Archive

April 30th, 2016

Dangerous new uses for government eavesdropping

    The U.S. government claims the right to eavesdrop at will on your email when you're writing to someone who lives abroad. Now it wants to be able to use those emails to convict you of a crime.

    That's what's happening to Aws Mohammed Younis al-Jayab -- and he's not the only one. The legal basis is the 2008 Amendment Act to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, which says the government may monitor communications from within the U.S. to foreigners abroad, or vice versa, without first obtaining a warrant to authorize the surveillance.

    No court has yet reviewed the law's constitutionality because until 2013 the government didn't tell anyone that it had been doing this. The Supreme Court ruled in 2013 that no one had legal standing to challenge the law based merely on the speculation that it might be applied to them.

    Jayab is different. The government can charge him with a crime only by using evidence gathered from his intercepted emails. So it's put him on notice that it intends to rely on material collected without a warrant per the FISA. That gives Jawab standing to challenge the law.

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Crime Can Pay if It’s Big Enough

    Wow, $5 billion.

    That’s the stunning amount Goldman Sachs has agreed to pay to settle federal criminal charges over its shameful financial scams, which helped wreck America’s economy in 2008. That’s a lot of gold, even for Goldman.

    Yet the Wall Street powerhouse says it’s “pleased” to swallow this sour slug of medicine. Is that because its executives are contrite? Oh, come on — banksters don’t do contrite.

    Rather, they’re pleased with the settlement. Thanks to backroom dealing with friendly prosecutors, it’s riddled with loopholes that may eliminate nearly $2 billion from the publicized punishment.

    For example, the deal calls for the felonious bank to put a quarter-billion dollars into an affordable housing program. But generous federal negotiators put incentives and credits in the fine print that will let Goldman escape with paying out less than a third of that.

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April 29th

Offensive names will get their day in court

    The Washington Redskins are headed for the Supreme Court - in the guise of a dance rock band called The Slants. The Department of Justice has asked the court to review a lower court's holding that the Patent and Trademark Office violated the band's free-speech rights by denying it a registered trademark on the grounds of offensiveness.

    The justices are likely to take the case - which would mean that next year they will effectively decide whether the National Football League franchise can also be denied trademark registration. It also means that the question of what to do about names that offend some listeners is going to get its day in court.

    The Justice Department intervened in a case last year to defend the government's right to deny trademark registration to the Redskins, but that matter hasn't made its way to the Supreme Court yet. That's one reason there will be significant attention paid to the parallel case of The Slants, decided by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit under the case name In re Simon Shiao Tam.

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Cranks get free speech protection, too

    James Tracy is certainly a crank and also seems to be a terrible person. But Florida Atlantic University violated his academic freedom when it fired him from his tenured professorship in January, and he should win the lawsuit he's just brought against the school.

    Academic freedom isn't absolute, but it certainly extends to a professor's outside writing on topics of national importance. The stakes of his case are therefore high -- and not just for professors who (ahem) write about politics while still performing their day jobs as teachers and researchers.

    The furor over Tracy began when he argued on his blog that the 2012 massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary in Newton, Connecticut, may never have occurred at all. Skipping over the labored reasoning, here's his punchline: "While it sounds like an outrageous claim, one is left to inquire whether the Sandy Hook shooting ever took place -- at least in the way law enforcement authorities and the nation's news media have described."

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Candidates, Let’s Talk About Women’s Health

    What if we talked about gun violence, and discussed only bullet size?

    To me, that seems akin to the presidential campaign discussion of women’s health. Somehow in nine Democratic debates, not a single question was asked about women’s health, and when the issue came up elsewhere it was often in the narrowest form, about abortion: Democrats proclaim a woman’s right to choose, and Republicans thunder about the sanctity of human life.

    Women’s health goes far beyond that. It should be a national scandal that a woman dies of cervical cancer almost once every two hours. That about 70 percent of pregnancies to young, unmarried women are unplanned. That a woman dies every eight hours from domestic violence.

    In each case, we know how to address these problems. But we’re not doing it urgently enough.

