Showing posts with label constitution. Show all posts
Showing posts with label constitution. Show all posts

Sunday, February 7, 2021

Atlas Obscura fills in fuzzy history of title, 'esquire'

Squire (NYPL)

Atlas Obscura has an excellent piece on the title "Esquire" and its connection to the American legal profession.  The writer is L.A.-based freelancer Dan Nosowitz. He writes:

One of the weirder movements in modern American political action attempted to attack a title so vigorously that it would have essentially collapsed the entire history of the American government. The movement didn’t succeed, because it was both factually wrong and wildly misguided, but it was wrong in a really interesting way. It relied on the title "Esquire," which is one of the more common but most unusual ways a person can ask to be addressed.

The essay is Dan Nosowitz, What Does the Title "Esquire" Mean, Anyway?: And What Does it Have to Do with Lawyering?, Atlas Obscura, Feb. 3, 2021.

Tuesday, April 21, 2020

Amid pandemic, ballot access restrictions yield to right to run for office, state supreme court rules

Because of the coronavirus pandemic, political candidates will have to produce only half the usual number of voter signatures to see their names on the state primary ballot, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruled Friday.  One justice in concurrence chastised the Massachusetts government for dropping the ball in technology to respond to the crisis.

Massachusetts primary ballots in 2016 (GPA Photo Archive CC BY-SA 2.0)
A primary election in the United States occurs at the state level before the nationwide Election Day in early November.  Voters in a primary election choose which candidates from each party will qualify for the final ballot on Election Day.  The Commonwealth of Massachusetts held its primary election for the U.S. Presidency on March 3; the primary election for state candidates to state and federal offices is set for September 1.  Candidates will vie for a U.S. Senate seat, nine U.S. House seats, 40 state senate seats, and 160 state house seats.  Some states with earlier scheduled elections postponed their primaries.  For example, Rhode Island postponed its same-day presidential and state primary election from April 28 to June 2.  The later timetable in Massachusetts leaves no room for postponement if officials are to prepare ballots timely for Election Day.

Declared on March 10, a state of emergency arose in Massachusetts at a crucial time for political candidates to collect signatures to qualify for ballots in the state primary election.  Party candidates were expected to submit signatures to state officials by April 28, for state offices, and by May 5, for federal offices.  The requisite number of signatures ranges from 150, for a state house seat, to 10,000, for a U.S. Senate seat.  Procured signatures in Massachusetts must be “wet,” that is, given live, in ink; there is not yet a legal process to collect, nor a technical capacity to certify, electronic signatures.

Customers line up at social distance to enter my local grocery store.
Photo in Barrington, R.I., Apr. 5, 2020, by RJ Peltz-Steele CC BY-SA 4.0.
Naturally the coronavirus lockdown has complicated the collection of wet signatures.  Candidates and their supporters ordinarily canvass voters door to door and at places where people congregate, such as shopping malls.  Social distancing restrictions came into effect just after the halfway point in the time window for collecting signatures.  Candidates sought relief from the executive and legislative branches of Massachusetts government.  Executive election officials said they were powerless to change statutory deadlines, and bills to relax signature requirements stalled in the legislature.  I note, it’s hardly in the interest of incumbents and their well-oiled politicking machines to facilitate the raising up of rivals.

Written or not, the right to seek representative office must be, to some degree, a civil, or human, right in a democracy.  In Massachusetts, the right is written.  Article 9 of the Massachusetts Declaration of Rights states, “All elections ought to be free; and all the inhabitants of this commonwealth, having such qualifications as they shall establish by their frame of government, have an equal right to elect officers, and to be elected, for public employments.”

Article 9 of the 1780 Massachusetts Constitution
(Massachusetts Historical Society Collection)
The provision dates, unaltered, to the original 1780 Massachusetts Constitution (Papers of John Adams, vol. 8) and gave candidates now seeking access to the Massachusetts primary a plain hook to plead for judicial intervention.  On April 8, three representative plaintiffs, including two Democrats and one Republican, two seeking federal office and one seeking state office, filed an emergency petition for declaratory relief.

The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court has long recognized that the state constitutional right to run for office may confer judicial protection against overreaching legislative or executive restrictions on access to the ballot.  The provision was used to support women’s suffrage in 1922, if only after the 19th Amendment (1920).  The Court rejected a ballot access challenge to statute by Libertarian candidates in 2012; however, in dictum the Court reiterated its competence to adjudicate an article 9 claim and even cited article 9 in tandem with the inherent judicial power, as articulated in the landmark same-sex marriage decision in 2003, to extend Massachusetts civil rights beyond the scope of the U.S. Constitution.  Notwithstanding the power of judicial review, the Court’s experience in examining ballot access law under article 9 has before now resulted entirely in the approval of “reasonable” or “legitimate” qualifications for office.

Structurally, the Massachusetts Constitution, like the U.S. Constitution, disfavors judicial intervention in the electoral process.  “As a general matter, the principle of separation of powers … prevents the ‘judiciary [from] substituting its notions of correct policy for that of a popularly elected Legislature,’” the Court wrote in the instant case, quoting precedent.  The plaintiffs’ challenge here called for “policy judgments that, in ordinary times would be best left to the Legislature.”

