Monday, October 28, 2013

The Unseen Horrors of Drone Warfare

  “It is well that war is so terrible. We should grow too fond of it.”
Gen. Robert E. Lee

   It has been just over a year since Mamana Bibi was blown to bits by a Hellfire missile fired from a pilotless U.S. aircraft while she was picking okra in the family field near the village of Ghundi Kala in Pakistan’s northwest frontier region. Four of Bibi’s young grandchildren saw and felt the impact of the explosion; two suffered shrapnel injuries. A three-year-old grandson was seriously injured when he was thrown from the roof of the family home by the force of the blast.
   The U.S. drone attack near Ghundi Kala on Oct. 24, 2012, appears to have gone unreported in U.S. media until Amnesty International used it to open its new report, “Will I Be Next? U.S. Drone Strikes in Pakistan.” The report was released last week [Oct. 22] in conjunction with a parallel report by Human Rights Watch on U.S. drone warfare in Yemen: “Between a Drone and al-Qaeda.”
   Together, the two reports, dissecting a dozen of the hundreds of drone attacks in the past four years, provide a powerful corrective to the antiseptic picture of U.S. drone warfare that emerges from the limited information about the attacks given out by the government. They refute the anodyne assurances from President Obama and others that the government is exercising extreme care to target attacks accurately and minimize collateral damage to innocent victims or property. And they present a strong case that the United States is violating not only Obama’s stated guidelines but also international law.
   Drone warfare appeals because it allows the United States to take out bad guys from al Qaeda without ever putting Americans in harm’s way. U.S. military or CIA technicians, safe in a command center in the United States, supposedly guide the remote-controlled aircraft into position over the identified target and hit the launch button only after taking precautions against collateral damage to innocent victims or property.
   That is not what it looks like on the ground, according to the disturbing images and accounts gathered by researchers from the two human rights groups from witnesses, survivors and Yemeni and Pakistani officials. Beyond doubt, many of the victims were innocent bystanders. Bibi, a 68-year-old grandmother, was one; so too were the youngsters among the 18 killed when missiles rained down on a group of laborers in the village of Zowi Sidgi in July 2012. In an especially poignant example, previously reported, Salim bin Ahmed Ali Jaber, an anti-al Qaeda cleric in Yemen, was killed on Aug. 29, 2012, along with three al Qaeda operatives who had set up a meeting with him to challenge his positions.
   Human Rights Watch counts 82 deaths from the six drone attacks in Yemen it studied, including 57 civilians — more than two-thirds of the total. The group cites an estimate that puts the total death toll in Yemen at 473, civilians and combatants lumped together. Amnesty International relays estimates from other non-governmental organizations and from Pakistani sources that put the civilian death toll in Pakistan since 2004 somewhere between 400 and 900. If true, the number appears far larger than the number of deaths of al Qaeda combatants suggested by U.S. government accounts.
   The civilian casualties are an inherent risk from the fog of war, the reports suggest. Bibi may have been mistargeted in an attack aimed at a Taliban fighter who had been located nearby but drove away before the missiles were fired. Zowi Sidgi appears to be in a corridor for Taliban fighters, but villagers interviewed afterward insisted that most if not all of the victims had nothing to do with the Taliban. From afar, Jaber’s innocent reasons for meeting with al Qaeda fighters were unknowable.
   Even apart from the unknowables, however, the reports fault the United States for violating rules established by international law and in some cases incorporated by Obama in the reset of drone policy he outlined in a speech at the National Defense University in May. Obama said the United States prefers capture to targeted killing whenever feasible. In Yemen, Human Rights Watch argues that lethal force is barred in any event in the absence of an armed conflict with al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula and that targeted suspects could have been captured in at least two of the attacks studied. Obama says the United States goes after individuals only if they present an imminent threat to the United States; both groups say some of the targets appear not to qualify under that criterion.
   More generally, both groups fault the administration for failing to provide a clear legal rationale for the drone attacks, for releasing so little information about the attacks, and for failing to ensure compensation for innocent victims or their families. And both reports emphasize that opposition to the drone attacks is widespread in Pakistan and Yemen; the ill will created may outweigh any benefits from the attacks in terms of counterterrorism policies.
   Elders from Ghundi Kala held a press conference two days after the attack that killed Bibi to protest the drone warfare, but it attracted no news coverage in the United States. The drones are weapons in a war that is largely unseen in the United States. They are terrible in their own way, but out of sight it is easy for the government and the public to grow fond of them.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Making Evey Vote Count, for Real

 “[E]lections for political office at the state or federal level are never decided by just one vote.” Crawford v. Marion County Board of Elections (Posner, J.)

