Category Archives: Supreme Court

Supreme Kool-Aid

The Supreme Court rendered two landmark decisions this past week. For those short on time I will parse them in the simplest of terms. In King v. Burwell (the “Obamacare” case) the Court decided that “established by the States” can mean exactly the same thing as “not established by the States.” This ranks right up there with Bill Clinton’s inability to parse the meaning of the word “is.” This linguistic pretzel betrays the court’s predilection to save Congress from themselves. The court regards Congress as a parent would a child who keeps getting into trouble: “aw, shucks silly rabbit, you mean you didn’t anticipate that a poison pill clause aimed at punishing the citizens of recalcitrant states might blow up in your face if those states remained recalcitrant? – well, don’t you worry, old Uncle Roberts will fix that right up for you with his magical judicial word-redefiner.”

In the next decision, Obergefell v. Hodges (the “gay marriage” case) the Court affirmed the principle that we should heap accolades upon our wise overlords when they deign to stop interfering in our lives. Apparently we need the state to stop other states from doing bad things – but who will protect us when the federal state does bad things? State regulation of marriage makes about as much sense as state regulation of healthcare.

Right about now the left is feeling pretty smug and self-satisfied with these decisions. But the right has had their day, and they will once again. That’s just how our system works – the lives of 300 million people must conform to the opinion of nine random people in black robes while each side cheers for their “team.” Both sides trumpet the merits of democracy – until their side loses. When that happens they are both all too happy to jettison the “democratic” results and substitute it with the opinion of 9 monarchs.

The fact that so many wait in eager anticipation for a sign of white or black smoke wafting from the judicial chimney of the Supreme Palace betrays something rather sinister. Nearly all of us are part of a cult: the cult of the State. The figurative “kool-aid” of state-love is doled out year after year at, gasp!, state run schools. There is nearly no defense against this mountain of propaganda. We grow up believing our rights come from government and therefore when the wise sages of that august institution speak, we must pay heed.

Consider a different perspective: The US Government is the functional equivalent of a private corporation that has monopolized certain segments of the economy. It maintains its market dominance and its customer base (us) through a combination of brainwashing during childhood, the illusion of control in adulthood (voting), and the for those that would rebel against paying for products it forces upon us, the overt threat of violence from a massive military complex. Cast in that light we should see that the internal policy making procedures of this company should have as much relevance to one’s life as would the operational policy decisions made at Apple, Walmart or Payless Shoe Stores. Who cares what 9 random people think? How is it that we not only allow – we welcome – other people, (the President, Congress, or the Supreme Court) telling us how to run our lives? If you want to participate in a socialized insurance system called “Obamacare” fine, be my guest. That has as much relevance to my life as does your decision to buy car insurance from Progressive and not State Farm. However, I choose to not purchase the products of U.S. Government, Inc – Social Security, Medicare, Obamacare. I also see no need to ask permission from one of its wholly owned subsidiaries (Georgia, Inc.) to get married, get a job, start a business or educate my children.

Now some might argue that I have a “social responsibility” to purchase some products (“public goods”) and that gosh-darn someone must force me to do so if I won’t. In reality, there is no such thing as “public goods” – this is simply a name that emerges from sloppy and lazy thinking from those that can’t fathom how anything other than violence could bring such products to market. And for those inclined to cite “the roads” please bear in mind it only constitutes about 1% of government spending.

I will close with this one tidbit of irony. The determination of the constitutionality of laws by the Supreme Court (“judicial review”) is itself unconstitutional. You can scour the Constitution but you will not find the authority for the court to engage in this practice.  This notion of “judicial review” was born out of the court’s ruling in Marbury v. Madison in 1803 as a matter of expediency and we’ve suffered the consequences ever since. That the dictum “the ends justify the means” guides this court’s decision should come as no surprise considering its power to render these decisions flowed from the same principle.