"Signing a Petition" by Elizabeth Jenkins CC BY-NC-SA 2.0
Yet, the Court wrote, “[n]o fair-minded person can dispute that the fundamental right to run for elective office has been unconstitutionally burdened or interfered with by the need to obtain the required ‘wet’ signatures in the midst of this pandemic.”  Had the legislature passed a law similarly burdening ballot access in the absence of the pandemic, the Court reasoned, surely it would be ripe for judicial review under article 9.  Thus, “where fundamental constitutional rights are violated, and where the Legislature fails to remedy the constitutional deficiencies after having had the opportunity to do so, and where an aggrieved litigant files suit seeking remedial relief for the constitutional violation, the judiciary must provide such a remedy.”

The Court struggled with the appropriate level of judicial scrutiny, an issue that similarly has confounded the U.S. Supreme Court in its case law over free speech and campaign finance regulation.  U.S. constitutional law tends to approach civil rights problems from a formalist framework of tiered judicial scrutiny, its intensity ranging from zero, or minimal “rational basis” analysis, to presumptive unconstitutionality and stringent “strict scrutiny.”  This framework at first glance contrasts with the much more flexible European approach that functionalizes construction of “necessary in a democratic society,” though critics fairly allege that the U.S. Supreme Court’s tiered scrutiny has flexed functionally in application.

"Magnifying Glass" by Tall Chris CC BY 2.0
Like the U.S. Supreme Court, the Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court has employed the language of both strict scrutiny and rational, or “legitimate” basis, in article 9 jurisprudence.  The Court explained: “When we evaluate the constitutionality of a restriction on access to the ballot, we apply a ‘sliding scale approach, … through which [we] weigh the character and magnitude of the burden the State’s rule imposes on the plaintiffs’ rights against the interests the State contends justify that burden, and consider the extent to which the State’s concerns make the burden necessary.’”  In other words, the degree of scrutiny is elevated as a function of the degree of burden.  Critics such as me contend that setting the appropriate degree of scrutiny only after purporting to observe the degree of burden invites the tail to wag the dog.  But that’s not important just now.  The Court found the burden here to be high enough, whatever language might be used to describe it, to demand strict scrutiny.

Though signature requirements might be modest and legitimate burdens on ballot access in the best of times, the Court opined that the signature requirements are excessively burdensome amid the present pandemic.  To reach that conclusion, the Court equated evolving social context with emergency electoral context:
[A]s we have recognized, statutory requirements that were once considered constitutionally permissible may later be found to interfere significantly with a fundamental right as societal conditions and technology change [indirectly citing the aforementioned same-sex marriage case]…. And similarly, statutory requirements that in ordinary times impose only modest burdens on prospective candidates for public office may significantly interfere with the fundamental right to run for political office in a time of pandemic.
Observers may opine whether, or when, that equation holds.  Though maybe not surprising when articulated by a progressive state court, the declaration simultaneously authorizes judicial aggrandizement in the expansion of human rights relative to time and in the constriction of human rights relative to exigency.  Potential implications abound, for example, in reconciling personal privacy with free speech, or climate change mitigation with free markets. For present purposes, the Court concluded that the signature requirements as applied could not withstand strict scrutiny.

By the time it reached remedy, the Court had painted itself into a corner.  The existing signature regime could not stand, yet the executive and the legislature refuse to solve the problem.  Plaintiffs invited the Court to simply void the signature requirement on this go-around.  But the state cried caution, fairly fearing that throwing open the doors of ballot access would result in incomprehensible ballot chaos for voters.  I would be inclined to find the state’s position paternalistic, but I remember hanging chads.

By Maklay62 at Pixabay
Admittedly loath to parse numbers, the Court invoked a Solomonic solution.  Observing that the emergency arose at about the halfway point of signature collection, the Court cut signature requirements by 50%.  The state had suggested that the requirement be cut only for offices requiring 1,000 or more signatures, presumably because of the chaos-will-reign concern, not the incumbency-will-be-threatened concern.  The bills stalled in the legislature would have taken that approach, too, reducing signatures from whatever number over 1,000 by half or two-thirds.  But the Court found itself without a sufficient basis to adopt the 1,000-signature cut-off, so applied the 50% rule across the board.

The Court issued two further declarations of equitable relief.  It extended the deadlines for candidates to submit signatures for state certification from April 28 to May 5, for state offices, and from May 5 to June 2, for federal offices, taking into account the pleadings of the state as to the minimal time needed to prepare ballots.  Second, the Court ordered state election officials to find a way to accept and certify electronic rather than wet signatures.  These additional measures the Court calculated in recognition of the difficulty, but not impossibility, of continuing to collect voter signatures during the lockdown.

Justice Kafker (Mass.gov)
Only one judge wrote a separate opinion.  In concurrence, Associate Justice Scott L. Kafker chastised the state for falling behind the curve in electoral technology:
In this “high tech” era, and in the midst of a global pandemic that severely restricts close personal contact, the failure to be able to solve manageable technological problems on the eve of an election is confounding and distressing. At a time when we need to be fundamentally rethinking what must be done in person and what can instead be done electronically, our electoral process seems dangerously unequipped to adapt to a new paradigm.
Justice Kafker pointed with approval to the electronic voter registration system adopted in Arizona.  The Court opinion in a footnote had pointed to Arizona similarly, as well as to technological adaptations in electoral process in New Jersey and Florida in response to the pandemic.

