Category: Administrative Law

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Introduction: Symposium on Infrastructure: the Social Value of Shared Resources

I am incredibly grateful to Danielle, Deven, and Frank for putting this symposium together, to Concurring Opinions for hosting, and to all of the participants for their time and engagement. It is an incredible honor to have my book discussed by such an esteemed group of experts. 

The book is described here (OUP site) and here (Amazon). The Introduction and Table of Contents are available here.

Abstract:

Shared infrastructures shape our lives, our relationships with each other, the opportunities we enjoy, and the environment we share. Think for a moment about the basic supporting infrastructures that you rely on daily. Some obvious examples are roads, the Internet, water systems, and the electric power grid, to name just a few. In fact, there are many less obvious examples, such as our shared languages, legal institutions, ideas, and even the atmosphere. We depend heavily on shared infrastructures, yet it is difficult to appreciate how much these resources contribute to our lives because infrastructures are complex and the benefits provided are typically indirect.

The book devotes much-needed attention to understanding how society benefits from infrastructure resources and how management decisions affect a wide variety of private and public interests. It links infrastructure, a particular set of resources defined in terms of the manner in which they create value, with commons, a resource management principle by which a resource is shared within a community.

Infrastructure commons are ubiquitous and essential to our social and economic systems. Yet we take them for granted, and frankly, we are paying the price for our lack of vision and understanding. Our shared infrastructures—the lifeblood of our economy and modern society—are crumbling. We need a more systematic, long-term vision that better accounts for how infrastructure commons contribute to social welfare.

In this book, I try to provide such a vision. The first half of the book is general and not focused on any particular infrastructure resource. It cuts across different resource systems and develops a framework for understanding societal demand for infrastructure resources and the advantages and disadvantages of commons management (by which I mean, managing the infrastructure resource in manner that does not discriminate based on the identity of the user or use). The second half of the book applies the theoretical framework to different types of infrastructure—e.g., transportation, communications, environmental, and intellectual resources—and examines different institutional regimes that implement commons management. It then wades deeply into the contentious “network neutrality” debate and ends with a brief discussion of some other modern debates.

Throughout, I raise a host of ideas and arguments that probably deserve/require more sustained attention, but at 436 pages, I had to exercise some restraint, right? Many of the book’s ideas and arguments are bound to be controversial, and I hope some will inspire others. I look forward to your comments, criticisms, and questions.

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Cybersecurity Legislation and the Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board

Along with a lot of other privacy folks, I have a lot of concerns about the cybersecurity legislation moving through Congress.  I had an op-ed in The Hill yesterday going through some of the concerns, notably the problems with the over broad  “information sharing” provisions.

Writing the op-ed, though, prompted me to highlight one positive step that should happen in the course of the cybersecurity debate.  The Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board was designed in large part to address information sharing.  This past Wednesday, the Senate Judiciary Committee had the hearing to consider the bipartisan slate of five nominees.

Here’s the point.  The debate on CISPA and other cybersecurity legislation has highlighted all the information sharing that is going on already and that may be going on in the near future.  The PCLOB is the institution designed to oversee problems with information sharing.  So let’s confirm the nominees and get the PCLOB up and running as soon as possible.

The quality of the nominees is very high.  David Medine, nominated to be Chair, helped develop the FTC’s privacy approach in the 1990’s and has worked on privacy compliance since, so he knows what should be done and what is doable.  Jim Dempsey has been at the Center of Democracy and Technology for over 15 years, and is a world-class expert on government, privacy, and civil liberties.  Pat Wald is the former Chief Judge of the DC Circuit.  Her remarkably distinguished career includes major experience on international human rights issues.  I don’t have experience with the other two nominees, but the hearing exposed no red flags for any of them.

The debates about cybersecurity legislation show the centrality of information sharing to how government will respond to cyber-threats.  So we should have the institution in place to make sure that the information sharing is done in a lawful and sensible way, to be effective and also to protect privacy and civil liberties.

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Banning Forced Disclosure of Social Network Passwords and the Polygraph Precedent

The Maryland General Assembly has just become the first state legislature to vote to ban employers’ from requiring employees to reveal their Facebook or other social network passwords.  Other states are considering similar bills, and Senators Schumer and Blumenthal are pushing the idea in Congress.

