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When agencies regulate in secret, none of us is safe

By JONATHAN WOODThe Hill

Imagine what it must feel like to have a government agent show up at your door, accuse you of violating some rule you’ve never heard of, and threaten you with massive fines and imprisonment if you don’t do what he says.

Wyoming’s Andy Johnson doesn’t have to imagine; he lived it. His alleged offense: he built a pond on his private property without begging D.C. bureaucrats’ permission first. Thankfully, two executive orders issued by President Trump last week aim to make this experience less common.

The focus of these executive orders is agency “guidance” — informal rules that regulate all of us without going through the normal rulemaking process. Before issuing a regulation, agencies are supposed to propose them publicly, explain their reasons, accept public comments and respond to those comments. Although no substitute for democratic accountability, this process at least ensures that Americans have an opportunity to learn about the rules being imposed on them and weigh in against the worst of them.

Unfortunately, agencies often circumvent this process, issuing rules through informal means such as internal memoranda or letters to selected constituents. This means that most of us cannot possibly know the rules that govern our lives, even though we face ruinous punishments should we unknowingly violate one of them.

As Andy Johnson’s experience shows, this results in unfair surprise. Johnson had no reason to expect that building a pond to provide water to his daughter’s horses would turn his life upside down. He got the required state permit and worked with state engineers to maximize the pond’s environmental benefits. The pond, which he built himself, achieved all of them: It restored wetlands in an area sorely lacking them, created habitat for fish and wildlife, and filtered the water that passed through it by allowing sediment and other pollutants to filter to the bottom.

As Johnson was wrapping up this work, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) showed up. It demanded Johnson rip out the pond or face $37,500 per day in fines. The potential fines would accrue at a rate of about $1 million per month, an incomprehensible sum for Johnson ­— and most Americans.  

He tried to reason with the agency, asking for some explanation of how he could be threatened in this way and what could be done. But the explanation would not be forthcoming. Nor would evidence that Johnson had done nothing wrong make a difference. An expert’s report documenting the pond’s numerous environmental benefits and exemptions from federal regulation fell on deaf ears.

Every month the agency dragged its feet, the fines grew. Two years later, when the potential fines reached $16 million, Pacific Legal Foundation filed a lawsuit on Johnson’s behalf. This forced the agency to finally put its cards on the table, revealing its evidence and explaining how that evidence showed a violation.

EPA asserted the small stream crossing Johnson’s property was a federal waterway, even though it was hundreds of miles from the nearest navigable river. The agency based this claim on a guidance document that purported to stretch the agency’s authority as far as it thought the Supreme Court might let it get away with.

The EPA also pointed to a guidance document to avoid the inconvenient fact that Congress had explicitly exempted the “construction and maintenance of farm or stock ponds” from federal regulation. This guidance interpreted that limit on the agency’s power as narrowly as possible. (If you haven’t noticed, there’s a theme here. Guidance almost always expands agency power and minimizes anything that might get in the agency’s way.)

EPA’s evidence fared even worse. Although it was supposed to show that Johnson’s pond significantly affects a downstream navigable water, the agency’s record showed that no one had ever checked where the water flowed. In fact, the water flows into an irrigation canal and never reaches any navigable water. If EPA had bothered to check, the whole ordeal could have been avoided.

Going forward, President Trump’s executive order will require agencies to review their guidance, revoke much of it, and publicize the rest so that Americans have a fair chance to know the rules that apply to them. The orders will also require agencies to give property owners an explanation of the agency’s allegations and an opportunity to contest them before threats can issue.

Although these orders are a welcome improvement, much work remains if we’re going to hold agencies truly accountable and restore power to the people we elect to wield it. Under our Constitution, only Congress can write laws, not unelected bureaucrats. It’s about time that we return to the Constitution’s design.


The Danger of the Attacks on the Electoral College

The following is adapted from a speech delivered on April 30, 2019, at Hillsdale College’s Allan P. Kirby, Jr. Center for Constitutional Studies and Citizenship in Washington, D.C.

By Trent EnglandImprimus

Once upon a time, the Electoral College was not controversial. During the debates over ratifying the Constitution, Anti-Federalist opponents of ratification barely mentioned it. But by the mid-twentieth century, opponents of the Electoral College nearly convinced Congress to propose an amendment to scrap it. And today, more than a dozen states have joined in an attempt to hijack the Electoral College as a way to force a national popular vote for president.

What changed along the way? And does it matter? After all, the critics of the Electoral College simply want to elect the president the way we elect most other officials. Every state governor is chosen by a statewide popular vote. Why not a national popular vote for president?

Delegates to the Constitutional Convention in 1787 asked themselves the same question, but then rejected a national popular vote along with several other possible modes of presidential election. The Virginia Plan—the first draft of what would become the new Constitution —called for “a National Executive . . . to be chosen by the National Legislature.” When the Constitutional Convention took up the issue for the first time, near the end of its first week of debate, Roger Sherman from Connecticut supported this parliamentary system of election, arguing that the national executive should be “absolutely dependent” on the legislature. Pennsylvania’s James Wilson, on the other hand, called for a popular election. Virginia’s George Mason thought a popular election “impracticable,” but hoped Wilson would “have time to digest it into his own form.” Another delegate suggested election by the Senate alone, and then the Convention adjourned for the day.

