Is Sensenbrenner in Denial, Lying or Simply Ignorant of the Patriot Act?
On Friday, I got the following newsletter emailed to me from Jim Sensenbrenner about the Patriot Act Extension:
On the President’s desk waiting for his signature is my bill extending the PATRIOT Act for 90 days. Both the House and Senate passed this bill in the last week. While I’m glad these provisions were extended, as they keep important intelligence-gathering provisions in place, I wish the Senate would have passed the original House bill, as that bill extended the Act until December 8.
Repeatedly extending these provisions for the short-term creates needless uncertainty for our intelligence agencies.
Extension after extension, year after year, challenge after challenge, these three provisions continue to pass the smell test. These provisions help law enforcement in three ways: they grant authority for court approved roving wiretaps on terror suspects as they change phones or locations; they allow the court approved examination of a terror suspects business records; and finally, the "lone wolf provision" allows the surveillance of suspicious foreigners (not Americans).
Since the PATRIOT Act was enacted, these provisions have been scrutinized to the fullest extent of the law and have always been found constitutional. Additionally, no civil liberties have ever been violated. These three provisions have stopped countless potential attacks and play a critical role in helping ensure law enforcement officials have the tools they need to keep our country safe and stop terrorist groups before they attack.
This has been a pretty consistent theme by Sensenbrenner. Every time the Patriot Act is up for renewal, Sensenbrenner always claims that civil liberties are never violated, and that it's never been found unconstitutional. However, both of these claims are outright false, which leads me to wonder why he continues to make them.
What is most interesting is that there is decent in his own party regarding the Patriot Act. Sensenbrenner actually sponsored a bill which would "fast track" the extension through the House, and would have required a 2/3 majority to pass. As it turns out, many members of his own party, mostly Tea Party Republicans, voted against this fast tracking, and it failed. It wasn't until several days later, with the much shorter extension that only required a simple majority, that it finally passed. Rand Paul spoke very well against the Patriot Act in the Senate:
When the bill did come up for re-authorization, Democrats offered their own amendments, one of which stated:
No Constitutional shortcuts. When investigating American citizens, the government must comply with the Constitution, even in national security investigations
Challenging unconstitutional action. If a citizen challenges the government's use of PATRIOT Act power in a court of law, the case must be expedited to ensure the individual's rights are upheld.
While many would say this was simply a stunt (like reading the Constitution in the House chambers, or requiring that bills say which part of the Constitution authorizes it)... it does beg the question... if the Patriot Act is so wonderfully Constitutional, then what would be so controversial of adding these a provisions to the bill? But I digress...
What of Sensenbrenner's claim that the act is in fact Constitutional and has passed judicial review time and time again? Once again, this is false. One of the more controversial aspects of the Patriot Act was the portion which expanded the ability of the FBI to create National Security Letters... which is essentially a warrantless search where they cross their heart and hope to die that they have good reason to do it. Many portions of this have been ruled either ruled unconstitutional or have had injunctions filed against it and are in serious trouble. In Doe v. Holder, the potions of the statute that required insane gag orders on NSL recipients was ruled unconstitutional. A similar gag order on Libraries regarding NSL's was also ruled unconstitutional in Library Connection v. Gonzales. Similar gag orders with regard to NSL's have been ruled unconstitutional against Internet Service Providers.
But gag orders on National Security Letters is only the tip of the ice berg. Sensenbrenner's claim that civil liberties were never violated is likewise false. The Inspector General's Office has audited the FBI's use of various Patriot Act provisions and found widespread abuse:
The Justice Department Inspector General's internal audit, released Wednesday, harshly criticized how the Federal Bureau of Investigation's Communications Analysis Unit - a counterterrorism section founded after 9/11 — relied on so-called "exigent" letters to get carriers to turn over phone records immediately. The letters were a hangover from the investigation into the 9/11 attacks in New York and promised telecoms, falsely, that subpoenas would follow shortly.
"We found that a distinct lack of oversight and scrutiny by CAU managers, counterterrorism officials and FBI Office of General Counsel attorneys enabled the improper practice of obtaining ECPA-protected telephone records with the promise of future legal process to expand and proceed virtually unchecked for over 4 years," the report found.