Order at the Border

This past week the Supreme Court of the United States (SCOTUS) issued a ruling in Riley v. California that dares to uphold the remains of a much abused 4th Amendment. The court ruled that the police may not search the cellphone of someone placed under arrest (often for offenses as trivial as “disobeying a lawful order” or “disorderly conduct”) without first having obtained a search warrant. In the digital age the principal of good design “form follows function” no longer is guaranteed. Digital function is not deducible from physical form; the sublime masks astounding capabilities. The contention was that since traditional wallets can be searched it must follow that anything approximately the same size as a wallet can be searched. A cellphone and a wallet may be comparable in size but that is where the similarities end. The rules that allow the police to search a defendant after an arrest dictate a limited spatial area (typically directly under the suspect’s direct control e.g. a car). So at first blush it might seem that if a cellphone is within that area it is fair game. But that analysis ignores the ways in which technology can redefine notions of spatiality. Cellphones (or the “smart” ones anyway) are not mere digital copies of the old-fashion wallet. They are but a keyhole onto a warehouse of information. Packed into these devices is the equivalent of what formerly would have been contained in ones home years ago; in essence they do indeed house ones “papers, and effects” which the 4th Amendment specifically protects from warrantless searches. Chief Justice John Roberts summarized this idea in his ruling:

 “With all they contain and all they may reveal, they hold for many Americans ‘the privacies of life.’ The fact that technology now allows an individual to carry such information in his hand does not make the information any less worthy of the protection for which the Founders fought. …Our answer to the question of what police must do before searching a cellphone seized incident to an arrest is accordingly simple—get a warrant.”


However, as heartening as this decision might be, there still remains today an egregious violation of basic 4th Amendment rights that has time and again been upheld but the SCOTUS: border searches. In the court’s opinion (United States v. Ramsey (1977)) searches made at the border are de facto reasonable because they occur at the border and thus is any conflict with the 4th Amendment extinguished with a mere definitional twist. Border searches do not require suspicion nor a warrant; anything and everything may be legally searched and confiscated for no other reason than that one is crossing an imaginary line.

Even if one is inclined to believe that such border searches are necessary to keep out criminals and “illegals,” what may surprise you to learn is that the “border” is defined as 100 miles inland from the actual border (aka a “Constitution Free Zone” that encompasses two-thirds of the US population). What that means is that anyone, anywhere within 100 miles of a US border may be legally detained and searched for no reason at all by the DHS or ICE goon squads. They may seize electronic devices (phones, laptops), copy them wholesale, return them, and then rummage through one’s personal information at their leisure. That this does not currently happen routinely is small comfort; there is not a single barrier to the legality of such behavior. If you are within 100 miles of the border you are fair game. You may think you have nothing to hide, but do you really want total strangers looking at your photos and reading your emails? Secondarily, there is nothing objective about the 100-mile value – it could be changed to whatever arbitrary value our wise overlords deem necessary to maintain, “order at the border.” We are just one crisis away from a 250 or 500 mile border zone.

So while we may applaud the SCOTUS for their recent affirmation of 4th amendment protections, let us not forget to jeer them when they continue to permit those same protections to vanish at the border.

Unicorns Attack Free TV

Ever heard of a company called Aereo? Yeah, didn’t think so. Up until last week I had never heard of it either, but this little company may be forging the way toward increased competition, lower prices, and more consumer choice in the oligopolistic televised media industry. That is assuming of course the nine kings and queens of the royal court (aka the US Supreme Court) consider the interests of 300 million consumers when they reflect upon the merits of a case as old as the republic itself: who shall receive the court’s tip of the hat, the protectionist rent-seekers or the upstart innovator?

In this 21st century replay of Gibbons v. Ogden, Aereo plays the role of the audacious entrepreneur challenging the state chartered monopolies (played here by NBC, ABC, & CBS). In Gibbons v. Ogden it was about who had the right to navigate the river-waves, now it concerns tapping the air-waves and surfing the web. Aereo is providing a service to consumers who prefer to watch their local TV stations over the more convenient medium of web-attached devices (thereby foregoing the hassle of dealing with antennas and converter boxes). Consumers are in essence renting antenna time from Aereo and having this content directed to their device. You’d think the big three media companies would be pleased – Aereo is expanding their viewership! But alas that is not the case. Because Aereo is redirecting these free over-the-air transmissions they have not been paying a tribute to the big three for the content. This stands in stark contrast to the hefty sums forked over each year by cable and satellite providers (and which are naturally passed on to the consumer). If Aereo is permitted to exist it might set a precedent that would allow an unwinding of the decades old law that made an arbitrary distinction between “public” vs. “private” broadcast (which is why cable companies must pay rebroadcast fees but we are free to record and time-shift content while enduring scary FBI warnings on our DVDs.).