When they reconvened the next morning, Wilson had taken Mason’s advice. He presented a plan to create districts and hold popular elections to choose electors. Those electors would then vote for the executive—in other words, an electoral college. But with many details left out, and uncertainty remaining about the nature of the executive office, Wilson’s proposal was voted down. A week later, Elbridge Gerry of Massachusetts proposed election by state governors. This too was voted down, and a consensus began to build. Delegates did not support the Virginia Plan’s parliamentary model because they understood that an executive selected by Congress would become subservient to Congress. A similar result, they came to see, could be expected from assigning the selection to any body of politicians.

There were other oddball proposals that sought to salvage congressional selection—for instance, to have congressmen draw lots to form a group that would then choose the executive in secret. But by July 25, it was clear to James Madison that the choice was down to two forms of popular election: “The option before us,” he said, “[is] between an appointment by Electors chosen by the people—and an immediate appointment by the people.” Madison said he preferred popular election, but he recognized two legitimate concerns. First, people would tend toward supporting candidates from their own states, giving an advantage to larger states. Second, a few areas with higher concentrations of voters might come to dominate. Madison spoke positively of the idea of an electoral college, finding that “there would be very little opportunity for cabal, or corruption” in such a system.

By August 31, the Constitution was nearly finished—except for the process of electing the president. The question was put to a committee comprised of one delegate from each of the eleven states present at the Convention. That committee, which included Madison, created the Electoral College as we know it today. They presented the plan on September 4, and it was adopted with minor changes. It is found in Article II, Section 1:

Each State shall appoint, in such Manner as the Legislature thereof may direct, a Number of Electors, equal to the whole Number of Senators and Representatives to which the State may be entitled in the Congress.

Federal officials were prohibited from being electors. Electors were required to cast two ballots, and were prohibited from casting both ballots for candidates from their own state. A deadlock for president would be decided by the House of Representatives, with one vote per state. Following that, in case of a deadlock for vice president, the Senate would decide. Also under the original system, the runner up became vice president.

This last provision caused misery for President John Adams in 1796, when his nemesis, Thomas Jefferson, became his vice president. Four years later it nearly robbed Jefferson of the presidency when his unscrupulous running mate, Aaron Burr, tried to parlay an accidental deadlock into his own election by the House. The Twelfth Amendment, ratified in 1804, fixed all this by requiring electors to cast separate votes for president and vice president.

And there things stand, constitutionally at least. State legislatures have used their power to direct the manner of choosing electors in various ways: appointing them directly, holding elections by district, or holding statewide elections. Today, 48 states choose their presidential electors in a statewide, winner-take-all vote. Maine and Nebraska elect one elector based on each congressional district’s vote and the remaining two based on the statewide vote.

It is easy for Americans to forget that when we vote for president, we are really voting for electors who have pledged to support the candidate we favor. Civics education is not what it used to be. Also, perhaps, the Electoral College is a victim of its own success. Most of the time, it shapes American politics in ways that are beneficial but hard to see. Its effects become news only when a candidate and his or her political party lose a hard-fought and narrowly decided election.

So what are the beneficial effects of choosing our presidents through the Electoral College?

Under the Electoral College system, presidential elections are decentralized, taking place in the states. Although some see this as a flaw—U.S. Senator Elizabeth Warren opposes the Electoral College expressly because she wants to increase federal power over elections—this decentralization has proven to be of great value.

For one thing, state boundaries serve a function analogous to that of watertight compartments on an ocean liner. Disputes over mistakes or fraud are contained within individual states. Illinois can recount its votes, for instance, without triggering a nationwide recount. This was an important factor in America’s messiest presidential election—which was not in 2000, but in 1876.

That year marked the first time a presidential candidate won the electoral vote while losing the popular vote. It was a time of organized suppression of black voters in the South, and there were fierce disputes over vote totals in Florida, Louisiana, and South Carolina. Each of those states sent Congress two sets of electoral vote totals, one favoring Republican Rutherford Hayes and the other Democrat Samuel Tilden. Just two days before Inauguration Day, Congress finished counting the votes—which included determining which votes to count—and declared Hayes the winner. Democrats proclaimed this “the fraud of the century,” and there is no way to be certain today—nor was there probably a way to be certain at the time—which candidate actually won. At the very least, the Electoral College contained these disputes within individual states so that Congress could endeavor to sort it out. And it is arguable that the Electoral College prevented a fraudulent result.

Four years later, the 1880 presidential election demonstrated another benefit of the Electoral College system: it can act to amplify the results of a presidential election. The popular vote margin that year was less than 10,000 votes—about one-tenth of one percent—yet Republican James Garfield won a resounding electoral victory, with 214 electoral votes to Democrat Winfield Hancock’s 155. There was no question who won, let alone any need for a recount. More recently, in 1992, the Electoral College boosted the legitimacy of Democrat Bill Clinton, who won with only 43 percent of the popular vote but received over 68 percent of the electoral vote.

