Posts tagged ‘Justice Department’

I Just Want to Barf

I have become pretty immune to letting BS government pleas for more power get to me, but this almost made me barf.

The No. 2 official at the Justice Department delivered a blunt message last month to Apple Inc. executives: New encryption technology that renders locked iPhones impervious to law enforcement would lead to tragedy. A child would die, he said, because police wouldn’t be able to scour a suspect’s phone, according to people who attended the meeting.

Children will die, do you hear?  CHILDREN WILL DIE!!!!

It is far more likely, based on recent history, that police will want to access your phone out of a prurient desire to see your naughty pictures than it will be to save some dying child ala in Dirty Harry.  Jeez you can make the same argument that if police could just randomly charge into any house they wanted for any reason, at some point they would probably save someone.

Equal Protection Under the Law?

Equal protection means that the same law applies to everyone, at least in theory.  But compare these two stories:

1. Exxon fined $600,000 for 85 bird deaths in five states over five years

Exxon Mobil has agreed to pay $600,000 in penalties after approximately 85 migratory birds died of exposure to hydrocarbons at some of its natural gas facilities across the Midwest.

The fine amounts to about $7,000 per dead bird.

The oil company pleaded guilty to causing the deaths of waterfowl, hawks, owls and other protected species, which perished around natural gas well pits or water storage areas in Wyoming, Kansas, Oklahoma, Colorado and Texas over the last five years....

“We are all responsible for protecting our wildlife, even the largest of corporations,” said David M. Gaouette, the United States attorney in Colorado, in a statement accompanying the Justice Department’s announcement.

We are all responsible for protecting our wildlife... except if we are politically-favored solar companies with strong ties to the Obama White House

2. No fines for solar power plant that may be killing 28,000 birds a year

A common sight in the sky above the world's largest solar thermal power plant is a "streamer," a small plume of smoke that occurs without warning. Closer inspection, however, reveals that the source of the smoke is a bird which has inadvertently strayed into the white-hot heat above the plant's many reflecting mirrors. Because the BrightSource Energy plant near Ivanpah uses supercritical steam rather than photovoltaic energy, the sun's heat is reflected off more than 300,000 mirrors to a single point, which is used to drive a steam turbine. The downside of that, of course, is that it's lethal for any wildlife that strays into the picture -- a problem that was recognized well before the facility opened, but now the government has gotten involved.

Government wildlife inspectors believe that insects are drawn to the highly reflective mirrors, which in turn lures local birds to their doom. BrightSource feels that the issue has been overblown, claiming that only 1,000 living creatures will die in a year, but the Center for Biological Diversity believes the actual figure is closer to 28,000. The US Fish and Wildlife service is pushing for more information and an accurate calculation of the deaths before California grants the company any more permits for solar plants.

You can see from the last line that the Feds don't seem to be even considering a penalty, but are just considering whether they should permit such plants in the future.  If the 28,000 figure is correct, this company should be getting $196 million in fines (the Exxon rate of $7000 per bird)  if there was any such thing as equal protection.  Even the company's admitted figure of 1,000 a year is almost 60 times as high as Exxon was penalized for, despite the fact that Exxon experienced the deaths across hundreds of locations in five states and this is just one single solar plant.

The same alternate standard is being applied to the wind energy industry, as I wrote a while back here.

I Am Guessing San Francisco Doesn't Provide Any Liability Protection For Employers In Exchange For This

San Francisco has put deep restrictions employers' ability to check the criminal records of people they hire.  Yesterday the Senate blocked the nomination of Debo Adegbile to run the Civil Rights division of the Justice Department.  Senators were concerned about his actions as defense attorney for a man convicted of murdering a Philadelphia police officer.  Honestly, I have no problem with defense attorneys going to extremes to defend their clients.  I was more concerned with his historic support for ideas like this one in San Francisco:

Private sector employers in the City of San Francisco will have to comply with new “ban the box” legislation restricting questions about applicants’ criminal records on applications for employment and during job interviews.

The Fair Chance Ordinance, No. 17-14, prohibits employers with at least 20 employees from inquiring about a job applicant’s criminal history on an employment application, including “checking the box” to indicate criminal convictions or other criminal justice system involvement. It also prohibits covered employers from asking about criminal history during an initial interview. The law applies not only to regular employees, but also those performing contracted or contingent work, or working through a temporary agency. The Ordinance becomes operative on August 13, 2014.

After the initial interview, the Ordinance prohibits the employer from asking the applicant about the following:

  • arrests that did not result in conviction, unless charges remain pending;
  • completion of a diversion program;
  • sealed or juvenile offenses;
  • offense s that are more than seven years old from the date of sentencing; and
  • offenses that are not misdemeanors or felonies, such as infractions.

The employer must provide the applicant with a written notice before making any inquiry into the applicant’s criminal history and display a poster in the workplace developed by the City’s Office of Labor Standards Enforcement (OLSE).