Justice Kafker concluded:
I feel compelled to emphasize that those responsible for our election process must have the necessary tools to quickly adapt to the current pandemic and the future crises to follow. Absent such technological adaptability, our elections will be imperiled and our election laws may themselves have to be rewritten in the midst of a crisis, as was done here. That is an invitation to conflict and confusion that must be avoided.
Voters line up in Boxborough, Mass., in the 2016 primary.
To read between those lines an entreaty to the legislature for funding would not, I think, be too speculative.  Lawyers and judges especially are aware of how badly Massachusetts has lagged behind other states in digitizing legal practice and public access to court records.

It would not be a stretch moreover to suppose that Justice Kafker was especially pained to meddle with the specific numeric qualifications for ballot access.  He was appointed to the Supreme Judicial Court in 2017 by Governor Charlie Baker, a Republican.  In the course of his career, Justice Kafker served as deputy legal counsel to Governor Bill Weld.  A past Libertarian candidate for Vice President and outsider Republican candidate for President, Weld was challenging President Donald Trump for the 2020 Republican nomination until Weld suspended his campaign on March 18. Republicans identify with formalism in constitutional interpretation, and Libertarians identify with judicial restraint in rule making, if also, practically, with relaxation of ballot access restrictions.

At the same time, Justice Kafker’s conclusion might readily be understood to voice widespread American anxiety over electoral integrity in general, especially in the crosscurrents of equivocal Washington reaction to Russian tampering.

The case is Goldstein v. Secretary of the Commonwealth, No. SJC-12931 (Mass. Apr. 17, 2020).  Chief Justice Ralph D. Gants authored the unanimous opinion.

Wednesday, April 1, 2020

Scharf laments executive disrespect for courts in immigration enforcement

My friend and colleague Irene Scharf has written for the Human Rights At Home blog on "mid-case deportations" by Immigration and Customs Enforcement.  Professor Scharf is expert in immigration law, which I know next to nothing about.  But Professor Scharf raises the alarm about worrisome incidents of executive defiance of the courts, implicating the separation of powers and raising questions about the very rule of law in America today.

Responding to a Boston Globe editorial (pay wall) at the end of February, Professor Scharf wrote on March 20:

While I of course deplore the acts these crimes involved [subject of charges against immigration detainees], as an immigration lawyer and advocate I am deeply disturbed by ICE’s systematic and ongoing attacks on the Massachusetts judicial system.  The Globe editors referred to their hope that the federal courts will address and contain these actions. However, given what we’ve seen recently, it is unclear whether the federal government, acting through ICE, would even abide by a federal ruling. To me, that is the most alarming issue behind these ICE moves.

She quoted respected Seventh Circuit Judge Easterbrook in a recent opinion (Justia), "We have never before encountered defiance of a remand order, and we hope never to see it again.... [I]t should not be necessary to remind the Board [of Immigration Appeals], all of whose members are lawyers, that the 'judicial Power' under Article III of the Constitution is one to make conclusive decisions, not subject to disapproval or revision by another branch of government."

Tuesday, March 31, 2020

COVID-19 stresses United States on domestic borders; war analog might foster state solidarity upon federal power

Rhode Island Governor Gina Raimondo was recently
threatened with a lawsuit by New York Governor Andrew
Cuomo.  U.S. Air National Guard Photo
by Master Sgt Janeen Miller (2016).
I have just published at the new blog, Law Against Pandemic. Here is the abstract:

The coronavirus pandemic is stressing not only our healthcare systems, but our political and legal systems.  The pandemic has challenged our sense of identity in humankind, pitching us back and forth between a spirit of global solidarity and a competition of human tribes for resources and survival.  That tension plays out in our political and legal responses to the pandemic, manifesting the natural human temptation to tribalism in both international and intranational dimensions.

As policymakers struggle to respond to the pandemic and to curb the outbreak of COVID-19, I have been struck by the emergence of interstate tensions in the United States.  The pressure of the pandemic, aggravated by a slow and uncertain governmental response at the federal level, has been a brusque reminder that the United States are a plural: a federation of states that famously endeavored “to form a more perfect Union,” but that, like human governance itself, remains a work in progress.


Read more at the new blog, Law Against Pandemic

 

Friday, November 22, 2019

Expert on Polish judicial crisis speaks to law class

Prof. Wortham
Professor Leah Wortham joined Dean Peltz-Steele and my Comparative Law class on Wednesday to discuss the crisis of judicial independence in Poland (latest).  Professor Emerita of the Columbus School of Law at the Catholic University of America (CUA), Wortham is a recipient of, among other honors, the Plus ratio quam medal of Jagiellonian University (JU) in Krakow.

With JU Professor Fryderyk Zoll, Professor Wortham authored Judicial Independence and Accountability: Withstanding Political Stress, recently published at 42 Fordham International Law Journal 875 (2019).  Here is the abstract.

