Now is the time to hit the Iranian regime with lower oil prices

For the sake of the Iranian people and global stability, we need to lead the effort in suppressing oil prices beyond what Tehran can bear.

Mass protests are gripping Iran as its people express their discontent with crippling poverty, governmental corruption, and Tehran’s highly expensive sponsorship of terrorist proxies around the Middle East. The protests are geographically widespread, rural and urban, and challenge the very sinews of Iran’s mullahcracy. The United States can and should support Iranian freedom by pressuring the regime at its most vulnerable point, oil revenues. This strategy should have long- and short-term components, both designed to decrease global oil prices.

Iran’s dire economic situation is at the heart of this discontent. As President Rouhani acknowledged, the government cannot meet payroll and is seeking to increase revenue and decrease expenditures. Since 80% of Iran’s budget comes from petroleum exports, the quickest and surest way to bring about regime change in Tehran is a broad campaign to reduce current global oil prices.

In order for Tehran to balance its budget, oil prices need to be around $130 per barrel, over twice what they are today. Several factors — including government-promised subsidies to wheat farmers and debt payment obligations that are headed toward default — are pushing Iran to the financial breaking point. Add to this the rising costs of Tehran’s military establishment, and the mullahs’ expanding commitment to fomenting chaos around the Arab world, and you have a recipe for financial meltdown. The doomsday scenario could only be avoided by a major rise in oil prices that would allow Iran, with 10% of proven global reserves, to rescue itself.

For the sake of the Iranian people and global stability, this cannot be allowed to happen. Washington should lead the effort. Tehran is a major American foe and a successful anti-mullahcracy effort would both improve Middle East security and enhance US global credibility.

There are four ways to suppress further the current low global oil prices. First, the ad hoc understanding between Saudi Arabia and Russia, the world’s first and second largest oil exporters respectively, to curtail oil output would need to be suspended. This would enable the Saudis, who have the highest spare capacity of any nation, to increase exports, driving down prices. Moscow would hate losing its key Middle Eastern ally and wouldn’t countenance such a suspension, but it cannot stop the Saudis, for whom Iran is also a major adversary.

Second, the United States should continue with its long-term efforts to increase both the U.S. oil output — which it has already done by just announcing a major expansion of offshore oil drilling — and increasing U.S. capacity to export oil and petroleum products by building additional pipelines and terminal facilities. While these efforts would exert some downward pressure on prices, they would need to be supplemented by the short-term measures, that are capable of having an immediate pricing impact. The key such measure would be an agreement between the United States and a Saudi-led coalition (along with UAE and Kuwait) to increase output, bringing the price down by at least $10 per barrel. Further, because Tehran suffers from a lack of indigenous capital and technology to increase sustained production capacity and hence oil exports, this same coalition should convince the few oil companies willing to invest in Iran’s upstream industry to put their efforts on hold.

Finally, because Tehran lacks access to foreign financial markets and American banks view investing in Iran as too risky, its only hope is in European, and to a much lesser extent Asian, banks. The Trump administration should send a strong message to European and Asian banks that their access to U.S. capital markets will be endangered, if they float credits to Tehran in any form.

One might ask why Saudi Arabia, a nation that also depends heavily on oil revenues, would support a lower price. The answer is simple cost-benefit analysis. Blocking Iran’s drive for regional hegemony is the kingdom’s highest foreign policy priority. The Saudis are spending tens of billions of dollars attempting to stabilize nations such as LebanonBahrain and Palestine and fighting wars in Yemen and Syria against Iranian destabilization efforts. Not only are the Saudis eager to shrink these expenditures, but with about $500 billion in foreign reserves and one of the cheapest oil extraction costs in the world, they can withstand lower petroleum prices for years if necessary. In short, the regime change that low oil prices would bring in Iran represents a vital foreign policy boon and overall financial savings over the mid to long-term for the kingdom.

Tehran simply cannot survive a sustained $50 per barrel price. All those wishing to bring an end to the decades of widespread terror caused by this so-called Islamic Republic, and support the Iranian people in their own demands for change, should commit to the above-mentioned measures. Only the oil weapon can end this repressive regime.

