Law

Washington, Colorado, and the Headaches of a Legal High

AP Photo/Damian Dovarganes
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. But there are advantages to legalizing the drug; Washington and Colorado can have a hand in making the product safer while they benefit from tax revenues. Both states are in the early stages of creating systems for taxation and regulation; the Washington State Liquor Control Board released a set of standards earlier this month, while Colorado’s state legislature has passed a series of recommendations from a task force. The differences between the two states' approaches will...

Five Voting Fights You’ll Care About Come Election Time

AP Images/Dave Martin
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. Then there was early voting; Republicans, most notably in Florida and Ohio, cut back early voting days and hours, and voters in several Florida counties faced hours-long lines. Then Obama won, created a commission to find solutions and everyone stopped...

The DOJ's Freedom of Speech Breach

WikiMedia commons
O n 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? The answer to to the first question, at least based on what we know now, is "probably." A subpoena for records as part of an investigation, as opposed to a search warrant, does not require judicial approval. Intuitively, it may seem as if the First Amendment should shield the press from government investigators. But, at least under current Supreme Court doctrine, this isn't the case. In the 1972 landmark case Branzburg v. Hayes , the Court held that "[t]he First Amendment does not relieve a newspaper reporter of the obligation that all citizens have to respond to a grand jury...

D.C. Circuit v. Worker Rights

WikiMedia Commons
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. The case involved a 2011 regulation issued by the NLRB which required employers to post notices informing workers of their right to join a union and providing basic information about how to contact the NLRB. The regulation was challenged by business groups based on an assortment of legal arguments. The District Court upheld the authority of the NLRB to issue the...

LLM: Lawyers Losing Money

AP Images/Chitose Suzuki
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. The school is undergoing a $130 million expansion and has moderately grown its LLM program—a once rare post-graduate degree whose recent proliferation is becoming to critics a symbol of unscrupulous law school practices. American is not alone in growing its LLM program. From the early 1970s to the late 1990s, the LLM was a marginal degree aimed primarily at foreign...

The House Takes Mass Incarceration to Task

Wikimedia Commons
AP Photo I n 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-...

Schneiderman Strikes Back

AP Photo/Carolyn Kaster
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 February 2012 settlement with those two banks, as well as JP Morgan Chase, Citibank, and Ally Financial (formerly GMAC), had required the banks to adhere to a set of standards that would end the kind of abuses that had led to wholesale foreclosures of homes when they could have worked out alternative arrangements with the homeowners. Some of those standards—such as requiring the banks to notify struggling homeowners within five days that they had received the documents required to modify mortgages—sound so obvious they shouldn’t have needed to be codified, yet it was precisely such practices that the banks had repeatedly shunned. Homeowner...

You Think We Have Lots of Guns Now...

The first working gun made (almost) entirely on a 3-D printer.
There's even more exciting gun news today, coming from a small nonprofit 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: They may call this thing "The Liberator," but it's a little too impractical to be able to liberate anyone at the moment. It's probably highly inaccurate, and it holds only one bullet. But this is more a proof-of-concept than anything else, and if you want to, you can go to their website and download the plans, then print one out on your own 3-D...

Emotion and Reason in the Gun Debate

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...

The Sequester v. The Sixth Amendment

Flickr/David Baron/Mark Fischer
Fifty years ago, the Supreme Court famously declared in Gideon v. Wainwright that the government was required to supply counsel to defendants who cannot afford it. The noble ideals of the Bill of Rights, Justice Hugo Black wrote in that case, "cannot be realized if the poor man charged with crime has to face his accusers without a lawyer to assist him." Unfortunately, as journalist Karen Houppert demonstrates in exhaustive detail in her terrific new book, Chasing Gideon , in practice the requirements of Gideon have often been flouted by governments. This week provides two excellent examples of the way in which the dysfunctions of American government have translated into inadequate legal representation for those accused of crimes. First of all, the sequester that resulted from Republican hostage-taking in 2011 is undermining both public safety and the rights of defendants. Because of the sequester, people working in the federal public defender's office in Boston will face furloughs—...

Make ‘Em Plead?