   One vote actually can make a difference — even in elections, however rarely — but certainly in judicial decisions. So legal commentators naturally are making much of Judge Richard Posner’s belated apology for his pivotal vote in the seminal federal court decision seven years ago to uphold state voter photo ID laws.
   “I plead guilty to having written the majority opinion (affirmed by the Supreme Court) upholding Indiana's requirement that prospective voters prove their identity with a photo ID — a type of law now widely regarded as a means of voter suppression rather than of fraud prevention,” Posner writes in his new book, Reflections on Judging.
   Posner’s confession of error, in the midst of the continuing debate over voter photo ID laws, would have earned him a gold star for candor but for his subsequent decision to deflect the blame to the lawyers in the case. The real blame, however, lies not with the lawyers and not even with Posner alone, but with the deferential stance that the Supreme Court itself has taken in reviewing laws that make it hard to vote.
   Posner shifted the blame for his vote in an interview on HuffPost Live [Oct. 11] when he said the lawyers challenging the Indiana law failed to show that the photo ID requirement would actually disenfranchise people entitled to vote. “If the lawyers had provided us more information about the abuses,” Posner told interviewer Mike Sacks, “the case would have been decided differently.”
   Understandably, the Washington lawyer who argued the case before the Supreme Court is taking exception to Posner’s blame-shifting. Paul Smith, a veteran of voting rights litigation and an experienced Supreme Court advocate, notes on the American Constitution Society’s blog that Indiana’s Republican secretary of state, the law’s chief sponsor, had acknowledged that the photo ID requirement would be “difficult” for many voters, including “elderly voters, indigent voters, voters with disabilities, first-time voters, [and] re-enfranchised ex-felons.”
   The lawyers challenging the law also emphasized the political facts of life behind it. The law was enacted in 2005 just after Republicans had gained control of both chambers of the state legislature and the governorship. Every Republican legislator voted for it, and every Democratic lawmaker voted against it. Posner himself acknowledged in his opinion that the potential voters most likely to be burdened by the law were people “low on the economic ladder” — and most likely to be Democratic voters. 
   Partisanship was also in evidence in the courts’ handling of the case. The district court judge who upheld the law was a Republican appointee, as are Posner and his Seventh Circuit colleague who joined in the decision. The Democratic appointee on the panel, the late Judge Terence Evans, dissented. “Let’s not beat around the bush,” Evans wrote. “The Indiana voter photo ID law is a not-too-thinly-veiled attempt to discourage election-day turnout by folks believed to skew Democratic.”
   The partisan divide was muddied somewhat at the Supreme Court, as Justice John Paul Stevens joined with the Republican-appointed conservative bloc in 2008 in upholding the law. Writing for a plurality that also included Chief Justice John G. Roberts and Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, Stevens accepted the state’s purported justifications for the law, including preventing voter fraud, and found the law’s burdens not substantial enough to justify striking it down.
  Stevens conceded that Indiana itself had shown no instances of in-person voter impersonation — the only kind of voter fraud that a photo ID can prevent — but claimed that history offered real-life examples. In the most recent instance cited by Stevens, however, an investigation in Washington State of 19 supposed “ghost” voters identified only one instance of in-person impersonation. For three liberal dissenters, Justice David H. Souter argued that the state’s “abstract interests” did not justify the “nontrivial burdens” imposed on would-be voters.
   Voter ID laws are now on the books in 34 states and are surviving legal challenges, most recently in a unanimous decision by the Tennessee Supreme Court [Oct. 17].  The Roberts Court’s decision in June that freed southern states from the Voting Rights Act’s preclearance requirement has defanged the Obama administration’s challenges to such laws in South Carolina and Texas. The plurality in the Indiana case left the door open to future legal challenges, but none is likely to succeed unless judges gets serious about requiring states to justify laws that inevitably impede the ostensibly sacred right to vote.
   The court’s precedents require states to show the precise interest to be served by any voting eligibility requirements and to weigh that interest against the resulting limitations on the right to vote. In his decision in the Indiana case, however, Posner was notably blasé about the limitations. Even “slight costs in time or bother or out-of-pocket expenses” may deter “many people” from voting, he wrote, but with no great concern. The benefits of voting to the individual voter,” Posner opined, “are elusive.”
   The right to vote deserves better than that — from Posner and, all the more, from the Supreme Court. “Every vote counts,” voters are regularly told on the eve of elections — and so too every vote that is not counted because never cast. In future voting rights cases, the Supreme Court needs to try to make that slogan actual reality and not just a platitude.

