Category: Administrative Law

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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.

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Recommended Reading: The People’s Agents and the Battle to Protect the American Public

My colleague Rena Steinzor and Sidney Shapiro recently published The People’s Agents and the Battle to Protect the American Public: Special Interests, Government, and Threats to Health, Safety, and the Environment (University of Chicago Press).  The book analyzes the performance of five agencies they call the “protector agencies:”  the Consumer Product Safety Commission, Environmental Protection Agency, Food and Drug Administration, National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, and Occupational Safety and Health Administration.  Its findings are grim.  Using case studies, the book shows how the protector agencies are malfunctioning and explores the sources of the trouble.  It attributes the disappointing performance of the agencies to external pressures, including the President’s requirement that agencies engage in cost-benefit analysis before issuing a major rule and other forms of Presidential interference as well as the weakening of the civil service and inadequate funding and staffing of agencies.  The book offers thoughtful solutions that are carefully tailored to the problems that the authors identify.

Richard Pierce reviewed the book in the George Washington Law Review, and he writes that this “excellent book is compulsory reading for anyone who is interested in the performance of regulatory agencies.”  For Pierce, the “book is so well researched and well written that I learned a lot even from the chapters with which I disagree.”  He explains that, for instance, while he continues to believe in agency cost-benefit analysis for major rules, the authors “do such a good job of criticizing the cost-benefit analysis requirement and of documenting its bad effects that I am forced at least to acknowledge the need for major changes in the ways in which agencies and the White House implement” it.  The authors also “provide an accurate and persuasive account of the many adverse effects of the hard look doctrine,” that is, the judicial requirement that an agency must take a hard look at a problem and its potential solutions before issuing a rule, and prescribe a new approach that would be less intrusive and more determinate.  Pierce ends the review with this:

Justice Scalia once said that ‘Administrative law is not for sissies –so you should lean back, clutch the sides of your chairs, and steel yourselves for a pretty dull lecture’  I highly recommend that anyone who is interested in the future of administrative law and government regulation read Steinzor and Shapiro’s important book.  But to paraphrase Justice Scalia, you should not read the Steinzor and Shapiro book in conjunction with this review unless you are prepared to “lean back, clutch the sides of your chairs, and steel yourselves for” a serious encounter with depression.  Oh, and you should make sure there are no sharp objects in the vicinity if you take seriously both the points Steinzor and Shapiro make in their book and the points I make in this review.”

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The Continued Need for Technological Due Process

As my work on Technological Due Process explored, government increasingly uses automated systems to help human administrators make decisions about people’s important rights.  Sometimes, the computers make the decisions with varying degrees of oversight.  Government decision-making systems include data-matching programs, which compare two or more databases with an algorithmic set of rules that determine the likelihood that two sets of personal identifying information represent the same individual.

Data-matching programs frequently misidentify individuals because they use crude algorithms that cannot distinguish between similar names.  Sometimes, this accords with policy.  Better to have more false positives when it comes to finding terrorists, than more false negatives.  Other times, it’s a problem that humans resolve before anyone gets hurt.  Yet, time and again, human operators fall down on the job.

Here’s a recent example.  An anti-terrorism facial recognition system scans databases of state driver’s license images to prevent terrorism, reduce fraud, and improve the accuracy of identification documents issued by states.  Massachusetts started using the software after receiving a $1.5 million grant from the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.  On March 22, Massachusetts resident John Gass received a letter from the state motor vehicles registry informing him that he had to cease driving because his license had been revoked.  From various news reports, it seems that the letter did not tell Mr. Glass why he lost his license.  It was only after various calls and a hearing with motor vehicle officials that he learned that the system identified his license as evidence of potential fraud.  The system flagged Glass because he looked like another driver, not because his image was used to create a fake identity.  The motor vehicles registry reinstated his license after ten days of wrangling “to prove he is who he says he is.”  Not surprisingly, Gass is not alone.  The system picked out more than 1,000 cases last year that resulted in investigations, and some were guilty of nothing more than looking like someone else. Read More

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Treasury’s AIG Gag Order

Top business executives in the United States regularly contact Members of Congress to lobby on legislation and other matters of public policy. But since the September 2008 government takeover of AIG, executives of that company have been forbidden to do so, unless they first get the Treasury Department’s permission, and the Treasury Department refuses to grant it.

Since AIG executives are afraid to speak out, disclosure of this un-American provision was left to Maurice (“Hank”) Greenberg, former chair and until 2008 the largest shareholder of AIG. He disclosed it yesterday on CNBC.

This is yet another example of the dubious tactics used in Sept. 2008 by Hank Paulson and Tim Geithner when they wrested control of AIG for the U.S. government. Besides having scant legal authority for their takeover actions, the successive Treasury Secretaries tried to keep from the public how the government funds injected into AIG did not support it or its shareholders or employees but were funneled as a backdoor bailout of Goldman Sachs and other Wall Street firms.

