The Catholic Church and the Convention on Torture

By David B. Rivkin and Lee A. Casey

The United Nations committee that monitors compliance with the Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman and Degrading Treatment or Punishment is being urged by several influential nongovernmental organizations to condemn the Vatican when the committee meets this week in Geneva. These groups, including the Center for Constitutional Rights, Survivors Network of those Abused by Priests, and the Center for Reproductive Rights, claim that the Catholic Church’s handling of child-sexual-abuse accusations against priests and the church’s stand on birth control and abortion amount to violations of the Convention Against Torture.

If the U.N. committee were to grant the groups’ request and conclude that the Vatican has violated the Convention Against Torture, this would represent a legally insupportable and perverse interpretation of the treaty, actually weakening its effectiveness. It would also represent a blatant attack on religious freedom.

There is no doubt that for years the Catholic Church failed to deal in a timely and effective way with child sexual abuse by priests. More recently, however, the church has admitted its mistakes and instituted fundamental reforms to root out the problem, which is hardly unique to Catholics. According to the U.N.’s own World Health Organization Fact Sheet No. 150 on child maltreatment, “approximately 20% of women and 5-10% of men report being sexually abused as children.”

No one doubts the evil of child sexual abuse, but attempting to shoehorn it into the Convention Against Torture is legally incorrect. However monolithic the Catholic Church may seem, it is not a sovereign state, and the Vatican (which is) has no legal authority over the church hierarchy or the millions of Catholic believers around the world.

Although the papacy has enormous spiritual authority, its secular, legal power—which is what the treaty addresses—extends only to the 100 acres of Vatican City, which has about 800 residents. Accordingly, the Holy See in 2002 acceded to the Convention Against Torture for “the Vatican City State” and undertook “to apply it insofar as it is compatible, in practice, with the peculiar nature of that State.” Claims that the Vatican exercises such compelling control over all Catholic institutions and individuals that it bears responsibility for all of their actions reflect a basic misunderstanding of how the treaty and the church operate.

The treaty requires member states to refrain from torture and to take other actions to prevent and punish it by their citizens and within their territory. When Catholics, including Catholic clergy, commit crimes outside of Vatican City, their trial and punishment is up to the countries where crimes occurred. If church officials in those countries were complicit in the offenses, addressing that remains a matter of domestic law. All of this is well-known and accepted international practice.

Attempting to internationalize the very serious crime of child abuse by defining it as “torture” is also misguided. The treaty defines torture narrowly and is directed at states for a reason: to focus attention on repressive governments engaging in torture as a form of terror and as a means of preserving the regimes’ hold on power.

None of this makes a difference to the activists who want to accuse the Catholic Church of violating the Convention Against Torture. Among the most determined are those whose claims are a thinly veiled effort to use a U.N. forum to attack Catholic doctrine, especially the church’s stand on birth control and abortion. The Center for Reproductive Rights has even claimed that these key aspects of Catholic belief are themselves tantamount to psychological torture. How so? Because they insidiously shape human behavior, bringing feelings of shame to individuals who seek access to birth control or abortion services, and improperly use the church’s formidable spiritual authority to influence numerous governments to limit access to contraception and abortion services.

By that preposterous logic, any religious faith—or secular doctrine, for that matter—could be condemned for practicing torture if it seeks to motivate adherents to lead their lives in particular ways. This attempt to hijack the Convention Against Torture for political purposes degrades the definition of torture and undermines the treaty’s efforts to end these terrible practices.

Even critics of Catholic doctrine should appreciate that the Convention Against Torture is not the proper instrument, and its U.N. monitoring committee not the proper forum, to challenge anyone’s religious beliefs. Were a sovereign state to act in this manner and attempt to suppress or penalize religious beliefs, its behavior would violate other critical international instruments, including the U.N.’s own International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the Universal Declaration on Human Rights, with their explicit protections for religious liberty.