The justification used against Aereo is that they are violating the copyright of the big three – rebroadcast without consent. This would be fine if copyright were an actual real form of property – the only problem is, it is not. Copyright, patent, & trademark are all artificial creatures of the state; they are the unicorns of rights. They are a state grant of monopoly privilege. Utilitarian opinions built upon notions of “encouraging” certain types of behavior by such monopolistic grants are as wrong-headed as any “ends justify the means” arguments. Whereas IP cannot exist absent state enforcement, true property rights, not being an invention of the state, can. The recognition of rights in property is the only alternative to violence when settling a conflict over the control of scarce and rivalrous material. Two parties resolving such a dispute do not necessarily rely on a state. Enforcement of IP, however, is impossible without state violence.

Ideas, assemblages of words or sounds, are neither scarce nor rivalrous; therefore, it is nonsensical to claim property rights in them (akin to claiming such a right in one’s name). A state enforced fiat decree to the contrary is no more legitimate than the decree that a man may be property. Indeed, man as property fails on the rivalrous test; rivalrous goods can be conveyed, a man’s soul cannot. If someone copies your creative work and that upsets you, beat them at their own game by copying the manner in which they are employing it. That’s how competition in a free market works, no state necessary. If your business model necessitates men with guns then there is something wrong with your business model.

Now, given that even the supposed champion-of-the-little-guy-mr-progressive-democrat-Obama has come down on the side of the big media conglomerates, my feeling is that Aereo will likely lose this case. There is just too much money at stake, and in the crony-capitalist cesspool that is Washington DC, “we the people” have allowed the growth of a dystopian system that enables moneyed interests (warfare, welfare, and cronyisms) to rule us all.

Speech, Money and Means

Elections, campaigning, voting; these are all creatures of the state. To the extent the state itself is illegitimate, it is wasted effort to debate the legitimacy of internal rules of an illegitimate entity (a bit like arguing over the moral distinction between thieves that pick locks vs those that break down doors). So discussions concerning whether the government should limit political donations to this amount or that amount is entirely academic; there is no right or wrong answer given the larger context that compelling all to accept the outcome of an election is the true affront to individual rights (that is, the right to choose with whom one will associate).

With that said, however, I would like to touch on a common philosophical misconception that has been reignited with the recent Supreme Court decision in McCutcheon v. FEC. In this decision the Supreme Court struck down limits on total donation amounts to candidates and political committees (while retaining certain other limits). The predictable knee-jerk response then ensued from the progressive media outlets: Unrestricted giving means our democracy is for sale! More money in politics means only the well-funded candidates will win elections! Money is not speech! Ok, stop right there. The first two assertions are at least plausible (although plenty of examples abound where the more well-funded candidate lost), however denying the essential connection that money and speech have is to engage in intellectual dishonesty

What does the right to free speech entail? (Before I continue, for clarity’s sake “speech” is shorthand to describe any action that externalizes the thoughts or ideas of an individual). Does free speech mean we should be able to speak for free? No. It means that it is impermissible for anyone (which includes government) to aggressively interfere with an individual’s exercise of speech (assuming the speaker has not voluntarily agreed to limit that right under contract). Conversely it does not obligate anyone to assist an individual in his speech efforts. That is, speech is a negative right. If one wishes to spread their speech more efficiently, they may employ their own means (money, printing press, radio station, etc.) or they may ask others to assist them in their effort by providing them with those same means.