For democracy and the rule of law to function and flourish, important actors in the justice system need sufficient independence from politicians in power to act under rule of law rather than political pressure. The court system must offer a place where government action can be reviewed, challenged, and, when necessary, limited to protect constitutional and legal bounds, safeguard internationally-recognized human rights, and prevent departures from a fair and impartial system of law enforcement and dispute resolution. Courts also should offer a place where government officials can be held accountable. People within and outside a country need faith that court decisions will be made fairly and under law. Because the Council of Europe’s Group of States against Corruption (“GRECO”) deems judicial independence critical to fighting corruption, GRECO makes a detailed analysis of their members’ judicial system part of their member review process. This Article is a case study of the performance of Poland’s mechanisms for judicial independence and accountability since 2015, a time of extreme political stress in that country. Readers will see parallels to comparable historical and current events around the world.

In discussion with the class, Professor Wortham remarked on parallels between the Polish judicial crisis and threats to the legitimacy of the courts in the United States.  She referenced recent remarks by U.S. District Judge Paul Friedman to the American Law Institute, in which Judge Friedman distinguished denigration and personal attacks on the judiciary from disagreement with judicial decisions accompanied by respect for a co-equal branch of government (ALI, CNN).  The class discussion about Poland also treated the recent decision of the Irish Supreme Court to order extradition of a Polish man wanted for drug trafficking offenses, despite concerns about judicial independence in Poland (Irish Times).

CUA offers summer study abroad opportunities for U.S. law students and, in cooperation with JU, an LL.M. program in Comparative and International Law.

Saturday, August 31, 2019

Massachusetts Bar honors UMass Law's Francomano, advocate for labor, public education

Francomano center. MassBar eJournal photo.
Attorney Patrick Francomano is a first-class person and excellent teacher, one of the assets that makes UMass Law a best-buy treasure for law students and the Commonwealth.  He's a tremendous public servant—and in the same vein, frequent thorn in the side of those in power through his work in labor and in school supervision.  I'm delighted to see him and the work he represents honored by the Massachusetts Bar.  From UMass Law News and the MassBar eJournal:

"Francomano draws inspiration from John Adams’s efforts to establish Massachusetts as one of the first states to grant a constitutional right to education. He believes that public education and the legal system rest on many of the same tenets, and that 'education and social justice are very difficult to disconnect.' As Francomano explained, 'If you have a well-educated society, that is going to be the foundation of a good republic and democracy.'"

Saturday, August 17, 2019

Abraham & White would limit further extension
of First Amendment as tort defense

In a new article, Kenneth S. Abraham and G. Edward White, University of Virginia Law, argue against the further extension of the First Amendment ("imperialism") to constitutionalize tort law when torts are accomplished through speech.  Specifically, they study the First Amendment in defamation, privacy, and IIED before contemplating the First Amendment problems that lurk in fraud, product disparagement, product warning defect, and interference.  The interference problem has interested me since The Insider.  En route to their conclusion, the authors critically examine the truth-falsity dichotomy.  Here is the abstract for First Amendment Imperialism and the Constitutionalization of Tort Liability.
To what extent does the First Amendment impose limits on the permissible scope of tort liability? Until recently, the clear answer would have been, “only under very limited circumstances.” During the last few decades, however, the First Amendment has been so greatly expanding its empire that giving this answer is no longer possible. “All bets are off” would be a more accurate answer, because the forms of speech to which the Supreme Court has extended First Amendment protection have become impressively broad. Although existing First Amendment restrictions on the permissible scope of tort liability currently are limited, the very existence of those restrictions confirms that many torts involving speech potentially are subject to First Amendment protection. And many torts do involve speech – the duty to warn about the dangers of prescription drugs, fraud, and even some forms of simple negligence are just a few examples.

If the First Amendment of the future limited all or even many of these different constitutionally unprotected forms of tort liability, then its scope would be pervasive. We contend, however, that neither existing First Amendment doctrine nor sensible constitutional policy supports extending free speech protection to torts that are accomplished through speech, except in extremely narrow circumstances. Extending First Amendment protection to such torts would aggravate what we argue are two of the principal risks posed by First Amendment imperialism: the erosion of the cultural distinction between truth and falsity, and devaluation of the status of speech about matters of public concern. Our contention is that most of the forms of speech involved in torts that are accomplished through speech currently are, and should remain, excluded from First Amendment protection. To support this contention, we examine the First Amendment’s extension to previously unprotected forms of speech over the last three-quarters of a century, compare the new First Amendment protections to the doctrinal elements of a series of torts that always or often are accomplished through speech, and argue that it would make little sense, as a matter of tort or constitutional law, to restrict liability for those torts on First Amendment grounds.
 Hat tip @ TortsProf.

Sunday, March 24, 2019

Duncan proposes unanimity requirement for U.S. Supreme Court to override Congress

UMass Law Professor Dwight Duncan
My colleague Professor Dwight Duncan has published an article in constitutional law,  A Modest Proposal on Supreme Court Unanimity to Constitutionally Invalidate Laws, 33:1 BYU J. Pub. L. 1.  Here is the introduction, footnotes omitted:

There is a problem in our constitutional history: the problem of split Supreme Court decisions invalidating democratically enacted laws. From Dred Scott to Lochner to Roe v. Wade to Citizens United, and even the recent Second Amendment decisions of Heller and McDonald, these patently fallible decisions on controversial political and social issues have divided the nation, politicized the Court, poisoned the Supreme Court nomination process and thwarted the political branches and democratic governance. Requiring Supreme Court unanimity to overturn legislation on constitutional grounds would therefore be morally and politically desirable. Why that is so is the subject of this article. I leave for another occasion the legal and practical questions of how to implement such a unanimity requirement.

