Category: General Law

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FAN 27 (First Amendment News) — Humanitarian Law Project petition before High Court

Seventeen and a half years for translating a document? Granted, it’s an extremist text.                                                                                      – David Cole

Tarek Mehanna may not be a very nice person. But the narrowing of his liberties has consequences for us all.                             – Rachel Levinson-Waldman

The case is: Mehanna v. United States.

Tarek Mehanna

Tarek Mehanna

The issue is: Whether a citizen’s political and religious speech may constitute provision of “material support or resources” to a foreign terrorist organization (FTO) under the “coordination” rubric of Holder v. Humanitarian Law Project, when the government conceded that petitioner was not instructed by the FTO, and the evidence showed that he did not interact with the FTO, but rather viewed, translated, and disseminated materials of his own choosing, while expressing moral support for certain views of the FTO, and associating on the Internet with persons who the government claims had themselves associated with the FTO.

→ Summary of relevant facts as stated by the appellate court: “In 2004, the defendant, an American citizen, was 21 years old and living with his parents in Sudbury, Massachusetts. On February 1, he flew from Boston to the United Arab Emirates with his associates, Kareem Abuzahra and Ahmad Abousamra. Abuzahra returned to the United States soon thereafter but the defendant and Abousamra continued on to Yemen in search of a terrorist training camp. They remained there for a week but were unable to locate a camp. The defendant then returned home, while Abousamra eventually reached Iraq.

“The second cluster of activities was translation-centric. In 2005, the defendant began to translate Arab-language materials into English and post his translations on a website — at-Tibyan — that comprised an online community for those sympathetic to al-Qa’ida and Salafi-Jihadi perspectives. Website members shared opinions, videos, texts, and kindred materials in online forums. At least some offerings that the defendant translated constituted al-Qa’ida-generated media and materials supportive of al-Qa’ida and/or jihad.”

→ The charges against the Defendant included:

  • one count of conspiracy to provide material support to al-Qa’ida;
  •  one count of conspiracy to provide material support to terrorists knowing or intending its use to be in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 956 and  § 2332
  • one count of providing and attempting to provide material support to terrorists, knowing and intending its use to be in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 956 and § 2332
  • and one count of conspiracy to kill persons in a foreign country

→ ACLU of Massachusetts press release re trial verdict: “Mehanna Verdict Compromises First Amendment, Undermines National Security,” Dec. 20, 2011: “Under the government’s theory of the case, ordinary people–including writers and journalists, academic researchers, translators, and even ordinary web surfers–could be prosecuted for researching or translating controversial and unpopular ideas. If the verdict is not overturned on appeal, the First Amendment will be seriously compromised.”

Op-Ed Commentaries 

On Appeal before First Circuit

In an opinion by Judge Bruce Selya, a three-judge panel of the First Circuit denied the Defendant Tarek Mehanna‘s First Amendment challenge. Here is how Judge Selya (former chief judge of the United States Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court of Review) began his opinion:

Terrorism is the modern day equivalent of the bubonic plague: it is an existential threat. Predictably, then, the government’s efforts to combat terrorism through the enforcement of the criminal laws will be fierce. Sometimes, those efforts require a court to patrol the fine line between vital national security concerns and forbidden encroachments on constitutionally protected freedoms of speech and association. This is such a case.

And here is how Judge Selya closed his opinion in ruling against the Defendant Tarek Mehanna:

Cases like this one present a formidable challenge to the parties and to the trial court: the charged crimes are heinous, the evidentiary record is vast, the legal issues are sophisticated, and the nature of the charges ensures that any trial will be electric. In this instance, all concerned rose to meet this formidable challenge. The lawyers on both sides performed admirably, and the able district judge presided over the case with care, skill, and circumspection. After a painstaking appraisal of the record, the briefs, and the relevant case law, we are confident — for the reasons elucidated above — that the defendant was fairly tried, justly convicted, and lawfully sentenced.