But there is no doubt that the greatest benefit of the Electoral College is the powerful incentive it creates against regionalism. Here, the presidential elections of 1888 and 1892 are most instructive. In 1888, incumbent Democratic President Grover Cleveland lost reelection despite receiving a popular vote plurality. He won this plurality because he won by very large margins in the overwhelmingly Democratic South. He won Texas alone by 146,461 votes, for instance, whereas his national popular vote margin was only 94,530. Altogether he won in six southern states with margins greater than 30 percent, while only tiny Vermont delivered a victory percentage of that size for Republican Benjamin Harrison.

In other words, the Electoral College ensures that winning supermajorities in one region of the country is not sufficient to win the White House. After the Civil War, and especially after the end of Reconstruction, that meant that the Democratic Party had to appeal to interests outside the South to earn a majority in the Electoral College. And indeed, when Grover Cleveland ran again for president four years later in 1892, although he won by a smaller percentage of the popular vote, he won a resounding Electoral College majority by picking up New York, Illinois, Indiana, Wisconsin, and California in addition to winning the South.

Whether we see it or not today, the Electoral College continues to push parties and presidential candidates to build broad coalitions. Critics say that swing states get too much attention, leaving voters in so-called safe states feeling left out. But the legitimacy of a political party rests on all of those safe states—on places that the party has already won over, allowing it to reach farther out. In 2000, for instance, George W. Bush needed every state that he won—not just Florida—to become president. Of course, the Electoral College does put a premium on the states in which the parties are most evenly divided. But would it really be better if the path to the presidency primarily meant driving up the vote total in the deepest red or deepest blue states?

Also, swing states are the states most likely to have divided government. And if divided government is good for anything, it is accountability. So with the Electoral College system, when we do wind up with a razor-thin margin in an election, it is likely to happen in a state where both parties hold some power, rather than in a state controlled by one party.

Despite these benefits of the current system, opponents of the Electoral College maintain that it is unseemly for a candidate to win without receiving the most popular votes. As Hillary Clinton put it in 2000: “In a democracy, we should respect the will of the people, and to me, that means it’s time to do away with the Electoral College.” Yet similar systems prevail around the world. In parliamentary systems, including Canada, Israel, and the United Kingdom, prime ministers are elected by the legislature. This happens in Germany and India as well, which also have presidents who are elected by something similar to an electoral college. In none of these democratic systems is the national popular vote decisive.

More to the point, in our own political tradition, what matters most about every legislative body, from our state legislatures to the House of Representatives and the Senate, is which party holds the majority. That party elects the leadership and sets the agenda. In none of these representative chambers does the aggregate popular vote determine who is in charge. What matters is winning districts or states.

Nevertheless, there is a clamor of voices calling for an end to the Electoral College. Former Attorney General Eric Holder has declared it “a vestige of the past,” and Washington Governor Jay Inslee has labeled it an “archaic relic of a bygone age.” Almost as one, the current myriad of Democratic presidential hopefuls have called for abolishing the Electoral College.

Few if any of these Democrats likely realize how similar their party’s position is to what it was in the late nineteenth century, with California representing today what the South was for their forebears. The Golden State accounted for 10.4 percent of presidential votes cast in 2016, while the southern states (from South Carolina down to Florida and across to Texas) accounted for 10.6 percent of presidential votes cast in 1888. Grover Cleveland won those southern states by nearly 39 percent, while Hillary Clinton won California by 30 percent. But rather than following Cleveland’s example of building a broader national coalition that could win in the Electoral College, today’s Democrats would rather simply change the rules.

Anti-Electoral College amendments with bipartisan support in the 1950s and 1970s failed to receive the two-thirds votes in Congress they needed in order to be sent to the states for consideration. Likewise today, partisan amendments will not make it through Congress. Nor, if they did, could they win ratification among the states.

But there is a serious threat to the Electoral College. Until recently, it has gone mostly unnoticed, as it has made its way through various state legislatures. If it works according to its supporters’ intent, it would nullify the Electoral College by creating a de facto direct election for president.

The National Popular Vote Interstate Compact, or NPV, takes advantage of the flexibility granted to state legislatures in the Constitution: “Each State shall appoint, in such Manner as the Legislature thereof may direct, a Number of Electors.” The original intent of this was to allow state legislators to determine how best to represent their state in presidential elections. The electors represent the state—not just the legislature—even though the latter has power to direct the manner of appointment. By contrast, NPV supporters argue that this power allows state legislatures to ignore their state’s voters and appoint electors based on the national popular vote. This is what the compact would require states to do.

Of course, no state would do this unilaterally, so NPV has a “trigger”: it only takes effect if adopted by enough states to control 270 electoral votes—in other words, a majority that would control the outcome of presidential elections. So far, 14 states and the District of Columbia have signed on, with a total of 189 electoral votes.

Until this year, every state that had joined NPV was heavily Democratic: California, Connecticut, Hawaii, Illinois, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, Rhode Island, Vermont, and Washington. The NPV campaign has struggled to win other Democratic states: Delaware only adopted it this year and it still has not passed in Oregon (though it may soon). Following the 2018 election, Democrats came into control of both the legislatures and the governorships in the purple states of Colorado and New Mexico, which have subsequently joined NPV.