The reality is that contrary to Sensenbrenner's final claim that "countless attacks" have been stopped by these provisions, most of the NSL's are actually used in non-terrorism related cases. And we have no knowledge how many plots have been foiled, if any, by these provisions.
Finally, these provisions do not pass the smell test. They have simply provided the FBI with shortcuts on basic 4th Amendment protections that we should all enjoy. Moreover, they were created in such away that many people may never know if their rights were in fact violated.
The Patriot Act has never protected civil liberties, and is certainly not Constitutional, and don't let Jim Sensenbrenner tell you otherwise.
Do We Have a Right to Free Movement?
For those who have been following me on Twitter, you know that I think the Transportation Security Administration is a complete waste. They are ineffective agency, who is abusing their power, and not only violating our dignity, but our Constitutional Rights. In fact, I am so upset by what they do, and how they do it, that I can't say I even respect anyone who works for the agency. If you choose to work there knowing what they do to people, then you deserve all the derision that travelers dump on you daily. There are actually people who suggest that we "thank" members of the TSA for groping us and taking pictures of our naked bodies. I suppose they also "thank" employees of the IRS for auditing them too.
There has been a lot of commentary regarding the TSA and their ineffective and unwarranted searches of people in a lot of places. Certainly Bruce Schneier and his roundup is well worth a read, not only for commentary, but also great explanations of why everything the TSA is completely worthless. More importantly is this great analysis of why the current search regime is unconstitutional. Many of those who argue for the TSA claim that "flying is a privilege", and therefore, if you don't like the searches, you just shouldn't fly. The problem with this theory is that the government is ensuring that no matter how you choose to travel, you must either be licensed, or you must submit to a search.
One could argue that if you don't want to be searched, then you can take a bus or a train. But as this video demonstrates, the TSA is now beginning to do searches at intermodal stations that serve intra-city buses and trains (video via The Agitator):
One important thing to note about this report is that they are doing more than simply searching for explosives, or other devices that could cause harm to people on the bus or the train. They said they were searching for people carrying unusual amounts of cash, or other contraband as well as checking identification to ensure you are legally in this country (papers please). In other words, they are using the fear of terrorism to get around the basic 4th Amendment protections against illegal search and seizure. They don't want to bother with probable cause, and instead just want to search everyone and see who is breaking the law. This is precisely what the 4th Amendment was designed to prevent.
I'm sure there are then people who would argue that traveling on a bus or train is a privilege, and not a right, and that you should simply drive. The problem with this is that in order to drive, you must be licensed by the government to do so. Even if you are licensed by the government to travel, you might still be searched by the TSA according to this news report:
Local law enforcement and federal agents conducted a checkpoint operation Tuesday afternoon in Douglas County, the Federal Air Marshal Service told the AJC.
"This is a live operation intent on deterring would-be terrorists or criminal activity," Nelson Minerly, spokesman for the federal agency, told the AJC.
The operation created a big distraction to motorists heading eastbound on I-20 in rush hour, and many motorists let the AJC and the WSB traffic center hear about it.
But the operation, which also involves the Transportation Security Administration, is top-secret before it happens, Minerly said.
"We don’t advertise when they're going to happen or when they're going to be," Minerly said.
Mostly trucks were being checked, Minerly said. Shortly before 6 p.m., nothing had been recovered in the operation, he said.
"There's no specific threat," Jon Allen, regional spokesman for the TSA, told the AJC.
It's a little unclear whether any passenger vehicles were also checked, but note that they were looking for terrorists or criminal activity. This is certainly a violation of the 4th Amendment, and as The Agitator points out, has already been ruled unconstitutional under Indianapolis v. Edmond, not that this stops the federal government. This is no longer about protecting us from terrorism. This is about a naked power grab, and how the government wants to simply search everyone, at any time, for any reason.
The question that I pose in the title of this post, "Do we have a right to free movement?", is an important one. If we believe that free movement is a constitutionally protected right, then the government cannot demand that we give up other constitutional rights in order to exercise it. For instance, you cannot be forced to give up your right to free speech in order to exercise your right to vote. All rights sit on equal footing, and you don't have to be forced to choose among them. Moreover, the government cannot place an undue burden on citizens who try to exercise that right. By forcing citizens to submit to searches no matter what mode of travel they choose, the government is essentially forcing those who wish to be free of unreasonable search and seizure to hike long distances by foot.