If the Convention Against Torture committee stretches the treaty to condemn an entire religious institution for the criminal behavior of individuals who belong to it, the treaty’s credibility will be dramatically diminished. That’s bad enough. But if the Convention Against Torture were used to single out the Vatican for condemnation, Catholics and Catholic clergy around the world would be marked as somehow collectively responsible for individual offenses, leaving these innocent people open to attack and persecution, particularly in countries where religious liberty is already threatened. This is not the mission of the Convention Against Torture—or of the United Nations.

Source: http://online.wsj.com/news/articles/SB10001424052702304178104579534370116475920

Messrs. Rivkin and Casey served in the U.S. Justice Department under Presidents Reagan and George H.W. Bush. They are partners in the Washington, D.C., office of Baker & Hostetler LLP.

Crippling the Intelligence We Used to Get bin Laden

Obama’s directive to protect the privacy of foreigners will make Americans less safe.

By Mike Pompeo and David B. Rivkin Jr.

On Jan. 17, in response to former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden’s theft of U.S. intelligence secrets and concerns over the NSA’s bulk metadata collection, President Obama issued a Presidential Policy Directive (PPD-28) that neither strengthens American security nor enhances Americans’ privacy. To the contrary, it undermines our intelligence capabilities in service of a novel cause: foreign privacy interests.

All nations collect and analyze foreign communications or signals, what is known as “signals intelligence.” American technological prowess has produced the world’s most abundant stream of signals intelligence, thwarting plots against the U.S. and saving lives. PPD-28 threatens American safety by restricting the use of this signals intelligence.

First, under the new directive, U.S. officials are required to ensure that all searches of foreign signals intelligence are limited to six purposes: countering foreign espionage, terrorism, weapons of mass destruction, cybersecurity, threats to U.S. or allied forces, and transnational crime.

Such policy guidance is appropriate in principle, but these limitations are mere window dressing. Intelligence activities are already heavily scrutinized by executive-branch lawyers to protect Americans’ privacy. Yet the intelligence community must now operate under the presumption that they are somehow engaged in wrongdoing and must justify each and every step by reference to a proper “purpose” to rebut that presumption. This will make intelligence analysts overly cautious and reduce their flexibility in handling security threats.

Second, PPD-28 extends the same privacy protections to foreigners that now apply to data regarding “U.S. persons,” defined as U.S. citizens anywhere in the world and anyone in the U.S. The most visible result will be that intelligence concerning foreigners will contain redactions of material that may have value to U.S. security and diplomacy. The policy contains an exception for information “relevant” to understanding the substantive content of foreign intelligence, but analysts will inevitably face pressure to go with the redaction rather than bring in the lawyers to justify an exception.

These new policies aren’t required by law. Just as foreign terrorists should not be read their Miranda rights, the U.S. Constitution, including the Fourth Amendment’s requirement that searches be reasonable, doesn’t apply to foreigners outside the U.S. And international law imposes no limitations on foreign surveillance. Yet in a stunning display of naïveté, Mr. Obama says it is crucial that people in foreign countries, from Pakistan to Peru, understand that “the United States respects their privacy too.” The leak last week of the recording of a sensitive phone call between two senior State Department officials regarding Ukraine—almost certainly the result of Kremlin surveillance—vividly indicates how other countries feel about protecting Americans’ privacy.

PPD-28 applies only to signals intelligence and has nothing to say about human intelligence from spies, defectors and friendly intelligence services. But this too reveals the senselessness of the new directive. If we could induce an al Qaeda leader to defect, everything in his possession could be used immediately, helping to make connections and capture or kill our enemies. But if we obtained the same information through signals intelligence, much of it would have to be redacted in the name of a privacy “right” not recognized by U.S. or international law.

This disparate treatment of signals and human intelligence will complicate “connecting the dots.” Human and signals intelligence should work together to inform policy makers of a possible threat as quickly and thoroughly as possible. But imposing different restrictions on intelligence data from human and technological sources prevents that from happening. Different data regarding the same threats will be subject to different legal requirements and limitations on use and disclosure. That will require more lawyering and more time, neither of which helps U.S. security.

History provides numerous examples of how vital it is to integrate signals and human intelligence. Their interplay has long been used to direct troop movements, bombing campaigns and drone strikes, and it was crucial to finding Osama bin Laden.

