Law

Blinded by the Gun-Control Fight

Photo by Melanie Stetson Freeman/The Christian Science Monitor
AP Photo/Brennan Linsley, File T he Republican Party hasn't been known for its sterling record on disability rights lately. Last December, 38 GOP senators memorably tanked the UN Convention on Persons With Disabilities over the pleading of former Senator Bob Dole, walking past his wheelchair to cast "no" votes and sparking widespread outrage among disability rights groups. In the past week, however, many disability groups have applauded an Iowa law allowing blind residents to carry concealed handguns, a rule change that has raised eyebrows from Iowa sheriffs to The Colbert Report . The permits have been issued as an effect of 2011 conceal-and-carry legislation that made Iowa a "shall grant" state—"shall grant" being the legal equivalent of Heston's infamous "from my cold dead hands" in terms of who can be denied a permit by a state sheriff—a law that’s now getting national attention thanks to a report in the Des Moines Register . There are exactly six restrictions on who can and...

Yet Another NSA Violation

AP Photo/Patrick Semansky, File
L ast month, it was revealed that the court established by the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) had rebuked the National Security Agency (NSA) for using illegal search methods. Not surprisingly, this incident wasn't an isolated one. In another judicial opinion responding to a lawsuit by the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), further illegal abuses by the NSA were unveiled . Like the previous revelations, this story tells of the dangers posed by a NSA conducting searches with far too broad a scope and too few constraints. The latest NSA abuses involve the database of phone calls made by Americans compiled by the NSA. Phone companies have been ordered to turn over "metadata" about the calls made by their customers. The NSA keeps five years of this metadata on file at any given time. When the agency makes queries into the database, however, it is required by the FISA court to have a "reasonable articulable suspicion" that the call involves communication with a terrorist...

The War on Terror Is Still Everywhere

AP Photo/Doug Mills
In May of this year, Barack Obama gave a speech effectively declaring the end of the "War on Terror." Like many people, I was pleased. The War on Terror, which embodies the idea that terrorism is such an existential threat that all other threats the United States has faced pale before it and therefore we had permission abandon every moral standard we ever held to and wage a global military campaign that never ends, has been a poison coursing through our national bloodstream. Its effects can be seen in things that don't on their surface seem to have almost anything to do with terrorism. And despite Obama's speech, it doesn't seem like much has changed. It was only a few weeks after that speech that Edward Snowden's revelations about the scope of NSA surveillance began to come out, and it wasn't as though President Obama said, "You know what? This just shows how things have gotten out of hand. We're going to be dialing this stuff back." He defended every bit of it as necessary and...

A New Plot to Change the Pledge

AP Photo/Paul Sakuma
AP Photo/Paul Sakuma Fairmeadow Elementary School students recite the Pledge of Allegiance during a school assembly in Palo Alto, California. L ast week, as children across the country returned to school and struggled to remember the words to the Pledge of Allegiance, the Massachusetts Supreme Court was considering whether to make it easier for them by removing “under God.” This might seem like déjà vu. Church-State separationists have tried unsuccessfully to pry “under God” out of the Pledge since Congress inserted the phrase in 1954—more than a decade after the oath was adopted. But the case filed by the American Humanist Association (AHA), which is representing an atheist family from suburban Massachusetts, may be different. Rather than contesting the language in federal court—where any challenge is likely to come up against an unsympathetic Supreme Court—lawyers have opted to sue in state court. The legal angle is also new. Traditionally, lawsuits challenging “under God” in the...

Coming Out Guns Blazing in Colorado's Recall Elections

AP Images/Michael Ciaglo
AP Images/Michael Ciaglo This Tuesday, in a low-turnout election, voters in two Colorado districts will decide whether they want to recall their state senators. Based on the outcome of those two elections, media around the country will determine whether gun control legislation is a safe political bet for elected officials who want to keep their seats; pro- and anti-gun control groups will see if flexing their muscles with large donations has all been for naught. You might say the stakes in Colorado’s first-ever legislative recalls are high. But they probably shouldn’t be. Back in March, the two Democratic state senators now facing recall—Angela Giron and Senate President John Morse—both helped pass gun control legislation that limited the size of ammunition magazines and extended background checks. The legislation came less than a year after a gunman opened fire in a Colorado movie theater, killing 12 and injuring 70, and three months after the Newtown elementary school shootings...

