Alternative Ethics

 

“Let me know when the jail sentence starts.”
— Kellyanne Conway’s contemptuous response to a reporter asking about her repeated violations of the Hatch Act.

Of course White House counselor Kellyanne Conway knows perfectly well there are no criminal penalties for violating the Hatch Act since it is purely an administrative prohibition. Government employees can be reprimanded or fired for violating the Hatch Act, or assessed a fine up to $1,000. There are other disciplinary penalties that the Office of the Special Counsel (OSC) can recommend as well, but none of them include filing criminal charges. The difficulty in disciplining Ms. Conway, however, is that the Hatch Act as currently constituted only allows the OSC to recommend to the president that he fire her, and can do nothing on its own to remove her because she is a political appointee. As applied to Ms. Conway then, the Hatch Act is toothless as long as the president backs her, and she is also very well aware of that fact.


The Hatch Act was pushed forward in 1939 by New Mexico Senator Carl Hatch in response to overt politicking on the job by employees of the Works Progress Administration (WPA) under the Democratic presidential administration of Franklin Roosevelt. It is interesting to note Senator Hatch was a Democrat. Apparently the sentiment at the time was that putting a stop to politicking by federal employees on the taxpayers’ dime was worth bipartisan support. Congress has amended the Hatch Act twice since 1939, though always the toothless nature of the penalties for higher ranking government officials has stood, and as a result presidents have often refused to abide by disciplinary recommendations left up to their discretion.

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Kellyanne Conway speaks to the press outside the West Wing of the White House in May 2019. Official White House photo by Tia Dufour.

It’s no surprise the current president has dismissed the recommendation by the OSC that he fire Kellyanne Conway for her repeated violations of the Hatch Act and her disdain of ethics restraints. She is the kind of person he likes best – loyal to him and, when speaking for the administration, a bullsh*t artist, for lack of a more polite phrase which adequately describes her role and abilities. “Spin doctor” doesn’t quite convey her proficiency at spewing outlandish lies, a talent for which her only rival is her boss, the current president. The Oval Office occupant has couched his objection to the OSC recommendation as a violation of Ms. Conway’s free speech right, a dubious argument the Supreme Court has shot down numerous times before in regard to enforcement of the Hatch Act. Government employees are free as always to speak their minds on their own time, but in their official capacity they work for everyone in the country, not merely one political faction.

The people staffing the current presidential administration have little regard for the rule of law as applied to them, and certainly not for an Act dealing with professional ethics that has no legal bite to it. This attitude and tone is set by the current president, for whom laws and ethics and the truth are malleable when applied to him and those he likes. Past presidents and their staffs had at least some little sense of shame, which is apparently what Congress hoped for in 1939 when they passed the original Hatch Act in 1939. Congress must have hoped for voluntary compliance under the pressure of public shame and political calculations. They did not foresee an administration that behaved utterly without shame and invented alternative facts.

Michelle Wolf comments on Kellyanne Conway in this clip from a February 2017 episode of The Daily Show, hosted by Trevor Noah. Warning: foul language.

The worst actors in the current administration, such as Kellyanne Conway, have nothing but contempt for any rules that cannot threaten them with prison if they don’t comply. She and the president she serves are going to do the right thing only when it suits them to do so, not if it only serves the interests of the country. Recently some Democrats in Congress have put forward a bill to amend the Hatch Act in order to redress the lack of enforcement power of the OSC when pursuing complaints against senior political appointees. If the bill passes, presidents will no longer be sole arbiters in such cases. If the bill passes and Kellyanne Conway continues violating the Hatch Act by advocating partisan political issues in her official capacity, she still won’t end up in jail, but she and her boss may have to pay some real political consequences, which is the only thing they understand . . . maybe.
— Vita

 

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Know Your Privileges

 

Customs and Border Protection (CBP) employees have been detaining journalists and immigration lawyers at checkpoints in Arizona and Texas and questioning them about their political beliefs. These are nothing more than intimidation tactics by government employees who don’t appear overly concerned that they work for all citizens of the United States, not merely the current presidential administration and its far right supporters.