Consider the 1962 Cuban missile crisis. Seeking to upend the strategic nuclear balance, Moscow installed short- and intermediate-range ballistic missiles in Cuba, reasoning that U.S. intelligence wouldn’t detect them until they were operational. American spy planes provided only low-quality photographs (signals intelligence) of the missile sites.

But because Soviet Lt. Col. Oleg Penkovsky, a double agent, had provided British and U.S. intelligence with information about the standard Soviet missile-base layout, analysts were able to interpret the spy-plane data to ascertain what Moscow was doing in Cuba. This kind of synergy between signals data and human intelligence will be stymied by policies that undermine flexibility in the use of intelligence from different sources.

Under the Constitution, national security and intelligence are largely the president’s responsibility. Because President Obama has decided to recognize a foreign right to privacy, Congress has little ability to check his move. But lawmakers can and should shine a bright light on PPD-28 and hold him accountable for a directive that will hobble our foreign-intelligence capabilities, even as the world spies on us and threats to Americans multiply.

Source: http://online.wsj.com/news/articles/SB10001424052702303519404579353322885979550?KEYWORDS=david+rivkin

Mr. Pompeo, a Republican from Kansas, is a member of the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence. Mr. Rivkin is a partner at Baker Hostetler LLP and served in the Justice Department and the White House Counsel’s Office during the Reagan and George H.W. Bush administrations.

The President vs. the Senate

Now the Supreme Court will weigh in on Obama’s power play to stock the National Labor Relations Board.

By David B. Rivkin Jr. and Lee A. Casey

Later this month the Supreme Court will hear a case that should resolve how much latitude presidents have to make recess appointments to federal offices that otherwise require Senate confirmation. The boundary of this power has never been decided by the high court. Yet the entire scheme of the U.S. Constitution—which is based on a separation of powers, enforced through checks and balances to safeguard individual liberty—is at stake.

Noel Canning v. NLRB involves several recess appointments President Obama made to the National Labor Relations Board on Jan. 4, 2012. The federal appeals court in Washington, D.C., correctly held that these appointments were unconstitutional both because they filled vacancies when the Senate was not in a true “recess” between Congress’s annual sessions, and because the vacancies had not actually opened up during the purported recess.

Article II, Section 2 of the Constitution states that “The president shall have Power to fill up all Vacancies that may happen during the Recess of the Senate, by granting Commissions which shall expire at the End of their next Session.” The federal appellate court’s decision hewed closely to the text and original meaning of this so-called recess appointments clause. Yet the ruling stunned many constitutional lawyers. That’s because the original limitations on the president’s power to make these appointments had long since been effectively discarded.

While this challenge to presidential power touched off considerable controversy, some political observers say that the recess-appointments issue will fade because Senate Democrats recently did away with the traditional filibuster rule, requiring a “super-majority” of at least 60 senators to allow a contentious nomination to proceed to a vote. This rules change, however, does not moot Noel Canning v. NLRB or the issues it raises. Indeed, limiting filibusters will only grease the wheels of a nomination when a Senate majority approves of a particular nominee.

Even when a president’s own party controls the Senate, there are individuals who for one reason or another cannot get the nod. For example, a nominee unacceptable to his or her home-state senator can be subject to a “hold”—a still-respected senatorial courtesy. Recess appointments are not a proper means of avoiding such roadblocks.

The Constitution’s Framers considered and rejected the notion that the president should be able to staff federal offices without congressional oversight. That’s why the president must have Senate “advice and consent” for the most important appointments. As Alexander Hamilton wrote in Federalist 76, the Senate’s participation “would be an excellent check upon a spirit of favoritism in the President, and would tend greatly to prevent the appointment of unfit characters from State prejudice, from family connection, from personal attachment, or from a view to popularity.”

The Framers believed that vesting the entire appointment authority in the president would have made him too powerful, contrary to their key goal of safeguarding individual liberty by dividing power among the three branches of government.