The Ordinance also restricts an employer’s ability to consider criminal history disclosed by an applicant. The information may be used in the selection process only if it has “a direct and specific negative bearing on that person’s ability to perform the duties or responsibilities necessarily related to the employment position.”

This is just stupid.  First, I cannot tell you how many government forms (e.g. corporate registrations) require me to report my criminal background -- this is outright hypocrisy, holding private employers to  a different standard than public agencies.  If they really are consistent, truly believing that criminal background checks are discriminatory because they have disparate impact, then they should be pushing to remove them for things like gun ownership.  Anyone really believe they will do this?

The bigger issue for businesses is that we don't make these checks because we are jerks, we make them for real financial reasons.  Specifically, we are worried about the health and safety of our employees and customers.  And for those that think that business owners are all evil and wouldn't care about such things, then we certainly care about getting sued for the actions of our employees.  As a business owner I have been made, particularly in California, responsible for any dumbass thing my employees do.  I will get sued if these employees do something wrong.  And worse, can you just see the trial -- plaintiff's attorney is going to be in front of the jury and say things like "this employee has a long criminal record and defendant did not even check, he did not even care about my client's safety."

Simply Corrupt

The US Justice Department is using decades-old anti-discrimination law to stop poor black families from escaping crappy schools via a school choice program.  The awesome Clint Bolick of Goldwater has the details:

Despite reports of compromise or capitulation, the U.S. Justice Department is continuing its legal assault on the Louisiana school-voucher program—wielding a 40-year-old court order against racial discrimination to stymie the aspirations of black parents to get their children the best education.

The Louisiana Scholarship Program began in 2012. It provides full-tuition scholarships to children from families with incomes below 250% of the poverty level, whose children were assigned to public schools rated C, D or F by the state, or who were enrolling in kindergarten. In the current year, 12,000 children applied for scholarships and nearly 5,000 are using them to attend private schools. Roughly 90% are used by black children.

Parental satisfaction is off the charts. A 2013 survey by the Louisiana chapter of the Black Alliance for Educational Options, a national school-choice organization, found that 93.6% of scholarship families are pleased with their children's academic progress and 99.3% believe the schools are safe—a far cry from the dismal public schools to which the children were previously consigned.

But last August, the Justice Department filed a motion to enjoin the program in dozens of school districts that still have desegregation orders from generations ago. It claimed that any change in racial composition would violate the orders. After a tremendous public backlash, Justice withdrew its motion for an injunction, insisting it did not intend to remove kids from the program....

In fact, the children are very much in danger of losing their opportunities. The Justice Department is demanding detailed annual information, including the racial composition of the public schools the voucher students are leaving and the private and parochial schools the students are selecting. If it objects to the award of individual vouchers based on those statistics, the department will challenge them.

If I had to make a list of the top 10 things we could do to actually help African-American families (as opposed to the garbage programs in place now to supposedly help them), #1 would be decriminalization of narcotics and in general stopping the incarceration of black youth for non-violent victim-less offenses.  But #2 would be school choice programs like the one in Louisiana.

PS- I am thinking about what the rest of the top 10 list would be.  #3 would likely be putting real teeth in police department accountability programs, as I think that police departments tend to be the last bastions of true institutionalized racial discrimination.  #4 might be some sort of starter wage program that gives a lower minimum wage for long-term unemployed.  If I weren't a pacifist and committed to free speech and association, I might say #5 was shutting down half the supposed advocacy groups that claim to be working for the benefit of African-Americans but instead merely lock them into dependency.

Hey, We Are Getting Some Support

The Competitive Enterprise Institute has been all over the shutdown of private businesses that take no money from the Federal government, but have been closed by the Administration none-the-less.  The Daily Caller has an article up that includes some quotes from yours truly

During the government shutdown, the Obama administration has forced the closure of privately owned parks, stoking calls from lawyers for park owners to take legal action against the federal government.

“As a lawyer who once worked for the government, I assume there is no legal authority for this because these private tourist attractions were not shut down in prior ‘government shutdowns,’ even under Bill Clinton, who understood how to play political hardball,” Hans Bader, senior attorney at the Competitive Enterprise Institute wrote in an email.

A lawyer with the conservative Heritage Foundation said that the Obama administration’s actions were likely illegal and that business owners forced to close shop should sue.

“They should immediately file a lawsuit and seek a temporary injunction against the government,” said Former Justice Department lawyer Hans Von Spakovsky.

Which is what we are doing right at this moment.  Several other groups are winning similar suits.

Another example (though I am told the Cliff House case was greatly aided by connections they had with Nancy Pelosi).

New Education Department Guidelines: Violating 3 Constitutional Amendments Simultaneously

I have been meaning to write on the new Obama Administration guidelines to colleges for treating speech as sexual assault and reducing the due process rights of accused students.  But George Will does such a great job I am going to let him do it.