NPV would have the same effect as abolishing the Electoral College. Fraud in one state would affect every state, and the only way to deal with it would be to give more power to the federal government. Elections that are especially close would require nationwide recounts. Candidates could win based on intense support from a narrow region or from big cities. NPV also carries its own unique risks: despite its name, the plan cannot actually create a national popular vote. Each state would still—at least for the time being—run its own elections. This means a patchwork of rules for everything from which candidates are on the ballot to how disputes are settled. NPV would also reward states with lax election laws—the higher the turnout, legal or not, the more power for that state. Finally, each NPV state would certify its own “national” vote total. But what would happen when there are charges of skullduggery? Would states really trust, with no power to verify, other state’s returns?

Uncertainty and litigation would likely follow. In fact, NPV is probably unconstitutional. For one thing, it ignores the Article I, Section 10 requirement that interstate compacts receive congressional consent. There is also the fact that the structure of the Electoral College clause of the Constitution implies there is some limit on the power of state legislatures to ignore the will of their state’s people.

One danger of all these attacks on the Electoral College is, of course, that we lose the state-by-state system designed by the Framers and its protections against regionalism and fraud. This would alter our politics in some obvious ways—shifting power toward urban centers, for example—but also in ways we cannot know in advance. Would an increase in presidents who win by small pluralities lead to a rise of splinter parties and spoiler candidates? Would fears of election fraud in places like Chicago and Broward County lead to demands for greater federal control over elections?

The more fundamental danger is that these attacks undermine the Constitution as a whole. Arguments that the Constitution is outmoded and that democracy is an end in itself are arguments that can just as easily be turned against any of the constitutional checks and balances that have preserved free government in America for well over two centuries. The measure of our fundamental law is not whether it actualizes the general will—that was the point of the French Revolution, not the American. The measure of our Constitution is whether it is effective at encouraging just, stable, and free government—government that protects the rights of its citizens.

The Electoral College is effective at doing this. We need to preserve it, and we need to help our fellow Americans understand why it matters.


Rural Americans would be serfs if we abolished the Electoral College

If the National Popular Vote drive kills the Electoral College, rural and small town Americans who supply our food and energy will lose their voice.

By Trent EnglandUSA Today

Should rural and small-town Americans be reduced to serfdom? The American Founders didn’t think so. This is one reason why they created checks and balances, including the Electoral College. Today that system is threatened by a proposal called the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact, or NPV.

Rural America produces almost all our country’s food, as well as raw materials like metals, cotton and timber. Energy, fossil fuels but also alternatives like wind and solar come mostly from rural areas. In other words, the material inputs of modern life flow out of rural communities and into cities.

This is fine, so long as the exchange is voluntary — rural people choose to sell their goods and services, receive a fair price, and have their freedom protected under law. But history shows that city dwellers have a nasty habit of taking advantage of their country cousins. Greeks enslaved whole masses of rural people, known as helots. Medieval Europe had feudalism. The Russians had their serfs.

Credit the American Founders with setting up a system of limited government with lots of checks and balances. The U.S. Senate makes sure all states are represented equally, even low-population rural states like Wyoming and Vermont. Limits on federal power, along with the Bill of Rights, are supposed to protect Americans from overreaching federal regulations. And the Electoral College makes it impossible for one population-dense region of the country to control the presidency.

Skipping the constitutional amendment process

This is why Hillary Clinton lost in 2016. Instead of winning over small-town Americans, she amassed a popular vote lead based on California and a few big cities. She won those places with huge margins but lost just about everywhere else. And the system worked. The Electoral College requires more than just the most raw votes to win — it requires geographic balance. This helps to protect rural and small-town Americans.

Now a California millionaire named John Koza is trying to undo this system. He is leading and funding the National Popular Vote campaign. Their plan is to get state governments to ignore how their own citizens vote in presidential elections and instead get them to cast their electoral votes based on the national popular vote. If it works, this will be like getting rid of the Electoral College but without actually amending the Constitution.

‘2 wolves and a lamb’ voting on lunch

California has already passed NPV, along with 13 other states plus Washington, D.C.  Nevada, with six electoral votes, could be next. NPV only takes effect if it is joined by enough states that they control 270 electoral votes, which would then control the outcome of all future presidential elections. If that happens (NPV needs 81 more electoral votes), and if the courts do not strike it down, big cities will gain more political power at the expense of everyone else.

The idea that every vote should count equally is attractive. But a quote often attributed to Benjamin Franklin famously reminds us that democracy can be “two wolves and a lamb voting on what’s for lunch.” (City dwellers who think that meat comes from the grocery store might not understand why this is such a big problem for the lamb.) And when you think about it, every check on government power, from the Electoral College to the Bill of Rights, is a restraint on the majority.

The Electoral College makes it even harder to win the presidency. It requires geographic balance and helps protect Americans who might otherwise have their voices ignored. All Americans should value constitutional protections, like the Electoral College, that remind us that the real purpose of government is to protect our individual rights.


After the Supreme Court Said Unions Can’t Force Non-Members to Pay Dues, Almost All of Them Stopped

By Eric Boehm • Reason

Given the choice of no longer paying to support unions they didn’t want to join in the first place, lots of public sector workers took it.

Two of the largest public sector unions in the country lost more than 210,000 so-called “agency fee members” in the wake of last year’s Supreme Court ruling that said unions could no longer force non-members to pay partial dues. That case, Janus v. American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees, effectively freed public workers from having to make “fair share” payments—usually totaling about 70 to 80 percent of full union dues—in lieu of joining a union as a full-fledged member.