While the audacity of this idea is perhaps remarkable, flying as it does in the face of our
unbroken history of Supreme Court cases decided by majority vote of the Justices, I would ask the readers’ indulgence or suspension of disbelief for long enough to at least consider my argument. Since I have no power to implement this idea, which depends solely on the cogency of the reasons which support it – and I invite discussion and contestation of the idea – the proposal can truly, if somewhat ironically, be called "modest."

Here in its final form, this article hit my desk just as Democratic presidential candidate Beto O'Rourke appears on the news evincing receptivity to some form of Supreme Court packing, and in a season just after the dramatic unfolding of the Kavanaugh hearings.  Duncan has been working on his modest proposal for a while longer than these events have been on TV, and his modest proposal has stood the test of peer reviews by many (me included).  I have been privileged to hear Professor Duncan speak on this subject more than once, and I have learned something new every time.  This article marks a worthwhile addition to the discussion of our Court, and the recollection that neither its composition nor its procedural customs are fixed in constitutional stone.

Thursday, September 20, 2018

John Does on sex-offender registry lose all civil rights claims against state, despite possible errors in listings

Persons listed on a part of the Massachusetts sex-offender registry for perpetrators who "moved out of state" have no constitutional privacy claims, state or federal, against commonwealth officials, despite a possibility of egregious error in listings, the Massachusetts Appeals Court ruled yesterday.  The case is John Doe, Sex Offender Registry Board No. 474362 v. Sex Offender Registry Board, No. 17-P-985 (Mass. App. Ct. Sept. 19, 2018).

Plaintiffs sued officials of the Massachusetts Sex Offender Registry Board (SORB) on theories of procedural and substantive due process under the federal and state constitutions after their names, pictures, and criminal histories were posted on the SORB website as "moved out of state."  The claimants alleged errors in the reporting, both in accuracy of the information and in the propriety of the posting.  The court recited the facts of one egregious case that suggested merit in the allegations of error:
[John] Doe No. 106929 came to Massachusetts in 2005 to attend school. He had previously been convicted in California for engaging in sexual relations with a sixteen year old when he was nineteen years old; California's age of consent was eighteen. After learning that Massachusetts had preliminarily classified him as a level three offender, Doe No. 106929 immediately left Massachusetts, and SORB ceased publishing his photograph and criminal history. Ten years later, in June of 2015, Doe No. 106929 learned through an Internet conversation that SORB had resumed publishing his name and photograph—this time on its "moved out of state" page. The sex offense listed on the page was "rape of a child." Doe No. 106929 received no notice from SORB regarding SORB's new practice, or that his name was being republished on SORB's Web site. Moreover, after Doe No. 106929 left Massachusetts, a court in California had entered an order expunging the record of his sex offense. Doe No. 106929 lost two jobs in California in 2015 once this information was made known at his workplaces.
The SORB abandoned its practice of publishing "moved out of state" records in 2015, but the superior court rejected the state's mootness defense.

Nevertheless, the Appeals Court rejected all plaintiff claims.  Affirming on federal procedural due process, the court held that the defendants were entitled to qualified immunity, because federal case law has not established any clear wrong in privacy violation.  Indeed, federal constitutional law points widely to the contrary.  Affirming on federal substantive due process, the court held that the claimants were unable to meet the demanding "shocks the conscience" standard that can turn what otherwise might be a state tort into a violation of the Fourteenth Amendment.  And reversing on claims under the Massachusetts Declaration of Rights, the court held that the defendants were entitled to sovereign immunity.  The Massachusetts legislature has voluntarily abrogated sovereign immunity for claims of "threats, intimidation or coercion" under the Massachusetts Civil Rights Act, but plaintiffs did not make such claims.

The court's reasoning on constitutional law is sound, but the facts point to the continuing failure of U.S. law to keep pace with Americans' privacy expectations in the digital age, especially relative to the pace of privacy law developments elsewhere in the interconnected world.  John Doe No. 106929's case is especially troubling in light of his California expungement.  Expungement already is an embattled concept—cf. "ban the box" movement—in the age of the internet that never forgets and the refusal of American policymakers to engage with the right to erasure.  For persons who committed crimes but served their time, that can mean stinging and enduring punishment well beyond what society and the justice system already determined was due.  The consequences are even more grave when the punishment is civil in nature, not even necessarily predicated on a criminal conviction.

The state should have no more license to defame or invade privacy than any person.  The common law maxim prized by the renowned Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr., himself a Bay Stater, asserts that for every wrong, the law provides a remedy (ubi jus ibi remedium).  Yet where digital privacy is concerned, profitable commerce in information seems to be holding at bay common law evolution, legislative innovation, and good sense.

Friday, August 25, 2017

Landmark Indian Supreme Court ruling recognizes constitutional right of privacy



In a landmark ruling akin to U.S. Supreme Court Justice William O. Douglas’s famous foray into the “penumbras, formed by emanations” in the U.S. Constitution in 1965 (Griswold on FindLaw), the Supreme Court of India has recognized a constitutional right of privacy, including informational privacy.  Here are some highlights from the unanimous 266-page disposition, per Justice Dhananjaya Y. Chandrachud (overruling his father, according to some commentary), in Puttaswamy v. Union of India.  Download the opinions in PDF here.  A very heartfelt hat tip from me to attorney Shruti Chopra for bringing this blockbuster to my attention.