 

CBP has long had too broad an authority, and particularly after World War II when Congress passed laws giving the agency the ability to regularly trespass on citizens’ rights under the Fourth Amendment to the Constitution. In 1953, without public review, the Justice Department specified the zone within which CBP could operate fast and loose with the Constitution at 100 air miles of the United States border. That’s 100 miles within the United States, all around the perimeter, an area encompassing nearly two thirds of the populace.

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A sign at the January 2018 Womens’ March in Seneca Falls, New York. Photo by Marc Nozell.

It’s incredible these laws and rules have stayed on the books as long as they have and have withstood review by the Supreme Court. The Supreme Court has often interpreted the Constitution with an eye toward sustaining the power of the government over the citizen, however, despite the recent miraculous lapse in its ruling on Timbs v. Indiana, which rescinded civil asset forfeiture, also known as cops’ legalized stealing of citizens’ property. That ruling can best be considered an anomaly, at least from the Court’s five conservative justices, who with an even more recent ruling, in Nielsen v. Preap, are back to their usual shoring up of police state encroachments on the Constitution.

George Carlin performing in 2008 in Santa Rosa, California, just months before he died. “You Have No Rights” is the closing bit, and for the album made from this Home Box Office (HBO) special, It’s Bad for Ya, he was awarded a posthumous Grammy. Warning: foul language.

Supposedly these laws are meant to be enforced against illegal immigrants, who after all are not citizens. In practice, their overly broad authority allows enough room for CBP employees with a political agenda to harass and intimidate anyone they care to, citizens and non-citizens alike. The CBP employees can always claim some legal rationale for their capricious actions, and even after offering the flimsiest excuses, they know legal redress of their abuse of power will take years, if it comes at all. This is what happens when fear guides the writing of laws, giving too much authority to law enforcement agencies, and then a lawless presidential administration grasps the reins of all that power. Meanwhile the nation’s courts have too often upheld police prerogatives over citizens’ rights, eroding the meaning of those rights and mocking their supposed inviolability.
— Vita

 

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Cops and Robbers

 

“Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted.”
— Eighth Amendment to the United States Constitution.

In a unanimous decision on February 20, the Supreme Court ruled against the state of Indiana in the case of Timbs v. Indiana, a ruling which effectively ends the notorious practice of civil asset forfeiture. The applicable clause in the Constitution is “nor excessive fines imposed”, and it’s a wonder the states have been able to get away with lawless civil asset forfeiture practices as long as they have, considering the clause seems plainly clear. Apparently the application of that particular right slipped through as long as it has because the country’s founders meant the Constitution to apply only to the federal government. The Supreme Court has been gradually redressing that error ever since, and on February 20 the Court closed the loophole by which police departments across the country had been stealing citizens’ property under state laws allowing the practice.


Ten Commandments altar screen in the Temple Church London
The altar screen of the Temple Church in London, setting out the text of the Ten Commandments according to the 1549 Book of Common Prayer. Photo by Jheald.

What’s most remarkable about this historic ruling is that it was unanimous. The Supreme Court’s balance is now five to four in favor of conservative justices, and typically when conservatives weigh law enforcement practices against the rights of citizens they have decided for the former. Considering what was at stake in this case, the miraculously unanimous decision speaks to just how corrupt policing for profit had become, and ending it slows the nation’s slide toward becoming a police state. Now police employees nationwide have to heed the Eighth Amendment to the Constitution as well as the Eighth Commandment which, carved in stone in Judeo-Christian culture, reads “Thou shalt not steal”.

They can make more progress by heeding other Commandments, too, such as the Sixth, a paraphrase of which states “Thou shalt not wantonly kill, and then have thy buddies on the force close ranks and cover it up for thee”. That last bit incorporates the Ninth Commandment against bearing false witness, saving time. What does all this have to do with technology? If the police can finally be made to start following rules that have been set in low-tech stone for millennia, perhaps moving along to rules for 21st century high-tech will follow, like whether the controversial practice of going on fishing expeditions to obtain DNA evidence violates citizens’ rights under the Fourth and Fifth Amendments to the Constitution. There are no equivalent strictures in the Ten Commandments. Perhaps the usual advocates on the Court for the police, the conservative justices, can rely on the Constitution alone and apply its plain as day language to the latest technology and once again vote unanimously for citizens’ rights.
— Techly

 

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Consumer or Citizen

 

The Keynesian economic model which held sway in Western capitalist societies in the middle of the twentieth century has long since given way to neoliberalism, a policy and a philosophy which is a reworking of the laissez faire economies of the early industrial revolution. No wonder that we live in a new Gilded Age, the culmination of increasing economic inequality and degradation of publicly subsidized social services for everyone but the rich. Neoliberalism, a term which has meant many things in theory over the last one hundred years, has come to mean in fact laissez faire economics for the poor and middle class, and corporate welfare for the wealthy.