Now, annual reports filed with the federal Department of Labor show that the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) lost 98 percent of it’s agency fee-paying members during the past year. Another large public sector union, the Service Employees International Union (SEIU), lost 94 percent of their agency fee-paying members.

Even though unions were preparing for a mass exodus in the wake of the Janus ruling, the numbers are staggering. In 2017, AFSCME reported having Continue reading


Technology and the Fourth Amendment

By John Yoo & James Phillips • National Review

We now hold the equivalent of yesterday’s supercomputers in our pockets. Communications occur instantly, from encrypted messages to Twitter blasts that reach millions. Entrepreneurs make fortunes by analyzing and harvesting the 2.5 quintillion bytes of data produced each day. Governments search the data to find terrorist networks or launch foreign propaganda. From business to politics, success depends on reading the tea leaves we electronically leave behind with social-media posts, texts and emails, or Google searches.

As inevitably as the weather, the hand of regulation has followed. While using the data for itself, the state seeks to regulate the businesses and individuals that create it. We have only begun to figure out whether the rules of privacy that governed paper records, telephone calls, and the mails will continue to apply, and how, to emails, texts, video clips, and social media. Not only does technology create more data that individuals want to protect; it also expands the government’s ability to search and manipulate. Where the line will fall between new technologies, regulation, and privacy will likely become the greatest legacy of Chief Justice John Roberts’s Supreme Court.

The Court will have the opportunity to correct the mistakes of its past. In the 1950s and ’60s, the Supreme Court under Chief Justice Earl Warren sought to adapt constitutional rules to electronic technologies such as the telephone. The liberal Warren Court ignored the Bill of Rights’ text and original meaning as part of a broader effort to remake the criminal procedure of the Constitution in its own image. We may again be facing a similar revolution, not out of fear of police and prosecutors, but out of unfounded worries about a Big Brother government. How the Roberts Court handles these coming issues will reveal much about how originalist the Court actually is.

In an ideal world, we might expect the political process to make the fundamental choices about the balance between privacy, government power, and the new communication and information technologies. But ever since the Warren Court, the Supreme Court has claimed that the Fourth Amendment gives it a right to set the rules. The text of the Fourth Amendment states:

The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.

Scholars and judges generally agree that the Framers of the Fourth Amendment sought to prevent general warrants, which officers of the British Crown had used to search American colonists at any time, for any reason. But during the Warren years, the Justices transformed this ban into a requirement that the government could not conduct a constitutional search without a Fourth Amendment warrant based on probable cause, with a specific description of the persons and places to be searched. In Mapp v. Ohio (1961), the Warren Court extended the notorious exclusionary rule, which excludes from trial any evidence gathered in violation of the Fourth Amendment to all courtrooms throughout the nation. As even the liberal justice Benjamin Cardozo had complained as early as 1926, “the criminal is to go free because the constable has blundered.”

This general rule flies in the face of the text of the Fourth Amendment. Instead of assuming that only searches with warrants satisfy the Constitution, we ought to understand the amendment as composed of two parts: the search-and-seizures clause and the warrants clause. The text of the amendment fundamentally requires reasonable searches. If a search or seizure were reasonable, in the ordinary meaning of the word, then it would be legal, regardless of whether a specific warrant had been issued. Why then the warrant requirement? Such a requirement makes sense if the Framers considered search or seizure supported by a specific, judge-issued warrant to be per se reasonable. A warrant protected constables from lawsuits that, while more common during the Founding, have largely disappeared because of the Court’s immunity doctrines. The amendment recognizes two paths to reasonable, and thus legal, searches and seizures.

To be sure, some originalists defend the Warren Court, in part. They observe that the Pennsylvania and Massachusetts state constitutions contained nearly identical language, with one minor but clarifying difference: The relationship between the two clauses was not an “and” but a “therefore.” This difference would suggest that a specific warrant and reasonableness were one and the same. Further, according to this view, “unreasonable” meant against reason, which meant against the common law. And under the common law at the Founding, a warrant was necessary for a search or seizure unless law enforcement caught someone in the act of committing a felony.

Even if this reading of the Fourth Amendment were correct, the Warren Court made no attempt to base its policymaking on the amendment’s original meaning. Instead, it eagerly sought to impose a regime of judicial supervision over virtually all government searches, even over technologies that would have appeared to be magic to the Framers. No case exemplifies the Court’s approach better than Katz v. United States (1967). In Katz, the Warren Court found that the Fourth Amendment required a warrant to allow the police to place a listening device in a public phone booth. The defendant had used the phone in a public place outside his house, and his call was electronically intangible — the Fourth Amendment protects only tangible things: “persons, houses, papers, and effects.” But the Court found that his conversation fell within a “reasonable expectation of privacy” that was recognized by society. Rather than allowing Congress and the states to decide how much protection to give phone calls or any other electronic means of communication, the justices took for themselves the power to decide what would qualify as privacy.