→ Amici on behalf of the Petitioner in the First Circuit included:

  • Alex Abdo, Hina Shamsi, Matthew R. Segal, and Sarah R. Wunsch on brief for American Civil Liberties Union and American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts
  • Pardiss Kebriaei, Baher Azmy, and Amna Akbar on brief for Center for Constitutional Rights
  • Nancy Gertner, David M. Porter, and Steven R. Morrison on brief for National, Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers
  • E. Joshua Rosenkranz and Orrick, Herrington & Sutcliffe LLP on brief for Scholars, Publishers, and Translators in the Fields of Islam and the Middle East
Judge Bruce Selya

Judge Bruce Selya

The government was represented by Elizabeth D. Collery, Attorney, Appellate Section, Criminal Division, U.S. Department of Justice.

→ Sabin Willett is the counsel of record representing the Defendant Tarek Mehanna in his petition to the Court. In his petition, Mr. Willett’s First Amendment arguments include the following:

  1. “In Humanitarian Law Project, the Court addressed the important question of whether speech could be criminalized as provision of material sup- port in the form of a “service” to an FTO. Deciding that such speech can be unlawful when it takes the form of directly-interactive teaching, the Court interpreted §2339B as imposing criminal liability for speech that is a “service” if that speech is sufficiently “coordinated” with the FTO. This Court did not further define ‘coordination,’ nor hold that all “coordinated” speech could be criminalized consistent with the First Amendment. . . . Outside the narrow factual context of Humanitarian Law Project, the legal contours of ‘coordination’ remain a riddle. The word does not appear in any relevant section of the statutes. The decision uses “coordination” to describe the specific conduct found unlawful in that case, but provides no general definition, and leaves open that some levels of ‘coordination’ may be lawful.”
  2. “Petitioner argued below that a constitutional definition of ‘coordination’ requires an inquiry into the relation of the speaker to the FTO, and cannot be based in the content of his speech. If an FTO directs the defendant to write, the defendant’s compliance might provide a service that the Constitution does not protect, but that service would lie in compliance, not content.”
  3. Certain counts of the Petitioner’s conviction violated his right of association.

→ The government’s brief in opposition can be found here.

Historical Aside re Humanitarian Law Project

The case for the government was argued by Solicitor General Elena Kagan

The case for the Humanitarian Law Project was argued by Professor David Cole

Transcript of oral argument here

Interview with Robert Post re his latest book Read More

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Magna Carta and Anti-Semitism

Many sacred constitutional texts have unfortunate provisions.  The Constitution countenanced slavery (while using euphemisms for the word).  The Declaration of Independence called Native Americans “merciless Indian Savages, whose known rule of warfare, is an undistinguished destruction of all ages, sexes, and conditions.”  And the Act of Settlement of 1701 barred anyone who “shall profess the Popish Religion or shall marry a Papist” from the Crown.

Magna Carta’s embarrassment is its description of Jews.  One provision stated: “If anyone who has borrowed from the Jews any sum of money, great or small, dies before the debt has been paid, the heir shall pay no interest on the debt so long as he remains under age.”  Another added that “if any man dies indebted to the Jews, his wife shall have her dower and pay nothing of that debt.”  This latter provision adds that “[s]o shall it be done with regard to debts owed persons other than Jews,” which makes you wonder why Jews were singled out earlier.  At that time, the Church took a strong position against loaning money at interest, which in practice made Jews the only creditors, so Magna Carta could have just said “anyone who has borrowed money” or “if any man dies indebted” to achieve the same result.  I would be curious to hear more from medievalists or English legal historians on this point.

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Robin Williams — The Man Who Made Us Laugh & Defended the Right to Do So

It is a very sad day when a very funny man takes his own life. Depression takes its deadly harvest.Screen Shot 2014-08-11 at 10.47.34 PM

And so we must suffer the loss of one of America’s greatest comedians, Robin Williams.