 

The result has been the takeover of the economy by short-sighted financial interests among the largest banks, and the takeover of politics and public policy making by those same banks and international corporations which owe allegiance to their executives and their shareholders instead of to any one national or local community. Consumers bear a great deal of the responsibility for this state of affairs, while citizens can change it.

American corporate flag
A protester at the second presidential inauguration of George W. Bush in Washington, D.C., in January 2005 holds up Adbusters’ Corporate American Flag. Photo by Jonathan McIntosh.

Consumers are passive; citizens are active. Consumers are inattentive to politics; citizens pay attention to what’s going on in government. Consumers struggle to get by and blame themselves when they cannot; citizens understand larger forces are arrayed against their interests and demand an equal place at the table. Consumers look at the wealthy and see people who helped themselves; citizens know how wealth creates wealth and privilege looks out for its own. Consumers feel helpless to change the course of society; citizens band together because they realize their power is in their numbers.

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A sign at the January 2018 Women’s March in Missoula, Montana. Photo by Montanasuffragettes.

 

The neoliberal philosophy of the past forty years has stripped people of their view of themselves as citizens with rights, duties, and responsibilities in society and replaced it with the lumpish, passive recognition of themselves as consumers, replaceable parts in the economic machine. Meanwhile, neoliberals have sold the consuming masses on the idea that unions and publicly funded healthcare and education are bad policies, but tax cuts for the wealthy and for corporations are good because of some nebulous trickling down that’s supposed to happen. Mission accomplished!

Taking action to change neoliberal policies on the environment, on economic inequality, and on the accountability of corporations, banks, and politicians is going to have start with a change in attitude among the populace from consumers to citizens. It starts with getting the money out of politics, and that starts with overturning the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United decision, which equated money with speech. What greater symbol for the neoliberal outlook can there be than “money talks”? The second most important step toward change would diminish the power of the big banks by reinstating the Depression era Glass-Steagall Act, separating commercial and investment banking. The third step would end government subsidies for the fossil fuel industry and divest from it entirely. All easier said than done, of course, and only the first few of many steps to curtail the undue influence of the rich and powerful over society, but once consumers get up off their couches and walk down as citizens to their voting places they will be taking the steps necessary to change a system that works only for a privileged few, and not for them.
— Vita

 

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A Prediction

 

With this year’s midterm election three weeks away and an enormous amount at stake regarding what sort of country voters want to live in, it’s a safe prediction that turnout will be higher than usual, perhaps at a record level. Midterm elections have historically drawn out only about 40 percent of eligible voters, compared to about 60 percent in presidential election years. There are so many cultural issues at stake in this first national election since 2016 that people are more likely than ever to turn out at the polls despite the relatively good economy, which ordinarily would be a reason for complacency and low turnout.

High voter turnout typically favors Democratic candidates, and that should hold true this year as well, but turnout by Republican voters should be high as well on account of the fires being stoked by their leader in the Oval Office, the Divider-in-Chief. In rally after rally and through draconian policy actions meant to provoke an outraged and, in his view, pearl-clutching response from the opposition, the Republican Party’s national leader inflames his base with culture war issues distorted and amplified through their partisan media outlet, Fox News. Ramming Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh through the relatively wet noodle opposition on the Senate Judiciary Committee served the Divider-in-Chief’s purposes admirably, giving him and his base a win in the culture wars against liberals. Whether Mr. Kavanaugh’s service on the Court will improve the rule of law in this country, or even respect it, is besides the point as far as they are concerned.


Map of US Voter ID Laws by State, Strict vs Non-Strict, Nov 2016
Map of Voter ID laws in the United States, Strict vs Non-Strict (November 2016).