Responding to what it considers the University of Montana’s defective handling of complaints about sexual assaults, OCR, in conjunction with the Justice Department, sent the university a letter intended as a “blueprint” for institutions nationwide when handling sexual harassment, too. The letter, sent on May 9, encourages (see below) adoption of speech codes — actually, censorship regimes — to punish students who:

Make “sexual or dirty jokes” that are “unwelcome.” Or disseminate “sexual rumors” (even if true) that are “unwelcome.” Or make “unwelcome” sexual invitations. Or engage in the “unwelcome” circulation or showing of “e-mails or Web sites of a sexual nature.” Or display or distribute “sexually explicit drawings, pictures, or written materials” that are “unwelcome.”

It takes some work to simultaneously violate this many Constitutional protections in one letter, but the Obama Administration continues to demonstrate its heroic determination to ignore that aging document.

By the way, I cannot find any story about a single university President in the whole country who has objected to these rules.  What a bunch a spineless conformists we running universities.

A few things I would add to Will's comments:

  1. I have written about this emerging "right not to be offended" on University campuses for some time.  This is the Obama Administration trying to codify this nutty BS "right" into law.
  2. There is no way in a rule of law where one can have a law where only the opinion of the victim matters in determining culpability.  To some extent, the loss of due process rights are almost secondary here -- if it is a crime if the victim says it is (ie they were offended), then what defense can one have, anyway?
  3. Given that everyone takes offense to something nearly every day, this law would quickly cause everyone to be kicked out of school.  The Venn diagram of speech that is offensive either to, say, fundamentalist Christians or Muslims and to radical feminists would encompass essentially all of speech related to sex.    Since everyone will not be kicked out of school, the rules will almost certainly be enforced disparately, likely punishing speech with which the university administration disagrees but being far less aggressive in pursuing "unwanted" sexual speech with which it might disagree.

Spying on the Press

Well, the silver lining of this story is that the press, who until now have generally yawned at libertarian concerns about warrantless searches and national security letters, particularly since that power has been held by a Democrat rather than a Republican, will now likely go nuts.

You have probably seen it by now, but here is the basic story

The Justice Department secretly obtained two months of telephone records of reporters and editors for The Associated Press in what the news cooperative's top executive called a "massive and unprecedented intrusion" into how news organizations gather the news.

The records obtained by the Justice Department listed incoming and outgoing calls, and the duration of each call, for the work and personal phone numbers of individual reporters, general AP office numbers in New York, Washington and Hartford, Conn., and the main number for AP reporters in the House of Representatives press gallery, according to attorneys for the AP.

In all, the government seized those records for more than 20 separate telephone lines assigned to AP and its journalists in April and May of 2012. The exact number of journalists who used the phone lines during that period is unknown but more than 100 journalists work in the offices whose phone records were targeted on a wide array of stories about government and other matters.

The AP believes this is an investigation into sources of a story on May 7, 2012 about a foiled terror attack.  This bit was interesting to me for two reasons:

The May 7, 2012, AP story that disclosed details of the CIA operation in Yemen to stop an airliner bomb plot occurred around the one-year anniversary of the May 2, 2011, killing of Osama bin Laden.

The plot was significant because the White House had told the public it had "no credible information that terrorist organizations, including al-Qaida, are plotting attacks in the U.S. to coincide with the (May 2) anniversary of bin Laden's death."

The AP delayed reporting the story at the request of government officials who said it would jeopardize national security. Once government officials said those concerns were allayed, the AP disclosed the plot because officials said it no longer endangered national security. The Obama administration, however, continued to request that the story be held until the administration could make an official announcement.

First, it seems to fit in with the White House cover-up over Benghazi, in the sense that it is another example of the Administration trying to downplay, in fact hide, acts of organized terrorism.  I have criticized the Administration for throwing free speech under the bus in its Benghazi response, but I must say their reasons for doing so were never that clear to me.  This story seems to create a pattern of almost irrational White House sensitivity to any admission of terrorist threats to the US.

Second, note from the last sentence that the White House is bending over backwards to investigate the AP basically for stealing its thunder before a press conference.  Wow.  Well if that were suddenly illegal, just about everyone in DC would be in jail.

Update:  Some thoughts from Glenn Greenwald

how media reactions to civil liberties assaults are shaped almost entirely by who the victims are. For years, the Obama administration has been engaged in pervasive spying on American Muslim communities and dissident groups. It demanded a reform-free renewal of the Patriot Act and the Fisa Amendments Act of 2008, both of which codify immense powers of warrantless eavesdropping, including ones that can be used against journalists. It has prosecuted double the number of whistleblowers under espionage statutes as all previous administrations combined, threatened to criminalize WikiLeaks, and abused Bradley Manning to the point that a formal UN investigation denounced his treatment as "cruel and inhuman".

But, with a few noble exceptions, most major media outlets said little about any of this, except in those cases when they supported it. It took a direct and blatant attack on them for them to really get worked up, denounce these assaults, and acknowledge this administration's true character. That is redolent of how the general public reacted with rage over privacy invasions only when new TSA airport searches targeted not just Muslims but themselves: what they perceive as "regular Americans". Or how former Democratic Rep. Jane Harman -- once the most vocal defender of Bush's vast warrantless eavesdropping programs -- suddenly began sounding like a shrill and outraged privacy advocate once it was revealed that her own conversations with Aipac representatives were recorded by the government.