In the weeks and months ahead, many a wreath will be laid in his honor and many will share their stories of how this remarkable and witty stand-up comedian left his special imprint on their lives.

As I think back on him, I am reminded of that life flow that stirred within him in Good Morning Vietnam (1987). Remember the opening scene when as a DJ for Armed Forces Radio Service Williams screamed into the early a.m. microphone: “Goooooooooooooooood morning, Vietnam! This is not a test, this is rock-n-roll! Time to rocket from the delta to the DMZ. Is that me or does that  sound like an Elvis Presley movie? Viva Da Nang. Viva Da Nang, Da Nang me, Da Nang me. They’re gonna get a rope and hang me. Hey, is it a little early for being that loud? Too late: Oh, it’s 0-600. What does the O stand for? Oh my God it’s early!”  (see YouTube video here).

If I may add my own humble memory of Robin: In 2003, I helped to organize a group of comedians, lawyers, professors and others to petition Governor George Pataki to posthumously pardon Lenny Bruce. When we approached Robin Williams (via Penn & Teller as I recall), he agreed immediately to lend his name to the cause. Why? Because he believed in comedy and free speech . . . and in Lenny Bruce, too.

Robin Williams was a free spirit in the best of the American tradition. And he gave vibrant life to the First Amendment and in the process was amazingly funny.

Long may his memory last.

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F.F. — Make of him what you will, but . . .

Felix Frankfurter

Felix Frankfurter

I want to recommend a relatively new article in the Journal of Supreme Court History. It is impressively researched, commendably thoughtful, and refreshingly balanced. Before doing so, however, permit me to say a few prefatory words.

It is hard to be fair when writing of those with whom we disagree, and harder still when we dislike their personal manner. Arrogant, argumentative, and devious – these are not the words that fair-minded scholars like to use unless the fit is fair. All of which takes us back in time to this man: Felix Frankfurter (1882-1965).

What to make of him?

As a Supreme Court Justice he was, in Mel Urofsky’s words, “a divisive figure whose jurisprudential philosophy is all but ignored today.” Others have been even less kind in their assessment of the temperament and jurisprudence of the Justice from Vienna. While Cass Sunstein has recently labored to revive respect for Justice Frankfurter and his judicial opinions, that effort may prove Sisyphean (save, perhaps, in a few discrete areas involving federal jurisdiction).

Still, there was more to Felix Frankfurter than the life he led on the Court between 1939 and 1962. The trajectory of his career (fueled by hard work, ambition, and brilliance) is an immigrant-come-to-America success story at its best. His work – first with Louis Brandeis and then on his own – to advance the cause of fair and humane labor practices exemplifies the Progressive movement in its glory. Then there was the role he played early on in helping to launch the ACLU. With a mix of courage and insight, he later called for a retrial for Nicola Sacco and Bartolomeo Vanzetti by way of an impressive lawyer-like article he published in the Atlantic in 1927; the article was thereafter expanded into a small book. And, of course, there is more, much more, which brings me back to that article I alluded to earlier.

Sujit Raman

Sujit Raman

Sujit Raman (the chief appellate lawyer in Maryland’s U.S. Attorney’s office) has just published an engaging and highly informative article. Its title: “Felix Frankfurter and His Protégés: Re-examining the ‘Happy Hot Dogs.’” It captures Felix in all his complexity and does so with objective nuance. With skilled brevity Raman also sketches the story of the Jewish immigrant’s struggle to assimilate, the Harvard Law student’s meritocratic success, the progressive’s desire to improve government when he went to work for Henry Stimson (first in New York and then in Washington, D.C), and then the Harvard professor’s cultivation of the best and brightest, whom he invited to his Sunday teas.