Red ——– Photo ID required (Strict)
Orange —- Photo ID requested (Non-strict)
Dark Blue – Non-photo ID required (Strict)
Light Blue – Non-photo ID requested (Non-strict)
Gray ——- No ID required to vote
This map may not be up to date. Check with your local registrar if you are unsure. Map by Peterljr888.

 

With the Republicans fired up and their unofficial paramilitary offshoots among white supremacist organizations feeling emboldened by Supreme Leader and by the police, it’s also a fair prediction that voter intimidation efforts at the polls by those groups will be higher than ever this year. Supreme Leader has signaled numerous times to the lunatic fringe of the alt-right that he has their backs, and the police have done the same by standing by passively while white supremacist groups have rioted and dealt violence to counter protesters, most prominently in Charlottesville, Virginia, in August 2017, and again recently at altercations in Portland, Oregon, and in New York City.

If voters are intimidated at polling places this year by over zealous followers of Supreme Leader, it is perhaps not advisable to rely on reporting the matter to local police employees. It is probably better to follow the guidelines of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and call the Election Protection Hotline at 866-OUR-VOTE, or the Department of Justice Voting Rights Hotline at 800-253-3931. The ACLU also advises contacting an attorney, but as that can add up to a lot of expense, it helps to realize the Election Protection Hotline is run by the Lawyers’ Committee for Civil Rights Under Law and can help with legal questions pro bono. Now that everyone in the country has had two years to observe where the Divider-in-Chief and his cohort want to take the country, to unsavory places where the rule of law is not respected and where only the rich benefit from the nation’s wealth, it has never been more clear how much voting can make a difference in the sort of country we claim to be than in this year’s midterm election. Vote!
— Ed.

 

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Trolls

 

“troll – verb
definition 2c: to harass, criticize, or antagonize (someone) especially by provocatively disparaging or mocking public statements, postings, or acts.”
Merriam-Webster Dictionary

At a partisan political rally in Mississippi on Tuesday, the Troll-in-Chief entertained his audience of trolls with mockery of Christine Blasey Ford, who had testified before a Congressional committee the previous Thursday about an alleged sexual assault Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh and his friend, Mark Judge, had perpetrated against her in 1982. The crowd of trolls at the rally revived the “Lock her up” chant from the 2016 presidential election campaign, this time referring to Ms. Ford rather than to Hillary Clinton.


What did Ms. Ford have to gain by giving her testimony and subjecting herself to sneering from the Oval Office Oaf and his cadre of morally warped minions? What does Mr. Kavanaugh have to gain by avowing his innocence other than the crown jewel of his ambition, a seat on the Supreme Court? Encouraged by their Chief Manipulator, the trolls at the Mississippi rally laughed at Ms. Ford and her testimony while taking Mr. Kavanaugh seriously. It’s difficult to fathom the hardness of heart and smallness of spirit it must take to attend one of these rallies and show support for such a Cancerous Leader.

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Horror World Circus Exhibition outside Nazi-Era Congress Hall in Nuremberg, Germany, in August 2012. Photo by Adam Jones, Ph.D.

Before this political and social nightmare progresses to its foul end, there will be divisions within families and among friends and neighbors on a scale not seen in this country since the Civil War. If Cancerous Leader manages to consolidate his power in the elections of 2018 and 2020, then the divisions will be more like those in Nazi Germany, where a minority of sociopaths cowed the majority of decent people into silence about their casual cruelties and major abuses of power.

A compilation of clips from a 1961 episode of The Twilight Zone, titled “Five Characters in Search of an Exit”, written by Rod Serling, and starring William Windom as the Major and Susan Harrison as the Ballerina.

There will be similarities, but not exact resemblances as the United States fashions its own brand of totalitarianism based on worship of the Almighty Dollar. People will have to ask themselves, as some no doubt already have done, how can I possibly remain on good terms with that family member, that friend, that neighbor, when they support such foul rhetoric and willingly follow such despicable and cruel policies? Why should I, and how could I, without abandoning my principles, my self-respect, and the defense of their victims, among whom I can eventually almost certainly number myself?
— Ed.

 

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Reason to Smile

 

“Equality of rights under the law shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of sex.” — Section 1 of the Equal Rights Amendment.