As often happens in privacy debates, there are concerns from industry that well-intentioned laws will have dire consequences — Really Dangerous People might get into positions of trust, so we need to permit employers to force their employees to open up their Facebook accounts to their bosses.

Also, as often happens in privacy debates, people breathlessly debate the issue as though it is completely new and unprecedented.

We do have a precedent, however.  In 1988, Congress enacted the Employee Polygraph Protection Act  (EPPA).  The EPPA says that employers don’t get to know everything an employee is thinking.  Polygraphs are flat-out banned in almost all employment settings.  The law was signed by President Reagan, after Secretary of State George Shultz threatened to resign rather than take one.

The idea behind the EPPA and the new Maryland bill are similar — employees have a private realm where they can think and be a person, outside of the surveillance of the employer.  Imagine a polygraph if your boss asked what you really thought about him/her.  Imagine your social networking activities if your boss got to read your private messages and impromptu thoughts.

For private sector employers, the EPPA has quite narrow exceptions, such as for counter-intelligence, armored car personnel, and employees who are suspected of causing economic loss.  That list of exceptions can be a useful baseline to consider for social network passwords.

In summary — longstanding and bipartisan support to block this sort of intrusion into employees’ private lives.  The social networks themselves support this ban on having employers require the passwords.  I think we should, too.

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Viewpoint, Voting, and Structuring the Electorate

I am delighted to join the blogging community of Concurring Opinions for the month of April.  Thanks to Solangel Maldonado and Daniel Solove for their gracious invitation.

Denying voting rights to citizens with felony convictions has gotten a bad rap. The reason it’s not worse is because that rap is based on only half the story.  Anyone familiar with the complexion of our prison population knows that felon disfranchisement laws extend striking racial disparities to the electoral arena.  Less known, however, is that citizens with felony convictions are excluded from the electorate, in part, because of perceptions about how this demographic might vote or otherwise affect the marketplace of ideas.  In other words, citizens with felony convictions are denied the right to vote because of their suspected viewpoint.

Picking up on this point earlier this year, Michael Dorf highlighted a dispute between Republican presidential candidates Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum about which of them held the most conservative position concerning the voting rights of citizens convicted of a felony.  Inventing a criminal persona named Snake, Dorf queried what issues might provoke such a person to vote: Lower protections for private property or public safety? Redistribution of public resources from law enforcement to education, health, or recreation?  Elimination of certain criminal laws?  I can fathom many other lawful motivations for voting.  However, as Dorf points out (and decidedly rejects), the underlying objection to allowing citizens with felony convictions to vote is based on an assumption that, if they could vote, they would express self-serving and illegitimate interests. In other words, the viewpoint that felons would express through voting has no place in the electoral process.

I have always assumed that my viewpoint was precisely what I and other voters are supposed to express at the ballot box.  Whether that viewpoint is shared, accepted, condoned or vehemently disdained and abhorred by others is irrelevant to the right to vote.  Not so for citizens with felony convictions.  This group of citizens is presumed to possess deviant views that justify their exclusion from the electorate and the denial of a fundamental right. Read More

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Recommended Reading: Harlan Yu and David Robinson on The New Ambiguity of “Open Government”

Last week, we had an engrossing discussion of Julie Cohen’s Configuring The Networked Self, which embraces three key principles for protecting the structural conditions of human flourishing, including transparency of networked architecture which routes, shapes, and determines the collection, use, and flow of information.  Harlan Yu of Princeton’s Center for Information Technology Policy and David Robinson of the Yale Information Society Project have done important work puzzling through the question of transparency, and the related concerns of privacy and civil engagement, in “open government” efforts.  Their conclusion:

Separating technological from political “openness”—separating the ideal of adaptable data from that of transparent politics—will yield benefits for all sides. New technologies, cut free from the heavy political burdens they have recently been made to carry, will be free to assume their widely varied natural roles, spreading throughout government in nimble and unpredictable ways, and helping governments at every level pursue all kinds of objectives. The Internet will still help, where it can, to make regimes more transparent.

At the same time, a clearer focus on transparency will give political reformers, who will no longer be shoehorned together with technologists, more freedom to focus on the political questions that motivate them in the first place. From their perspective, technology will do what it always does when working well: fade into the background and make room for human concerns.