The Future is So Dark, My Car's Gotta Have Shades
California is going broke, and will soon be sending out IOU's instead of checks. At the same time, auto sales are dismal, and car manufacturers could use all the help they can get to keep prices down... so what does California decide to do with its spare time? They passed this:
California has become the first state to require that all new cars sold after 2012 have windshields that block the sun to cool vehicles, increase fuel efficiency and cut greenhouse gases.
The regulation, approved yesterday by the state Air Resources Control Board, says that automakers must prevent 45% of the sun's total heat-producing energy from entering the car, and that the glass must block at least half that energy, the San Francisco Chronicle reports.
The requirement rises to 60% in 2016, though car makers can use alternate methods to achieve that mark.
Basically, California just mandated that all cars wear sun glasses... because they want their cars to be the hippest... or coolest if you prefer... in the country. Words fail me sometimes.
Stopping Real ID in Wisconsin
A little birdie has told me that State Representative Molepske (D) is passing a round a bill (1478) looking for co-sponsors. It is entitled "Restrictions and Limitations on Implementation of the Federal REAL ID Act". There are already 11 states which have passed laws barring implementation of Real ID in their respective states, and at least 20 others with legislation pending on the matter.
If enough states rise up and resist the Federal Government's unconstitutional push into a matter which is clearly a state matter, then its quite possible they will decide to repeal the act, rather than risk losing in a court battle and setting a precedent.
Call your state representative and tell them to get on board. For a summary on why Real ID will make us less secure from terrorists and identity thieves, please check out this earlier post, as well as this excellent article from security expert Bruce Schneier.
Jay Bullock Democratic Party Renouncement Watch
Perhaps you recall when Jay, of Folkbum's Rambles & Rants, declared that he would renounce the Democratic party and move to Mexico if the fairness doctrine was introduced:
Nick, if Chuck Schumer introduces a fairness doctrine bill, I will renounce the party and move to Mexico. FOX News bullied him into his comments, and he has--how to put it delicately--zero pull with the Obama administration even if he wanted to change the law.
A couple of months ago, we already had one member of Congress, an Anna Eshoo, say that she was interested in bringing it back, which I blogged about at the time. Now we have a Senate Democrat, Debbie Stabenow, talking very seriously about it as well:
Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-MI) told nationally syndicated talk host Bill Press this morning that the recent flips of liberal Talk stations in several markets were a "disservice to the public."
Stabenow said that, in the day of the Fairness Doctrine, "you had to have balance," and continued, "I think something that requires that in a market with owners that have multiple stations that they have got to have balance -- there has to be some community interest -- balance, you know, standard that says both sides have to be heard."
Stabenow told Press that the airwaves are "dominated by one view" that "overwhelms people's opinions -- and, unfortunately, incorrectly," and said that "right-wing conservative talk hosts" are "trying to make people angry and saying all kinds of things that aren't true and so on."
When Press asked if it is time to bring back the Fairness Doctrine, Stabenow responded, "I think it's absolutely time to pass a standard." To Press' inquiry as to whether she will push for hearings in the Seante "to bring these owners in and hold them accountable," Stabenow replied, "I have already had some discussions with colleagues, and, you know, I feel like that's going to happen. Yep."
Thanks to the ever insightful wheel chair bound blogger for the link. Looks like Jay is one step closer to learning what it's like to only drink bottled water. It's not that bad though... Ally and I loved Playa del Carmen.
Scrapping the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act
My friend John Washburn says that if you want to know what a law does, simply look at it's title, and it will do the opposite. Some good examples are the fact that "No Child Left Behind" leaves behind children, and that the "Help America Vote Act" makes it harder for people to vote. Add to the growing list is the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act which really doesn't make products any safer, but does put small businesses out of business, and now could jeopardize the secondhand clothing and toy industry. Joey, at Pheisty Blog, was on a great roll a couple weeks ago when she posted about one particular aspect of this law:
Congress, in its impeccable wisdom, effectively voted last year to shut down the children’s resale clothing business via the “Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act of 2008.” Not a soul in the House dared to vote against “children’s safety,” proving many in the Congressional cesspool of counter-productivity neglect to read legislation before voting. (I’ll cut a break for the 25 who abstained, as they potentially didn’t vote because they hadn’t an opportunity to read the bill.)