As they did in other areas we have already examined, the justices assumed the roles of philosopher-kings. How do courts know that society views an expectation of privacy as objectively reasonable? According to Katz, they just do. How will courts determine what society thinks? Opinion polls? And why does the Fourth Amendment expand or contract depending on what society thinks should be private? Katz’s definition of privacy fails not only because judges cannot determine society’s view on privacy (that is, after all, the job of legislatures), but because it is utterly circular. Instead of providing any certainty with clear rules, the federal courts turned themselves into the arbiters of privacy, the definers of the legal scope of every new technology, and the monitors of all police investigations.

Under Chief Justice William Rehnquist, and majorities formed by Reagan and Bush judges, the Supreme Court tried to pare back the Warren Court’s activism. The Rehnquist Court created exceptions for searches conducted under exigent circumstances (such as evidence found while pursuing fleeing felons or protecting the lives of others), in good faith (such as operating under a defective warrant), at random (such as random drug-testing and drunk-driver checkpoints), or in plain view (public spaces, observation on the street). In these decisions, the Rehnquist Court began to recognize that while searches with a warrant were reasonable, not all reasonable searches need a warrant. Some observers believed that the Rehnquist Court might even overturn the exclusionary rule or Katz, but it never took that controversial step.

One of the chief surprises of the Roberts Court is that the justices have turned away from their predecessors’ project of restoring reasonableness as the constitutional touchstone. When faced with the new technologies, a majority of justices have ignored the original understanding of the Fourth Amendment and reverted to the Warren Court’s free-floating approach to privacy and government search. They have placed significant restrictions on the government’s use of new technology for policing and anti-terrorism operations, even as foreign nations escalate their use of cyber weapons to steal valuable data (such as the security and background files of almost every federal employee), hack infrastructure, and interfere with elections. The Court has precipitously plunged into the complexities of technology and privacy, where its competence is not high, instead of allowing the people’s elected representatives to make the fundamental choices.

The early signs of this high-tech activism first emerged under the Rehnquist Court. In Kyllo v. United States (2001), the Court confronted a case where a Department of Interior officer had used a new technology to search for indoor marijuana growers. The officer used a thermal imaging device that could measure the heat emitted by a building, but did not allow agents to see or listen to the activity within the house. In an opinion written by Justice Scalia, an unusual majority composed of Clarence Thomas, David Souter, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and Stephen Breyer held that the Fourth Amendment prohibited the search, even though past opinions had found that evidence in plain view or in public outside the home did not require a warrant before search. “We think that obtaining by sense-enhancing technology any information regarding the interior of the home that could not otherwise have been obtained without physical ‘intrusion into a constitutionally protected area,’” Scalia wrote, “constitutes a search at least where (as here) the technology in question is not in general public use.” According to the majority, “this assures preservation of that degree of privacy against government that existed when the Fourth Amendment was adopted.” The dissent properly observed that the officer observed something outside the house, much as an officer might hear screams coming from within or witness smoke pouring from a window. But unfortunately, the Court thought it should set the standard for advanced sensor technology, rather than allowing the elected branches to decide — either Congress through legislation or the executive branch via regulation.

Despite its conservative reputation, the Roberts Court picked up where the Rehnquist Court’s Kyllo decision left off. In United States v. Jones (2012), the Court addressed police use of a device that used the Global Positioning System to track a car’s movements. Without getting a warrant, Washington, D.C., police attached a device to a suspected drug dealer’s Jeep that reported its movements 24 hours a day for a month. Writing for the majority, Justice Scalia held that the placement of the device constituted a physical invasion of the car. All of the justices agreed that the GPS monitoring device violated the Fourth Amendment, though some justices believed that shorter time periods might satisfy the Constitution. But the Court’s decision did not persuasively address why the GPS device amounted to an illegal search, while the exact same work conducted by human beings – having police officers conduct round-the-clock surveillance – would not violate the Constitution. In both cases, the tracker or the police officer simply follows the public movements of a suspect’s car. The tracking device only saves time and resources, and even intrudes less on privacy because it would observe only the location of the car and not what happened inside. The Court’s approach only invites more intrusive surveillance, such as deploying an aerial drone, which would never come into physical contact with the car, or even need to use enhanced sensors, to follow a suspect and report its movements instead. It is difficult to believe that the justices would forbid the police the use of night vision, in the way they forbade GPS, in public places to pursue fleeing felons. Police could simply follow a car when it travels on public roads and record video of its movements in real time.

The Roberts Court’s most recent opinion, Carpenter v. United States (2018), might prove its most sweeping. In a 5–4 decision, the chief justice joined the Court’s four liberals in finding that a person had an expectation of privacy in records kept by a telephone company of his cellphone’s location. Dissenting Justices Kennedy, Thomas, Alito, and Gorsuch argued that the third-party exception to the Fourth Amendment meant no warrant was required. Under existing doctrine, and the plain text of the amendment, individuals lose their claim to privacy over records or information that they willingly hand over to a third party. Upon this understanding, the Court has allowed warrantless searches such as “pen registers,” which record dialed telephone numbers, and for business records such as credit-card and financial transactions, because the original owner voluntarily gave the information to someone else. In this case, the owner of the cellphone allows the device to constantly “ping” the wireless cellphone network, which notifies the telephone company of its location. Police used the information to show that the suspects — who had, ironically, sought to rob cellphone stores — were present at the time and place of a series of crimes.