One Small Step for Pot

Flickr/Dank Depot
Yesterday, the Department of Justice finally announced how it was going to deal with the fact that voters in Colorado and Washington passed initiatives legalizing marijuana for recreational use, and the result is surprisingly reasonable. In case you haven't been following this issue, those who'd like to see more enlightened policies on marijuana, which is currently classified as a Schedule 1 drug supposedly as dangerous as heroin or cocaine, have been terribly disappointed in the Obama administration. Could this be a real meaningful change? Despite early suggestions that they wouldn't waste time and resources going after marijuana and a 2009 Justice Department memo instructing U.S. Attorneys to make it a low priority, the war on pot has continued unabated in the Obama years. As Ryan Grim and Ryan Reilly described it earlier this year, "Since the memo, the Department of Justice has cracked down hard on medical marijuana, raiding hundreds of dispensaries, while the IRS and other federal...

Prison Reform: No Longer Politically Toxic?

AP Images/Rich Pedroncelli
AP Images/Rich Pedroncelli I n the two weeks since Attorney General Eric Holder announced the Justice Department would no longer charge low-level drug offenders with crimes that carry mandatory minimum sentences—and would consider releasing some elderly, nonviolent prisoners early—something remarkable has happened. There’s been no major outcry from the right. While the attorney general certainly has no shortage of outspoken detractors in the Republican ranks, the initiative hasn’t prompted any major voices to decry him as “soft on crime.” In fact, in plenty of conservative circles, he’s earned praise —or something close to it. “Eric Holder gets something marginally right,” wrote the Daily Caller . Not long ago, the lack of a right-wing furor would have been unthinkable. So would Holder’s initiative; criminal-justice reform has long been politically toxic for Democrats as well as Republicans. But in 2013, even with an administration whose policy proposals almost always prompt pushback...

Ed Davis's Minority Report

AP Photo/Bizuayehu Tesfaye
AP Photo/Matt Rourke W hen two homemade bombs derailed the Boston Marathon on April 15, longtime Mayor Thomas Menino was laid up in Brigham and Women’s Hospital, recovering from his latest setback in a string of recent ailments. The mayor of two decades immediately checked out of critical care to attend police and media briefings; but in a wheelchair with his medical bracelet still snug around his wrist, Menino couldn't deliver the sort of reassuring rhetoric that Rudy Giuliani did for New Yorkers after September 11, when he stood with rage and pride atop a mountain of World Trade Center wreckage. With Hizzoner on the sidelines, Americans sought answers from a number of surrogate authority figures, none of whom calmed the public quite like Boston Police Department (BPD) Commissioner Ed Davis. Tall and awkward but confident, with an endearing New England brogue, Davis reached through the news cameras, wrapped his meaty arms around America, and promised a swift response. In the time...

The Ex-Con Factor

AP Photo/Toby Talbot M ercedies Harris was 27 in 1990, when he was arrested for drug possession and distribution in Fairfax, Virginia. Harris had served in the Marines, but the death of his brother in 1986—killed by a hit-and-run driver—sent him down a familiar path. “I was angry and I couldn’t find the guy who did it,” Harris says. “I got into drugs to find a way to medicate myself.” Upon his release in 2003, Harris, who had earned his GED in prison, found a job and began to rebuild his life. He faced the usual practical challenges: “I couldn’t get on a lease, I had no insurance, I had no medical coverage, my driver’s license was expired.” But he found one obstacle that was especially difficult to overcome: He couldn’t vote. Virginia is one of four states—along with Florida, Iowa, and Kentucky—that strip voting rights from felons for life. The U.S. is the world’s only democracy that permits permanent disenfranchisement. While most states have some restrictions on felons voting, it...

Get to Know Section 3 of the Voting Rights Act

AP Images/Evan Vucci
AP Images/ Evan Vucci E arlier this summer, the U.S. Supreme Court gutted the most potent provision of the Voting Rights Act : Section 5, which had required nine states and a number of individual counties with long histories of voter discrimination to clear any new election law changes with the feds. In the weeks since the decision, voting rights advocates have been searching for new strategies to protect voting rights. And now, in recent days, a previously ignored portion of the Voting Rights Act has become a key tool in the fight. Advocates—as well as Attorney General Eric Holder—are hoping Section 3 will prove to be a powerful tool in the face of an onslaught of voting restrictions from Republican legislatures—and can at least partially replace the much stronger voter protections the Supreme Court took away. Since that Supreme Court decision, the states that had been covered by Section 5 have run roughshod over voting rights. Texas has set about implementing a voter ID law—...