The case revolved around the government’s “Aadhaar card scheme” (¶ 3).  A project of extraordinary scope, Aadhaar means to assign a unique identity number to every one of India’s 1.3bn residents based on demographic and biometric data.  The 91-year-old named plaintiff is himself a retired judge; read more at The Indian Express.

The Court examined the origin of privacy, beginning with Aristotle’s distinction between “public and private realms” (¶ 29).  The Court traced privacy through Blackstone (¶ 30), John Stuart Mill (¶ 31), Madison (¶ 33), Warren and Brandeis (¶ 34), and Cooley (¶ 36).  “Conscious as we are of the limitations with which comparative frameworks of law and history should be evaluated, the above account is of significance,” the Court explained. “It reflects the basic need of every individual to live with dignity…. The need to protect the privacy of the being is no less when development and technological change continuously threaten to place the person into public gaze and portend to submerge the individual into a seamless web of inter-connected lives.”

Speaking favorably to the evolution of “natural rights,” the Court cited Locke (¶ 40), Blackstone (¶ 40), Roscoe Pound (¶ 42), and Ronald Dworkin (¶ 46), as well as the American Declaration of Independence (¶ 41) and French Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen (¶ 41).  Applying “a settled position in constitutional law,” the Court regarded constitutional rights as “emanat[ing] from basic notions of liberty and dignity” (¶ 24).

The court regarded recognition of informational privacy as consistent with India’s obligations under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (¶ 66).  “India’s commitment to a world order founded on respect for human rights has been noticed along with the specific articles of the UDHR and the ICCPR which embody the right to privacy” (¶ 91; see also ¶¶ 129-130).  The Court found collateral international legal support in the Convention on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women (¶ 132).  The Court rejected the “theory that civil and political rights are subservient to socio-economic rights” (¶ 154).

Textually, the Court invoked the Preamble of the Indian Constitution, which commits itself to values of “justice,” “liberty,” “equality,” and “fraternity” (¶¶ 93-95).  “The submission that recognising the right to privacy is an exercise which would require a constitutional amendment and cannot be a matter of judicial interpretation is not an acceptable doctrinal position. The argument assumes that the right to privacy is independent of the liberties guaranteed by Part III of the Constitution. There lies the error. The right to privacy is an element of human dignity.” (¶ 113.)

A basic, “inalienable” right to live, the Court reasoned, must predate the Constitution.  “It would be preposterous to suggest that a democratic Constitution without a Bill of Rights would leave individuals governed by the state without either the existence of the right to live or the means of enforcement of the right” (¶ 119).

With regard to originalism and living constitutionalism, the Court wrote: “Now, would this Court in interpreting the Constitution freeze the content of constitutional guarantees and provisions to what the founding fathers perceived? The Constitution was drafted and adopted in a historical context. The vision of the founding fathers was enriched by the histories of suffering of those who suffered oppression and a violation of dignity both here and elsewhere. Yet, it would be difficult to dispute that many of the problems which contemporary societies face would not have been present to the minds of the most perspicacious draftsmen. No generation, including the present, can have a monopoly over solutions or the confidence in its ability to foresee the future. As society evolves, so must constitutional doctrine. The institutions which the Constitution has created must adapt flexibly to meet the challenges in a rapidly growing knowledge economy. Above all, constitutional interpretation is but a process in achieving justice, liberty and dignity to every citizen.” (¶ 116.)

The court rejected strict originalism and pledged fealty to living constitutionalism expressly in a meditation upon technology:  “Today’s technology renders models of application of a few years ago obsolescent. Hence, it would be an injustice both to the draftsmen of the Constitution as well as to the document which they sanctified to constrict its interpretation to an originalist interpretation. Today’s problems have to be adjudged by a vibrant application of constitutional doctrine and cannot be frozen by a vision suited to a radically different society. We describe the Constitution as a living instrument simply for the reason that while it is a document which enunciates eternal values for Indian society, it possesses the resilience necessary to ensure its continued relevance. Its continued relevance lies precisely in its ability to allow succeeding generations to apply the principles on which it has been founded to find innovative solutions to intractable problems of their times.”  (¶ 151.)

With regard to precedentialism, the Court rejected precedents incompatible with a constitutional right to privacy.  The Court cited U.S. decisions Buck v. Bell (U.S. 1927) (approving compulsory sterilization) (Oyez) and Korematsu (U.S. 1944) (approving Japanese-American internment) (Oyez) as examples of court decisions contrary to human rights and so appropriately “consigned to the archives, reflective of what was, but should never have been” (¶ 121).