Judge Rules National Security Letters Are Unconstitutional

This is good ... hope it withstands appeal

Ultra-secret national security letters that come with a gag order on the recipient are an unconstitutional impingement on free speech, a federal judge in California ruled in a decision released Friday.

U.S. District Judge Susan Illston ordered the government to stop issuing so-called NSLs across the board, in a stunning defeat for the Obama administration’s surveillance practices. She also ordered the government to cease enforcing the gag provision in any other cases. However, she stayed her order for 90 days to give the government a chance to appeal to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals.

“We are very pleased that the Court recognized the fatal constitutional shortcomings of the NSL statute,” said Matt Zimmerman, senior staff attorney for the Electronic Frontier Foundation, which filed a challenge to NSLs on behalf of an unknown telecom that received an NSL in 2011. “The government’s gags have truncated the public debate on these controversial surveillance tools. Our client looks forward to the day when it can publicly discuss its experience.”

The telecommunications company received the ultra-secret demand letter in 2011 from the FBI seeking information about a customer or customers. The company took the extraordinary and rare step of challenging the underlying authority of the National Security Letter, as well as the legitimacy of the gag order that came with it.

Both challenges are allowed under a federal law that governs NSLs, a power greatly expanded under the Patriot Act that allows the government to get detailed information on Americans’ finances and communications without oversight from a judge. The FBI has issued hundreds of thousands of NSLs over the years and has been reprimanded for abusing them — though almost none of the requests have been challenged by the recipients.

After the telecom challenged the NSL, the Justice Department took its own extraordinary measure and sued the company, arguing in court documents that the company was violating the law by challenging its authority.

Prosecutorial Abuse

While nominally about the Gibson Guitar raid, this article is actually a great primer on abusive prosecutorial tactics businesses are increasingly facing

Prosecutors who are looking for an easy “win” know that businesses roll over. A public raid on its offices, or an indictment of its officers, can destroy a business’s reputation and viability. That makes the owners easy to intimidate into a plea bargain.

If they choose to fight, they face the full wrath and fury of the feds. In the Gibson raids, the SWAT teams were deployed even though Gibson had offered its full cooperation to investigators. Such raids are increasingly used to intimidate citizens under suspicion. The orchid importer, a 65-year-old with Parkinson’s, was shoved against a wall by armed officers in flak jackets, frisked, and forced into a chair without explanation while his home was searched

The government also attempts to get low-level employees to “finger” their bosses. For example, the feds threatened Gibson employees with long prison sentences. This is not a search for truth, but an immoral attempt at extortion to win convictions. Investigators examine the lives of “little fish” and use minor, unrelated violations (smoking a joint, or exaggerating income on a loan application) to pressure them to back the government’s case against their employers. Mobsters have experience with threats like this, but a secretary or an accountant is scared to death by the threat of prosecution.

A favorite ploy of prosecutors in these cases is to charge defendants with false statements based on their answers to the investigators. The sentence for this can be five years in prison. No recording is made of the interviews — in fact, the feds prohibit taping the interviews — and the agents are not stenographers. They cannot possibly recall the exact wording of the questions and the answers. Yet after the interview, they will produce a “transcript” replete with quotes throughout. And if a witness says he did not actually say what the agent put in quotes, it is the witness’s word against a fine, upstanding federal agent’s. Staring at a five-year sentence will get most people to say whatever the government wants them to.

The feds also pile up charges. According to Juszkiewicz, the Justice Department warned Gibson that each instance of shipping a guitar from its facility would bring an added charge of obstruction of justice. Prosecutors routinely add extra counts to stack potential prison sentences higher. For instance, faxing invoices for the wood would be charged as wire fraud. Depositing the check for the sale of the guitars would be money laundering. The CEO’s telling the press he is innocent would bring charges of fraud or stock manipulation. The intent is to threaten such long sentences that the targets plead guilty rather than risk decades in prison.

Prosecutors further tighten the screws by seizing the assets of the company, a tactic once used against pirates and drug lords but now routinely used to prosecute white-collar crimes. The federal agents seized six guitars and several pallets of ebony during their initial 2009 raid against Gibson. Federal law allows assets to be seized not just from convicted criminals, but also from those never charged. Owners must prove that the forfeited property was obtained legally; otherwise, the government can keep it. That gives the government incredible leverage, because without the seized inventory and bank accounts, the business will most likely go under. How can Gibson make guitars if the wood is being held by the government? How can it service customers when the government took its computers as evidence? How can it pay lawyers when its bank accounts were seized? Asset forfeitures bring to mind a similar twist on the law uttered by the Queen of Hearts in Alice in Wonderland: “Sentence first, verdict afterwards.”