Speech is a means to an end. That is to say, we exercise speech in order to achieve some end. Means themselves often require other means to achieve them. For example, I buy gas (means) to use my car (means) to drive to work (means) to earn money (means) in order to buy food (means) to keep me alive (end). In a campaign the candidate’s end is to make the public aware of his candidacy and persuade them to cast their vote for him. This is done through speech from the candidate to the public. Speech is most efficiently disseminated using tools (print, radio, TV, etc) and those tools can often only be obtained via monetary trade. So, perhaps money is not literally speech in the same way that gasoline is not literally food, but in both cases the former is a direct link in the causal chain of means to achieve the latter end. To deny the significance of money as it relates to speech is to deny the legitimacy of utilizing any means to achieve some end.

For those concerned with the possible distorting effects of money in politics I would suggest ending the fixation on limiting money and rather focus instead on what the money is buying: power. If we commit to limiting the power of government over our lives, we will find the appeal of purchasing such impaired power likewise diminished.

The times they are a changin’

There is nothing quite like a Supreme Court decision to add fuel to the fire of politicized hyperbole. One example: the recent US Supreme Court decision regarding the Voting Rights Act set aside just a single section (Section 4) as no longer applicable as written – but the “sky is falling” remarks of those opposing the decision would have us believe the entire bill was voided AND that from now on the KKK would be in charge of voter registration. “Return to Jim Crow!” – “Rampant disenfranchisement!” Give me a break. All the court did was say that perhaps after 50 YEARS, just perhaps, there have been some changes in the hearts and minds of the citizenry in those states it was originally targeted at. To argue, as opponents are, that racism is just as prevalent today as it was 50 years ago is to willfully ignore not only all the gains minorities have made in the last 50 years but likewise the fact that we’ve added two new generations of non-racists since that time. Why do you think “gay rights” are more widely accepted today? Changing attitudes? Hardly. It’s just demographics. The prejudices of the old die with them. Is racism wiped out? No, of course not. But to suggest that there has been ZERO improvement is an equally absurd assertion.

If one truly believes in the anti-discriminatory role of the VRA then one should have been concerned that Section 4 focused solely on historical regions of discrimination while turning a blind eye elsewhere. Not only does it use stale data, it uses stale methods. To the extent racism does exist, it is no longer overt, it has grown subtle.  The methods used to root it out must change so that it can be identified. The rescission of Section 4 now provides Congress the opportunity to establish new criteria better suited to rooting out actual voter discrimination rather than imagined discrimination. If the disease is evolving then one’s treatment method must evolve with it.

“Oh but you’re wrong, as soon as this passed Texas moved to reintroduce a voter ID law!” I’m sorry; I have never understood this knee-jerk response that Voter ID = Discrimination. How is it that merely requesting proof that one actually has the right to vote can be construed as nothing other than a blatant attempt at discrimination? Is it not possible, just perhaps, that a border state, such as Texas, which possesses a large portion of non-citizen immigrants, would want to ensure that non-citizen immigrants are not voting (since in most cases all you need is a pulse to get registered to vote)? The most commonly requested ID is a driver’s license, but for some reason this is decried as creating an unreasonable hurdle for most minorities. Really, so the vast majority of minorities do not drive? To suggest that voter ID laws disproportionately harm minorities is to imply that driver’s license regulations disproportionately bar minorities from driving. If that is the case then it seems there should be more outrage over this horrible discrimination keeping our roadways nearly minority free.

Do voter ID laws create an impediment to voting? Sure they do… in the exact same way that the fact that the polling place is not in my living room creates an impediment to my voting. I have to expend effort in getting in my car and driving to the polling place. But it is minimal effort. In the same way, being requested to show some sort of ID before one may vote is not an insurmountable obstacle. It might take some minimal effort but it is doable. It’s not like you have to prove you can run a marathon before you can vote. If you can’t pass the tiny hurdle of obtaining the requested ID then apparently voting is just not all that important to you. So, please stop with the crocodile tears about how “voter ID” disenfranchises voters. If you are truly concerned with voter discrimination then use this opportunity the Supreme Court has handed the country and encourage Congress to fix Section 4 of the VRA so that it is relevant to the world we live in today, not the one we lived in 50 years ago.