The NSA Can't Be Trusted

flickr/Sparky
flickr/Alex Ellison O n August 9, President Obama gave a news conference at which he defended his administration's record on surveillance while proposing some modest reforms. Predictably, it got mixed reviews from observers concerned about civil liberties. Less than a week later, The Washington Post published an important story about the National Security Agency (NSA) that makes it clear more reforms are necessary—and undermine Obama's defense of his record. The key finding of the story, by Scott Wilson and Zachary Goldfarb: An internal audit found 2,776 "incidents" in which NSA surveillance breached rules between April 2011 and March 2012. Even worse, the rates of illegal "incidents" have been increasing. As the Post 's Timothy Lee says , "We now know that President Obama’s assurances that the NSA wasn’t ‘actually abusing’ its surveillance programs are untrue." The only question is whether Obama deliberately misled the public, or whether he was unaware of these violations. Neither...

Six Charts that Explain Why Our Prison System Is So Insane

flickr/wwarby
When Attorney General Eric Holder announced last week that he would be issuing instructions to federal prosecutors that could result in fewer mandatory minimum sentences for low-level drug offenders, it wasn't the risky policy change it would have been only a few years ago. With crime on a two-decade-long downward arc, politicians and policymakers don't have to worry as much as they used to about being tagged as "soft on crime." In fact, there's so much toughness already built into our criminal-justice system that unless we start lopping off thieves' hands, it couldn't get much tougher. Though the change Holder announced would affect only those convicted of federal crimes, it has brought renewed attention to our enormous prison population. And just how enormous is it? What follows are the details. In 1992, there were 1.3 million inmates in America's prisons and jails; by two decades later, a million more had been added (the data in this article are taken from the Bureau of Justice...

When Everyone Wanted to Be "Tough on Crime"

The cover of Time, February 7, 1994.
*/ Yesterday, Attorney General Eric Holder announced some policy changes meant to reduce the number of drug offenders subject to mandatory minimum sentences. Across the political spectrum, people have come to view mandatory minimums as a disaster from almost any standpoint, and as some people have pointed out, mandatory minimums were originally a Democratic idea. Those of you who are too young to remember the early 1990s might not appreciate the raw terror that gripped Democrats in those days. People regularly lost elections when their opponent's opposition researchers found some obscure vote that could be twisted into a direct mail piece saying, "Congressman Smith voted to let violent criminals out of jail—so they could rape and murder their way through our community. Is that the kind of man we want in Washington?" As it happens, at the time I was working for a political-consulting firm that created some of those mail pieces. Our clients were all Democrats, and we produced crime...

Bloomberg's Stop-And-Frisk Program Is Unconstitutional

AP Photo/Haraz N. Ghanbari
AP Photo/Seth Wenig I n a major victory for civil rights and civil liberties, a United States District Court Judge has held that the New York City Police Department's (NYPD) stop-and-frisk policies are unconstitutional. Judge Shira Scheindlin's opinion justifying the ruling is a tour de force. Carefully assessing both systematic evidence and the cases of individual litigants, Judge Scheindlin leaves no serious doubt that the NYPD's policies are inconsistent with the fundamental rights guaranteed by the Constitution. Under current Fourth Amendment law, not all warrantless searches of people in public violate the Constitution. In the landmark 1968 case Terry v. Ohio , Chief Justice Earl Warren affirmed that "stop-and-frisk" searches are indeed "searches" covered by the Fourth Amendment. As he noted in one passage in his ruling—part of which was used as an epigram by Judge Scheindlin—"it is simply fantastic to urge that such a procedure performed in public by a policeman while the...

Just How Bad Will the Florida Voter Purge Be?

Flickr/lakelandlocal and whiteafrican
Flickr/Erik Hersman I t’s no surprise that Florida’s decision to once again try to scrub the voter rolls of noncitizens has prompted an outcry from voting-rights advocates and local elections administrators. While no names have yet been removed, letters went out to elections supervisors last week about the new effort. Republican Secretary of State Ken Detzner has begun creating a new list of suspect voters. Famous for its poorly run elections, the state is picking up where it left off last year, when Detzner announced that he had a list of more than 180,000 voters who shouldn’t have been on the rolls. The list—90 percent of whose voters were nonwhite—turned out (surprise!) to be based on faulty and outdated information. The previous push also happened fewer than 90 days before Florida’s statewide primaries, leaving little time to alert the voters whose registration was being questioned and allow them to bring documentation to show they were eligible to vote. Elections supervisors in...

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