The act requires lead testing of all products sold for children aged twelve and under, including but not limited to clothing and toys, regardless of the date of manufacturing and the high improbability of lead in the clothing, particularly that manufactured domestically. Goodwill, other thrift stores, and one-person shops reselling new and used children’s clothing, making a couple dollars per item, would have to forgo a year’s worth of profit to fund third-party testing services, essentially putting most out of business. Further, as I understand it, the testing requires the destruction of an individual unit out of a batch, and would therefore not work for unique items.
Taking effect February 10, 2009, this ex post facto regulatory taking comes precisely at a time when lower-income and newly unemployed parents most need inexpensive children’s clothing and the dollars they receive from selling or consigning their children’s briefly used items.
While clothing is one of the few areas in which the market demands recycling, stores with existing, untested merchandise will have to opt for sending truckloads of perfectly good clothes to the landfill. And parents who purchased that expensive special occasion dress with plans to resell it after one wear are simply out the money. Not even Goodwill can take it now.
Joey then got an update via Herb Kohl stating that the Consumer Product Safety Commission has "clarified" the law and said that secondhand goods are exempt. What is unclear from that letter is whether the law actually makes them exempt, or whether the CPSC is simply going to refrain from going after second hand stores. If it's the latter, then the CPSC could simply change their mind at any time, which is clearly unacceptable. However, just because they are exempt from testing, doesn't leave them out of the woods:
Could it get worse? Yes, it could. Contrary to some reports, thrift and secondhand stores are not exempt from the law. Although (unlike creators of new goods) they aren't obliged to test the items they stock, they are exposed to liability and fines if any goods on their shelves (or a component button, bolt, binding, etc.) are found to test above the (very low) thresholds being phased in.
Nor does it get them off the hook to say an older product's noncompliance with the new standards wasn't something they knew or should have known about (let alone to say anyone was harmed; the whole controversy from start to finish has gone on with precious little showing of real-world harm to American kids from most of the goods being banned).
Thrift store managers, often volunteers themselves, have no way to guess whether every grommet or zipper on a kids' jacket or ink on an old jigsaw puzzle box or some plastic component of Mom's old roller skates would pass muster.
"The reality is that all this stuff will be dumped in the landfill," predicted Adele Meyer, executive director of the National Association of Resale and Thrift Shops. Among the biggest losers if that happens: poorer parents who might start having to buy kids' winter coats new at $30 rather than used at $5 or $10.
So while many small toy manufacturers in the U.S. will likely go out of business because they can't afford the new, very expensive, testing in a relatively low margin marketplace, secondhand sellers may go out of business, or simply trash plenty of perfectly good products because they can't afford the liability. All this makes it harsh on many people, as the economy worsens, because people depend on second hand goods to make ends meat... not only to buy when they can't afford new, but also to sell what they no longer need.
It should be noted that every Representative and Senator from Wisconsin voted Yes for this bill. In fact, the only Nay in the House came from Ron Paul.
What Part of Free Speech Do You Not Understand?
I'm sure if you looked through the records of most state legislatures, and even GovTrack for Congress, you'd probably find a bill like this most every year... they just don't usually get far enough to make the news. Yet I'm still always amazed at the complete idiocy... stupidity... @#$*&^#!! of some people in our government. Free speech means just that... even in South Carolina. Suck it up fuckers.
Be it enacted by the General Assembly of the State of South Carolina:
SECTION 1. Article 3, Chapter 15, Title 16 of the 1976 Code is amended by adding:
"Section 16-15-370. (A) It is unlawful for a person in a public forum or place of public accommodation wilfully and knowingly to publish orally or in writing, exhibit, or otherwise make available material containing words, language, or actions of a profane, vulgar, lewd, lascivious, or indecent nature.
(B) A person who violates the provisions of this section is guilty of a felony and, upon conviction, must be fined not more than five thousand dollars or imprisoned not more than five years, or both."
This hasn't passed yet, and hopefully it never will. Via Slashdot.
