont.) As I have indicated, I do not much care for that Donald fellow. But the defeat of Hillary was exhilarating.

October 13, 2016

QotD: Libertarian constitutionalism

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

Libertarian constitutional thought is a distinctly minority position among scholars and jurists, one that at first glance has little connection with either modern Supreme Court jurisprudence or the liberalism that remains dominant in the legal academy. However, libertarian ideas have more in common with mainstream constitutional thought than at first meets the eye. They have also had greater influence on it.

This article explores the connections between mainstream and libertarian constitutional thought in recent decades. On a number of important issues, modern Supreme Court doctrine and liberal constitutional thought has been significantly influenced by pre-New Deal libertarian ideas, even if the influence is often unconscious or unacknowledged. This is particularly true on issues of equal protection doctrine and modern “substantive” due process as it pertains to “noneconomic” rights. Here, both the Supreme Court and much of the mainstream academic left have repudiated early twentieth century Progressivism, which advocated across-the-board judicial deference to legislatures. They have also rejected efforts to eliminate common law and free market “baselines” for constitutional rights.

The gap between libertarian and mainstream constitutional thought is much greater on issues of federalism and property rights. Here too, however, recent decades have seen significant convergence. Over the last thirty years, the Supreme Court has begun to take federalism and property rights more seriously, and the idea that they should get strong judicial protection has attained greater intellectual respectability. Moreover, much of libertarian constitutional thought merely seeks to apply to federalism, property rights, and economic liberties, the same principles that mainstream jurists and legal scholars have applied in other areas, most notably “noneconomic” constitutional rights and separation of powers.

Ilya Somin and David Bernstein, abstract to “The Mainstreaming of Libertarian Constitutionalism” in Law and Contemporary Problems, reposted in the Washington Post, 2015-02-20.

September 22, 2016

Arizona’s law to effectively criminalize parenting survives state supreme court scrutiny

Filed under: Law, USA — Tags: , , , , , — Nicholas @ 02:00

If anything could symbolize the Crazy Years, this (insane) Arizona law certainly qualifies:

The Legislature passed laws ostensibly designed to punish child molesters, but apparently forgot to make sexual intent a requisite element of molestation.

As Slate legal writer Mark Joseph Stern notes, the laws prohibit any person from “intentionally or knowingly” touching “any part of the genitals, anus or female breast” for anyone under 15. That’s it:

    Indeed, read literally, the statutes would seem to prohibit parents from changing their child’s diaper. And the measures forbid both “direct and indirect touching,” meaning parents cannot even bathe their child without becoming sexual abusers under the law.

In response to a legal challenge by a man convicted of molestation because of the Legislature’s idiocy, three of five judges ruled there was no ambiguity in the law. They declined to

    rewrite the statutes to require the state to prove sexual motivation, when the statutes clearly contain no such requirement.

There’s some interesting discussion between the majority and minority over whether the law is nonetheless unconstitutional, even if it’s not ambiguous. The minority, per Stern:

    No one thinks that the legislature really intended to criminalize every knowing or intentional act of touching a child in the prohibited areas. Reading the statutes as doing so creates a constitutional vagueness problem, as it would mean both that people do not have fair notice of what is actually prohibited and that the laws do not adequately constrain prosecutorial discretion.

This terrible bit of legislative farce is actually a symptom of a much wider problem:

Let’s not forget, however, that if the Legislature had taken its job seriously and crafted legislative language that passed the laugh test, Arizona parents wouldn’t be in this position.

Lawmakers have gotten a little too comfortable in trusting that they can pass any idiotic law – perhaps to sate their rabid, ignorant constituents – and judges will save them from the consequences.

Then they can rail against “judicial activism” and get re-elected. It’s a perfect scheme.

If more judges were to let lawmakers suffer the consequences of their foolishness, perhaps voters would sober up and stop demanding the most draconian, unjust, utterly pointless measures against sexual offenses, real or perceived.

June 1, 2016

The “Trump as scary autocrat” scenario

Filed under: History, Politics, USA — Tags: , , , — Nicholas @ 02:00

Last week, Megan McArdle responded to a “my hair is on fire” diatribe from The New Yorker about a Donald Trump presidency being the end of America as we know it. She’s not convinced:

There are two stages to becoming a scary autocrat. First, you have to get into a position to seize power. The most traditional routes are the military (a task for which Donald Trump’s bone spurs left him tragically disqualified), or winning elected office to abolish or corrupt the electoral process. The former route has its risks, but once you’ve safely arrived in the presidential palace, it’s pretty easy to dispense with democracy, since you have all the guns. The latter route means you need the rest of government, including all the folks with guns, to go along with you.

This certainly does happen, even in countries that have been practicing democracies for a while. But it’s by no means a given. Franklin D. Roosevelt took a certain amount of constitutional liberty with his wackier notions, and when the courts pushed back, he hit on the scary idea of basically throwing out some Supreme Court justices and replacing them with others who would rubber-stamp his policies. (The phrasing was nicer than that, but this was the basic idea, and just the sort of first step that dictators like to take toward cementing themselves as Autocrat for Life). FDR’s own party rebelled, but the Supreme Court began cooperating, too.

There were also civil liberties violations under FDR, notably the internment of the West Coast Japanese population. But while these were appalling abuses, and a stain on the national honor, they are within the (unfortunately) normal range of government behavior in your ordinary, middling-decent democracy of the era.

So the question is not just whether Trump wants to be a dictator, but what the other branches of government will do if he tries to actually become one. I don’t just mean Congress and the courts; I mean “will the bureaucrats of the civil service follow his orders, and will the people with guns agree to go out and arrest his enemies?”

There’s clearly a portion of the electorate that thrills to the more authoritarian and violent parts of his message, and presumably some of those folks are in the military and the civil service. But I’m still fairly confident that the FBI is not, say, going to start tapping journalists’ phones to find out if they’re making fun of President Trump’s comb-over, or disappearing the ones who do.

I worry more about Silvio Berlusconi-style corruption and abuse of regulatory agencies, an impulsive foreign policy that could lead us into open conflict with a nuclear-armed power, and executive-power overreach. I also worry about simple incompetence, given how uninterested Trump seems to be in policy. All-out dictatorship is pretty low on the list, because American institutions do not seem weak enough to allow it.

May 20, 2016

QotD: The law and the US constitution

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

Laws are no longer made by a rational process of public discussion; they are made by a process of blackmail and intimidation, and they are executed in the same manner. The typical lawmaker of today is a man wholly devoid of principle — a mere counter in a grotesque and knavish game. If the right pressure could be applied to him, he would be cheerfully in favor of polygamy, astrology or cannibalism.

It is the aim of the Bill of Rights, if it has any remaining aim at all, to curb such prehensile gentry. Its function is to set a limitation upon their power to harry and oppress us to their own private profit. The Fathers, in framing it, did not have powerful minorities in mind; what they sought to hobble was simply the majority. But that is a detail. The important thing is that the Bill of Rights sets forth, in the plainest of plain language, the limits beyond which even legislatures may not go. The Supreme Court, in Marbury v. Madison, decided that it was bound to execute that intent, and for a hundred years that doctrine remained the corner-stone of American constitutional law.

H.L. Mencken, The American Mercury, 1930-05.

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.

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