It’s a fair guess that at some point in their lives most women have had someone, usually a man, but sometimes another woman, urge them to smile more, as if it were incumbent upon women to always appear pleasant and non-threatening. No one tells men to smile, except maybe for pictures. This past week, on Wednesday, May 30, Illinois became the 37th state to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA), leaving the amendment one state short of the approval by three fourths of the states required to become law. That’s reason to smile. Celebration, however, may still be a long struggle away.

 

When the United States Congress approved the ERA in 1972, they sent it on to the states with a seven year limit for ratification written into the proposal, something that had become common practice ever since the proposal for the 18th Amendment (Prohibition), with the one exception of the 19th Amendment (Women’s Suffrage). After ratification stalled at 35 states in 1977, Congress eventually granted an extension on the time limit until 1982. The amendment has remained in limbo since then, until 2017 when Nevada, under pressure from a renewed groundswell in the women’s rights movement due to current events both in politics and in the workplace, ratified the amendment to move the total to 36.

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Alice Paul, on the right, leader of the feminist movement in America and vice president of the Woman’s Party, meets with Mildred Bryan, youngest Colorado feminist, in the Garden of the Gods at Colorado Springs, where on September 23rd, 1925, the Party launched its western campaign for an amendment to the Constitution giving equal rights to women. Photo by H.L. Standley.

There is some question whether the amendment will indeed become law with ratification by a 38th state because of the time limit imposed in its proposal by Congress, and because a handful of state legislatures have rescinded their ratification since the 1970s. There is nothing explicit in Article V of the Constitution, which deals with the amendment process, stating Congress should impose a time limit on ratification. In the 1921 case of Dillon v. Gloss, the Supreme Court inferred from Article V that Congress had the power to impose a time limit, settling that argument on shaky ground. In 1939, in the case of Coleman v. Miller, the Supreme Court sent the ball back into Congress’s arena of politics on whether ratification by states after the expiration of a time limit had any validity, and whether states were allowed to rescind ratifications. Those questions have remained unchallenged, and therefore unsettled, ever since.

In an episode of the 1970s television show All in the Family, Archie Bunker argues with his neighbor Irene Lorenzo , played by Carroll O’Connor and Betty Garrett, about equal pay for equal work after Irene starts working at the same place as Archie. 46 years after Congress passed the ERA in 1972, the issue remains unsettled.

There has been a development since 1939 that further clouds the entire issue of a time limit on ratification, and that is the full ratification of the 27th Amendment (Congressional Pay Raises) in 1992, after a delay of 203 years since its passing by Congress in 1789. No time limit had been imposed by Congress in 1789, of course, but since it nonetheless became the law of the land after hundreds of years of languishing in the docket, it raises the question of the legality of the decision in Dillon v. Gloss and sets a precedent for proponents of the ERA to follow in seeking to overturn the expiration of its time limit in 1982. If and when a 38th state ratifies the ERA, that state most likely being Virginia, the matter will probably bounce from the courts back to Congress, where it will have to be settled politically, making the upcoming 2018 congressional midterm elections important for yet one more reason. Until then, smile when you feel like smiling, or not at all.
— Vita

 

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And Another Thing

 

Telling someone off, no matter who they are and how high and mighty they may seem, is as American as apple pie. In fact, the more important a person purports to be, the better for all concerned in our society that someone tell that person off sooner or later, either before or after they get too big for their britches. That’s democracy. Last October, when Juli Briskman was out for a bicycle ride in Sterling, Virginia, and the motorcade of the Duffer-in-Chief passed her on the road on their way back from yet another weekend on the links, Ms. Briskman exercised her rights as well as herself by flipping off the Duffer and his motorcade. Her gesture was every bit an expression of American freedom as the “thumbs up” gesture the Duffer favors using, or even the one where he points to the person next to him in an awkward and strange display of his dominance.

