Posts tagged ‘nullification’

The Government Considers This Blog Post Illegal

There are cases in which I support jury nullification.  I cannot imagine sitting on a jury and voting to convict someone of violating a law I thought to be grossly unethical, no matter what the jury instructions were.

For explanation, see here, but the key quote

In response to Julian Heicklen’s motion to dismiss his indictment [for distributing pamphlets on jury nullification] on First Amendment grounds, federal attorneys have filed a response with the court.  Here is the federal government’s position: “[T]he defendant’s advocacy of jury nullification, directed as it is to jurors, would be both criminal and without Constitutional protections no matter where it occurred” [emphasis added].  This is really astonishing.  A talk radio host is subject to arrest for saying something like, “Let me tell you all what I think.  Jurors should vote their conscience!”  Newspaper columnists and bloggers subject to arrest too?

Next up -- it will be illegal to speak out against the President's ability to detain or assassinate Americans who he believes to be terrorists.

Time To Pull Out Those 19th Century Constitutional Law Books

I may just be showing how ignorant I am on the subject, but my sense has always been that state nullification of federal laws is a tool not much tried or used since the first half of the 19th century.  While a number of our Founders, particularly Jefferson, saw state nullification (not the Supreme Court) as the key check on arbitrary or unconstitutional Federal legislation, the whole subject sort of gained a taint, along with states rights, by its association with the South's defense of slavery.

Anyway, state opposition to the Real ID law has been an pretty interesting and frankly, for this libertarian, exciting re-invigoration of this potential check on Federal power.  We have also seen efforts in states like California and Colorado to effectively nullify certain Federal drug laws.  Now Arizona, among other states, is seeking to nullify bits of the proposed Federal health care legislation:

Right on the heels of a successful state-by-state nullification of the 2005 Real ID act, the State of Arizona is out in the forefront of a growing resistance to proposed federal health care legislation.

This past Monday, the Arizona State Senate voted 18-11 to concur with the House and approve the Health Care Freedom Act (HCR2014).  This will put a proposal on the 2010 ballot which would constitutionally override any law, rule or regulation that requires individuals or employers to participate in any particular health care system.

HCR2014, if approved by voters next year, also would prohibit any fine or penalty on anyone or any company for deciding to purchase health care directly. Doctors and health care providers would remain free to accept those funds and provide those services.

Finally, it would overrule anything that prohibits the sale of private health insurance in Arizona.

Five other states "” Indiana, Minnesota, New Mexico, North Dakota and Wyoming "” are considering similar initiatives for their 2010 ballots.

I have zero idea if this is legal or possible, but I am all for trying.   And I say this knowing that as an employer, the legal mess it may create for me could be awful.  I could easily see a situation where it is required under Federal law that we enroll employees but illegal to do so under state law.  I can easily see a situation developing similar to what medical marijuana growers face in California, pulled back and forth between state and federal law.

Beware of Prosecutors

Beware of prosecutors:  they don't like to lose.  Scooter Libby today became at least the third high-profile person in recent memory to be successfully prosecuted for lying about something that wasn't a crime. 

Bill Clinton, Martha Stewart, and Scooter Libby were all prosecuted for perjury charges that were really tangential to the original case.  In all three cases, prosecutors, hot to not be left empty-handed when pursuing a high-profile target, fell back on prosecuting perjury charges related to non-crimes once their core case fell apart.  Only Bill Clinton escaped jail, escaping with what was effectively jury nullification -- no one seems to deny he was guilty of perjury, but his jury (the Senate) couldn't bring itself to impose a ridiculously harsh penalty for lying about something entirely unrelated to any crime and which in a reasonable world would not even have been allowable questioning under oath. 

Is Jury Nullification Libertarian?

A while back, at our local libertarian discussion group, we spent an evening discussing centralization vs. decentralization of government, and whether one or the other better protects individual liberties. 

Many libertarians argue for decentralization.  The anarchists in the room will argue for the ultimate decentralization, all the way to the individual level, essentially voiding the concept of government altogether.  Others who are more amenable to some government argue for decentralization because it tends to allow for competition, with citizens voting with their feet and wallets for more favorable tax and regulatory regimes.

On the other hand, the US provides historical examples of the benefits of federalism in protecting individual rights.  Certainly the abolition of slavery and later of Jim Crow laws were a positive outcome from the feds, as are the enforcement of Bill of Rights protections on the states.  I would personally love to see a federal system like our own with all legislative power held as locally as possible, but with a federal government whose main purpose domestically was not taxation/regulation/legislation but instead enforcement of a more robust Bill of Rights and nullification of state and local law that violated protected individual freedoms.

Anyway, one topic related to decentralized authority was jury nullification.  Jury nullification is the ability for juries to rule on the law, rather than guilt or innocence.  An example might be "the jury thinks Joe is guilty of smoking pot, but we don't think smoking pot should be illegal, so we are going to let Joe go."  Most state law technically does not allow juries to rule on the law itself, but as a practical matter there is no way juries can be prevented from doing so  (Prosecutors really go non-linear over jury nullification -- I remember Patterico had a long series inveighing against it.)