Sunday, October 13, 2013

Rights-Protecting Precedent at Risk at Court

  When the Akron, Ohio, city council enacted a fair housing ordinance in 1968, opponents drafted and won voter approval of a charter amendment prohibiting adoption of any such law unless approved by a majority of voters. The Supreme Court cried foul. With only one justice dissenting, the court held in Hunter v. Erickson (1969) that the Equal Protection Clause prohibits a change in the political process that imposes “special burdens on racial and religious minorities . . . by making it more difficult for them to secure legislation on their behalf.”
  A decade later, voters in Washington state approved a ballot measure, Initiative 350, that effectively prohibited school districts from using busing for purposes of racial integration while allowing it for any of several other educational policies. Again, the court cried foul, this time by a 5-4 vote. For the majority, Justice Harry A. Blackmun wrote in Washington v. Seattle School Dist. No. 1 (1982)  that the initiative “creates a constitutionally-suspect racial classification and radically restructures the political process,” amounting to “a major reordering of the state’s educational decisionmaking process.” 
  Together, the cases establish what is called the political restructuring doctrine, a rule unfamiliar even to many legal experts because so rarely invoked. But the federal appeals court in Cincinnati invoked it last year in striking down a Michigan ballot measure that bars racial preferences in state and local government policies, including admissions at public colleges and universities.
  The state has appealed that decision to the Supreme Court, which is set to hear arguments in the case this week [Oct. 15]. Supreme Court handicappers are predicting that the decision in Schuette v. Coalition to Defend Affirmative Action will significantly limit or possibly even overturn a doctrine that, however infrequently used, is viewed by traditional civil rights groups as a logical and necessary part of equal protection law.
  Michigan became one of the major battlegrounds in the war over race-conscious admissions policies in the late 1990s. The anti-racial preference group Center for Individual Rights filed separate challenges against admissions policies at the University of Michigan’s flagship undergraduate college in Ann Arbor and the university’s law school. In separate cases, the Supreme Court upheld the limited use of race in the law school’s admissions policies (Grutter v. Bollinger) but ruled out the substantial numerical preferences for minority applicants at the undergraduate college (Gratz v. Bollinger).
  Taking its cue from Grutter, the university revamped undergraduate admissions policies to allow the use of race as one among other factors. Opponents responded by qualifying what they entitled the Michigan Civil Rights Initiative for the statewide ballot in November 2006. The measure prohibits discrimination or “preferential treatment” in public employment, government contracts, or public education on the basis of race, sex, color, ethnicity, or national origin. The measure won approval with 58 percent of the vote: two-thirds of white voters voted for it; 90 percent of black voters voted no. 
   Complex litigation that spanned six years culminated in a fiercely fought, 8-7 decision by the full Sixth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in November 2012 striking down the measure. Opponents argued that the measure imposed a political burden on advocates of race-based preferences not imposed on supporters of other admissions preferences, for example for children of wealthy donors or alumni. The measure “undermines the Equal Protection Clause's guarantee that all citizens ought to have equal access to the tools of political change,” the majority wrote.
   In appealing that decision to the Supreme Court, the state’s attorney general, Bill Schuette, depicts the initiative as an unexceptional guarantee of civil rights. “It is curious to say that a law that bars discriminating on the basis of race or sex violates the Equal Protection Clause by discriminating on the basis of race or sex,” the brief filed by Schuette’s office states.
   Mark Rosenbaum, legal director for the American Civil Liberties Union of Southern California and attorney for one set of plaintiffs in the case, calls that depiction of the initiative misleading. The initiative’s prohibition against discrimination is gratuitous, he notes, since it is already illegal for state or local governments to discriminate on the basis of race or the other factors. The effect of the initiative, Rosenbaum stresses, is to prohibit race-conscious admissions policies that would be lawful under Grutter — and to set up an effectively insurmountable political obstacle for advocates of such policies.
   Rosenbaum emphasizes that the case is not about affirmative action as such, but the opposing briefs by Schuette and by the pro-affirmative action coalition rehash the debate over race-conscious admissions at length and with heat. The conservative majority on the Roberts Court are no great fans of affirmative action, and the five justices are not seen as likely fans of the political restructuring doctrine either.  Tellingly, Justice Anthony M. Kennedy did not rely on it in the opinion he wrote in Romer v. Evans (1996) striking down an analogous anti-gay rights initiative in Colorado.
   The Michigan measure is a verbatim copy of a California ballot initiative, Proposition 209, adopted in 1996 and upheld by the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. The Supreme Court left that ruling standing. Supporters of race-based admissions policies fear — and their opponents hope — that a Supreme Court ruling to reinstate the Michigan measure will encourage other states to follow suit in prohibiting racial preferences in university admissions. That could be a decisive turning point in a war that traditional civil rights groups already seem to be losing.

