Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Drawing the Line on the Obama Administration's National Security Practices

As I've stated here previously on numerous occasions, the Barack Obama presidency is a vast improvement over the disaster of the prior eight years of the Bush/Cheney administration. But nothing's perfect, including the Obama administration's positions on national security.

In particular, the Obama administration has shown a disturbing tendency to hedge on the core principles of liberty and due process that it espoused during the campaign; capitulating instead to a disturbing number of discredited Bush-era "war on terror" rationale for maintaining arguably unconstitutional practices.


1. "Prolonged detention" - President Obama has continued the Bush/Cheney practice of allowing indefinite detention without trial or proof of guilt. He should instead insist that all prisoners have access to a fair and speedy trial, as basic constitutional principles of due process require.

2. Transparency - President Obama showed good instincts in releasing the torture memos, but dropped the ball in blocking release of photos showing American soldiers' abuse of prisoners in Iraq and Afghanistan. When they were released several years ago, the Abu Ghraib photos exposed the systematic allowance, if not encouragement, by the Rumsfeld Defense Department (with Cheney, as usual, lurking) of a sickening culture of prisoner abuse. In that case, public outrage fueled reforms; if that needs to happen again, so be it - President Obama should stick by his commitments to transparency.

3. State Secrets doctrine - the Obama administration is perpetuating in the federal courts the "state secrets" theory developed by the Bush Administration. This doctrine holds that certain lawsuits, such as those involving allegations of extreme torture in the Bush/Cheney extraordinary rendition program, shouldn't ever go to trial, since even discussing the facts in court could threaten national security. This is ridiculous. There are all sorts of protections available to keep certain aspects of court proceedings confidential (e.g., in camera review of sensitive evidence, etc.) (When I blogged on this issue previously, in February, I was inclined to give the administration the benefit of the doubt; but no longer, given the administration's other equivocations.)

There is a temptation among supporters of President Obama to let these matters slide, on the rationale that the Obama administration's approach is, at its core, based on respect, decency and due process; and that they will not abuse the power that they are attempting to maintain.

But we must resist this temptation. We must be vigilant on these matters, and insist that the Obama administration not equivocate; because as the founders and framers well knew and repeated often, constitutional protections are not necessarily designed for the benign government (after all, the benign government will tend to respect peoples' rights and liberties), but rather for the aggressive government that tends to abuse the peoples' liberties. Lest we think the latter is not possible or likely, we need only remember Bush/Cheney, 2001-09. Bush/Cheney opened the barn door on these unconstitutional practices; Obama needs to close the door and rein in the horses before they permanently escape.

Yes, President Obama is a pragmatist by nature; and politically that's probably a good thing. But on the "liberty" side of the progressive-liberty equation, some things are non-negotiable, such as due process - and the sorts of issues upon which the president is now equivocating go to the heart of due process.

Specifically, the fifth amendment to the Constitution specifies: "nor shall any person ... be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law." At the very foundation of the Anglo-American concept of due process (with roots in 1215 Magna Carta, the 1628 Petition of Right and the 1688 English Bill of Rights) is the principle that if the King/government is to hold a person against his or her will, the person must be given a fair and meaningful hearing. The Constitution memorializes this concept in a number of provisions, including the Article I, Section 9 habeas corpus clause; and the numerous criminal procedural provisions in the Fourth, Fifth, Sixth and Eight Amendments of the Bill of Rights. The practices now advocated by the Obama administration - indefinitely holding prisoners, keeping evidence secret, & preventing matters from going to trial - run disturbingly afoul of these core constitutional guarantees.

History will remember President Obama more kindly if he resolutely and unflinchingly restores American principles of liberty and due process; otherwise, by perpetuating the abusive practices initiated by Bush/Cheney, for history's purposes they become the Bush/Cheney/Obama practices.

Not the sort of historical association that President Obama should embrace.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Strong versus Weak Judging

As so often happens in the field of constitutional law, events converge that serve to illustrate how real-world practice often departs from constitutional principle. The same-day announcements on May 26 by President Obama of Sonya Sotomayor as his choice for the U.S. Supreme Court and by the California Supreme Court of its decision to uphold Proposition 8 is but another such serendipitous pairing.

First, constitutional principle suggests that President Obama owed the nation a strong nominee - and with Sonya Sotomayor, he delivered.

Those who framed the Constitution knew that it would take a special kind of person to guarantee equal justice to all - including the less powerful - even when majorities in the legislative and executive branches would not. “It is easy to see,” Alexander Hamilton wrote, “that it would require an uncommon portion of fortitude in the judges to do their duty as faithful guardians of the Constitution, where legislative invasions of it had been instigated by the major voice in the community.”

Sonya Sotomayor understands the constitutional role of judges. As she commented in 1997, “I believe we should not bend the Constitution under any circumstances. It says what it says. We should honor it.” A strong judge like Judge Sotomayor knows that when majorities abridge the rights of individuals, it is the judge’s sometimes unpopular role to overcome the majority’s will.

Weak judges, by contrast, hide behind majority opinion to avoid protecting individual liberty and equality. The California Supreme Court’s decision Tuesday to uphold Proposition 8 (despite holding just last year that discrimination against gays is no less unconstitutional than discrimination based on race or religion) is an example of judging that is, well, weak.

As the lone strong voice, dissenting Justice Carlos J. Moreno, put it, “The rule the majority crafts today … weakens the status of our state Constitution as a bulwark of fundamental rights for minorities protected from the will of the majority.”

Exactly right.