David B. Rivkin Jr. served in the Departments of Justice and Energy and the White House Counsel’s Office during the Reagan and George H. W. Bush administrations.  Nawaf E. Obaid, a visiting fellow for intelligence & defence projects at Harvard’s Belfer Center, is a former advisor to the Saudi government.

Source: https://www.usatoday.com/story/opinion/2018/01/07/wielding-oil-weapon-against-iran-best-way-end-its-oppressive-regime-david-rivkin-nawaf-obaid-column/1005225001/

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Can a President obstruct Justice?

Speculation about Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation has turned toward obstruction of justice—specifically, whether President Trump can be criminally prosecuted for firing James Comey as director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation or for earlier asking Mr. Comey to go easy on onetime national security adviser Mike Flynn. The answer is no. The Constitution forbids Congress to criminalize such conduct by a president, and applying existing statutes in such a manner would violate the separation of powers.

The Constitution creates three coequal branches of government, and no branch may exercise its authority in a manner that would negate or fundamentally undercut the power of another. The power to appoint and remove high-level executive-branch officers, such as the FBI director, is a core aspect of the president’s executive authority. It is the principal means by which a president disciplines the exercise of the executive power the Constitution vests in him.

The same is true of Mr. Trump’s request, as purported by Mr. Comey: “I hope you can see your way clear . . . to letting Flynn go.” The FBI director wields core presidential powers when conducting an investigation, and the president is entirely within his rights to inquire about, and to direct, such investigations. The director is free to ignore the president’s inquiries or directions and risk dismissal, or to resign if he believes the president is wrong. Such officials serve at the president’s pleasure and have no right to be free of such dilemmas.

A law criminalizing the president’s removal of an officer for a nefarious motive, or the application of a general law in that way, would be unconstitutional even if the president’s action interferes with a criminal investigation. Such a constraint would subject every exercise of presidential discretion to congressional sanction and judicial review. That would vitiate the executive branch’s coequal status and, when combined with Congress’s impeachment power, establish legislative supremacy—a result the Framers particularly feared.

Mr. Trump’s critics claim that subjecting the president’s actions to scrutiny as potential obstructions of justice is simply a matter of asking judges to do what they do every day in other contexts—determine the purpose or intent behind an action. That is also wrong. The president is not only an individual, but head of the executive branch. Separating his motives between public interests and personal ones—partisan, financial or otherwise—would require the courts to delve into matters that are inherently political. Under Supreme Court precedent stretching back to Marbury v. Madison (1803), the judiciary has no power to do so. And lawmakers enjoy an analogous immunity under the Speech and Debate Clause.

The president’s independence from the other branches does not merely support “energy” in the chief executive, as the Framers intended. It also ensures that he, and he alone, is politically accountable for his subordinates’ conduct. If officials as critical to the executive branch’s core functions as the FBI director could determine whom and how to investigate free from presidential supervision, they would wield the most awesome powers of government with no political accountability. History has demonstrated that even when subject to presidential authority, the FBI director can become a power unto himself—as J. Edgar Hoover was for decades, severely damaging civil liberties.

There are limits to presidential power. The Constitution requires the Senate’s consent for appointment of the highest-level executive-branch officers—a critical check on presidential power. The Supreme Court has upheld statutory limits—although never involving criminal sanction—on the removal of certain kinds of officials. But the decision to fire principal executive-branch officers like the FBI director remains within the president’s discretion. A sitting president can also be subjected to civil lawsuits—but only in a carefully circumscribed fashion, to avoid impeding his ability to discharge the powers of his office.

The ultimate check on presidential power is impeachment. Even though Mr. Trump cannot have violated criminal law in dismissing Mr. Comey, if a majority of representatives believe he acted improperly or corruptly, they are free to impeach him. If two-thirds of senators agree, they can remove him from office. Congress would then be politically accountable for its action. Such is the genius of our Constitution’s checks and balances.

None of this is to suggest the president has absolute immunity from criminal obstruction-of-justice laws. He simply cannot be prosecuted for an otherwise lawful exercise of his constitutional powers. The cases of Richard Nixon and Bill Clinton —the latter impeached, and the former nearly so, for obstruction of justice—have contributed to today’s confusion. These were not criminal charges but articulations of “high crimes and misdemeanors,” the constitutional standard for impeachment.