The need for a presidential power to make recess appointments arose from the assumption that Congress would meet infrequently and that there would be long periods—running to many months—when critical federal offices might remain vacant because the Senate was unavailable to discharge its advice and consent function. Recess appointments are a necessary exception to the normal appointments procedures, but they are an exception.

In more recent years, however, as attitudes in Washington have hardened and become more ideological, presidents of both parties have used recess appointments to put individuals in office who the Senate either had already refused to confirm or would likely turn down if given the chance. Such individuals may serve for up to two years. Although presidential frustration may be understandable, since many nominees never even get a Senate vote, overcoming this roadblock is not the constitutional purpose of recess appointments.

To avoid being in recess, Senate Democrats began to hold pro forma sessions in the last years of the George W. Bush administration. These involved tasking, by unanimous consent, one senator from each party to “convene” the Senate for brief periods in order to “receive” presidential nominations. These pro forma sessions are not fundamentally different from the way the Senate routinely conducts its core legislative business, which also can involve passing bills by unanimous consent with few senators in attendance.

Mr. Obama made the appointments that are being challenged in Noel Canning during one of these pro forma Senate sessions. The president determined that for the purpose of considering his nominees, the Senate was not properly in session because, according to White House Counsel Kathryn Ruemmler, the Senate was “unavailable to fulfill its function.” This, of course, raised another critical constitutional question, since the Constitution vests each congressional house with the power to determine how to operate.

Permitting any president to resolve when the Senate is or is not in session upsets the constitutional balance of power among the executive and legislative branches even further. Most dangerously, a president could potentially claim that the Senate was not “in session” when certain legislation was enacted, and then refuse to enforce it on the grounds that it was invalid.

The specific issue of pro forma Senate sessions was not addressed by the lower court. But given the key constitutional prerogatives involved, the Supreme Court asked lawyers representing Senate Republicans to participate in the oral argument. This signals that the court may determine the extent of the president’s recess appointment power and decide whether the Senate’s power to determine its own rules precludes the president from questioning the constitutionality of the pro forma sessions.

The Supreme Court should affirm the court of appeals, limiting recess appointments to filling vacancies actually arising during a true Senate recess, and decisively rejecting the Obama administration’s position that the president can determine when the Senate is or is not in session regardless of the Senate’s own view. This will restore the proper separation of powers between the two political branches that the Framers clearly intended.

Source: http://online.wsj.com/news/articles/SB10001424052702303932504579252072715002560

Messrs. Rivkin and Casey, partners in the Washington, D.C., office of Baker & Hostetler LLP, have filed an amicus brief with the Supreme Court, urging the affirmance of the D.C. Circuit’s decision in Noel Canning.

The wrong ruling on NSA data collection

By Michael B. Mukasey, Steven G. Bradbury and David B. Rivkin Jr.

A federal judge’s ruling Monday that the National Security Agency’s (NSA’s) bulk telephone metadata collection is “likely” unconstitutional is wrong on the law and the facts. It conflicts with the opinions of 15 other federal judges who have sat on the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court and approved the NSA’s metadata collection 35 times since 2006.

U.S. District Judge Richard Leon has stayed his order to give the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit the opportunity to reach its own judgment. But in the post-Snowden, anti-NSA climate pervading Washington, there is reason for concern that this opinion will amplify the caterwaul of those seeking to dismantle vital U.S. counterterrorism capabilities.

The telephone metadata collected by the NSA consists of transactional business records revealing only which phone numbers have called which numbers, when and for how long. It includes no other subscriber information, and it doesn’t enable the government to listen to anyone’s calls. This database enables intelligence agencies to discover quickly whether any phone numbers of known foreign terrorists have been in contact with numbers in the United States, a vital input in counterterrorism investigations. It is informative even when it reveals a lack of contacts.

In Leon’s view, however, the Fourth Amendment prohibits Congress from authorizing the bulk metadata collection and the focused querying of those records, even where the president has determined its necessity and it is approved every 90 days by a federal judge. No case law remotely supports this breathtaking conclusion. Liberal use of exclamation marks is no substitute.