Above all, Sujit Raman’s real story is about Felix Frankfurter’s “greatest legacy,” namely, the “legions of students he trained and nurtured at the Harvard Law School, . . . who, in their own right, shaped the age in which they lived.” Consistent with that objective, Frankfurter’s “avowed intent as a professor was to instill in his students an interest in public service, and from his earliest days, he began collecting recruits for his crusade.” In time, they would come to be known as Frankfurter’s “Happy Hot Dogs” as Hugh Samuel Johnson tagged them.MTE5NTU2MzE2MjE5NDc1NDY3

Could he be snobbish? Yes. Could he be petty? Yes. Spiteful? Yes. Did he delight in manipulating matters from unseen sidelines? Yes again.

Clearly, F.F. had his psychological warts. Yet, when one steps back and beholds the man and this patch of his life work at a detached distance, he stands rather tall. Why?

Now, to cut to the chase: “Frankfurter was one of the New Deal’s intellectual architects as well as one of its most accomplished draftsmen of policy – yet he had no legislative portfolio or any official position in the Roosevelt Administration.” Moreover, adds Raman, “Frankfurter was the New Deal’s principal recruiting agent. He placed his protégés in all levels of government, and consequently his vision was carried forth, albeit indirectly, by his able lieutenants.” In sum, “the New Deal was in many ways the embodiment and culmination of Frankfurter’s life work.”

James Landis

James Landis

In the span of 28 pages (buttressed by 127 scholarly endnotes), Sujit Raman fills in many of the blanks in the Professor-and-the-New-Deal story. While he is cautious not to exaggerate Frankfurter’s role and influence, Raman’s account makes it difficult to deny the remarkable magnitude of Frankfurter’s unique impact on public law and its operation at a crucial stage in our legal history.

True, the “Happy Hot Dogs” story has been told before and from a variety of perspectives (see, e.g.,  here and here). Even so, Mr. Raman does what others before him have not quite done: he tells the story in a concise yet authoritative way and with enough panache to draw the reader back in history for glimpses into the exciting world of F.F. and his adept protégés – the likes of Thomas G. Corcoran (video here), Benjamin V. CohenJames M. Landis, David Lilienthal, and Charles Wyzanski, among others. They were all part of Frankfurter’s network, all “elite lawyers” hand picked because of their ties to F.F. and their “reformist inclinations.”

Whatever your opinion of Felix Frankfurter, his star may yet brighten anew, though probably not in the universe of Supreme Court history and jurisprudence. His true galaxy was elsewhere – in that realm where the “minds of men” move the gears of government to places only once imagined in classrooms in Cambridge.

Ask your librarian for, or go online or order a copy of, Sujit Raman’s illuminating article in volume 39 (March 2014, #1, pp. 79-106)) of the Journal of Supreme Court History. Better still, join the Supreme Court Historical Society. Either way, it will serve you well.

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On Jefferson’s Proposed Solution to the “Dead Hand” Problem (and the Futility Thereof)

Thomas Jefferson once opined to his friend James Madison that “the earth belongs in usufruct to the living” and “the dead have neither powers nor rights over it.”  These observations underlie the so-called “dead hand” problem of constitutional theory.  The problem is this:  Why should we the living generation of the present be governed by the constitutional dictates of dead people from the past? What gives those people the authority to rule us from the grave?

To Jefferson, these questions were unanswerable: The dead, on his view, had no right to rule from the grave, which in turn meant that “no society can make a perpetual constitution, or even a perpetual law.” But that conclusion raised a further question of its own: namely, how should we the people of the present design a constitutional system that defuses the threat of dead-hand rule down the road.  Jefferson’s answer was simple: Require that “every constitution . . . , and every law, expire after 19 years,” at which point the new generation of the living would acquire the prerogative to choose a new constitutional system for itself.  (I should note, by the way, that Thomas Paine had a few years earlier endorsed a similar solution, tethered to a 30-year, rather than 19-year, sunset term.  I apologize to the Paine estate for not featuring Tom P. more heavily in this blog post.)