Cruel and Unusual Punishment

Allowing this kind of hell to exist has got to be one of the worst systematic civil rights violations that still exist in this country

The U.S. Department of Justice recently released its first-ever estimate of the number of inmates who are sexually abused in America each year. According to the department’s data, which are based on nationwide surveys of prison and jail inmates as well as young people in juvenile detention centers, at least 216,600 inmates were victimized in 2008 alone. Contrary to popular belief, most of the perpetrators were not other prisoners but staff members—corrections officials whose job it is to keep inmates safe. On average, each victim was abused between three and five times over the course of the year. The vast majority were too fearful of reprisals to seek help or file a formal complaint.

Just to calibrate, the total number of sexual assaults reported outside of prisons in the US is something like 190,000 a year.

Sexual violence is not an inevitable part of prison life. On the contrary, it is highly preventable. Corrections officials who are committed to running safe facilities train their staff thoroughly. They make sure that inmates who are especially vulnerable to abuse—such as small, mentally ill, and gay or transgender detainees—are not housed with likely perpetrators. And they hold those who commit sexual assaults accountable, even if they are colleagues.

But many corrections administrators are reluctant to make sexual abuse prevention a top priority, preferring to maintain the status quo rather than acknowledge the role their own employees play. Others are actually fighting reform efforts, claiming, in spite of the evidence, that sexual violence is rare.

This resistance is reflected in the slow implementation of the Prison Rape Elimination Act, which Congress unanimously passed in 2003. The law mandated binding national standards to help end sexual abuse in detention. But almost eight years later, the Justice Department has yet to promulgate final standards.

Take California for example, where the prison guard union is among the most powerful in the country.  Given how far in the tank legislators in that state are for their public unions, it is hugely unlikely this will get addressed any time soon

So Much for Judicial Review

Wow, it is a wonder that the FBI works so hard to gain warrant-less search powers when the judiciary seems hell-bent on rubber stamping every request that comes along

The secretive Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court approved all 1,506 government requests to electronically monitor suspected “agents” of a foreign power or terrorists on US soil last year, according to a Justice Department report released via the Freedom of Information Act....

“The FISC did not deny any applications in whole, or in part,” according to the April 19 report to Sen. Majority Leader Harry Reid, (D-NV.)

The 11-member court denied two of 1,329 applications for domestic-intelligence surveillance in 2009. The FBI is the primary agency making those requests.

This is the problem with such a narrow court - it tends to get co-opted by the FBI in the same way that regulatory agencies get captured by the groups they regulate.  I am not sure how the court is picked, but some sort of rotation of the membership might help bring a bit more skepticism to the group

Prior Restraint

National security letters strike me as one of the worst Constitutional abuses to come out of the last 10 years, which is saying a lot given the post-9/11 theories of executive authority from torture to indefinite detention to even ordering people killed.

The national security letters deserve particular scrutiny because they evade the Fourth Amendment while building in a prior restraint on speech that prevents recipients from challenging the letters or even complaining about them.  This is self-sustaining policy -- ie policy that prevents the dissemination of information that might prove it is a threat or a failure -- at its worst.

The Justice Department's inspector general revealed on March 9 that the FBI has been systematically abusing one of the most controversial provisions of the USA Patriot Act: the expanded power to issue "national security letters." It no doubt surprised most Americans to learn that between 2003 and 2005 the FBI issued more than 140,000 specific demands under this provision -- demands issued without a showing of probable cause or prior judicial approval -- to obtain potentially sensitive information about U.S. citizens and residents. It did not, however, come as any surprise to me.

Three years ago, I received a national security letter (NSL) in my capacity as the president of a small Internet access and consulting business. The letter ordered me to provide sensitive information about one of my clients. There was no indication that a judge had reviewed or approved the letter, and it turned out that none had. The letter came with a gag provision that prohibited me from telling anyone, including my client, that the FBI was seeking this information. Based on the context of the demand -- a context that the FBI still won't let me discuss publicly -- I suspected that the FBI was abusing its power and that the letter sought information to which the FBI was not entitled.

Anyone want to bet how many of these things really are national security related, and how many are related to other investigations (particularly drugs)?

There are zillions of people involved in these major investigations.  There is no good argument against adding one more who is in on the secret - ie a judge - and a lot of reasons to do so.

Not Good

From CBS News, Via Matt Welch:

In a case that raises questions about online journalism and privacy rights, the U.S. Department of Justice sent a formal request to an independent news site ordering it to provide details of all reader visits on a certain day.

The grand jury subpoena also required the Philadelphia-based Indymedia.us Web site "not to disclose the existence of this request" unless authorized by the Justice Department, a gag order that presents an unusual quandary for any news organization...

The subpoena (PDF) from U.S. Attorney Tim Morrison in Indianapolis demanded "all IP traffic to and from www.indymedia.us" on June 25, 2008. It instructed Clair to "include IP addresses, times, and any other identifying information," including e-mail addresses, physical addresses, registered accounts, and Indymedia readers' Social Security Numbers, bank account numbers, credit card numbers, and so on.