Leon argues that the Supreme Court’s 1979 decision in Smith v. Maryland upholding the warrantless use of pen registers — devices that record numbers dialed — has become obsolete in this age of multifunction smartphones. But district judges are not empowered to declare the death of binding Supreme Court precedent. The calling-record data collected by the NSA is almost exactly the same data the police collected in Smith: the phone numbers that Michael Lee Smith called and the dates and times of those calls.

In Smith, the high court held that telephone customers have no reasonable expectation of privacy in the numbers they dial or in the calling records that phone companies generate for business purposes. And since the court’s 1967 decision in Katz v. United States , a reasonable expectation of privacy has been the measure for what constitutes a lawful search under the Fourth Amendment. Appeals courts have consistently followed Smith and applied its holding to other developing technologies, including the collection of e-mail metadata.

Although Monday’s ruling emphasizes the “all-encompassing” and “indiscriminate” nature of the NSA’s metadata collection, that does not alter anyone’s reasonable expectations of privacy. If anything, the use of a pen register to target Smith’s personal phone line was more intrusive than the NSA’s metadata collection, given the vastness and anonymity of the data set and the minuscule chance that any particular person’s calling records will be reviewed by an NSA analyst.

Leon cited the Supreme Court’s 2012 decision in United States v. Jones , but that case is not germane. In Jones, the police trespassed on a suspect’s property by installing a GPS device on his car and tracked his every move. The NSA’s bulk collection entails no physical invasion of property and does not comprehensively track individual customers’ movements and activities.

Even if phone customers did reasonably expect that the numbers they dial would remain private, Leon’s ruling makes another fundamental error when it misconstrues the “special needs” doctrine, which allows warrantless searches in special circumstances, based on a balancing of the government’s need for the information against the extent of the infringement of privacy interests.

Leon believes that the metadata program intrudes on consumers’ infatuation with their smartphones, but having stressed the lifestyle changes brought by new technology, he fails to appreciate that individual privacy is much more porous today than it was in the 1970s. Many private companies collect and analyze personal data — including the Internet companies that want the NSA to stop its surveillance efforts. Most Americans willingly accept less privacy in exchange for the conveniences the Internet makes possible. But Leon’s analysis means that U.S. intelligence agencies cannot protect Americans from foreign threats using the same analytical tools that private companies employ.

Americans know that many government agencies collect business records and information for lawful purposes and that this often includes personal data. What distinguishes the NSA is the importance of its national security mission and the extensive congressional and judicial oversight. Foreign governments, of course, collect all manner of data about Americans for their own military and commercial purposes.

Leon was not convinced that metadata collection had produced the one critical piece of intelligence needed to stop a terrorist strike just before it was carried out, but that’s an entirely unreasonable standard. Judging the value of an intelligence program demands the greatest deference to the political branches; courts are not institutionally suited to the task. NSA metadata collection is both constitutional and necessary.

 

SOURCE: http://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/the-wrong-ruling-on-nsa-data-collection/2013/12/19/494362ee-68ca-11e3-a0b9-249bbb34602c_story.html

Michael B. Mukasey was U.S. attorney general in the George W. Bush administration. Steven G. Bradbury was head of the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel during the George W. Bush administration and led the legal effort to obtain initial court approval for the NSA’s metadata collection. David B. Rivkin Jr. served in the Justice Department and the White House Counsel’s office during the Reagan and George H.W. Bush administrations.

Your DNA and your First Amendment

David Rivkin Jr. and Andrew Grossman 

 The FDA is blocking 23andMe’s genome service. But the real target is free speech.

Did you know that you cannot be trusted with knowledge of your own genetic background? That’s what the Food and Drug Administration decreed late last month when it ordered 23andMe to stop marketing its Personal Genome Service.

23andMe is at the cutting edge of mass-market genomics. For $99 the company tests a saliva sample to identify genetic markers that correspond to various conditions and predispositions, as well as ancestry. Based on these markers, the company produces a report describing genetic health risks and inherited traits, along with citations to the research that backs up its analysis and the current scientific “confidence” for each point.