The Year in Review - Banned in America
So as the end of the year approaches, it's not uncommon for folks, even aspiring political pundits like me, to look back on the year, and try to tie up some loose ends and pull together some memorable moments. But 2008 was such a great year, that I think it justifies having more than just one Year in Review post. So I'm going to be reviewing the year from all sorts of perspectives, and am going to start out by reviewing this year in bans... with the help of Reason TV.
I Won't Make Jay Renounce the Democratic Party, But...
Yet another Democratic member of Congress is calling for the return of the Fairness Doctrine:
Congresswoman Anna Eshoo, D-Palo Alto, said Monday she will work to restore the Fairness Doctrine and have it apply to cable and satellite programming as well as radio and TV.
"I'll work on bringing it back. I still believe in it," Eshoo told the Daily Post in Palo Alto.
The Fairness Doctrine required TV and radio stations to balance opposing points of view. It meant that those who disagreed with the political slant of a commentator were entitled to free air time to give contrasting points of view, usually in the same time slot as the original broadcast.
The doctrine was repealed by the Reagan administration's Federal Communications Commission in 1987, and a year later, Rush Limbaugh's show went national, ushering in a new form of AM radio.
Eshoo said she would recommend the doctrine be applied not only to radio and TV broadcasts, but also to cable and satellite services.
"It should and will affect everyone," she said.
So now it's not just about bringing fairness to the supposed "public airwaves", but to the private ones as well. Jay Bullock as you might recall, blogged not all that long ago about how Republicans are in a panic over this for no good reason. When some bloggers, including myself, mentioned how Chuck Schumer talked about bringing it back, Jay said:
Nick, if Chuck Schumer introduces a fairness doctrine bill, I will renounce the party and move to Mexico. FOX News bullied him into his comments, and he has--how to put it delicately--zero pull with the Obama administration even if he wanted to change the law.
In all fairness to Jay, Chuck still hasn't introduced the bill, and there is no evidence that Congresswoman Eshoo has any more pull with the Obama administration than Schumer does, so I won't make him renounce his party (but he's free to do so anyway if he'd like). But let's not pretend that there aren't plenty of people in Washington who would like to see this happen in one form or another, or wouldn't like to use the threat of the fairness doctrine to bully broadcast media into other concessions.
Who Should Be Allowed To Limit The Power to Petition?
South Milwaukee, in order to distance itself from it's neighbor to the north, has passed a new ordinance:
The South Milwaukee Common Council Tuesday passed an ordinance preventing the city from ordering private businesses to give employees certain pay or benefits.
The action came after City of Milwaukee voters passed a referendum Nov. 4 requiring private employers to provide employees with paid sick days. Under the new ordinance, such a referendum will be impossible in South Milwaukee.
Don't get me wrong, I think the sick pay ordinance is a bad, bad, very bad idea. But something about what South Milwaukee did seems wrong to me. This ordinance, passed by the Common Council, bars the people as a whole from petitioning their government en masse. That seems backwards to me. A small set of elected representatives shouldn't be able to limit the power of the majority (who elected them) to act by referrendum like that. Only the opposite should be possible.
In other words, the people as a whole ought to be able to limit the power of their representatives to act, but the elected representatives shouldn't be allowed to limit the ways that the people can petition them.
Does anyone know... since the direct legislation statute used to pass the Milwaukee sick pay ordinance is actually a state law, can the common council of a city overrule it's use?
Dick Cheney Is Right and Wrong All At Once
Now that Bush and Cheney are both officially lame ducks, its now possible for them to go around the interview circuit and talk more candidly about their administration, and what they think the future holds. In Bush's case, he's actully been fairly open to the idea that he was not right about a lot of things, even though he exuded complete certainty. This of course bothers may Republicans. Yesterday, Dick Cheney had an interview with Rush Limbaugh, where among other things, he talked about what Obama may or may not do:
"My guess is, once they get here and they're faced with the same problems we deal with every day, that they will appreciate some of the things we've put in place," Cheney says, according to a White House transcript. "We did not exceed our constitutional authority, as some have suggested, but we -- the president believes, I believe very deeply, in a strong executive, and I think that's essential in this day and age. And I think the Obama administration is not likely to cede that authority back to the Congress. I think they'll find that given a challenge they face, they'll need all the authority they can muster."