It is thus par for the course—but equally outrageous—that we now learn that when Paulson and Geithner imposed this straightjacket on AIG, they also made the company (a) adopt a policy suspending all lobbying and then (b) sign a loan agreement prohibiting it from changing that policy without Treasury’s consent—which apparently may be withheld for any reason or no reason. Read More

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Black Box Government: The Whole Picture

The media often assesses governmental transparency issue by issue.  The Obama Administration gets an annual rating for its performance on FOIA compliance.  It receives press for its invocation on the state secrets privilege.  And so on.  But it may be worth taking stock of the total picture.  From the state secrets privilege to the proposed SHIELD Act and FOIA, the Obama Administration seems in pursuit of black box government much like its predecessor.  On reflection, the Administration’s call for a more transparent government in January 2009 seems a mismatch with its actions.  In this way, theory and practice don’t coincide.

The Administration has not backed away from its predecessor’s aggressive use of the state secrets privilege.  According to Steven Aftergood, “there is a great deal of continuity between the Bush and Obama administrations . . . . there is no case where the Obama administration has rescinded a claim of state secrets privilege that was advanced by the Bush [administration].”  The U.S. government has recently invoked the state secrets privilege in instances that appear designed to hide government screw ups rather than to protect national security.  For instance, the government hopes to block evidence in a case against a contractor who duped the government into spending millions on allegedly fake counterterrorism technology.  It has invoked the privilege to block a personal injury lawsuit by a CIA employee who alleged that environmental contamination in his home made his family sick. In a case inherited from the Bush administration, Obama’s Justice Department has continued to argue that classified records of eavesdropping on an Islamic charity were state secrets.  Two wiretapped lawyers were awarded $20,400 each, a ruling that last week the Obama administration indicated it would appeal.  ACLU Executive Director Anthony Romero laments that although the President promised to reform abuses of the state secrets privilege as a candidate, he has reneged on that promise as the President.

The Obama Administration has devoted significant energy to punishing whistle blowers.  As Politico reporter Josh Gerstein explains, the Administration is “pursuing an unexpectedly aggressive legal offensive against federal workers who leak secret information to expose wrongdoing, highlight national security threats or pursue a personal agenda.”  Since President Barack Obama took office, prosecutors have filed criminal charges in five cases involving unauthorized distribution of classified national security information to the media and is now considering prosecuting WikiLeaks founder Julian Assange.  The U.S. government, by contrast, only brought three such cases in the preceding 40 years.  Moreover, in response to the Wikileaks disclosures, the Administration has gotten behind the proposed SHIELD Act, which would amend Section 798 of the Espionage Act of 1917.  The amendment would expand the kinds of information covered by the Espionage Act and enables the U.S. government to prosecute private citizens who have not worked for the government or signed a security agreement.

In a recent post, I underscored that FOIA compliance continues to disappoint.  The National Security Archive recently issued its report “Glass Half Full: 2011 Knight Open Government Survey Finds Freedom of Information Change But Many Agencies Lag in Following Obama’s Openness Order.”Although the group found some progress (49 agencies took concrete action in light of the March 2010 White House memorandum instructing agencies to update all FOIA material and assess whether their FOIA resources were adequate), its results were decidedly mixed.  Only 24 agencies actually updated their FOIA training materials, only 13 agencies followed its mandate, and 41 of the agencies remained inert. Of those 41 agencies, 17 could not provide concrete records showing that they had followed the memo’s instructions; two agencies withheld documents by incorrectly citing FOIA exemptions; 17 agencies were still working on the request after more than 100 business days (in violation of FOIA); and four agencies never acknowledged the team’s requests despite numerous calls and faxes. Ancient requests, as old as 18 years, “still languish in the system.” As the team reports, twelve agencies have outstanding FOIA requests older than six years.” Eric Newton, an advisor to the Knight Foundation, remarked that “at this rate, the President’s first term in office may be over by the time federal agencies do what he asked them to do on his first day in office.”  At a hearing before the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, FOIA expert Daniel Metcalfe expressed his disappointment by the “surprising slowness and incompleteness of the Obama Administration’s new FOIA policy implementation.” Metcalfe lamented the administration’s “do as I say, not as I do mentality,” as evinced by the performance of its lead agency, the Department of Justice, whose FOIA backlog is worse than it was a year ago.

Viewed together with my co-blogger Frank Pasquale’s insights on fusion centers (see our forthcoming article) and his important forthcoming book on The Black Box Society, the Obama Administration, issue for issue, seems to support black box government, not a transparent one.

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Accounting for Power

Recent revelations in Japan suggest just how important an understanding of accounting may be.

In a post in late March, I related that many Japanese were willing to give the benefit of the doubt to TEPCO, the operator of the damaged Fukushima Dai-Ichi nuclear plant, in the days following the March 11 earthquake and tsunami. The most common excuse in the language, “Shikata ga nai” (“It can’t be helped”), struck most people as apposite, given the historical rarity of 9.0 earthquakes and 15-meter killer waves.

By now, the situation has almost been integrated into the everyday, at least for those of us far from the reactor. People speculate whether the government nuclear agency’s lead spokesperson is wearing a wig, and a cable news channel has a daily segment, “Kyou no genpatsu kiiwaado” – “Today’s nuke reactor keyword”. Any goodwill toward TEPCO has long since evaporated, thanks to its management’s sloth in apologizing, its spokespersons’ frequent misstatements and evasions in daily press conferences, and sympathy for the thousands displaced from the evacuation zone, their livelihoods derailed (and their pets and livestock reluctantly left behind to starve, an aspect of the story that has mobilized many activists here). But it turns out that even the initial goodwill was probably misplaced.
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