 

Ms. Briskman is now suing her former employer, Akima, a federal contractor in the facilities maintenance business, for unlawful termination in order to collect legal fees and the severance pay they promised, but never gave her. Akima’s management used the excuse of an obscene social media posting by Ms. Briskman to fire her, because she posted the photo of herself flipping off the president’s motorcade after it had already circulated widely through the news media. She was making a political statement on her own time when she flipped off El Presidente, and she posted the picture on her personal social media account, with no reference to the company she worked for, yet the Akima bosses saw fit to throw her under the bus once it became widely known she worked for them, a federal contractor seemingly at the mercy of the whims of El Presidente.

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The Women’s March on January 21, 2017, in Washington, D.C., one day after the installment of Spanky the Pussy Grabber in the Oval Office. Photo by Liz Lemon.

It’s unfortunate Ms. Briskman lost her job over her political statement, though considering how Akima management reacted it is perhaps best for her in the long run to get away from those people. What’s particularly interesting about the lawsuit she is bringing against them is the effect it may have on employers’ control over their employees lives outside of work. There has been a trend toward companies’ monitoring of employees’ social media accounts, and whether the companies or the public disapproves of any individual’s social media postings or political activity outside of work should be immaterial under the First Amendment to the Constitution. It is worth noting the irony that the Supreme Court, with its 2010 decision in Citizens United, upheld the notion that the political campaign expenditures of corporations qualify as free speech, with protection under the First Amendment, yet there has been no Supreme Court ruling on the broad capacity of corporations to intimidate their employees when it comes to the employees expressing themselves freely on their own time.

People are free of course not to work for such corporations, just as they are free not to work for a corporation like Sinclair Broadcasting, which forces its employees to spout the company line over the airwaves on the company’s time, whether they agree with it or not. The problem comes when these companies acquire undue influence throughout their particular industry, and can then effectively blackball not only dissent, but the dissenters as well. That’s where the courts are supposed to step in to protect the rights of individuals, the rights that are codified in many laws from the Constitution’s Bill of Rights on down to state laws against discrimination and unequal treatment of all sorts. But it’s expensive to fight large corporations in court. The corporations know that, and they will often act in that case in what they perceive as their own best interest, letting the legal chips fall where they may, which often as not happens to be in their favor.

A fine display of the art of telling someone off in the 1992 film Glengarry Glen Ross, from the play by David Mamet about real estate salesmen, and starring Al Pacino, Kevin Spacey, and Jack Lemmon. Warning: foul language.

There ought to be a better way, and in fact there was a better way at one time. It was called “unions”. Corporations have non-disclosure agreements, arbitration agreements, end-user license agreements, and any number of other agreements in legalese meant to tie up individuals one by one and render them powerless against the mighty corporation with its cadre of lawyers on retainer. An individual such as Juli Briskman has to rely on a GoFundMe campaign in order to go to court to ensure her rights are respected, and to be able to pay the fees of attorneys working on her case as well as necessary household expenses while she looks for a new job. She is actually lucky, in that her case has generated sufficient publicity to get people interested in donating to her cause. Most people have to fight on their own, falling back on scanty resources. Unions, as corrupt and inefficient as some of them were, helped keep corporations in check, and now that the unions are almost entirely gone there is no check remaining on the corporations, not with the government in their pockets, and so now they seek to control every aspect of our lives, economic, social, and political.
— Ed.

 

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Without Due Process of Law

 

“If men were angels, no government would be necessary. If angels were to govern men, neither external nor internal controls on government would be necessary.”
― from The Federalist Papers, No. 51, by James Madison.

United States Attorney General Jeff Sessions is a fan of civil asset forfeiture, and last year he reinstated the federal partnership with state and local authorities that had been ended by the previous Attorney General, Eric Holder. That partnership allows state and local police to share seized assets with federal authorities if they claim even the flimsiest trespass on federal law by the forfeited assets (in a pretzel-like twist of legal reasoning, it is the assets themselves that are accused, not the person or persons who own them). Engaging the federal government in this way allows state and local police to bypass their civil asset forfeiture laws because they are superseded by federal laws, which are often more favorable to the police. The feds then give the state and local cops a kickback of all or part of the proceeds. This is called “equitable sharing” or, more cutely, “federal adoption”.


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Getting pulled over for a minor traffic violation while carrying a large amount of cash can lead to a nightmare civil asset forfeiture scenario for the driver, regardless of the legitimacy of his or her claim to the cash. Only the rich can afford to fight city hall in court. Photo by photoo.uk.