And in neither case was the accusation based on the president’s exercise of his lawful constitutional powers. If a president authorizes the bribery of a witness to suppress truthful testimony, as Nixon was accused of doing, he can be said to have obstructed justice. Likewise if a president asks a potential witness to commit perjury in a judicial action having nothing to do with the exercise of his office, as Mr. Clinton was accused of doing.

Although neither man could have been prosecuted while in office without his consent, either could have been after leaving office. That’s why President Ford pardoned Nixon—to avoid the spectacle and poisonous political atmosphere of a criminal trial. In Mr. Trump’s case, by contrast, the president exercised the power to fire an executive-branch official whom he may dismiss for any reason, good or bad, or for no reason at all. To construe that as a crime would unravel America’s entire constitutional structure.

Messrs. Rivkin and Casey practice appellate and constitutional law in Washington. They served in the White House Counsel’s office and Justice Department in the Reagan and George H.W. Bush administrations.

Source: https://www.wsj.com/articles/can-a-president-obstruct-justice-1512938781

Mulvaney Can Undo Cordray’s Legacy

When Richard Cordray attempted to install his chief of staff as acting director of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, his evident aim was to buy enough time to cement his legacy—particularly a just-finalized rule that the agency expects will wipe out half or more of the short-term lending industry. On Tuesday a federal judge thwarted Mr. Cordray, holding that President Trump acted within his authority by appointing Mick Mulvaney to moonlight as acting CFPB director while continuing to lead the Office of Management and Budget.

On his first day at the bureau, Mr. Mulvaney put a freeze on new rules and guidance. But that doesn’t solve the problem of the payday-lender rule. Mr. Mulvaney acknowledged that he cannot simply recall rules that have already gone out the door. Repealing a final rule typically requires restarting the rule-making process, which can take years to complete.

But Mr. Mulvaney can stop the payday-lender rule by putting on his OMB hat and invoking the Paperwork Reduction Act of 1980. That law is generally thought of as—actually, strike that. Nobody ever thinks about the Paperwork Reduction Act. It has about as much currency in Washington as the Filled Cheese Act of 1896.

The PRA, which was purportedly strengthened in 1995, was an effort to address a real problem. Federal agencies are eager to impose paperwork burdens on citizens and businesses. It costs an agency almost nothing to impose a new record-keeping requirement or reporting mandate. The expense falls on those required to carry it out.

The obvious solution was to put agencies on a paperwork budget and force them to internalize the costs they foist on the public. To ensure that agencies don’t evade that responsibility, the PRA established robust centralized oversight in the Office of Management and Budget, which is part of the White House. Every “information collection request” issued or imposed by a federal agency must be approved by OMB. That includes government forms as well as requirements that private parties collect information. If OMB disapproves a request, the agency cannot enforce it.

In practice, however, the PRA doesn’t have much effect. Disapprovals from OMB are exceedingly rare. In part, that’s because most agencies are subject to presidential control, rendering the act superfluous—if the White House opposes a regulatory proposal, it can simply instruct the agency to drop or amend it. By the time PRA review rolls around, the White House has already had its say.

Then there are the independent agencies insulated from presidential control, such as the Federal Communications Commission, the Securities and Exchange Commission and most other financial regulators. The PRA empowers them to overrule a disapproval by majority vote. The CFPB was designed to be an independent agency, but unlike the others it has a single director. The PRA limits the ability to overrule to “an independent regulatory agency which is administered by two or more members.” So OMB can disapprove any action by the bureau that imposes unnecessary or excessive paperwork burdens, without fear of being overruled.

Mr. Mulvaney should exercise that power. Every single provision of the short-term lending rule is structured around information collection requests subject to the PRA. The rule’s central requirement is that lenders determine a borrower’s ability to repay by demanding financial information from the borrower, verifying it, and then recording the result of various calculations. Each step is its own paperwork burden.

Whether or not the agency can ultimately justify its regulatory approach—and we have our doubts—it has to do its homework under the PRA. That includes accurately assessing costs, considering the need for and utility of each individual paperwork requirement, balancing the costs and benefits, and minimizing collection burdens. The bureau’s final rule differs substantially from its initial proposal, but the agency made little attempt to account for changes in paperwork burden, as the PRA requires it to do. Nor did it engage with the detailed criticisms of its analysis of the proposal’s costs. The three-page analysis published with the final rule can only be described as Mr. Cordray—perhaps unaware of the bureau’s unique status under the PRA—thumbing his nose at OMB and the White House.