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Trump wins big in states with high disability rates

    The $150 billion federal disability program is a mess. It almost went broke (Congress had to give it an emergency infusion). It discourages employment and can be gamed. But woe to the office-seeker who tries to fix it.

    No one understands this better than Donald Trump, who has defied Republican orthodoxy and courted Republican voters by opposing changes to entitlement benefits, which include the federal disability program that is part of Social Security and provides income to 11 million Americans.

    The portion of the working-age population receiving benefits is 4.8 percent, up from 2.8 percent in 1994. Applications are growing again, after leveling off last year. Recipients are mostly non-college-educated, white, blue collar and middle-aged. Trump voters, in other words.

    The political terrain in the 20 states with the highest disability rates has indeed favored Trump.

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The Cult of Sore Losers

    Bernie Sanders isn’t losing. Just ask many of his backers or listen to some of his own complaints. He’s being robbed, a victim of antiquated rules, voter suppression, shady arithmetic and a corrupt Democratic establishment. The swindle includes the South’s getting inordinate sway and the poor none at all. If Americans really had a voice, they would shout “Bernie! Bernie! Bernie!” until too hoarse to shout anymore.

    Donald Trump isn’t winning. Just ask Ted Cruz, by whose strange and self-serving logic it is “the will of the people” (his actual words) that he and John Kasich collude to prevent Trump from amassing a majority of delegates so that some runner-up with less demonstrable support can leapfrog past him to become the Republican presidential nominee. Democracy in action!

    I agree that Trump’s nomination would be frightening. I disagree that Cruz’s would be better. It certainly wouldn’t be more justified, but such rational thinking has gone missing in this year of losing gracelessly.

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Out of Africa, Part III

    You can learn everything you need to know about the main challenges facing Africa today by talking to just two people in Senegal: the rapper and the weatherman. They’ve never met, but I could imagine them doing an amazing duet one day — words and weather predictions — on the future of Africa.

    The rapper, Babacar Niang, known simply as Matador, the 40-year-old voice of the voiceless and one of the pioneers of African rap, emerged from the oft-flooded Thiaroye slum of Dakar to become the godfather of the underground hip-hop scene here. I attended his concert at a cultural center a few nights ago. I confess it was my first hip-hop concert, and it took a little getting used to. The guy behind me had a big can of bug repellent that he would spray and light the plume, creating a makeshift flamethrower, which he used to express his approval of key lyrics — and heat up the back of my neck.

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More U.S. gun regulation is inevitable

    Campaigning for her mother in Maryland last week, Chelsea Clinton said the Supreme Court could issue a "definitive" ruling on gun control in the near future. Clinton didn't define "definitive," let alone "gun control." But with a vacancy on the court following the death of Antonin Scalia, it seems more than plausible that Clinton the Younger was referring to overturning the landmark decision in District of Columbia v. Heller.

    Scalia was the author of Heller, the 2008 ruling that established an individual right to gun possession. Scalia's death -- despite the still uncertain prospects of replacing him -- has raised a question about Heller's durability.

    Heller was decided by a 5-4 majority. The dissent, written by Justice John Paul Stevens, was not meek. Stevens basically accused Scalia of throwing out two centuries of legal precedent and reading Scalia's own preferences into the Second Amendment. Scalia, he wrote, all but dismissed the amendment's highly inconvenient preamble placing gun rights within the context of a "well-regulated militia."

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Learning to love (or maybe tolerate) big government

    In December, Gallup asked 824 U.S. adults this question: "In your opinion, which of the following will be the biggest threat to the country in the future -- big business, big labor or big government?"

    Sixty-nine percent responded "big government." That was down from 72 percent in 2013, but otherwise higher than at any other time Gallup has asked.

    What exactly has big government done to these people?

    Well, according to political scientists Jacob S. Hacker and Paul Pierson, it has improved their lives dramatically. Over the course of the 20th century, Hacker and Pierson write in their new book "American Amnesia: How the War on Government Led Us to Forget What Made America Prosper," government investment, regulation and other interventions made Americans vastly better-educated, longer-lived and richer. Government action played a similar -- and sometimes even bigger -- role in virtually every other advanced nation. Write Hacker and Pierson:

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