This is remeniscent of the indimidation subpoena and later arrests at the Phoenix New Times orchestrated to stop the paper from criticizing Sheriff Joe Arpaio.

The State of Anti-Trust

A lot of folks believe that antitrust law is mainly used for consumer protection.  That may have once been true, but it certainly is not true today.  Antitrust laws are used today by one group of competitors to try to hamstring another competitor in their business, usually one that is kicking their collective butts.

Here is the latest example:

The Justice Department is investigating allegations that International Business Machines Corp. has monopolized the market for mainframe computers, broadening Washington's search for anti-competitive behavior in the technology industry.

The requests, a special kind of subpoena used in antitrust investigations, followed a complaint by [the Computer & Communications Industry Association"”a group with many IBM rivals among its members] to the Justice Department accusing IBM of harming businesses by abusing its dominance of the market for mainframes.

Narry a customer or consumer to be found.  So what is the complaint?

the CCIA alleges IBM began to tighten its grip on the market by not allowing its newest software to be used on competitors' machines.

Waaaaaaaa!  Develop your own freaking software.  The only reason these competitors have a product at all is due to another anti-trust settlement 50 years ago:

For decades, [IBM] operated under terms of a 1956 consent decree with the government that required it to license mainframe technology to competitors.

Roughly the equivalent of Coca-Cola being forced to license its formula to whoever wants it.

But I can prove this has nothing to do with consumers.  Take an earlier, similar case against IBM several years ago.

The lawsuits followed IBM's decision not to license its newest mainframe operating system, called z/OS, to customers of Platform Solutions Inc., a company that made cheaper mainframes that were compatible with IBM's.

In its complaint, Platform alleged that IBM was unlawfully "tying" its software to its mainframe hardware and requiring customers to purchase both.

Congratulations, this company was able to beat IBM on price when they bore no hardware development costs (IBM was forced to license its designs to them to copy) and obviously was a free rider on software as well.   But that is beside the point.  Here is the solution that settled the case:

That case was settled last year, after IBM purchased Platform and ended its business.

LOL.  I am pretty sure that if the anti-trust case had anything to do with customers, that increasing IBM's market share and shutting down a low cost competitor would not have been considered an appropriate fix to IBM's supposedly anti-competitive behavior.  Antitrust has devolved nearly entirely into a legal club to wack a competitor who is beating you in the marketplace.  In Europe, it has become a tool to wack foreign competitors to domestic companies without triggering trade retaliations (e.g. Microsoft, Honeywell).

Congress, Sue Thyself

This is almost beyond parody:

The House of Representatives overwhelmingly approved legislation on
Tuesday allowing the Justice Department to sue OPEC members for
limiting oil supplies and working together to set crude prices, but the
White House threatened to veto the measure.

The bill would
subject OPEC oil producers, including Saudi Arabia, Iran and Venezuela,
to the same antitrust laws that U.S. companies must follow.

The measure passed in a 324-84 vote, a big enough margin to override a presidential veto.

The
legislation also creates a Justice Department task force to
aggressively investigate gasoline price gouging and energy market
manipulation.

"This bill guarantees that oil prices will reflect
supply and demand economic rules, instead of wildly speculative and
perhaps illegal activities," said Democratic Rep. Steve Kagen of
Wisconsin, who sponsored the legislation.

I am sure, either through scheming or more likely incompetance, that OPEC countries are under-supplying their potential capacity for oil production.  But if we want to deem this a crime, who is the biggest criminal?   The US is the only country I know of that has, by statute, made illegal the development of enormous domestic reserves.  Just last week, Democracts in Congress, in fact the exact same folks sponsoring this bill, voted to continue an effective moratorium on US oil shale development.  No country in the world is doing less to develop the most promising oil reserves than is the US.  Congress, sue thyself.  I mocked this idea weeks ago when Hillary first suggested it.  If this passes, I would love to see the US counter-sued for not developing ANWR.  Or large areas of the Gulf.  Or most of the Pacific coast.  Or all of the Atlantic coast.  Or our largest-in-the-world oil shale deposits. 

If Only Abuse of Power Was Considered Worse Than Sex

In a previous post I lamented that Eliot Spitzer was lauded by the press as "Mr. Clean" despite (or because of) abuse of power, but was forced to quit within days of revealing an episode of consensual sex.  If only abuse of power had such an immediate impact on politicians as sex:

The Justice Department and the housing department's inspector general
are investigating whether the [HUD] secretary, Alphonso R. Jackson,
improperly steered hundreds of thousands of dollars in government
contracts to friends in New Orleans and the Virgin Islands.

On Wednesday, Democratic lawmakers also raised concerns about
accusations that Mr. Jackson threatened to withdraw federal aid from
the director of the Philadelphia Housing Authority after he refused to
turn over a $2 million property to a politically connected developer.

Update:  More on the press and its support for prosecutorial abuse of power, in Spitzer's case and others.