That is reason enough to disapprove the rule and send the CFPB back to the drawing board. It would also signal that the Trump administration actually intends to enforce the PRA—to the point that it will halt a major regulation to ensure compliance. That should prompt other agencies to pay attention to paperwork burdens.

Messrs. Rivkin and Grossman practice appellate and constitutional law in Washington. Mr. Rivkin served at the Justice Department and the White House Counsel’s Office. Mr. Grossman is an adjunct scholar at the Cato Institute.

Source: https://www.wsj.com/articles/mulvaney-can-unravel-cordrays-legacy-1512086936

Begging Your Pardon, Mr. President

The Trump presidency has been consumed by Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s efforts to uncover collusion between the Trump campaign and Moscow. Mr. Mueller reportedly has secured one or more indictments that he will announce Monday. Some Republicans now seek a new special counsel to investigate if the Clinton Campaign “colluded” with Russians to smear Candidate Trump, along with other aspects of the Clintons’ relationship with Russia and Russian nationals. But one special counsel already is one too many.

During the 1980s and ’90s, American politics was repeatedly distorted, and lives devastated, through the appointment of independent counsels under the post-Watergate Ethics in Government Act. These constitutionally anomalous prosecutors were given unlimited time and resources to investigate officials, including President Clinton, and scandals, such as Iran-Contra. Once appointed, almost all independent counsels built little Justice Departments of their own and set out to find something—anything—to prosecute. Hardly anyone lamented the expiration of this pernicious law in 1999.
But special counsels, appointed by the attorney general and in theory subject to Justice Department oversight, haven’t proved any better in practice. Mr. Mueller’s investigation has already morphed into an open-ended inquiry. It is examining issues—like Donald Trump’s private business transactions—that are far removed from the Russian question. It also has expanded its focus beyond the original question of collusion with the Russians to whether anyone involved in the Russia investigation has committed some related offense. That is evident from investigators’ efforts to interview White House aides who were not involved in the 2016 campaign, and from leaks suggesting that Mr. Trump’s firing of FBI Director James Comey might have “obstructed” justice.

That claim is frivolous, and it damages America’s constitutional fabric even to consider it. A president cannot obstruct justice through the exercise of his constitutional and discretionary authority over executive-branch officials like Mr. Comey. If a president can be held to account for “obstruction of justice” by ending an investigation or firing a prosecutor or law-enforcement official—an authority the constitution vests in him as chief executive—then one of the presidency’s most formidable powers is transferred from an elected, accountable official to unelected, unaccountable bureaucrats and judges.

Mr. Mueller’s investigation has been widely interpreted as partisan from the start. Mr. Trump’s opponents instantaneously started talking of impeachment—never mind that a special counsel, unlike an independent counsel, has no authority to release a report to Congress or the public. Mr. Trump’s supporters count the number of Democratic donors on the special-counsel staff. The Mueller investigation is fostering tremendous bitterness among Trump voters, who see it as an effort by Washington mandarins to nullify their votes.

Mr. Trump can end this madness by immediately issuing a blanket presidential pardon to anyone involved in supposed collusion with Russia or Russians during the 2016 presidential campaign, to anyone involved with Russian acquisition of an American uranium company during the Obama administration, and to anyone for any offense that has been investigated by Mr. Mueller’s office. Political weaponization of criminal law should give way to a politically accountable democratic process. Nefarious Russian activities, including possible interference in U.S. elections, can and should be investigated by Congress.

Partisan bitterness will not evaporate if lawmakers take up the investigation. But at least those conducting the inquiry will be legitimate and politically accountable. And the question of whether Russia intervened in the 2016 election, and of whether it made efforts to influence U.S. policy makers in previous administrations, is first and foremost one of policy and national security, not criminal law.

The president himself would be covered by the blanket pardon we recommend, but the pardon power does not extend to impeachment. If Congress finds evidence that he was somehow involved in collusion with Russia, the House can determine whether to begin impeachment proceedings. Congress also is better equipped, as part of its oversight role, to determine whether and how the FBI, Justice Department and intelligence agencies might have been involved in the whole affair, including possible misuse of surveillance and mishandling of criminal investigations.