No person shall be held to answer for a capital, or otherwise infamous crime, unless on a presentment or indictment of a Grand Jury, except in cases arising in the land or naval forces, or in the Militia, when in actual service in time of War or public danger; nor shall any person be subject for the same offence to be twice put in jeopardy of life or limb; nor shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself, nor be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation.

― The Fifth Amendment to the United States Constitution, with the due process clause.


It’s hard to imagine how the law can be more clear than this: ” . . . nor be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law . . . ” To be doubly sure, there is another due process clause in the 14th Amendment. Yet here we are, with police abusing the citizenry by stealing from them, sometimes without even a formal charge filed, but only on mere suspicion of a crime having been committed with the asset or assets, and keeping the proceeds in order to augment their budget. There are slight differences in the law from state to state, but in many states the police are allowed to keep seized assets, which also clearly violates the last clause of the Fifth Amendment, the takings clause. It’s impossible to imagine a more blatant case of conflict of interest, adding insult to the injury of the initial seizure.

 

In a civil asset forfeiture case, the burden of proof is often on the citizen whose assets were seized, not the authorities who took them. In order to retrieve seized assets, a citizen must prove they were not used in the commission of a crime or are a result of criminal activity, and this proof must be forthcoming even when the police have not filed a charge in court. Apparently the only thing to prevent the police from more flagrantly abusing the civil asset forfeiture laws more than they do is the basic decency and good character of the majority of them. But men are not angels, as James Madison wisely observed, and to allow these laws to remain on the books is to invite corruption of the police and further erosion of public trust in government.

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Cash found in a freezer at the Washington, D.C. home of Congressman William J. Jefferson of Louisiana. This photo was entered as evidence in July 2009 showing what was seized in August 2005 from the freezer of the home of then Rep. William Jefferson, D-New Orleans. Jurors in the trial of Jefferson, who lost his re-election bid in 2008 while under indictment for bribery, saw photos of the infamous frozen cash. It was wrapped in $10,000 increments and concealed in boxes of Pillsbury pie crust and Boca burgers. Photo by the U.S. Attorney’s Office.

A flagrant case of abuse occurred last year in Jeff Sessions’s home state of Alabama, in the small town of Castleberry in the south central part of the state. To generate revenue for his little town, the mayor hatched a plan for taking advantage of Alabama’s very favorable civil asset forfeiture laws by confiscating cash and property from citizens and visitors alike, but especially out of state visitors, often using entirely invented suspicions. The police chief made no bones about it on public forums, where he joked about how the bogus money grabbing had been a windfall for the town of Castleberry and its nascent police department, now flush with fancy new equipment and patrol cars. Eventually bad publicity caught up with the mayor and police chief of Castleberry, and they were hit with a lawsuit. On a national scale, what happened in Castleberry doesn’t amount to much other than a clear distillation of everything wrong with civil asset forfeiture.

Attorney General Sessions, waving the bloody shirt of the War on Drugs, nevertheless wants to continue civil asset forfeiture and expand it, if he can get away with it. His motivations are unimportant other than how they forecast all the draconian policies he’s likely to see through while he is in charge of the Department of Justice. The important thing is that he has opened up one of the very few issues that attracts a bipartisan consensus in Congress, and that has been for less civil asset forfeiture, not more.

Highway robbery in Stanley Kubrick’s 1975 film Barry Lyndon, with Ryan O’Neal as Redmond Barry. Under America’s civil asset forfeiture laws, the gold guineas in Barry’s purse, and the horse he rode in on, could be forfeited to the robbers, or police.
The strange history of this policy of official stealing from the innocent and the guilty alike also matters little, except perhaps to those appellate court judges who fall back on referring to obscure precedents of legal reasoning as convoluted and ultimately irrelevant as the debates of clerics who wondered how many angels might dance on the head of a pin. Congress can take this matter away from both Sessions and the judges by enacting legislation rolling it back. Really it should be swept away entirely, along with the War on Drugs it purportedly assists, as failed policies which have corrupted the police and eroded public trust every bit as much and in the same way as Prohibition did in the early decades of the twentieth century, when civil asset forfeiture first became a major police tactic. It seems we never learn lessons once and for all, but have to forever relearn them.
― Ed.