When I spoke at Princeton about my work on Technological Due Process, Robinson and Yu helped me puzzle through my privacy concerns about Government 2.0, which I then developed in “Fulfilling Government 2.0’s Promise with Robust Privacy Protections,” 78 Geo. Wash. L. Rev. 822 (2010).  They are exciting thinkers, and their newest piece helps us appreciate and conceptualize calls for transparency and open government and the appropriate role technologists and technology can and should play.

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Speaking of Automated Systems

Thanks so much to everyone participating in the LTAAA symposium: what a terrific discussion.  Given my work on Technological Due Process, I could not help but think about troubled public benefits system in Colorado known as CBMS.  Ever since 2004, the system has been riddled with delays, faulty law embedded in code, and system crashes.  As the Denver Post reports, the state has a $44 million contract with Deloitte consultants to overhaul the system–its initial installation cost $223 million with other private contractors.  CBMS is a mess, with thousands of overpayments, underpayments, delayed benefits, faulty notices, and erroneous eligibility determinations.  And worse.  In the summer of 2009, 9-year-old Zumante Lucero died after a pharmacy — depending upon the CBMS system — wouldn’t fill his asthma prescription despite proof the family qualified for Medicaid help.  In February 2011, CBMS failed eight different tests in a federal review, with auditors pointing to new “serious” problems while saying past failures are “nearly the same” despite five years of fixes.  The federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS), which provides billions of dollars each year for state medical aid, said Colorado risks losing federal money for programs if it doesn’t make changes from the audit.  All of this brings to mind whether a legal theory of automated personhood moves this ball forward.  Does it help us sort through the mess of opacity, insufficient notice, and troubling and likely unintended delegation of lawmaking to computer programmers?  Something for me to chew on as the discussion proceeds.

Image: Wikimedia Commons

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The Yale Law Journal Online: Beware of Prods and Pleas: A Defense of the Conventional Views on Tort and Administrative Law in the Context of Global Warming

The Yale Law Journal Online has published a response to Benjamin Ewing and Douglas Kysar’s article Prods and Pleas: Limited Government in an Era of Unlimited Harm, which appeared in the November 2011 issue of YLJ. In Beware of Prods and Pleas: A Defense of the Conventional Views on Tort and Administrative Law in the Context of Global Warming, Richard Epstein argues Ewing and Kysar’s “prods and pleas” will not solve the issue of global warming. Because global warming is a worldwide phenomenon, “the traditional allocation of responsibility between private rights of action (for large concentrated harms) and direct government administrative action (for diffuse harms) remains the proper approach.” Epstein suggests that the Supreme Court made the correct decision in American Electric Power Co. v. Connecticut and adds that the powers given to the Environmental Protection Agency displace private rights of action under both federal and state law.

Preferred citation: Richard A. Epstein, Beware of Prods and Pleas: A Defense of the Conventional Views on Tort and Administrative Law in the Context of Global Warming, 121 YALE L.J. ONLINE 317 (2011), http://yalelawjournal.org/2011/12/06/epstein.html.

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Pretext, the Rule of Law, and the Good Official

Justice Scalia, author of Whren v. United States and Ashcroft v. al-Kidd (used with permission, www.courtartist.com)

How should citizens in a republic bound by the rule of law regard the pretextual use of law by state officials?  If the United States Supreme Court is any indicator of the answer in our own republic, we are pretty ambivalent about pretext. 

Sometimes we don’t care very much.  In its most well-known case on the subject, Whren v. United States (1996), the Court upheld the pretextual use of the traffic code (which was prolix enough to be violated sooner or later by just about any car on the road).  Whren’s car was stopped by a vice squad cop who had a hunch (but not probable cause to believe) that Whren had drugs in his car.  One lesson of this case is that you should always signal before making a turn.  Justice Scalia, writing for a unanimous Court, had another one: the police are free to do “under the guise of enforcing the traffic code what they would like to do for different reasons.”  In other words, a green light to pretextual traffic stops.

Sometimes, we care a great deal.  In Kelo v. City of New London (2005), the Supreme Court categorically rejected the idea that government officials may “be allowed to take property under the mere pretext of a public purpose, when [their] actual purpose was to bestow a private benefit.”  Likewise, interpreting Title VII in their concurrence in Ricci v. DeStefano (2009) (which concerned a city fire department), Justices Alito, Scalia, and Thomas highlighted the subjective component of liability in a civil suit for employment discrimination in a disparate-treatment case: the employer is liable if its facially legitimate reason for a decision turns out to be “just a pretext for discrimination.”  Justice Frankfurter long ago chastised the Court for sustaining a law “because Congress wrapped the legislation in the verbal cellophane of a revenue measure.”  The concept of limited and enumerated powers seems to suggest a general disapproval of pretext.