There is ample precedent for using the presidential pardon authority to address matters of political importance. Certainly it is what the framers expected. As Alexander Hamilton explained in Federalist 69, the pardon power was to “resemble . . . that of the king of Great Britain.” In Federalist 74, he observed that “there are often critical moments, when a well-timed offer of pardon to . . . insurgents or rebels may restore the tranquility of the commonwealth.”

Securing harmony in the body politic was President Washington’s motivation when he offered amnesty to participants in the Whiskey Rebellion in the 1790s, and it was President Lincoln’s motivation when he issued an amnesty during the Civil War for Confederates who would return their allegiance to the Union. Similar reasons motivated President Ford to pardon Richard Nixon, and President Carter when he offered amnesty to Vietnam-era draft evaders.

Lincoln’s proclamation of Dec. 8, 1863, is an excellent model of a broadly drafted and complete amnesty: “I . . . do proclaim, declare and make known to all persons who have directly or by implication participated in the existing rebellion, except as hereinafter excepted, that a full pardon is granted to them . . . upon condition that every such person shall take and subscribe an oath” of loyalty to the U.S. A similar pardon can be issued with respect to the Russian affair, ending the criminal investigations and leaving the business to Congress.

Permitting the criminal law again to become a regular weapon in politics is more destructive of democratic government than ham-handed efforts by a foreign power to embarrass one or more presidential candidates. It is true that Washington’s Augean stables need periodic cleaning, but it is Congress that should wield the shovels.

Messrs. Rivkin and Casey practice appellate and constitutional law in Washington. They served in the White House Counsel’s office and Justice Department in the Reagan and George H.W. Bush administrations.

Source: https://www.wsj.com/articles/begging-your-pardon-mr-president-1509302308

The Iran Deal Violates U.S. Law

Obama let Tehran get into the medical-isotope business, contrary to the intent of Congress.

By David B. Rivkin Jr. and James L. Connaughton

Oct. 12, 2017, in the Wall Street Journal

As President Trump decides whether to certify his predecessor’s nuclear deal with Iran, here’s another wrinkle he should keep in mind: The deal’s implementation violates federal law, namely the American Medical Isotopes Production Act of 2012.

That statute seeks to end the nuclear-proliferation risk associated with foreign production of radioactive substances for medical use using weapons-grade highly enriched uranium. U.S. doctors use a molybdenum isotope, moly-99, in 20 million procedures annually to detect early cancer, heart disease and other lethal illnesses. But the U.S. has no domestic production capability, relying instead on foreign suppliers who obtain the necessary highly enriched uranium from the U.S. government.

In enacting the 2012 law, Congress sought to end exports of highly enriched uranium while ramping up sufficient domestic production of moly-99 to satisfy U.S. needs. Since America uses roughly half of the world’s moly-99, robust U.S. production would cramp the ability of foreign isotope suppliers to control the market and sell their wares globally.

Under the 2012 law, the National Nuclear Security Administration is supposed to implement programs to encourage U.S. entrepreneurs to develop ways of making moly-99 without using highly enriched uranium, with the goal of making enough of it to justify permanently ending U.S. exports of highly enriched uranium. The Obama administration conspicuously failed to fulfill the law’s requirements. Moly-99 is not being produced in the U.S. and the U.S. government continues to export weapons-grade uranium overseas.

The Iran deal makes matters worse. It specifically permits Tehran an unlimited right to generate highly enriched uranium for use in medical isotope production. Iran is free to join with other producers to control supply and price. Earlier this year Ali Akbar Salehi, Iran’s former lead nuclear negotiator and now head of the Atomic Energy Organization of Iran, declared Iran’s intention to become a major supplier of medical isotopes. Most significantly, the Iran deal’s Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action commits the U.S. and other parties to assist Iranian medical isotope development with technology transfer, project finance, export credits and other forms of investment. The European Union has established a joint nuclear cooperation working group with Iran.

The U.S. cannot in good faith implement these obligations without evading its obligation under the American Medical Isotopes Production Act to curtail such foreign medical isotope production. Under U.S. law, there is no question which obligation prevails. The Obama administration, knowing the Senate would never ratify the JCPOA as a treaty, made it an “executive agreement” instead. Such agreements can have the force of law, but under our Constitution the president cannot unilaterally repeal a statute. It’s another reason the administration should declare the Iran deal null and void.