With further regard to comparativism, the Court cautioned that “[f]oreign judgments must ... be read with circumspection ensuring that the text is not read isolated from its context” (¶ 134).  That said, the court explicated precedents from the United Kingdom, United States, South Africa, and Canada, as well as the European Court of Human Rights, the Court of Justice of the European Union, and the Inter-American Court of Human Rights.  In U.S. case law (pp. 141-65), the Court pointed to:

  • Boyd v. United States (U.S. 1886) (private papers),
  • Meyer v. Nebraska (U.S. 1923) (teaching in foreign languages),
  • Pierce v. Society of Sisters (U.S. 1925) (compulsory schooling),
  • Olmstead v. United States (U.S. 1928) (Brandeis, J., dissenting) (telephone wiretap),
  • Griswold v. Connecticut (U.S. 1965) (contraceptives),
  • Katz v. United States (U.S. 1967) (telephone wiretap),
  • Stanley v. Georgia (U.S. 1969) (obscene content in home),
  • Eisenstadt v. Baird (U.S. 1972) (contraceptive information),
  • Paris Adult Theatre I v Slaton (U.S. 1973) (obscene films),
  • Roe v. Wade (U.S. 1973) (abortion),
  • United States v. Miller (U.S. 1976) (bank records),
  • Carey v. Population Services International (U.S. 1977) (contraceptive advertising and sale),
  • Nixon v. Administrator, General Services (U.S. 1977) (presidential papers),
  • Whalen v. Roe (U.S. 1977) (prescription drug information),
  • Smith v. Maryland (U.S. 1979) (pen register),
  • Bowers v. Hardwick (U.S. 1986) (sexual privacy),
  • Planned Parenthood v. Casey (U.S. 1992) (abortion),
  • Minnesota v. Carter (U.S. 1998) (home window view),
  • Minnesota v. Olson (U.S. 1990) (home overnight guest),
  • Kyllo v. United States (U.S. 2001) (thermal imaging of home),
  • Lawrence v. Texas (U.S. 2003) (sexual privacy),
  • NASA v. Nelson (U.S. 2011) (background checks),
  • United States v. Jones (U.S. 2012) (Scalia opinion and Sotomayor concurrence) (GPS tracking),
  • Florida v. Jardines (U.S. 2013) (Scalia opinion and Kagan concurrence) (dog sniff),
  • Riley v. California (U.S. 2014) (digital cell phone contents), and
  • Obergefell v. Hodges (U.S. 2015) (gay marriage).


Examining informational privacy, the Court reiterated Indian precedents rejecting the U.S. Fourth Amendment third-party doctrine (¶¶ 66, 77). 

The Court spent many pages engaging with commentators on and critics of privacy doctrine, including Richard Posner and Robert Bork (¶ 140, p. 197), Catherine McKinnon (p. 198), Alan Westin (p. 199), Roger Clarke (p. 200), Anita Allen (p. 200), and Bert-Jaap Koops, et al. (p. 201).  Specifically with regard to the formulation of an informational privacy right, the Court discussed the works of Christina Moniodis (¶ 174), Yvonne McDermott (¶ 174), Daniel Solove (¶ 175), and Posner again (¶ 179).  The Court discussed privacy principles developed through the legislative efforts to update Indian data protection, including notice, choice and consent, collection limitation, purpose limitation, access and correction, disclosure, security, transparency, and accountability (¶ 184).

Regarding the protection of life and liberty in article 21 of the India Constitution, the Court wrote: “Life is precious in itself. But life is worth living because of the freedoms which enable each individual to live life as it should be lived. The best decisions on how life should be lived are entrusted to the individual. They are continuously shaped by the social milieu in which individuals exist. The duty of the state is to safeguard the ability to take decisions – the autonomy of the individual – and not to dictate those decisions. ‘Life’ within the meaning of Article 21 is not confined to the integrity of the physical body.”  (¶ 106.)

“To live is to live with dignity. The draftsmen of the Constitution defined their vision of the society in which constitutional values would be attained by emphasising, among other freedoms, liberty and dignity. So fundamental is dignity that it permeates the core of the rights guaranteed to the individual by Part III [of the Constitution]. Dignity is the core which unites the fundamental rights because the fundamental rights seek to achieve for each individual the dignity of existence. Privacy with its attendant values assures dignity to the individual and it is only when life can be enjoyed with dignity can liberty be of true substance. Privacy ensures the fulfilment of dignity and is a core value which the protection of life and liberty is intended to achieve.”  (¶ 107; see also ¶¶ 168-169.)

The Court listed privacy rights previously recognized under article 21 of the India Constitution: right to travel abroad, right against solitary confinement, right of prisoners against bar fetters, right to legal aid, right to speedy trial, right against handcuffing, right against custodial violence, right against public hanging, right to doctor aid at public hospital, right to shelter, right to healthy environment, right to compensation for unlawful arrest, right against torture, right to reputation, and right to pursue a livelihood (¶ 150).

The Court rejected the recognition of privacy in statute or in common law as a basis to refuse recognition in constitutional law.  Citing the Max Planck Encyclopaedia of Comparative Constitutional Law, the Court found validity in privacy as both a negative right and a positive right.  (¶ 158.)  With regard to the separation of powers, the Court heralded the importance of judicial review as “a powerful guarantee against legislative encroachments on life and personal liberty,” not to be surrendered easily (¶ 166).  The Court frowned on the proposition of recognizing privacy only as ancillary to substantive due process, pointing with disapproval to consequent “vagaries of judicial interpretation” in U.S. law (¶ 167).

The Court concluded, in key parts:

- “Privacy is a constitutionally protected right which emerges primarily from the
guarantee of life and personal liberty in Article 21 of the Constitution. Elements of
privacy also arise in varying contexts from the other facets of freedom and dignity
recognised and guaranteed by the fundamental rights contained in Part III” (part T(3)(C), p. 262).

