Yesterday, on the same day that major websites like Wikipedia, Wordpress, Reddit, and Wired went dark to protest the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA), the Justice Department shut down Megaupload, one of the largest file-sharing sites on the Internet. The site’s seven founders were arrested in New Zealand and are accused of making $175 million in profits while costing copyright holders an estimated $500 million in revenue. They face up to 20 years in prison for violating international copyright laws.
The case of Corey Maples provides a disturbing look at the death penalty system in the United States and underscores how even people facing execution are often not represented by adequate counsel at any stage of the criminal process. In Maples’s case, the attorneys assigned to represent his appeals quit midway through the process, and yet the state of Alabama blamed Maples for his failure to comply with procedural requirements he had no way of fulfilling. Yesterday, the Supreme Court corrected this obvious mistake by ruling that Maples had a right to appeal in a 7-to-2 decision. But this case will leave the pervasive problem of bad legal representation in our criminal justice system essentially untouched.
Taking powerful new scientific evidence about the unreliability of eyewitness identification into account, last year the New Jersey Supreme Court established strict rules to determine when eyewitness identifications are unreliable enough to be inadmissible. In a case decided earlier this week, Perry v. New Hampshire, the Supreme Court had an opportunity to follow suit with a reconsideration of its own. Regrettably but not surprisingly, the Court instead decided to ignore the new evidence.
I normally try my best to ignore the latest Blair Witch film sting from conservative provocateur James O'Keefe, he of ACORN and Planned Parenthood fame. But O'Keefe's new gotcha video unfortunately dips its toes into my beat, so I'll briefly grant him some of the media attention he craves.
Combining a variety of conservative culture-war obsessions, Oklahoma voters in 2010 passed an initiative that would "forbid courts from looking at international law or Sharia Law when deciding cases." Today, the Tenth Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that the initiative violated the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.
Hana Beshara, the head administrator of Ninja Video, a TV- and movie-streaming site seized by Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) in June 2010—and the subject of my article, “A Ninja In Our Sites,” in the January/February issue of the Prospect—was sentenced on Friday to 22 months in prison. Upon release, she will be required to complete 500 hours of community service and pay $209,827 in restitution to the film industry’s lobbying group, the Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA). Restitution payments have been set at $150 a month, which means Beshara is expected to give a chunk of her future income to the MPAA for a little over 116 years.
Without issuing an explanation, yesterday the Supreme Court upheld a federal law banning resident aliens from making campaign contributions. It is regrettable but perhaps telling that the Court chose not to explain why it agreed with the lower court: The case reveals obvious problems with its penchant for First Amendment absolutism in campaign-finance cases, most notably its decision in Citizens United.
The Montana Supreme Court in Helena stands just off the main drag, dramatically called Last Chance Gulch Street. The picturesque setting is fitting for an institution that has just challenged the U.S. Supreme Court to a legal showdown on the enormously important question of whether corporations should have an unfettered right to dominate elections or whether citizens have the right to adopt commonsense protections to defend democratic government from corruption. Get the kids off the streets, because this could be an epic confrontation.
The Republicans who argue that the Affordable Care Act (ACA) violates the Constitution have based their argument around the idea that the law will result in a remarkable new expansion of federal power that will lead us on a path to total government tyranny. As the brief filed by the Obama administration in defense of the ACA makes clear, however, the mandate to purchase insurance in fact falls squarely within the framework of federal power that the Supreme Court has consistently advanced since the New Deal.
Sargeant Shamar Thomas protests against NDAA Tuesday at Grand Central Station.
Five hundred people returned to Zuccotti Park on New Year's Eve, with drums, chants of "Whose Year? Our Year!", and a tent, which they say they gave to police in exchange for entrance to the park. An hour before midnight, police and occupiers attempting to remove metal barricades around Zuccotti had a violent confrontation and, by 1:30 a.m., police had cleared activists from the park.
To keep money from corrupting our democratic politics, we need constitutional change. No doubt lots can be done by statute alone—meaningful transparency rules, such as the Disclose Act, and small-dollar public funding, such as the Fair Elections Now Act. The Supreme Court, however, has all but guaranteed that these won’t be enough. Transparency by itself won’t build trust; public funding can only be voluntary; and independent expenditures are all but certain to swamp even the best reforms tolerated by the Court. If we’re ever going to get a Congress “dependent,” as James Madison put it in Federalist Paper No. 52, “upon the People alone,” and not “the Funders,” it is clear that Congress will need new constitutional authority.
When Barack Obama entered the White House, liberals hoped that the Civil Rights Division of the Department of Justice might return to its proper mission. The agency had been gutted during the Bush years, litigating individual cases of bias without tackling the systematic levers of discrimination that affect a far larger share of the population. Obama beefed up the agency's staff and DOJ started hiring actual civil rights attorneys (unlike the strict ideological conservatives without civil rights experience who entered during the Bush administration).