 

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Something for Nothing

 

“. . . To promote the Progress of Science and useful Arts, by securing for limited Times to Authors and Inventors the exclusive Right to their respective Writings and Discoveries . . .”
― an excerpt from Article I, Section 8 of the United States Constitution.

Recently the pharmaceutical company Allergan cut a deal with the St. Regis Mohawk Tribe of upstate New York to hold the patent for one of its drugs in order to protect the company from patent challenges. The reasoning behind the deal is that since Native American tribes have sovereign immunity from some types of lawsuits under the 11th Amendment to the Constitution, Allergan is protecting itself from expensive and sometimes unwarranted litigation relating to its patent. In return, the St. Regis Mohawk Tribe will receive millions of dollars up front, and millions more in royalties. Since this is a new type of arrangement, it’s unclear how well it will hold up in court.


Collection of United States patents granted to Thomas A. Edison, 1869-1884 (1869) (14570066720)
Illustration for an 1881 patent granted to Thomas Edison for an improvement to the incandescent light bulb he had first patented in 1880, itself an improvement built on the work of Canadian inventor Henry Woodward. Edison collected 2,332 patents worldwide, many of them for incremental improvements such as the one pictured here.

 

Patent infringements and patent challenges are nothing new, but with the explosion in technical innovations, new drugs, and medical devices in the past thirty years or so, the amount of infringement and challenge cases in the courts have exploded as well. Widespread patent trolling is a new phenomenon, tying up court dockets with often tenuous claims by some patent holders that their patent rights have been violated by another party.

The troll in this circumstance is usually an affiliation of lawyers sometimes known as a Non-Practicing Entity (NPE), which does not make or sell anything, but collects patents for the leverage that gives them in either extracting (extorting) licensing fees or lawsuit settlements from other parties. The patents used suit the purpose because they are overly broad and general, leaving plenty of room for interpretation by the courts, and the victims are often small to medium sized businesses which can’t afford the millions in lawyers’ fees and court costs it would take to defend themselves, instead choosing the easier and cheaper route of ponying up the licensing fee to the troll.

It’s hard to find fault with the St. Regis Mohawk Tribe for agreeing to the deal with Allergan. Native American tribes are often poor, their reservations pushed onto marginally productive land, and if they can take advantage of their status as sovereign nations within the United States to make some money, then more power to them. That same sovereign nation status, after all, has usually proved a mockery as European immigrants violated treaty after treaty with the Native Americans in pursuit of land and natural resources, taking what they liked with military force if words would not suffice.


Allergan, on the other hand, is doing what American companies seemingly do best, which is to cleverly exploit a loophole in the system. Whether Allergan is protecting itself from trolls or planning on doing the trolling itself from its newly purchased protected perch, that is yet to be seen. Large companies, such as Apple, can be both targets and perpetrators, though as perpetrators it’s often in the sense of patent infringement rather than trolling.

 

Self-operating napkin (Rube Goldberg cartoon with caption)
This cartoon of a “self-operating napkin” machine by Rube Goldberg originally appeared in the September 26, 1931 issue of Collier’s Magazine.

There’s plenty of gray area involved, and that’s where legislators need to step in to more clearly define the lines and reduce the amount of trolling lawsuits. Congress has acted in the past several years by changing the laws in favor of genuine innovators and against NPEs. More needs to be done, such as making the loser in a lawsuit pay the legal fees of both sides if the judge determines that one side has acted with intent to harass and extort the other.

This film of less than two minutes demonstrates Wallace’s endless enthusiasm for Goldbergian contraptions, much to the dismay of his dog, Gromit.

Some states have enacted such legislation, but where the case gets decided in a federal court, such as would be the situation should Allergan get challenged or challenge another party, the proceedings are not as clear due to fluid interpretations of the 11th Amendment. It appears that besides tightening up the rules governing patents, the next step is for Congress and the States to clarify the 11th Amendment to take away the sovereign immunity loophole. It’s unfortunate that Native American tribes would be denied a source of revenue, but patent parking really is a shady deal that needs to be stopped before it goes too far, similar to what has happened with the entrenchment of offshore tax havens for corporations.
― Techly

 

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