The FDA does not claim that 23andMe is a scam or could cause direct injury. Instead, its concern is that people using the genome service may begin to self-manage their treatments. Essentially, the agency wants to “protect” patients from knowing about their own health.

Proactive prevention

The service is not marketed as a diagnostic tool but as a way for individuals to take a proactive approach to their health through prevention and management, while providing themselves and their physicians with more information to make better choices.

The agency worries that individuals, with information about their genetics, could make the wrong choices. As an example, the agency suggests a customer informed of a heightened risk for breast or ovarian cancer might undergo unnecessary prophylactic surgery or chemotherapy. But this could not happen without first consulting a doctor and undergoing diagnostic tests.

The FDA also claims that individuals shouldn’t be able to receive health information based on their genes, unless and until the underlying correlations have been subjected to rigorous clinical validation the same as an approved drug or medical device. Last week, a $5 million class action suit was filed against 23andMe by one dissatisfied customer claiming its test results are not supported by scientific evidence.

Anne Wojcicki, co-founder of 23andMe, responded that her company and the regulators are entering uncharted territory. She said the FDA is set up to approve individual tests, not the millions of tests her company does on a person’s DNA.

To be sure, the FDA does have a legitimate interest in ensuring that consumers are not misled by false claims and bad products. But that’s not at issue here.

The interpretation of genetic markers is grounded in recent discoveries and could be tentative. 23andMe, like others in the field, acknowledges this and is constantly revising its interpretation of genetic data. But that fact does not mean these services aren’t useful to consumers, particularly when combined with traditional diagnostics.

Suppressing speech

Yet the FDA maintains that 23andMe has to keep that knowledge away from its customers. Forget about the FDA’s medical device claims, its stance puts the agency in direct conflict with our free speech rights. Shuttering a service such as 23andMe is no different from censoring home medical references or any of myriad websites that link symptoms with medical conditions.

In fact, the Supreme Court has long rejected the premise that government may substitute its judgment as to how best to speak for that of speakers and listeners. While the FDA may prefer that scientific research be limited to professionals and then filtered through a physician or FDA-approved service for the rest of us, the First Amendment prevents it from suppressing speech.

What’s troubling is that the FDA knows this. Two years ago, the Supreme Court struck down on First Amendment grounds a state law that blocked pharmacists from disclosing information about doctors and their prescribing habits to pharmaceutical manufacturers, who would use it for research and marketing. As the court observed, the free flow of information has “great relevance in the fields of medicine and public health, where information can save lives.”

That connection is far more direct here. The knowledge that a person is at heightened risk for a particular disorder could prompt lifestyle changes to reduce the risk or encourage early detection and treatment.

For now, 23andMe has voluntarily taken its service off the market. The FDA, of course, does not want Americans to make bad health choices, but it does seem determined to keep them in the dark about how to make good ones.

Rather than regulate by assuming that consumers are incapable of understanding their personal genetics, the FDA should be thinking about the enormous opportunities to improve health offered by widespread, affordable genetic testing.

SOURCE: http://www.usatoday.com/story/opinion/2013/12/09/23andme-fda-suit-dna-column/3926589/

David Rivkin and Andrew Grossman practice law in the Washington, D.C., office of BakerHostetler. Rivkin served in the Justice Department and the White House Counsel’s Office in the Reagan and George H.W. Bush administrations.

Is Obama trying to pack the DC appeals court?

By David B. Rivkin, Jr. and Andrew M. Grossman 

The D.C. Circuit is the nation’s top regulatory court, responsible for scrutinizing many of the federal government’s most expensive and far-reaching actions. No wonder, then, that President Barack Obama is now trying to push three new judges onto the court and tilt it decisively in his favor. A great deal is at stake here for the U.S. economy, and it is high time for the Senate to have its say.

For a president with an aggressive second-term regulatory agenda, the D.C. Circuit may be a greater impediment than the Supreme Court. By statute, the court hears all challenges to nationwide rules under the Clean Air Act, as well as many major challenges to regulations affecting water, labor relations, securities law, and other fields. It vets agencies’ compliance with constitutional requirements. More than a third of cases in the D.C. Circuit are administrative appeals, compared to 16 percent in other appeals courts. And because the Supreme Court takes so few cases each year, the D.C. Circuit’s word is typically the last when it comes to regulatory challenges.