Great Moments in Torts

This may be my new favorite tort:  (via Overlawyered)

A Pennsylvania man has sued search giant Google
for $5 billion, claiming that when his Social Security number is turned
upside down, "it is a scrambled code that does spell the name Google."
The handwritten complaint filed in the U.S. District Court in Scranton
alleges that the U.S. Justice Department "is heading the investigation
into allegations of crimes against Humanity" involving Google's
founders and that the plaintiff's "safety is in jepordy."

Up next, the owner of Social Security number 71077345 sues Shell Oil for the same reason.

Unfortunately, in other tort news, this is not a laughing matter.  It is just plain stupid AG megalomania:

For a while now, lawyers in Minnesota, Oklahoma and elsewhere have been suing companies that make over-the-counter cold remedies containing ephedrine and pseudoephedrine on the grounds that they were aware
some buyers were using the drugs as raw material for illegal
methamphetamine labs. Now such litigation appears to be gaining
momentum in Arkansas, where many county governments have signed up to
sue Johnson & Johnson, Pfizer, and other companies. "If successful,
it could open up litigation against manufacturers of other produce used
in making meth, such as drain cleaners and acetone."

One local judge discusses the case in a way that sounds like a commercial for the Publishers Clearing House Sweepstakes:

"What more could we have done with a million dollars a year for our
county? Would that have meant a half dozen more police officers? Would
that have meant a better solid waste program? Who knows, what could
your county have done with an extra million dollars," asked Judge Bill
Hicks of Independence County, a backer of the suits.

Due Process, Even for Accountants

I know that no one seems to really give a crap about due process for accountants nowadays, perhaps an over-swing of the pendulum from the days when no one really cared much about prosecuting white collar crime, but some of the Justice Departments prosecutorial abuses are finally coming back to haunt them.

The Justice Department's case against 16 former KPMG partners for tax
evasion continues to unravel, with prosecutors themselves conceding
late last week that federal Judge Lewis Kaplan has little choice but to
dismiss the charges against most of the defendants.

Judge Kaplan ruled
last year that Justice had violated the defendants' Constitutional
rights by pressuring KPMG not to pay their legal fees. He is now
considering a defense motion to dismiss. Prosecutors continue to
protest the judge's ruling but on Friday they admitted in a court
filing that dismissal is the only remedy for the rights violations. The
more honorable route would have been for prosecutors to acknowledge
their mistakes and dismiss the charges themselves.

The truth is that
this tax shelter case should never have been brought. Both KPMG and its
partners believed the shelters they marketed were legal, and no tax
court had ruled against the shelters before Justice brought its
criminal charges. Then prosecutors used the threat of criminal
indictment against all of KPMG to extort an admission of guilt from the
firm and force it to stop paying the legal bills of individual partners.

I'll Make a Bet

Via Hit and Run:

A blistering Justice Department report accuses the FBI of
underreporting its use of the Patriot Act to force businesses to turn
over customer information in terrorism cases....The report, to be
released Friday, also says the FBI failed to send follow-up subpoenas
to telecommunications firms that were told to expect them.....

Overall,
the FBI underreported the number of national security letters it issued
by about 20 percent between 2003 and 2005..... In 2005 alone, the FBI
delivered a total of 9,254 letters relating to 3,501 U.S. citizens and
legal residents.

The Patriot Act....allows the FBI to issue national
security letters without a judge's approval in terrorism and espionage
cases.

Here is my bet:  Even more interesting will be a review of these letters, if that is ever allowed, to see how many really had any burning relation to national security.  My guess is that many of these are being used in drug cases and financial cases that only the most creative FBI agent could twist into a national security situation.

What 6th Ammendment?

I have written several times on prosecutorial abuse, most recently in this post on the Justice Department's current practice of forcing companies to waive attorney-client privilege and punishing companies that help their employees seek legal council.

The WSJ($) editorializes about a recent division by Judge Lewis Kaplan in the KPMG trial.

Those steps were extraordinary in their attempt to
pressure corporate executives: They include waiving attorney-client
privilege to give investigators access to internal documents and
cutting off accused employees from legal and other forms of support. In
short, the Thompson memo said that companies under investigation are
expected to surrender any right against self-incrimination and cut
their accused employees adrift.

In one sense, the memo's guidelines are just that --
internal guidelines for prosecutors. But as a practical matter, only a
rare CEO will risk the death sentence that a corporate indictment
represents. So "cooperation" as defined by Justice is hardly optional.
It was on this point that Judge Kaplan took Assistant U.S. Attorney
Justin Weddle to task last week. When Judge Kaplan questioned the
fairness of pressuring companies to throw their employees overboard,
Mr. Weddle replied that companies are "free to say, 'We're not going to
cooperate.'"

"That's lame," the judge retorted. He then asked Mr.
Weddle "what legitimate purpose" was served by insisting that companies
cut their former employees off from legal support. Companies under
investigation, Judge Kaplan noted, ought to be free to decide whether
to support their employees or former employees without Justice's "thumb
on the scale."