Anyway, as you might imagine, the libertarians in the room mostly love jury nullification.  Despite being a good anarcho-capitalist, I disagreed. I understood that most of the examples people brought up did indeed demonstrate that jury nullification could be a tool for protecting individual rights.  However, I believe that nullification could equally be a tool of oppression.  For example, in criminal law, take the Enron-Skilling trial.  I am not saying this happened, but one could certainly imagine a properly inflamed jury saying "well, we don't think he is technically guilty beyond a reasonable doubt on the charges based on the evidence here in court, but he's rich and Enron failed and people lost money and we're pissed off, so we will find him guilty.  They would be saying "what he did was not a violation of the law, but it should be, so we are sending him to jail." This is just as much jury nullification as my previous example.

I don't think this kind of anti-individual-rights jury nullificatin happens often in criminal court, but I do think it is happening a lot in civil court.  In fact, I think one way you could summarize what is wrong with torts and litigation in this country is that we are seeing rampant jury nullification in favor of wealth redistribution.  Juries are ignoring the law, the facts of the case, and all reason for one and only one consideration:  "One guy in the room is rich, one guy is not, and I have a chance to take money from the rich guy and give it to the poor guy."  For while it may be hard in America to get 51% of the voters to support substantial increases in wealth distribution, smart lawyers like Peter Angelos and Jon Edwards have figured out that it is not that hard through voi dire to get at least seven or eight such votes in a room of twelve people.

Particularly if you are good at venue-shopping:

In Race, Poverty and American Tort Awards (and here),
Eric Helland and I show that tort awards increase strongly with county
poverty rates especially with minority poverty.  A 1% increase in black
poverty rates, for example, can increase tort awards by 3-10 percent
with a similar increase in Hispanic poverty rates.   Careful forum
shopping can easily raise awards by 50-100%.

Anthony Buzbee, a famed plaintiff's attorney, inadvertently let the
cat out of the bag recently when talking about Starr county in Texas.

"That venue probably adds about seventy-five percent to the value of
the case," he said. "You've got an injured Hispanic client, you've got
a completely Hispanic jury, and you've got an Hispanic judge. All
right. That's how it is."

In other parts of Texas, Buzbee went on, a plaintiff may have the
burden of showing "here's what the company did wrong, all right? But
when you're in Starr County, traditionally, you need to just show that
the guy was working, and he was hurt. And that's the hurdle: Just prove
that he wasn't hurt at Wal-Mart, buying something on his off time, and
traditionally, you win those cases."

The problem with letting juries write law in the jury room is that there are no Constitutional protections at all.  If they want to make the law, at least for that day, read that homeowners are liable for injuries suffered by burglars trying to break into their house, then that is what the law becomes, fair or not.  If they want to make the law read that drug companies shouldn't sell painkillers that have any risk at all, then that is what the law is, and the rest of us 300 million minus twelve people have to live with fewer choices for managing our migraines. 

Time for Patent Reform

Its clearly time for patent reform as it applied to software.  In the last ten years, software engineers have apparently have been able to convince hardware-centric patent examiners that some pretty basic software concepts are "non-obvious" and patentable.  Guestblogging at Overlawyered last week, I mentioned one such patent, the Amazon "1-click ordering" patent, which to me is clearly copyrightable, but not patentable.

Rob Pegoraro makes a similar point in the Washington Post, editorializing on the Blackberry suit:

No, the problem here is simpler. There are too many bogus patents getting handed out.

solution would be to make more things unpatentable. Just as you can't
-- or shouldn't -- be able to patent a mathematical equation, in this
scenario you wouldn't be able to claim ownership of things like the
general workings of software (any individual program is already
protected by copyright) or business methods. The U.S. has been a
pioneer in turning those things into new types of intellectual
property; perhaps it's time to declare this experiment a failure.

somewhat overlapping solution would make it harder to get any patent.
The patent office would apply a higher standard of "non-obviousness" --
the idea that a patent shouldn't reward "inventions" any competent
individual could have thought up. And any outside party could submit
evidence against a patent before it became final.

I am generally sympathetic to Blackberry's plight, in part because I went to school with Jim Balsillie, the CEO of RIM.  One thing Pegoraro missed in his editorial:  The US Patent Office has already said it made a mistake in issuing the original patent that RIM was found to be violating.  The nullification of this patent is working through the system, and RIM is pleading that the injunction against them wait until this process is complete, sort of like a victim on death row begging not to be put to death because the prosecutor has admitted that based on new evidence, he shouldn't have pursued the case in the first place.  RIM has offered to settle with NTP (the patent holder)if there is a give-back if the patent is invalidated in the future, but NTP has refused this.  This all makes for an interesting drama, with a lot of brinksmanship.

By the way, though I am sympathetic to RIM to some extent, that sympathy is diminished by this:

In 2002, RIM sued software developer Good Technology for its wireless
mail-transfer technology and "smart phone" maker Handspring over its
miniaturized keyboard design. Both wound up forking over licensing fees.

As I wrote before, what goes around, comes around when you use the legal system and the long hand of the government to step on competitors.