The court hasn’t exactly been clamoring for more judges. It has the equivalent of 11.25 full-time judges: eight active judges, split 4-4 between Democratic and Republican appointees, plus another six senior judges whose workloads add up to 3.25 full-time judges. While the court has three vacancies, they are not among the 32 “judicial emergencies” identified by the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts—and the president hasn’t even made nominations to most of those seats.  Moreover, the court’s caseload is among the lowest of the courts of appeals, at 88 cases per judge, and declining. According to one current judge, “If any more judges were added now, there wouldn’t be enough work to go around.”

So why three new judges? And why now?

The best explanation is that the court has played an important role checking the Obama administration’s most legally adventuresome actions. It blocked Obama administration regulations that required some states to reduce air pollution by more than they actually emitted and struck down the president’s attempt to bypass the Senate by “recess” appointing pro-union lawyers to the National Labor Relations Board when the Senate was still in session.

Just recently, it ordered the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to follow the law and reopen consideration of the Yucca Mountain nuclear waste repository, which the Administration had shut down for political reasons. The court felt the need to remind the administration: “The President and federal agencies may not ignore statutory mandates or prohibitions merely because of policy disagreement with Congress.”

To be clear, the court is not set against Obama’s agenda—far from it. Where agencies hew to the letter of the law and present reasoned explanations for their actions, they fare well. Indeed, the D.C. Circuit has turned back challenges to the vast majority of the Obama administration rules, including EPA’s greenhouse gas regulations, which many observers viewed as legally vulnerable for deviating from the language of the Clean Air Act. (The Supreme Court recently agreed to review that precise issue.)

Problems typically arise when regulators overreach by playing fast and loose with the law to carry out their political agendas. As D.C. Circuit Judge David Tatel has explained, “You’d be surprised how often agencies don’t seem to have given their authorizing statutes so much as a quick skim.”

The president is right to fear that his agencies may face tough going in the D.C. Circuit during his second term. Despite a number of high-profile court losses for failure to follow the law, President Obama declared after his reelection that he intends to act even more aggressively. He said that he is “not going to…wait for Congress” to carry out his agenda. “Wherever we have an opportunity and I have the executive authority to go ahead and get some things done, we’re just going to go ahead and do ‘em.” He has followed through on that promise, pushing the EPA to effectively ban new coal-fired power plants and to issue standards for existing plants that are likely to be among the most expensive regulations ever.  EPA is also contemplating new rules targeting natural gas.

Thus, the president’s rush to place three liberal stalwarts on the court. Today, the D.C. Circuit enjoys a reputation for careful legal reasoning and attention to detail. It is sensitive to the tough policy choices faced by public officials, without unduly deferring to their judgments on issues of law. For those very reasons, it poses a real threat to the president’s plans to skirt the normal lawmaking process—that is, working with Congress—in favor of unilateral action.

It’s easier to win in court, of course, when you get to pick the judges.  A second reason for the rush is to prevent the Senate from careful review of his nominees’ records.

This, in particular, should give Senators pause, because it stands in the way of carrying out their constitutional duty to provide “advice and consent” on judicial nominations. Given the stakes, a full airing of the nominees’ records is warranted, followed by careful deliberation by the Senate.

Rivkin Jr. and Grossman practice law in the Washington office of BakerHostetler. Rivkin served in the Justice Department and the White House Counsel’s Office in the Reagan and George H.W. Bush administrations.

 

Sourcehttp://thehill.com/blogs/congress-blog/judicial/188872-is-obama-trying-to-pack-the-dc-appeals-court

A Facebook Deal That Needs Unfriending

Time to end class-action settlements that only reward lawyers, not plaintiffs.