Nevertheless, the Court held that such nonprivate information received the protections of the Fourth Amendment. The Court did not find that the means to gather the information violated the text of the Constitution, but that somehow the data violated the Fourth Amendment because the government had come to have too much information. Chief Justice Roberts concluded that such commercial records still fell within the suspect’s “anticipation of privacy in his physical location” because “the time-stamped data provides an intimate window into a person’s life,” not just now, but well into the past. The problem with Chief Justice Roberts’s approach is that it provides no clear rule about how much information is too much information for the government to have, how courts and police are to decide, or why the Fourth Amendment even places limits on how much knowledge the government can have about its citizens’ public activities. Chief Justice Roberts, for example, might believe that the Fourth Amendment would bar government agencies from examining social media, even though individuals choose to blog and post so that many people can see, or financial data, which we transmit to banks and companies. He inevitably “invites courts to make judgments about policy, not law,” as Justice Thomas wrote in dissent.

These cases demonstrate that the Court, though now composed of a conservative majority appointed by Republican presidents, may still drift in a liberal direction. It is most likely to do so when, as here, it leaves behind the constitutional text and history in favor of judgments — no matter how reasonable or popular — that fall within the province of the elected branches of government. Technological advances will continue to pressure the Court to get creative with the Constitution over the intersection of privacy and law enforcement. So the justices have a choice. They can tread the constitutionally dubious path laid out by the Warren Court and invent whatever doctrine or test they think will be optimal from a policy perspective, per Katz and Carpenter.

Or they can leave that to the nation’s policymakers: Congress and the president. There is precedent for the elected branches making decisions related to the intersection of privacy and law enforcement. In 1968, Congress passed the Omnibus Crime Control and Safe Streets Act, in part as a response to Katz, which was handed down just a year earlier. The act allowed the institution best able to weigh the competing policy interests of privacy and safety — the legislature — to make the balancing determination. The Constitution’s federal structure also encourages states to experiment with different balances of privacy and security. Of course, the text and history of the Constitution provide a floor. But if society wishes to provide greater protection for privacy at the cost of some security, it should make that decision through the same political process that it uses for other public policies.

As technological development continues to accelerate, the Court will have a decision to make. Will it usurp the authority of the people and their representatives to decide how to best move forward in this new world, or will it succumb to the temptation of playing platonic guardians who know better how to navigate the future? Time will tell which path the Court chooses, but the Constitution has an answer, if they choose to consult it.


Blame Congress for Politicizing the Court

By Senator Ben Sasse (NE) • Wall Street Journal

Brett Kavanaugh has been accused of hating women, hating children, hating clean air, wanting dirty water. He’s been declared an existential threat to the nation. Alumni of Yale Law School, incensed that faculty members at his alma mater praised his selection, wrote a public letter to the school saying: “People will die if Brett Kavanaugh is confirmed.”

It’s predictable now that every Supreme Court confirmation hearing will be a politicized circus. This is because Americans have accepted a bad new theory about how the three branches of government should work—and in particular about how the judiciary operates. Continue reading


Was Gorsuch Worth A Trump Presidency? It’s Starting To Look That Way

By David Harsanyi • The Federalist

It’s odd, isn’t it, that so many of the folks who warn us about the authoritarianism of the GOP also happen to support an array of policies that coerce Americans to do things they don’t want to?

Take, for example, the four reliably liberal Supreme Court justices, all of whom believe it’s OK to compel Americans to pay dues to political organizations they disagree with, to coerce them to say things they abhor, and to compel them to create things that undermine their principles.

For some, myself included, the prospects of a court run by people who ignore the Constitution was the best argument for Donald Trump in 2016. The question was, “What’s scarier, a Trump presidency or a progressive Supreme Court?” I imagine the answer is becoming a bit clearer for many conservatives.

In three cases this term — the rulings Continue reading


Sorry, Liberals, But America Is Not A Democracy, And It’s Better That Way

By Clifford Humphrey • The Federalist

It is no secret that the United States is a severely divided nation. In fact, division seems to be one thing that unites Americans today. Across the country, citizens disagree on kneeling, bathrooms, guns, and free speech. Californians are so divided they are actually considering splitting up their beloved republic into three separate states.

The important question on matters of disagreement is: Who gets to settle these differences? The answer, of course, is “We the people,” but we are disagreeing more and more about what that phrase even means. This disagreement is based in part on the fundamental distinction between a democracy and a republic.

Our Founders did not believe that the people have a right to enact whatever laws the majority necessarily want, but, rather, that the people have a right to enact whatever laws the people as a whole think are just. That higher aspiration requires Continue reading


President Obama’s Top Ten Constitutional Violations of 2015

by Ilya Shapiro     •     National Review

Obama Corruption IntimidationAs we approach the final year of Barack Obama’s presidency, there isn’t much that the president can do to change people’s opinion of him, for better or worse. His legacy, barring some extraordinary occurrence — including an extraterrestrial one, as the holiday advertising blitz for the new Independence Day movie reminds us — is baked into history.

Setting aside legislation and executive action (on which more imminently), we note that one of President Obama’s chief accomplishments has been to return the Constitution to a central place in our public discourse.