Madison responded to Jefferson by suggesting that he had prescribed a cure way worse than the disease. Even if “in [t]heory” Jefferson’s solution would suffice to disempower the dead hand of the past, the repeated rebooting of our constitutional system would “in practice” give rise to some significant problems of its own. Specifically:

Would not a Government so often revised become too mutable to retain those prejudices in its favor which antiquity inspires, and which are perhaps a salutary aid to the most rational Government in the most enlightened age? Would not such a periodical revision engender pernicious factions that might not otherwise come into existence? Would not, in fine, a Government depending for its existence beyond a fixed date, on some positive and authentic intervention of the Society itself, be too subject to the casualty and consequences of an actual interregnum?

All good points, for sure.  But there is, I think, a further problem with Jefferson’s 19-year sunset proposal: it wouldn’t actually eliminate the problem of dead-hand control. Here’s why:

Read More

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Article Submission Season

This is a very insiderish post, so feel free to skip if you want.

The law reviews are opening their submission window (I’m starting to send out), and I’m wondering if people find that getting papers accepted in the Fall is more difficult now than in the past.  More journals seem to fill up in the Spring, and I just have the sense that Fall is no longer a good time to send.  Law review editors–feel free to chime in.

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FAN 26 (First Amendment News) — Akhil Amar on the “First” Amendment

First: First?

Less cryptically, the first and main question that I shall explore . . . is whether [the First] Amendment is genuinely first — first in fact, first in law, and first in the hearts of Americans. In the process of exploring this question, I also hope to shed some light on the meaning of this amendment in particular and the nature of constitutional interpretation in general. Akhil Amar

Professor Akhil Reed Amar

Professor Akhil Reed Amar

Akhil Amar, the Sterling Professor of Law and Political Science at Yale, is well known in the worlds of constitutional law and history. His six books include The Bill of Rights: Creation and Reconstruction (1998) and America’s Unwritten Constitutions: The Precedents & Principles We Live By (2012). Among Professor Amar’s many honors is his 2012 National Archives dialogue with Justice Clarence Thomas. More recently, he has returned to his study of constitutional history by way of a new scholarly essay.

The essay is entitled “The First Amendment’s Firstness,” which appears in the UC Davis Law Review. The work derives from the Central Valley Foundation/James B. McClatchy lecture on the First Amendment, which Amar delivered on October 16, 2013 at the University of California at Davis Law School (see video of lecture here). Below I summarize the Essay by a series of questions and answers based on the author’s observations and conclusions.

Question: “Do the actual words ‘the First Amendment’ or ‘Amendment I’ themselves appear in what we all unselfconsciously refer to as ‘the First Amendment?’”

Answer: No.  The answer has to do with what is known as the “correct copy” of the Constitution.

Question: What, then, was the official (“correct”) name of what we now call the First Amendment?

Answer: The official title was “Article the Third” — no “First” and no “Amendment.” In this regard, what is crucial is the text that was first submitted to and then ratified by the states, which is not the same as the commonplace copy contained in all our books and those pocket-size constitutions some carry with Hugo Black-like pride.

Question: In terms of their importance, how significant is the ordering of the ten amendments in the Bill of Rights?

Answer: Not significant at all. Says Amar: “the ultimate textual ordering of the first set of amendments was a remarkably random thing.” Moreover, he adds: “the initial ordering of the proposed amendments in the First Congress had little to do with their intrinsic importance or relative rank. Rather, the amendments were originally sequenced in the First Congress so as to track the textual order of the original Constitution. Thus an amendment modifying congressional size came first, because that issue appeared first in the original Constitution . . . .”

Question: “who says that the official text of the Constitution must govern for all purposes — even for all legal purposes”?

Answer: Here is how Amar answers his question: “The brute fact that millions of copies of the U.S. Constitution . . . include the words ‘Amendment I’ or something closely approximating these words alongside the amendment’s meat — ‘Congress shall make no law . . .’ — should arguably suffice for us to treat these technically unratified words as if they had indeed been formally voted upon in 1789–91.”

Question: Does the fact that the Reconstruction Amendments were officially captioned “XIII,” “XIV,” and “XV” have any constitutional significance with reference to the Bill of Rights?