The House's “Gang of Eight” immigration compromise may require 11 million court dates.

flickr/BoneDaddy.P7
At a time when the backlog of cases before the courts has reached staggering proportions, Republicans on the House immigration working group have come up with a proposal to lengthen judicial waits beyond all imaginable horizons. According to a Roll Call report , the eight House members (four from each party) devising an immigration legalization bill they hope can win bipartisan support have hit upon a compromise that might make the bill more palatable to the GOP’s nattering nativists. They’d require undocumented immigrants to appear in federal court and plead guilty to breaking U.S. immigration law. The immigrants would then be sentenced to five years probation, to be followed by five more years of hanging around legally, whereupon they could apply for citizenship, which they could achieve in another three years. The waiting period, in other words, would be the same 13 years that the Senate’s own "Gang of Eight" has proposed, but with a guilty plea thrown in for good measure. I’m not...

Meet the Stalkers

flickr/cmm08f
AP Photo/Fareed Khan E very day, without even knowing it, you share intimate personal details about your life with people you’ve never met. The medical symptoms you search online follow you: first to the pharmacy where you pick up a prescription, then to a database of specialists looking to add you as a patient, or to an insurance company creating a risk pool. The car you’ve researched on the Web has been broadcast to your local dealerships before you’ve even left the house. When you walk in the door, the salesman already knows which color you want—as well as your salary and driving history—and pulls the shiny new car of your dreams around front. Americans worship privacy, railing when our favorite websites alter their terms of service to collect just a bit more information about us. Yet from the moment you swipe your rewards card at CVS or update Facebook, there are companies you don’t even know exist—often referred to as “data brokers”—watching, taking notes, and connecting the dots...

Black, Brown, and Blue

AP Photo/Seth Wenig, File
AP Photo/Colleen Long W hat Jamaal Vassell describes as one of the most challenging days of his life actually began at night, in 2010. An outgoing and popular presence at his neighborhood community center, Vassell, then 17, had traveled from his home in Canarsie, Brooklyn, to neighboring Brownsville to play basketball by himself at his favorite court. After making a few shots, a few younger boys, around 14 years old, joined in. They were all playing ball together until three New York City Police Department officers stopped them. Vassell was used to it. He had already been stopped twice by NYPD officers—once after popping into a convenience store after school and another time as he walked home from a local recreation center one night. The walk from the rec center ended with the officers handing him a summons for what he calls “smoking and hanging out too late,” two activities he vehemently denies doing. Nonetheless, he was ordered to show up in court. The summons seemed like being sent...

Boston Changed Nothing

Flickr/Pete Tschudy
We've all seen how the bombing in Boston, as so often happens with events like this, brought out the best in the people who were there. But it also—not surprisingly either—brought out the worst in some other people who were back in Washington. It gave them the opportunity to let loose their most vulgar impulses, the satisfaction they get from stoking fear, and their absolute disdain for so many of the things that make America what it is, has been, and continues to be. You'll recall that after September 11, the phrase "this changes everything" was repeated thousands of times. In too many cases, what that meant was, "This gives me the opportunity to advocate changes pulled from the darkest recesses of my imagination, the things I never would have dared suggest before. This is our chance." We can toss aside those pesky constitutional amendments that protect against unreasonable search and seizure or provide for due process, because we never liked them anyway. Hell, we can even torture...

Read Him His Rights

AP Photo/vk.com
AP Photo/vk.com Dzhokhar Tsarnaev T he capture of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev presents an important test for federal and state authorities: Can the United States resist the temptation to violate the civil liberties of people suspected of engaging in acts of terrorism? In some important respects, we seem to have avoided the systematic civil-liberties violations of the Bush administration. But when it comes to informing Tsarnaev of his Fifth Amendment rights, Obama is buying into the myth that ordinary police process is inadequate for dealing with domestic terrorism. It is not clear what the Obama administration will do with Tsarnaev, who has not been read his Miranda rights and who is engaging only in written communication from his hospital bed. But U.S. Attorney Carmen Ortiz has cited a "public-safety exemption in cases of national security and potential charges involving acts of terrorism" and indicated that Tsarnaev will be interrogated for at least a 48-hour period without being informed of...

Pages