I think that Cheney is correct in saying that the Obama Administration will not give back any power that Bush stole for the White House. Presidents never give back power. In fact, Obama's vote on the FISA act several months ago. He had a good sense he would win the Presidency, and so he wanted to make sure he had every power available, even though many Democrats decried the whole thing. Many of the other campaign promises that Obama made are also being scaled back right now, before he's even taken office. His promises on withdrawing from Iraq are quickly morphing to sound more like McCain's, as well as some of his tax promises. So I have no doubt in my mind, that Obama will hold tight to everything Bush took.
Where Cheney is absolutely wrong, is in his statement that everything they did was with Constitutional bounds. You can believe in a strong executive all you want, but the reality is that our Consitution does not allow for the type of strong executive that Bush made himself into (with the help of many Presidents along the way). And for him to say "cede authority back to Congress" would imply that there was authority taken from Congress... something which the Constitution hardly allows for.
Who Needs a Speedy Trial Anyway?
New Hampshire has officially gone off the deep end, and has decided to "save money" by suspending jury trials for a month... seriously:
The Superior Court system in New Hampshire will take the unusual step of halting jury trials for a month early next year because of a widening state budget crisis.
John Broderick, the state’s chief justice, said suspending trials was essential to avoid layoffs in the judicial system, which has already cut $2.7 million from its budget.
The measure will save about $73,000, the monthly amount spent on stipends for jurors. But the head of an association representing civil trial lawyers said it could have a harsh impact on plaintiffs, many of whom have already waited years for a judgment in their case.
The clerks of court in New Hampshire’s largest counties, Hillsborough and Rockingham, said they were rescheduling 179 criminal and civil trials planned for February or March.
And will all those people sitting in jail waiting for their cases to be heard be let free on their own recognizance? Of course not. But hey, its not like you have a right to a speedy trial or anything... oh wait... you do!
In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury of the State and district where in the crime shall have been committed, which district shall have been previously ascertained by law, and to be informed of the nature and cause of the accusation; to be confronted with the witnesses against him; to have compulsory process for obtaining witnesses in his favor, and to have the Assistance of Counsel for his defense.
Of course, the state of New Hampshire spends money from the taxpayer doing literally thousands of things that are not necessary for the state to do. But when it comes to cutting services, instead of getting rid of school lunches, or any one of a thousand things that are not constitutionally guaranteed or necessary, they decide to suspend the right to a jury trial. That is outrageous!
Trial by jury is one of the functions that everyone agrees should be handled by the state. To hold potentially innocent people for any period longer than required, in limbo, is criminal in and of itself.
Paul Ryan Harms His Own Constituents With the Bailout
Last night, the House voted to pass the bailout bill of the Big 2.5. Essentially what it does is to provde for "bridge loans" to be made available from funds already made available for other purposes. Some of the money will be coming from the $700 billion bailout (which is not being used to buy illiquid assets any more) and some of the money is coming from a bill having to do with alternative energy. It also creates a "car czar" which will supervise the dispersement of the loans, and also make sure that the car companies are restructuring properly. The bill also requires that the "car czar" is to receive warrants to receive nonvoting or preferred stock in any car company which accepts funds. In other words, more partial nationalization. Some would argue that it's not true nationalization because it's non voting stock... but let's be honest here. Even without the warrants, the "car czar" is going to wield enormous influence over these companies in exchange for the money they will receive. We're nationalizing.
Read on to find out how this will actually harm the people that Paul Ryan thinks he's protecting.
Happy Repeal Day!
75 years ago today, the 21st Amendment to the Constitution was ratified, which repealed the 18th Amendment... rolling back the terrible practice of prohibition. In recognition of this, many members of Congress are celebrating repeal day and created this Resolution patting themselves on the back. It reads in part:
Whereas prior to the 18th Amendment to the Constitution, which established Prohibition in the United States, abuses and insufficient regulation resulted in irresponsible overconsumption of alcohol;
Whereas passage of the 18th Amendment, which prohibited 'the manufacture, sale, or transportation of intoxicating liquors' in the United States, resulted in a dramatic increase in illegal activity, including unsafe black market alcohol production, organized crime, and noncompliance with alcohol laws;
Whereas everything mentioned above also applies to our foolish War on DrugsTM. Everything that is said about alcohol prohibition applies to the Drug War. It is dangerous folly, which has cost us trillions of dollars, destroyed many of our rights, makes innocent people subject to brutal police tactics, made drugs more dangerous and created black markets, and has done absolutely nothing to curb their use.