Mr. Rivkin, a Washington-based constitutional lawyer, served at the Justice Department and White House Counsel’s Office in the Reagan and George H.W. Bush administrations. Mr. Connaughton served as chairman of the White House Council on Environmental Quality, 2001-09.

Source: https://www.wsj.com/articles/the-iran-deal-violates-u-s-law-1507847288

The Justices Lay Down the Law

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

June 27, 2017, in the Wall Street Journal

In one of the last decisions of its term, the U.S. Supreme Court dealt a clear rebuke to politicized lower courts. The justices’ unanimous ruling in Trump v. International Refugee Assistance Project upholds both the integrity of the judiciary and the Supreme Court’s own authority.

The case came to the justices from two federal appellate courts. They had upheld trial judges’ orders halting enforcement of President Trump’s “travel ban” executive order, which temporarily limits entry to the U.S. by nationals from six countries. The court will hear the appeal on the merits in October. On Tuesday it held unanimously that the executive order can be immediately enforced, with narrow exceptions, until they address the merits of these cases in the fall.

The challenges to the order claimed it violated the First Amendment’s protection of religious freedom and exceeded the president’s authority under immigration law. Both the substance and tone of these decisions created an unmistakable impression that a portion of the judiciary has joined the anti-Trump “resistance.” Not only did the lower-court judges defy clear and binding Supreme Court precedent, they based much of their legal analysis, incredibly, on Candidate Trump’s campaign rhetoric.

The high court didn’t rule entirely in the administration’s favor. By a 6-3 vote, with Justices Clarence Thomas, Samuel Alito and Neil Gorsuch dissenting, it held that the individuals who originally challenged the order could continue to do so, as could a carefully defined class of “similarly situated” persons with “close familial” relationships to individuals in the United States, along with institutions that can show a “formal, documented, and formed in the ordinary course” relationship to a U.S. entity.

That, the court specifically cautioned, is not an invitation for evasion by immigration advocates: “For example, a nonprofit group devoted to immigration issues may not contact foreign nationals from the designated countries, add them to client lists, and then secure their entry by claiming injury from their exclusion.”

That exception, Justice Thomas noted for the dissenters, was a “compromise”—most likely the product of Chief Justice John Roberts’s effort to achieve a unanimous decision. Given the circumstances, this was a good outcome. It lends the imprimatur of the full court to the rebuke of the lower courts, and avoids the kind of partisan split that prevailed in both the Fourth and Ninth Circuit Courts of Appeals. All nine justices are also now on record supporting the proposition that the vast majority of foreign nationals cannot claim a constitutional right to enter the United States.

When the court reviews the merits of the case in the fall, however, such considerations will be out of place. While courts can adjudicate cases involving immigration and other foreign affairs issues, judicial engagement in this space is fundamentally different than in domestic affairs. In an area of decision-making that involves both institutional knowledge of international affairs and continuous access to classified information, great deference is in order from the courts. If the courts wade into this area, they would undermine both national security and respect for the judiciary. The perception that judging is swayed by political or ideological considerations would be particularly calamitous in this area. Better a 5-4 decision articulating this view clearly than a unanimous but equivocal one.

The odds of a clear outcome are good. As Justice Thomas pointed out, his colleagues’ “implicit conclusion” is that the administration is likely to prevail on the merits. The high court’s own precedent in this area is clear. Nonresident aliens have no constitutional right to enter the U.S. When denying entry, the president need only provide a “facially legitimate and bona fide” justification. As the court held in Kleindienst v. Mandel (1972), once that justification is established, there is no further inquiry or balancing for the courts to make.

Any other decision would be both inconsistent with the court’s precedent and injurious to the Constitution’s separation of powers. It would also compromise the president’s ability to defend the nation at home and abroad and cause grave harm to the judicial branch in maintaining its own critical constitutional role.

Messrs. Rivkin and Casey practice appellate and constitutional law in Washington.