Unfortunately, the president fomented this upswing in civic interest not by talking up federalism or the separation of powers but by blatantly violating the strictures of our founding document. With his pen and his phone, and hearkening to Woodrow Wilson’s progressive view of government, he’s been taking out his frustrations with the checks and balances that inhibit his ability to “fundamentally transform” the country. Continue reading


Political Lies: Executive Orders by Another Name

double-face-obama-63825058778President Obama has issued a form of executive action known as the presidential memorandum more often than any other president in history — using it to take unilateral action even as he has signed fewer executive orders.

by Gregory Korte    •   USA Today

President Obama has issued a form of executive action known as the presidential memorandum more often than any other president in history — using it to take unilateral action even as he has signed fewer executive orders.

When these two forms of directives are taken together, Obama is on track to take more high-level executive actions than any president since Harry Truman battled the “Do Nothing Congress” almost seven decades ago, according to a USA TODAY review of presidential documents. Continue reading


A glaring example of failed leadership

by Editorial Board    •   U-T San Diego  executive order Obama Immigration

There is not likely to be any comprehensive reform of this country’s broken immigration system during Obama’s remaining two years. There probably won’t be much of anything else the next two years, either. That is the unfortunate but real import of the executive order President Barack Obama issued last week shielding up to 5 million unauthorized immigrants from deportation. It represents a monumental failure of national leadership.

The history of the contentious immigration issue over the past six years is instructive to where we are today.

It was in July 2008 that candidate Obama pledged to make comprehensive immigration reform “a top priority in my first year as president.” He broke that promise in 2009, never even attempting immigration reform at the time his popularity and power were at their greatest. Continue reading


The Divine Right of Barack Obama

The president who began as a champion of the legislature’s prerogative to declare war has morphed into Napoleon.

by Charles C. W. Cooke     •     National Review

Obama SmirkAsked earlier today how long he expected the bombing of Syria to last, Lieutenant General William C. Mayville Jr. advised reporters to think “in terms of years.” “Last night’s strikes,” Mayville confirmed, “were only the beginning.” A mile or so away, on the White House lawn, Barack Obama struck a similarly defiant note. “We’re going to do what is necessary to take the fight to this terrorist group,” the president explained, before assuring those present that the United States was but one part of a global alliance that stood “shoulder to shoulder . . . on behalf of our common security.” “The strength of this coalition,” Obama added, “makes clear to the world that this is not just America’s fight alone.” This much, at least, was true. Among the nations that have signed on to the attacks are Bahrain, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and the United Arab Emirates — all vital accomplices in the winning of hearts and minds. And yet, for all the cosmopolitanism, one crucial ally was conspicuously missing from the roster of the willing: the Congress of the United States. Continue reading


Constitutional chutzpah

by Seth Lipsky     •     New York Post

barack_obamaThere are three ways something can become what the US Constitution calls the “supreme law of the land.” It can be made part of the Constitution by amendment, it can be passed by Congress as a law or it can be ratified by the Senate as a treaty.

President Obama can’t get his climate-change agreement made supreme law of the land by any of those constitutional routes. Not even close. The Republican House doesn’t want it. The Democratic Senate won’t act.

That’s because the people don’t want it. They’re no dummies. Even in drought-stricken California, the Hill newspaper reports, Democratic candidates for Congress avoid the climate-change issue.

This is driving Obama crazy. Continue reading


Holder’s view of the Constitution and the Rule of Law

Holder HeadAttorney General Eric Holder, who has given new meaning to the phrase a law unto himself, was remarkably candid in his testimony before Congress this week.

Outrageous, but candid.

“There is a vast amount of discretion that a president has — and more specifically that an attorney general has,” Holder told the House Judiciary Committee. “But that discretion has to be used in an appropriate way so that you’re acting consistent with the aims of the statute but at the same time making sure that you are acting in a way that is consistent with our values, consistent with the Constitution and protecting the American people.” Continue reading


White House cannot selectively enforce the law

Selective enforcement rule of lawFrontiers of Freedom has consistently maintained that the constitutional division and separation of powers explicitly prohibits the President of the United States from unilaterally rewriting laws and from selectively enforcing them.  In fact, that has been the law of the land for more than 200 years.  Yet, President Obama has made a habit of enforcing laws he likes, and openly refusing to enforce laws he doesn’t.  If he doesn’t like a law, he can suggest Congress pass reform legislation through the House and the Senate and he can sign it and enforce it.  But he cannot simply ignore the law or unilaterally alter it.  Now even one of the leading defenders of the Obama administration and a predictable voice for the Left – The Washington Post –has written that the President is acting outside his constitutional authority.  Here is what the editorial board of the Washington Post wrote:

The Obama administration on Monday announced that it was delaying, once again, enforcement of the Affordable Care Act (ACA) “employer mandate.” Yes, Republicans have done everything they can to impede implementation of this law. Yes, their “solution” — gutting the individual mandate — is an awful idea. And, yes, their public response to the administration’s action was predictably over-the-top. But none of that excuses President Obama’s increasingly cavalier approach to picking and choosing how to enforce this law. Imagine how Democrats would respond if a President Rand Paul, say, moved into the White House in 2017 and announced he was going to put off provisions of Obamacare he thought might be too onerous to administer. Continue reading


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