Yet the same people who are celebrating the 21st Amendment with a drink would never consider doing anything to stop the War on DrugsTM. So please, do have a drink tonight, and then think about the costs incurred when we attempt to prohibit something which is at it's core, is a personal vice.
So Much for Ivory Towers
Eminent Domain is one of those things that tend to get me really riled up. One of the most important rights declared in the Constitution is that you shall not be deprived of life, liberty or property without due process of law. Included in that 5th Amendment guarantee is that private property shall not be taken for public use without just compensation. The process of Eminent Domain is where this private property is taken, for supposedly public uses. However, over the years, the definition of "public use" has become distorted so much as to have no meaning whatsoever.
One of the most egregious abuses of this power is currently occurring in New York, by Columbia University. Columbia University, a bastion of liberal ethics and ivory tower justice, would like to expand it's campus. However, instead of buying that land from it's neighbors for market value, Columbia would rather the State of New York take the land, and then give it to Columbia through Eminent Domain. While the owners would be compensated somewhat, the process of Eminent Domain itself lowers land value (since private owners are unwilling to buy land that will be taken anyway), and so just compensation never actually occurs through Eminent Domain. The result? Columbia University would get the new land for a bargain, whether the current owners want to sell to them or not.
Unfortunately for Columbia, in order for any of this to occur, the neighborhood has to first be declared "blighted". Even more of a problem for Columbia University is that the neighborhood was actually in very good condition. I say was because over time, Columbia has slowly been buying up some of the land that it could, so that it could keep the properties vacant, and in disrepair. The sole reason for doing so, it would seem, is to artificially create the blight that it needs to get the rest of the land through Eminent Domain:
Nick Sprayregen stands on the corner of 130th and Broadway pointing out the disarray. What was once a neighborhood gas station is now abandoned, its yard closed off by a chain-link fence topped with a spiral of razor wire. Inside the fence, debris is casually strewn about. Outside, the sidewalk is littered with broken glass. A derelict shopping cart is propped against the building, which itself is marked with stray graffiti. An electrical box on the side of the building has been pried open. Some of the wiring has been ripped out; what remains is exposed to the elements. This rundown property is owned by Columbia University. In fact, the Ivy League school owns 70 percent of the surrounding area--known as Manhattanville--much of which is in similarly dilapidated condition.
It wasn't always this way. Manhattanville was never trendy, but it was once an active neighborhood full of light industry--auto shops, warehouses, and the like. But as Columbia began buying up the neighborhood, businesses left. Eighteen buildings in Manhattanville are now at least 50 percent vacant; Columbia owns 17 of them and they were nearly all fully occupied before Columbia acquired them. As a study put together by Sprayregen's lawyer explains, "Each became vacant only after, or immediately prior to Columbia's acquisition or assumption of control." And the university's actions seem designed to keep them vacant.
The building at 3251 Broadway, for example, was home to six auto repair businesses, an auto parts store, a woodwork restoration business, and a travel agency before Columbia acquired it. In 2005, Columbia refused to renew leases on the upper floors, citing a dangerous elevator. The university then erected sidewalk sheds in front of the building, hiding the ground-floor storefronts, claiming that there was a problem with the building's façade. But they have never initiated any repairs. The businesses emptied out of 3251 Broadway, and today the building stands vacant except for a small auto parts store on the ground floor. The unsightly sidewalk sheds still hulk over the front doors. Many of the buildings Columbia owns in Manhattanville have "For Rent" signs. Yet as Sprayregen's lawyer notes, "Calls to numbers listed on signs on Columbia-owned buildings advertising space for rent could never reach a live person and messages were never returned."
Quite the racket if you ask me. First Columbia buys up some land and keeps it in poor condition, then uses it's poor building management as a reason to be given more land. When did we decide that slum lords should be rewarded? You can read more about this in a separate article in the Wall Street Journal as well. Via Reason.
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