Answer: Yes. “The Reconstruction Amendments invite/compel us to read the earlier amendments in a new way,” says Amar.  In other words, at that pinpoint in ratification time “Article the Third” became “Amendment I.” Moreover, adds Amar, “a great deal of what we now think about ‘the Bill of Rights’. . . owes a greater debt to the vision of the Reconstruction generation than to the Founders’ world-view.”

In the process of answering these and other related questions, Professor Amar goes on to examine the First Amendment’s “firstness” by way of structural, historical, doctrinal, and cultural considerations.  Having done so, he raises a more fundamental question:

Might the very strength of the amendment today, its very firstness, be grounds for concern? Precisely because we all love the First Amendment — because it truly is first in our text and first in our hearts — is there a danger that all sorts of less deserving ideas and principles will cleverly try to camouflage themselves as First Amendment ideas when they are really wolves in sheep’s clothing?

Against that backdrop, he questions the First Amendment validity of decisions affirming free speech rights related to alcohol and tobacco advertising, pornography, animal cruelty, and campaign finance. Furthermore, he stresses the importance of “the deeply democratic and egalitarian structure of this free-speech principle, properly construed” — though for Amar freedom of the press “is less intrinsically democratic.”

There is, of course, more to say about this thought-proving essay, which I urge you to read . . . even if some of its claims might raise your ideological eyebrows.

Sam Walker to Launch Civil Liberties Web Site Read More

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The Rise of the Bill of Rights

Before I return to research mode on this subject, I want to make two other points about why the first set of textual amendments became identified as a “bill of rights” around the beginning of the 20th century.

One hypothesis I am testing is whether state bills of rights drafted after 1791 looked like the first set of amendments.  State constitutions sometimes influence the Federal Constitution, and this may be a prime example.  Let’s say Indiana or California or Colorado wrote a self-styled Bill of Rights that looked a lot like the 1791 amendments.  It would be natural, I think, for people in those states to then see those amendments as a “Bill of Rights” in a way that was not true for the Framers, largely because the first set of amendments did NOT look like the state bills of rights in place at that time (say, in Virginia).

A second thought is that when the United States acquired Puerto Rico and the Philippines from Spain in 1898, Congress passed statutes organizing the governments for both colonies that included a truncated “Bill of Rights” for each.  This was the first time that a major federal statute used that phrase, which then led to many cases construing those provisions as increasing the usage of “bill of rights” to refer to the first set of amendments.  Why did Congress call what was given to these territories a bill of rights?  Probably it was a way of placating critics of imperialism (most notably William Jennings Bryan) and reassuring them that our rule in these places would be just.  (It didn’t work out that way in the Philippines, but that’s another story.)  It would be poetic if foreign conquests ending up strengthening the Bill of Rights at home.

Back to Magna Carta and other topics tomorrow

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Canons as Sayings

My summer-reading highlight for 2014 was Surfaces and Essences, by Douglas Hofstadter and Emmanuel Sander.  The book is primarily concerned with the relationship between analogies and human thought, but it also offers some fun and interesting insights about language along the way.  My favorite such insight had to do with “mutually contradictory proverbs,” i.e., pairs of sayings/idioms that reflect starkly conflicting pieces of advice.  Hofstadter and Sander have collected several of these competing pearls of wisdom, including, for example:

  • Strike while the iron’s hot . . . but then again,  Look before you leap.
  • Two’s company, three’s a crowd . . .  but then again,  The more, the merrier.
  • Opposites attract . . . but then again, Birds of a feather flock together.
  • The pen is mightier than the sword . . . but then again,  Actions speak louder than words.

And if I may add just a few more of my own (I’ve been alertly on the lookout all summer):

  • Be yourself! . . . but then again, When in Rome, do as the Romans do.
  • You never get a second chance to make a first impression . . . but then again, Today is the first day of the rest of your life.
  • #YOLO . . . but then again, #YOLO.

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