Glenn Greenwald of The Guardian had a major scoop yesterday, revealing a court order requiring the communications giant Verizon to hand over information about all the calls in its system, domestic or international. As Greenwald explains, this means "the communication records of millions of US citizens are being collected indiscriminately and in bulk – regardless of whether they are suspected of any wrongdoing."
The collection of DNA evidence is a powerful crime-control tool, but it also has the potential to lead to greater invasions of privacy. Today, a bare majority of the Supreme Court held in Maryland v. King that the former considerations should outweigh the latter. The Court's ruling both creates important Fourth Amendment law and illustrates some important facts about the personnel on the Court. The question at issue in Maryland v. King is whether DNA information could be collected (via a cheek swab) from someone arrested for—but not convicted of—an offense.
Earlier this week, the White House announced that President Barack Obama would name nominees to fill three vacant seats on the D.C. Circuit Court, touching off a new battle between the White House and Republicans over filibusters and presidential privileges. Despite the fact that appointing judges is one of the powers given to every president by the Constitution, some Republicans reacted as though Obama were doing something horrible by fulfilling this obligation. (You'd almost think they didn't accept the legitimacy of his presidency.) In any case, this argument is likely to heat up over the next few weeks, so we might benefit from some context as charges and counter-charges start flying.
One of the biggest criticisms activist liberals have had of the Obama administration is that they have not moved aggressively to put their stamp on the federal judiciary. While there has certainly been Republican obstruction of Obama nominees, in many cases the administration hasn't even bothered to nominate anyone to open seats. There are currently 82 vacancies on the federal bench, and in 58 of those, the administration has offered no nominee.
So it's good news that they have announced that they are about to offer nominations for the three vacancies on the Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit, widely considered the second most important court in the nation, since it hears many critical cases involving the scope of government power. It looks like the administration is betting that the more nominations they put up at the same time, the more attention the issue will get if Republicans try to block them, and the more attention it gets, the more difficult Republican filibusters will be to maintain.
If you listen to what Republicans are saying so far, you'll notice they're not making the same argument they have in the past...
When Colorado and Washington State passed ballot measures legalizing marijuana last November, they weren’t just the first states in the country to do so—they were the first governments in the world to do so. While other nations and states, most notably the Netherlands and California, have decriminalized marijuana possession, the drug is still technically illegal. That means that while it’s tolerated by law enforcement, the government need not concern itself with a full-scale system for regulation and taxation.
Remember last year when we all cared about voting policies? Back then, newspapers were filled with updates on different states’ legal battles over strict voter ID—the laws that require photo identification to cast a ballot. Republicans pushed the laws, ostensibly to combat fraud, but Democrats and voting-rights advocates argued that the actual goal was to suppress likely Democratic voters, since poor and nonwhite communities disproportionately lack ID. With Republicans controlling an unprecedented number of state legislatures in the wake of the 2010 Tea Party wave, voter-ID bills began popping up across the country in 2011 and 2012. Similar battles emerged when some states tried to remove names from voter rolls too close to an election.
On Monday, news broke that federal officials had secretly seized the phone records of Associated Press reporters. AP President Gary Pruitt reacted with understandable anger, calling the seizure "an overbroad collection of the telephone communications of The Associated Press and its reporters." Is Pruitt right? There are two questions that need to be answered. Was the seizure legal? And, if so, was it justified?
Last week, a decision by the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals provided an excellent example of how both presidential action and inaction can matter. Because of the former, the National Labor Relations Board had issued a rule intending to alleviate the power disparities between workers and employers. But in part because of action by Republican presidents and inaction by Democratic presidents, the rule is no longer in effect. And while the outcome of the case is hardly surprising, the sheer radicalism of the court's holding is yet another sign of how in the tank much of the powerful D.C. Circuit is for powerful business interests.
American University’s Washington College of Law (WCL) is in crisis. Situated in the toughest job market for lawyers in the United States, the Washington, D.C. school has fallen 11 spots in the U.S. News rankings since the class of 2013 applied. This is in part due to the release of detailed employment statistics that show the schools’ full-time, long-term legal employment rate of 39 percent ranks 5th out of 7 area law schools. A group of students have started a petition to fire Dean Claudio Grossman and a WCL theatrical troupe staged a play, “Grossman’s Eleven,” alluding to the 2001 heist movie starring George Clooney.
In today's Washington, the formation of a bipartisan committee and/or commission is generally reason to cringe. Today, however, Congress created a bipartisan committee that could deserve optimism. The House Committee on the Judiciary Over-Criminalization Task Force will address an extremely severe problem: mass incarceration in the United States.
There is very good reason for the formation of the committee. The rates of incarceration in this country are staggering. The United States imprisons more people per capita than any country in the world—not only far more than any comparable liberal democracy, but more than the world's authoritarian regimes as well. Even worse, this mass incarceration reflects and exacerbates racial and economic inequalities. As scholars such as Michelle Alexander and Becky Pettit have shown in chilling detail, mass incarceration has taken a massive toll on racial minorities. One in every 36 Hispanic men over the age of 18—and one in 15 African-American males over the age of 18—are in prison. In many states, convicted felons continue to be formally sanctioned by the state, losing the right to vote or to join certain professions. The informal effects of having a felony conviction are even greater; particularly in a buyer's market for labor, the economic prospects of convicted felons attempting to get a job and put their lives in order are generally bleak.
New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman, who headed a group of state attorneys general that won homeowners and former homeowners a $26 billion settlement from five mega-banks over their foreclosure abuses, announced yesterday that he’d sue two of the banks—Wells Fargo and Bank of America—for allegedly violating the terms of the settlement.
The first working gun made (almost) entirely on a 3-D printer.
There's even more exciting gun news today, coming from a small non-profit organization called Defense Distributed. They announced that they have successfully test-fired a gun made almost entirely in a 3-D printer. The only part that wasn't 3-D printed was the firing pin. And the bullet, of course. Now previously, people had made gun components in 3-D printers, but prior tests of entire weapons had been unsuccessful. This raises some rather troubling questions, which we'll get to in a moment. But first, here's their short video, which shows the firing and construction of the gun, inexplicably interspersed with shots of World War II-era bombers:
Images from the web site of Crickett Firearms, which sells guns for kids.
You may have heard the story of Caroline Sparks, the 2-year-old Kentucky girl who was killed this week when her brother, all of 5 years old himself, took the rifle he got for his birthday and shot her in the chest. I suppose we should be thankful this kind of thing doesn't happen even more often; as a Kentucky state trooper told CNN, "In this part of the country, it's not uncommon for a 5-year-old to have a gun." I'm sure that when gun rights advocates heard the story, they said, "Oh geez, here we go again." They'd have to deal yet again with people being upset when innocents get killed with guns. They'd have to explain that as tragic as Caroline's death is, it doesn't mean that we should change the law on background checks. After all, that 5-year-old boy got his gun from his parents, not at a gun show.
Whatever you think about gun advocates, could they be right on this point? Sure, it's a little rich coming from people who are constantly stoking fears of home invasions, fascist takeovers, and utter societal breakdown to justify our current lax gun laws. But do we get into trouble when our arguments about public policy are based on emotionally vivid but unrepresentative individual stories? Maybe.