These principles apply to the federal Constitution as well. The framers believed that the whole point of majoritarian government is to protect liberty and equality for all. As James Madison explained in arguing for the Bill of Rights before the First Congress, “independent tribunals of justice will consider themselves in a peculiar manner the guardians of those rights; they will be an impenetrable bulwark against every assumption of power in the legislative or executive.” And Hamilton commented that “the interpretation of the laws is the proper and peculiar province of the courts…. If there should happen to be an irreconcilable difference between [the Constitution and a legislative act]…, the Constitution ought to be preferred to the statute, the intention of the people to the intention of their agents.”

In concept, the principle of judicial review is one upon which liberals and conservatives can agree. At his confirmation hearings in 2005, for example, Chief Justice John Roberts commented, “I don't think the Court should be a taskmaster of Congress. The Constitution is the Court's taskmaster, and it is Congress's as well.” Neither federal, state nor local majorities, in other words, may pass laws (including amendments to state constitutions) that abridge rights guaranteed by the federal Constitution - and it is the judge’s responsibility to make sure that they do not.

Viewed in this light, the “judicial activist” warhorse regularly trotted out by those opposed to judges doing their jobs to protect the rights of minorities (usually under the guise that such action constitutes inappropriate “legislating from the bench”) is exposed for what it is: a tired old nag ready for the glue factory.

Monday, June 8, 2009

Second Amendment Incorporation Update - Seventh Circuit Decision

As expected, given the judges' tone while questioning counsel during oral arguments a couple weeks ago in the McDonald v. Chicago case on which I posted at the time, the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals last Tuesday declined to incorporate the second amendment to apply to the states.

Because the Ninth Circuit in April held in Nordyke v. King that the second amendment IS incorporated, we now have a circuit split and the possibility of the U.S. Supreme Court taking up the case to resolve the disagreement.

The plaintiffs in the case, the NRA and (separately) McDonald, have already appealed to the Supreme Court - now we'll see if the Supreme Court takes the case (it requires four of the nine justices to agree to hear a case in order for it to get on the Court's docket).

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Obama in the Middle East - A Respectful, Rational Voice

One may justifiably criticize some of the decisions made by President Obama in continuing certain Bush administration policies (e.g., military commissions, state secrets, etc.), but there is one area where the new president truly shines: representing the United States abroad.

As I'd posted a couple times from the early days of his campaign, this was one of the primary reasons Obama was such an appealing candidate ... and now is such an inspiring leader.

With his landmark speech in Cairo on June 4, Obama used the bully pulpit of the American presidency to turn the discussions on Middle-East politics in more productive directions. Not that everyone in the region is enamored of everything he had to say, as reported by the BBC, but isn't it heartening to see once again a U.S. president who is able to speak respectfully and rationally in the international arena?

Eugene Robinson said it well in his June 9 column in the Washington Post, "The Importance of Being Obama":

"I used to fear that President Obama was overestimating the power of his personal history as an instrument of foreign policy. Now I wonder if he might have been underestimating."

"Taking a cold-eyed view of international affairs is never wrong," Robinson continued. "But it's also wrong to ignore the spectacle of an audience member, at Obama's Cairo University speech, interrupting an American president to shout, "We love you!" You will recall that the last memorable presidential appearance in the Arab world was the news conference in Iraq at which George W. Bush dodged two shoes hurled at his head.

"Not being Bush was a big factor. But at least as important was being Obama -- and being able to say, as the president did in Cairo, that "I have known Islam on three continents before coming to the region where it was first revealed."

"Obama was referring to the "generations of Muslims" in his father's Kenyan family, his early years in Indonesia and his experience working in Chicago communities where "many found dignity and peace in their Muslim faith." The most important word in that sentence, however, came at the end: By saying "revealed" rather than "born," Obama was acknowledging Islam as a divinely given faith.

"Obama quoted liberally from the Koran, drawing applause. Perhaps more important was that he opened the speech by putting Islam in the historical context that many Muslims believe the West willfully ignores. He spoke of how the Islamic world kept the light of civilization burning during Europe's Dark Ages -- and mentioned the Koran that Thomas Jefferson kept in his library.

"Obama was speaking the language of Islam in a tone of respect. What a concept.

"The rest of his speech consisted essentially of a summary of U.S. policy in the Muslim world, and in truth there were no real departures from traditional American policy. Prior administrations have called for a Palestinian state, and Obama hasn't been nearly as tough with Israel as, say, James Baker's State Department during the administration of George Bush the Elder. Obama had nothing substantive to announce on the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and he properly asserted the right of the United States to defend itself against terrorists.

"Familiar policies sounded different coming from Obama, though -- not just because of his identity but also because he showed a little humility. He acknowledged that in recent years our nation had acted in ways "contrary to our ideals," and noted that he had ordered an end to torture and the closing of the prison at Guantanamo. There are those who believe that admitting mistakes is a sign of weakness. I think it's a sign of confidence and strength, and I believe that's how it was received by Obama's intended audience.

"Perhaps the best indication of how Obama played in Cairo is the reaction of his competitors for the hearts and minds of the Muslim world. The Associated Press reported Sunday that the Iranian-backed, Lebanon-based guerrilla group Hezbollah, an influential radical Saudi cleric and the Egypt-based Muslim Brotherhood all warned followers not to be taken in by Obama's seductive words -- which suggests a fear that Obama had been dangerously effective. A Web site that often reflects the thinking of al-Qaeda referred to the president after the speech as a 'wise enemy.'

"The fact that many Muslims now see a sympathetic figure in the White House creates new possibilities. It turns out that being Obama matters more than I thought."