Mr. Weddle replied that paying the legal fees of
former employees charged with crimes amounted to protecting
"wrongdoers." This prompted the judge to remind the young prosecutor
that the accused are still innocent until proven guilty. He also
reminded Mr. Weddle that the Constitution's Sixth Amendment guarantees
the right to counsel. And for good measure, if the government is
confident in its case, it shouldn't be afraid to allow "wrongdoers"
access to an adequate defense.

Its good to see these practices starting to get some judicial scrutiny.  There is unfortunately no real political constituency in this country to get worked up about this kind of stuff.  Left-leaning groups tend to be the first to challenge police and prosecutorial abuses of power, but have little interest in doing so when the target (ie corporations) is someone they have no ideological sympathy for.  And right-leaning groups tend to be strong law-and-order types that feel the need to go out of their way to be tough on recent corporate transgressors to avoid the accusation that they are in bed politically with white collar criminals.

 

More Reasons to Fear the Patriot Act

There have been any number of stories about how provisions of the Patriot Act are used more routinely to proecute drug cases than to pursue, you know, terrorists.  Note, however, this provision in the Patriot Act that has nothing to do with national security (via Overlawyered).

Quietly slipped into the reauthorization of the Patriot Act:
first-time-ever authority for the Justice Department to engage in
wiretapping and bugging of private premises for purposes of going after
antitrust violators.

Given the fact the the feds regularly prosecute companies with large market shares for A) raising prices (i.e. monopoly pricing); for B) lowering prices (i.e. predatory pricing); and for C) keeping prices the same (ie price fixing), this becomes an open mandate to listen into any private conversation at any company with a non-trivial market share.  Have fun at your next staff meeting over there at Microsoft or Exxon. 

From the Incredible Bread Machine by G.W. Grant:

"Now let me state the present rules,"
The lawyer then went on,


"These very simple guidelines,
You can rely upon:
You're gouging on your prices if
You charge more than the rest.
But it's unfair competition if
You think you can charge less!
"A second point that we would make
To help avoid confusion...
Don't try to charge the same amount,
That would be Collusion!
You must compete. But not too much,
For if you do you see,
Then the market would be yours -
And that's Monopoly!

So Much for Federalism and the Commerce Clause

I tend to be a pragmatic, rather than a dogmatic, federalist.  What I mean by that is that I support federalism for the pragmatic reason that it tends to slow statism, rather than a dogmatic belief that federalism is somehow morally superior.  Generally, federalism has been good for this country, as it has provided a check to states that go nuts on taxation and over-regulation.  The exodus of businesses from the Northeast in the 60's and 70's and from California more recently are examples of this effect at work, as citizens vote with their feet for the regulatory regime they prefer.

The recent decision on medial marijuana, where the Supreme Court ruled 6-3 that federal marijuana laws trump state medical-marijuana statutes seems to be another nail in the federalism coffin.  One can tell immediately that the ruling is all about federalism (rather than drugs) when you have the spectacle of the three most conservative judges supporting state legalization laws and the most liberal judges ruling for continued marijuana illegality under federal law.  Again reading my handy pocket Constitution (courtesy of Cato), it is hard for me to find where the feds have purview over regulating California home-grown pot smoked in California.  By accepting the argument below, the Supreme Court has basically ruled that the feds can pretty much regulate intra-state commerce, since you can probably make a similar argument in any case:

lawyers for the U.S. Justice Department argued to the Supreme Court
that homegrown marijuana represented interstate commerce, because the
garden patch weed would affect "overall production" of the weed, much
of it imported across American borders by well-financed, often violent
drug gangs

By the way, think about that for a minute.  They are arguing that home-grown weed would "affect" the inter-state commerce of "violent drug gangs".  How would it affect it?  It would reduce their commerce!  So the feds are claiming purview over home-grown pot because it would, what?  Unfairly reduce the inter-state trade of violent drug gangs?

Clarence Thomas makes the point succinctly that accepting this argument is the end of the distinction between inter- and intra-state commerce:

Respondents Diane Monson and Angel Raich use marijuana that has never
been bought or sold, that has never crossed state lines, and that has
had no demonstrable effect on the national market for marijuana. If
Congress can regulate this under the Commerce Clause, then it can
regulate virtually anything and the Federal Government is no longer
one of limited and enumerated powers.

Is it just me, or does this Supreme Court seem all over the place in its rulings?  Maybe you constitutional scholars out there can figure it out.

Update:  More from Reason

More thoughts:  The left complains that the right is trying to create a theocracy via the Supreme Court.  The right argues that it just wants to protect constitutional limits on government, which the left wants to exceed.  I have been and still am suspicious of some conservative judges on the court, but I must say that the way the votes fell in this case certainly hurts the "theocracy" argument.  I would start to believe if it wasn't for the fact that in the next case, if recent history is any guide, everyone will likely reverse their positions again.