Does repeated pretextualism — whether one is making or enforcing the law — weaken the rule of law?  When tempted to use a law for an unintended purpose, how should the “good” official (read the adjective however you like) distinguish an innovative use from a destructive one?  My own motivation for this research stems from concern that using law to achieve an objective that the law was clearly unintended to achieve might do something destructive to the rule of law itself.  Maybe it does some harm to the official who wields power in that pretextual way, too, an official who may be the worst-placed government agent to exercise the sort of discretion that creative administration of the law demands.  Pretextualism may be habit-forming and, like cigarettes, unhealthy.

After the break, I’ll share my working definition of pretext and two cases separated by more than fifty years, but adopting the same pretextual technique to evade restrictions on government action.  One involves a Soviet spy whose case troubled the Supreme Court so much that the Court heard oral argument twice.  Surprisingly, that case foretold and influenced the “easy” Whren case.  The other involves a former college football player caught up in the current “War on Terror.”  That case, Ashcroft v. al-Kidd, was decided in May, also referencing Whren, but this time without such unanimity and with a lot more unease about pretext.

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Recommended Reading: David A. Super’s Against Flexibility

Cornell Law Review just published Professor David Super’s article Against Flexibility, a forceful and engrossing indictment of flexibility and legal procrastination at its core.  Here is the abstract:

Contemporary legal thinking is in the thrall of a cult of flexibility. We obsess about avoiding decisions without all possible relevant information while ignoring the costs of postponing decisions until that information becomes available. We valorize procrastination and condemn investments of decisional resources in early decisions.

Both public and private law should be understood as a productive activity converting information, norms, and decisional and enforcement capacity into outputs of social value. Optimal timing depends on changes in these inputs’ scarcity and in the value of the decision they produce. Our legal culture tends to overestmate the value of information that may become available in the future while discounting declines over time in decisional resources and the utility of decisions. Even where postponing some decisions is necessary, a sophisticated appreciation of discretion’s components often exposes aspects of decisions that can and should be made earlier.

Disaster response illustrates the folly of legal procrastination as it shrinks the supply of decisional resources while increasing the demand for them. After Hurricane Katrina, programs built around flexibility failed badly through a combination of late and defective decisions. By contrast, those that appreciated the scarcity of decisional resources and had developed detailed regulatory templates in advance provided quick and effective relief. 

Jost on a Drafting Error in the Affordable Care Act

A few days ago, Timothy Jost offered insights on the Fourth Circuit’s jurisdictional rulings on constitutional challenges to the Affordable Care Act. (That post was part of a terrific series he has done for the Health Affairs Blog.) Today, Jost offers a fascinating perspective on “an ACA drafting error that would seem to deprive millions of uninsured Americans of tax credits to purchase health insurance and invalidate regulations recently proposed by HHS and the Treasury Department:”

The mistake is found in section 1401 of the ACA, which creates a new section 36B of the IRC. Two subsections of 36B ((b)(2)(A) and (c)(2)(A)(i)) suggest that premium tax credit eligibility under the ACA depends on the applicant being enrolled in a qualified health plan “through an Exchange established by the State under section 1311.” This would in turn suggest that individuals enrolled in a qualified health plan through a federal exchange established under section 1321(c) would not be eligible for premium tax credits, contrary to the recent proposed regulations.

That this is a drafting error is obvious to anyone who understands the ACA. Section 1311 of the ACA requests the states to establish American Health Benefit Exchanges and sets out the duties of the exchanges. Section 1321 of the ACA, however, provides that if a state elects not to establish and exchange or fails to do so, HHS must “establish and operate” an exchange in such a state and “take such actions as are necessary to implement” the other requirements of title I of the ACA, which includes section 1401. There is no coherent policy reason why Congress would have refused premium tax credits to the citizens of states that ended up with a federal exchange. None of the CBO reports scoring the ACA suggest that premium tax credits would only be available though 1311 state exchanges and not through 1321 federal exchanges. It is, finally, highly unlikely that the House, whose bill included only a federal exchange, would have approved a bill that only provided tax credits through state exchanges but not through the federal exchange.

For the full argument, check out his post at the Health Reform Watch blog.