By David B. Rivkin Jr. and Lee A. Casey 

The Supreme Court will soon decide whether to hear a case that could determine the future of particularly abusive class-action settlements. Not abusive in the usual sense, where a class of injured plaintiffs is awarded an exorbitant amount. Instead, these settlements are abusive in that absolutely nothing goes to the injured plaintiffs. At issue is whether federal courts may approve such agreements rewarding lawyers and defendants, leaving plaintiffs out in the cold.

The case is Marek v. Lane, and it arose out of Facebook’s notorious 2007 “Beacon” program. Beacon gathered and published information about Facebook users’ other Internet activities as an advertising and marketing tool, invading the privacy of millions. It may also have violated a number of state and federal laws, including the 1988 Video Privacy Protection Act, which includes a liquidated-damages provision of $2,500 for each offense. A class-action suit was filed in 2008 on behalf of as many as 3.6 million injured social networkers.

Embarrassed (if unrepentant) and under media pressure, Facebook entered settlement negotiations, ultimately agreeing to pay $9.5 million. Of this, about $3.1 million (later reduced to $2.3 million) would go to the class-action lawyers, and the rest would be used to create a Digital Trust Foundation, controlled in part by Facebook. The DTF would sponsor programs and education regarding online threats to personal information and identity—including through funding consumer groups, such as the Electronic Frontier Foundation, that Facebook already supports and are often allied with Facebook on matters of regulation and public policy. Members of the class of injured plaintiffs, meanwhile, would get nothing and, unless they took action to “opt-out” of the settlement, their individual claims would be forever barred.

Such arrangements, through which a class recovery is diverted to purposes other than actually compensating the claimants, are known as “cy pres” awards, a term derived from the French legal expression cy pres comme possible (as near as possible). The idea is that where a court cannot directly achieve some remedial goal, such as meaningful payments to the injured parties, it may adopt other measures that, as nearly as possible, have the same compensatory result.

Cy pres remedies are very much an exception in the law, and are ordinarily subject to significant judicial policing due to the risk that defendants and class-action attorneys will use cy pres to cut a deal that benefits them both but gives plaintiffs little or nothing. For this reason, federal courts carefully assess whether proposed settlements are “fair, reasonable, and adequate” to the injured class members. A cy pres award can be approved only if a court finds that granting the recovery to a third party best advances member interests.

The Facebook settlement, however, provides zero benefit to class members. Breaking with all the other appeals courts to consider cy pres settlements, in February the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit upheld a ruling that an award of millions to a foundation controlled in part by Facebook was good enough because it was not entirely “unrelated to the class’s interests.”

Yet the Ninth Circuit’s six dissenting judges wrote: “The DTF can teach Facebook users how to create strong passwords, tinker with their privacy settings, and generally be more cautious online, but it can’t teach users how to protect themselves from Facebook’s deliberate misconduct. Unless, of course, the DTF teaches Facebook users not to use Facebook. That seems unlikely.”

Nevertheless, both the trial court and the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals approved this agreement, without assessing the value of class members’ claims. The agreement did not even forbid Facebook from reinstituting a program identical to Beacon under a different name in the future and injuring class members in the exact same fashion. If that’s “fair, reasonable, and adequate,” then anything goes.

The Ninth Circuit’s decision opens new vistas in class-action litigation, where lawyers (in the form of fat fees) and defendants (in the form of resolving expensive lawsuits on the cheap) could reap rich rewards simply by stiffing those actually injured. Sadly, even courts have been known to get in on the action by helping to choose the institutions or causes to receive cy pres payments—including awards to the alma mater of a plaintiffs’ lawyer, in one case, and to schools where judges either taught or served as a trustee, in others.

Only the Supreme Court can remedy this, by hearing Marek v. Lane and reversing a decision that carries the real and immediate danger of promoting significant abuse nationwide. Class actions should compensate the victims of genuine injuries, not promote some social good as defined by lawyers, defendants and judges.

Messrs. Rivkin and Casey served in the U.S. Justice Department under Presidents Reagan and George H.W. Bush. They are partners in the Washington, D.C., office of Baker & Hostetler LLP, representing claimants opposed to the Facebook settlement and who are now seeking Supreme Court review.

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