- “At a descriptive level, privacy postulates a bundle of entitlements and interests” (part T(3)(E), p. 262).

- “Privacy includes at its core the preservation of personal intimacies, the sanctity of family life, marriage, procreation, the home and sexual orientation. Privacy also connotes a right to be left alone. Privacy safeguards individual autonomy and recognises the ability of the individual to control vital aspects of his or her life” (part T(3)(F), p. 263).

- “While the legitimate expectation of privacy may vary from the intimate zone to the private zone and from the private to the public arenas, it is important to underscore that privacy is not lost or surrendered merely because the individual is in a public place” (part T(3)(F), p. 263).

- “This Court has not embarked upon an exhaustive enumeration or a catalogue of entitlements or interests comprised in the right to privacy. The Constitution must evolve with the felt necessities of time to meet the challenges thrown up in a democratic order governed by the rule of law. The meaning of the Constitution cannot be frozen on the perspectives present when it was adopted” (part T(3)(G), p. 263).

- “An invasion of life or personal liberty must meet the three-fold requirement of (i) legality, which postulates the existence of law; (ii) need, defined in terms of a legitimate state aim; and (iii) proportionality which ensures a rational nexus between the objects and the means adopted to achieve them” (part T(3)(H), p. 264).

- “Privacy has both positive and negative content. The negative content restrains the state from committing an intrusion upon the life and personal liberty of a citizen. Its positive content imposes an obligation on the state to take all necessary measures to protect the privacy of the individual” (part T(3)(I), p. 264).

- “Informational privacy is a facet of the right to privacy. The dangers to privacy in an age of information can originate not only from the state but from non-state actors as well. We commend to the Union Government the need to examine and put into place a robust regime for data protection” (part T(5), p. 264).

Additional and collateral opinions run from PDF page 267 through 547.

Thursday, October 27, 2016

Let's put democracy out of its misery


Democracy ain’t all that. 

That must be what Reince Priebus has been thinking this year.  The possibility has been on the mind also of author and professor Jason Brennan, of Georgetown University.  Brennan is touring New England this week to talk about his new book, Against Democracy.  I knew of Brennan from one of his earlier works touting my faith, Libertarianism: What Everyone Needs to Know.  This week I had the good fortune to meet him in Providence, thanks to the Rhode Island Federalist Society.  On my commute this morning, I heard that he’ll be on WGBH’s excellent Innovation Hub this week. 

Brennan’s thesis in short is that when we talk about how best to select our leaders in human society, democracy might not be the endpoint and high point of human achievement.  He offered a simple thought experiment:  Imagine a professor instructs students that instead of grading exams on the usual A-F merit system, each person in the class will get the same grade, an average of everyone’s performance.  No surprise, students don’t study and perform poorly.  The incentive for each individual to do well is diminished along with the risk that poor preparation will be reflected in any one person’s grade.

Brennan explains that the same dynamic is at work in democracy.  If any one person’s vote is vastly unlikely to have an impact on the general election, then the individual has only weak, and largely symbolic or emotional, incentives to become informed and vote intelligently.  Surveys of how well informed voters are sadly support this thesis, with voters performing only about as well as chance would predict in answering simple multiple choice questions about politics.

What’s better than democracy?  Brennan isn’t shilling for any model, but provided a compelling and fair tour of the possibilities.  He pointed out for one example that simple gambling—imagine betting on the next President of the United States, if the model could be translated into politics—is a rather good predictor of outcome.  The gambler has skin in the game the way a voter does not, so has a proportionate incentive to be well informed.  Other potential models would jettison one person, one vote in ways that would reward better informed voters with greater influence.  I was reminded of my “oligarchy of the intelligentsia” phase when I studied politics at university.

A model I found enchanting, maybe because of its cool name, is “the Simulated Oracle.”  Imagine that along with a person’s vote, we collect also some basic demographic data and even administer a short quiz on political know-how.  With large enough data sets, we could employ the magic of statistics to control variables and correct for self-serving biases.  Factors such as race and gender, the community I live in, and my wealth can be predicted to evidence self-serving biases in my voting behavior, not necessarily the vote that a more altruistic me might cast.  The Simulated Oracle can control variables and correct for irrational or unfair biases, transforming my vote into a hypothetical ideal, the vote my better self would cast.  Weight everyone’s votes accordingly, and we might get a result that compensates for individual rent-seeking.

The mythology of democracy is emotively powerful in our society today, shaping how we define ourselves and our ideals.  But the U.S. Constitution—in, for examples, life tenure in the Article III courts, a republican representation system, and the original method of selecting senators—was designed to temper the risky excesses of pure democracy.  Moreover, the framers intended the Constitution to be amended.  There is no reason to think that progress means evolution toward pure direct democracy.  Remember Ross Perot suggesting instant home voting on contemporary issues?  Today that sounds like a good way to run Dancing with the Stars, and not so good a way to make foreign policy, tax policy, or really to do anything important.

Rather, we are engaged, or should be engaged, in an ongoing process of perfecting the organization of human society.  It’s not so strange to imagine that democracy as we know it now is just one stop on our journey.

Brennan is awash with fascinating data about the American electorate, and I’ll share just one item.  Turns out that people who self-identify with political third parties, such as libertarianism, are among our most informed voters. 

Am I blushing?