Source: https://www.wsj.com/articles/the-justices-lay-down-the-law-1498604382

In Texas, judges waive bail for the indigent, distorting the Constitution

by DAVID B. RIVKIN JR. & LEE A. CASEY

May 31, 2017, in the National Review

The Constitution protects arrestees against “excessive bail.” This guarantee, however, has never been understood to provide indigents the right to a zero-dollar bail simply because they cannot afford more. That, however, is the clear import of in ODonnell v. Harris County, a recent decision by a federal district court in Houston. Unless reversed on appeal, such a rule would require the release of any arrestee, irrespective of the seriousness of the charges being brought, who claims that he or she cannot afford bail — even if the arrestee has a history of failing to appear for trial. This would have wide-ranging implications for how the balance is struck between the rights of criminal defendants and society at large. And policy consequences aside, another judge-engineered right would enter the Constitution’s firmament.

The ODonnell case is part of a recent wave of lawsuits asking unelected federal judges to require the release of arrestees without any bail if they cannot afford it, regardless of what the Constitution says or what such a sweeping abolition of money-bail requirements might portend. Indeed, for many individuals who are accused of a crime, facing months or years in jail, the temptation is great to skip court and avoid justice, and money bail can be a powerful incentive to check this temptation.

When judges set bail, they may obviously consider an arrestee’s ability to pay. But the Constitution does not require this to be the only factor. In fact, Texas law requires judges to consider not only an arrestee’s ability to pay but also their flight risk, criminal history, and danger to the community. Indigent arrestees who present little flight risk are frequently released without posting money bail. But public safety is not served by releasing, with no financial constraint, arrestees with long rap sheets and rich histories of failing to appear in court — which is what the Houston court’s decision arguably now requires.

Certainly the Constitution does not require the indiscriminate release of any arrestee, even for comparatively minor charges, on his or her own terms. The Eighth Amendment expressly protects arrestees from “excessive bail,” but federal courts have repeatedly and squarely held, in the words of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit — which has jurisdiction over the federal courts in Texas — that bail “is not constitutionally excessive merely because a defendant is financially unable to satisfy the requirement.”

Because they cannot prevail under the Eighth Amendment’s specific protection against excessive bail, the plaintiffs in ODonnell attempted to find a right to affordable bail in the Fourteenth Amendment’s more general “equal protection” and “due process” guarantees. But the Supreme Court has held that courts cannot sidestep an enumerated constitutional limitation on government power (here, the Eighth Amendment’s protection against “excessive bail”) by discovering an even more robust limitation on that power in the vaguer language of the Fourteenth Amendment. Otherwise, litigants could do just what the plaintiffs seek to do in the bail cases: Replace the Constitution’s standard for excessive bail with their own preferred standard.

This is not the only problem with the plaintiffs’ argument. Their claim boils down to the idea that facially neutral bail systems have a disparate impact on indigents, but the Supreme Court held in Washington v. Davis (1976) that disparate-impact claims are not cognizable under the Fourteenth Amendment, as opposed to certain federal statutes that allow for such claims. Indeed, every law, at some level, has a disparate impact. In fact, in attempting to eliminate an alleged disparate impact on the indigent, the Houston court’s order creates express discrimination: Those who claim they are indigent may be released without providing any sureties, while those who are not indigent may be required to provide secured money bail or sit in jail. The Supreme Court has rejected such invidious reverse discrimination. And in ordering Houston to release prisoners, the district court also ignored the Supreme Court’s admonition that federal courts cannot use civil-rights lawsuits to order the release of arrestees.

The plaintiffs’ case rests largely on the policy argument, set forth by a few academics, that arrestees who are held in jail because they cannot make bail are more likely to plead guilty or commit crimes than those who are released on bail. But a recent study in Dallas found that failure-to-appear rates are, indeed, lower among misdemeanor arrestees released on secured bail those of arrestees released without a secured money requirement. This study confirms the elementary notion, obvious to anyone who has taken out a secured loan, that people are more likely to make good on a promise if they commit to forfeit something of value in the event that they renege.

More important, if opponents of money bail object to the time-tested bail system on policy grounds, or because of the latest academic study, they are free to try to convince their neighbors to abandon money bail by democratic choice, at the ballot box. The courts simply are not the correct forum to effect such changes.

— David B. Rivkin Jr. and Lee A. Casey practice constitutional and appellate law in Washington, D.C.

Source: http://www.nationalreview.com/article/448115/odonnell-v-harris-county-excessive-bail-constitution-distorted