Sunday, October 6, 2013

One More Campaign Finance Law Likely to Fall

  The Roberts Court has yet to meet a campaign finance law that it likes. In eight years under Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr., the court has issued six decisions striking down provisions of federal or state campaign finance laws. And the court’s conservative majority seems set to strike down another provision of federal campaign finance law as it opens its new term this week.
  At issue in McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission [argument: Oct. 8] is a provision that limits the total amount of money an individual can give to congressional candidates or political committees in a two-year election cycle. Currently, the so-called aggregate contribution limit is set at $48,600 to candidates and $74,600 to political party committees.
  Shaun McCutcheon, chief executive of an electronics engineering firm in Hoover, Ala., wanted to exceed those limits in the 2012 congressional elections. He planned to donate the symbolic amount of $1,776 to 27 congressional candidates who shared his interest in limiting government and to give another $25,000 to each of the three national Republican political committees. But his plan ran afoul of the overall contribution limits, which date back to the post-Watergate Federal Election Campaign Amendments of 1976.
  McCutcheon has teamed up with the Republican National Committee (RNC) in a federal court suit in Washington challenging the limits as an infringement of his political speech rights. He says he has no problem with the so-called base limits on the amount an individual can give to any individual candidate —  currently, $2,600 in a primary election and another $2,600 in the general election. But he says it makes no sense to allow him to write checks to 17 congressional candidates and then to draw a line at the eighteenth.
  A three-judge court headed by one of the D.C. Circuit’s staunchest conservatives, Janice Rogers Brown, nevertheless upheld the provision. Brown noted in the decision that the Supreme Court upheld contribution limits in its seminal case, Buckley v. Valeo (1976), on the ground that they helped prevent corruption or the appearance of corruption. The aggregate contribution limits, Brown reasoned for the unanimous panel, help prevent circumvention of the base limits. Without the aggregate limits, she explained, an individual could write a half-million dollar check to a joint fundraising committee and the party committees could then funnel the money through untraceable informal arrangements to a single candidate — just as the donor intended.   Up till now, the Supreme Court has stuck with its decision in Buckley to strike down limits on individual campaign spending but to uphold contribution limits. But conservative critics are more and more forthright these days in attacking the contribution limits as unconstitutional. In the current case, McCutcheon is asking only to strike down aggregate limits, but the RNC wants the court to reconsider Buckley and subject all contribution limits to likely fatal strict scrutiny.
  Three justices — Antonin Scalia, Anthony M. Kennedy, and Clarence Thomas — have written in other cases that they are open to reconsidering that aspect of Buckley. Roberts and Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. have yet to express view on the issue, but the court’s campaign finance decisions have gone in only one direction since Roberts and Alito joined the court in the 2005-2006 term.
  Before Roberts, the court in 2003 upheld the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act (BCRA) by a 5-4 vote, with Alito’s predecessor, Sandra Day O’Connor, joining the court’s liberal bloc in the majority. In their first full term on the court, however, Roberts and Alito provided the critical votes in a decision that gutted the BCRA provision limiting so-called corporate-financed issue ads on television during campaign seasons (FEC v. Wisconsin Right to Life, 2007).
   The same 5-4 majority formed in 2008 to strike down BCRA’s so-called “millionaire’s amendment” (Davis v. FEC) and in 2010 to throw out limits on campaign spending by corporations and labor unions (Citizens United v. FEC). The Roberts Court has also thrown out Vermont’s low campaign contribution limits (Randall v. Sorrell, 2006) and an Arizona law aimed at helping publicly financed candidates running against self-financed opponents (Arizona Free Enterprise Club v. Bennett, 2011). And last year the court struck down Montana’s attempt to re-enact limits on corporate spending in the face of the Citizens United ruling (American Tradition Partnership v. Bullock, 2012).
   Federal or state laws start with a presumption of constitutionality, but Supreme Court handicappers appear to be unanimous in predicting that the court will strike down the aggregate limits. The government cites the Watergate scandals to justify the limits; the brief recalls the dairy industry’s seven-figure contribution to the Nixon re-election committee in a blatant (and successful) effort to get Nixon to back an increase in milk price supports.
  Without the aggregate limits, the government argues, an individual could contribute $3 million or more in a single election cycle and the country would return to the bad old days. Bradley Smith, a leading critic of campaign finance law as former FEC chair and law professor at Capital University Law School in Columbus, Ohio, scoffs. “A zombie apocalypse,” he calls it, as quoted in USA Today.
  In Citizens United, the Roberts Court majority made clear it has no qualms about setting corporations free to spend freely on political campaigns. All signs suggest those five justices are likely to have no qualms about unleashing McCutcheon and other well-heeled contributors as well.