The Demise of the Bulk Collection of Data

fbi_wiretapRarely do I heap any praise on a politician. I always keep a skeptical eye toward them and am not afraid to call them out when necessary. But today, that praise is necessary. Senator Rand Paul of Kentucky (and also a 2016 presidential candidate) was a wrecking ball in the past couple of weeks when it came to allowing certain provisions in the Patriot Act to expire.

The Patriot Act was passed by Congress out of fear in the days after the 9/11 attacks. The way it had been interpreted by the National Security Agency (NSA) was that it legally allowed them to spy on everyday Americans. Most of the time it was without a warrant, but if one was needed, it had created a secret FISA court that basically granted one each time (only 11 times was one rejected) as it only heard the government’s side.

Section 215 of the Patriot Act authorizes the government to collect “any tangible things” that the government proves are “relevant to” an investigation into suspected terrorists.

A lot of what the NSA was doing was brought to light when Edward Snowden blew the whistle about the operation. I don’t consider Snowden to be a patriot or a traitor. I consider him to be an American who saw the federal government overstepping its authority and letting the public know what was happening.

So if the law states the government can collect the data then what’s the problem? The problem is that it violates your right to privacy which is guaranteed under the Constitution. Law enforcement must request a specific warrant, not a blanket warrant that encompasses everyone, from an actual court… not some secret court that the public knows nothing about nor has any defense in. If Congress really wants to do this then they need to go about the proper way of amending the Constitution to allow it.

Republicans are tearing him apart for allowing the Patriot Act to expire. Senator John McCain (R-AZ) has gone so far as to claim that it was a publicity stunt since Senator Paul is running for president. I can’t say whether that is true or not, but it has been one of his biggest issues since he entered the Senate back in 2011.

Senator Paul may also have something else to back him up. In early May, the Second Circuit Court of Appeals decided that the NSA’s bulk, warrantless collection of Americans’ phone records was illegal though stopping short of deciding its constitutionality. This came almost a year after a lower court ruled the program “almost-Orwellian.”

“Because we find that the program exceeds the scope of what Congress has authorized, we vacate the decision below dismissing the complaint without reaching appellants’ constitutional arguments.”
Judge Gerald Lynch

The public has been undecided on what should be done. On the one hand they don’t want the government overstepping their constitutional authority and violating our right to privacy. However, on the other hand they want to feel protected from terrorists as it was born out of the fear from that. In the past several weeks, national security analysts have been hitting the media airwaves stating that the bulk collection of data has been worthless and has had no result on anything.

So what should be the path forward? In the past month the House of Representatives passed the USA Freedom Act. Is it perfect? No. But that doesn’t mean that it shouldn’t be added to the debate on how we proceed forward. POLITICO posted an article recently that reported how this new piece of legislation would “reform” the Patriot Act.

However Congress chooses to proceed forward in the days and weeks ahead, they should be mindful of our constitutional rights when deciding on national security. Though we take national security very seriously, we will not allow our rights to be disregarded.

“Those who surrender freedom for security will not have, nor do they deserve, either one.”
Benjamin Franklin

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The New Religious Right to Discriminate

There is an old axiom that history repeats itself. Some may dispute this claim, but it is hard to argue with what a person can witness happening right in front of them. One just has to pay attention and know history to know what the outcome of certain things will be.

After the Reconstruction period ended following the Civil War, southern states (the old Confederacy) began enacting Jim Crow laws. These laws mandated that all public facilities be segregated. They were also used in an attempt to keep African-Americans from voting and even to keep interracial marriage illegal.

School segregation was eventually struck down by the Supreme Court in Brown v. Board of Education (1954). The rest of the Jim Crow laws were overruled by the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. However, bans on interracial marriage were not fully struck down until Loving v. Virginia (1967), when the Supreme Court ruled that they violated the Due Process and Equal Protection Clauses of the Fourteenth Amendment.

The same arguments that were used against interracial marriage are now being used against same-sex marriage, i.e. it’s against someone’s religious beliefs, it’s a sin in the Bible, etc.

Now, I’m not here to attack anyone’s religious beliefs as even I have my own. But we must remember that we are a secular country and that the U.S. Constitution is the law of our nation and not the Bible. No local, state, or federal law can violate the document, the individual rights that are enshrined within it, or its subsequent amendments.

This includes the Fourteenth Amendment.

Our Founding Fathers were mostly Christians, but we are not a Christian nation. That particular point was emphasized in the Treaty of Tripoli (1796), which states that the U.S. “is not, in any sense, founded on the Christian religion.”

Our Founding Fathers were mostly Christians, but we are not a Christian nation. We were set up to be a secular nation. We have the right to peacefully worship and practice whatever religion we choose to without government interference, but that right does not extend beyond one’s self. We do not have the right to force others to believe the same way we do.

Britain still has an official religion (the Church of England) and France was under the Catholic Church at the time of our independence. Both religion and government intermingled in these and many other European countries. Our Founding Fathers designed our government to discourage this relationship.

Today, we see the ongoing fight between religion and our secular government on the issue of same-sex marriage. In the past two years, bans on same-sex marriage have been struck down from coast to coast in federal court on the same grounds as the Loving decision.

Now, the Supreme Court has taken up the case once again and this time could make an official ruling for the entire country.

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However, though same-sex marriage could soon be legal nationwide, some are finding new ways to treat the LGBT community like second-class citizens.

Instead of being called something like Jim Crow laws, these laws are referred to as “religious freedom laws.” In much the same way that the old Jim Crow laws allowed businesses to legally refuse service to African-Americans, these new laws allow any business or institution the right to refuse service to anyone based on the operator’s religious beliefs.

The purpose of these laws is to “protect” people who work in the service industry from having to provide their services for same-sex weddings if it goes against their religious beliefs.

In February 2014, Republican Governor Jan Brewer of Arizona vetoed SB 1062, which critics argued would have legalized discrimination against the LGBT community. Brewer was pressured to reject the law by several business leaders who believed it would hurt the state’s economy.

More states are now taking up this exact same issue and some are poised to put these policies into law. Indiana Governor Mike Pence, for example, signed the “Religious Freedom Restoration Act” on Thursday after it cleared both chambers of the state Legislature.

Some of these laws are written so vaguely that they could extend well beyond just same-sex marriage. The “religious freedom laws” will eventually end up in the courts and will be subsequently overturned via the Fourteenth Amendment.

If someone is a Christian, can he or she refuse service to someone in the Jewish community based solely on a difference of religion? No.

The Bible states that women are inferior to men and that women should obey men. So do Christians have the right to refuse service to a woman if she is not accompanied by a man or has a different opinion than a man? No.

Why? Because in a secular society, though a person may have the right to practice his or her religion freely, they do not have the right to force those beliefs on others. Everyone is supposed to be treated equally under the law.

Again, people have the right to their religious views. No one can force an individual to accept same-sex marriage if it goes against their religious views.

However, that right still does not extend to discriminatory actions against the LGBT community. If a person runs a business that provides a service to weddings and doesn’t want to provide that service to a same-sex wedding, there are a couple of options:

  1. They can find a new job that will take them out of that situation; or
  2. They can grow up and act like a rational adult and do the job they are paid to do.

There are times when we blur the line between religious freedom and secular government. It is imperative that we remember why this line was put in place by our Founding Fathers, and why we’ve amended the Constitution to specify that all citizens are free and equal under the law.

Using religion to discriminate is still discrimination and is still wrong. And as history has proven before, it is also unconstitutional.

Of High Crimes and Misdemeanors: An Act of Treason?

There’s nothing like a slight treasonous scandal to pull a political writer out of a little sabbatical. When hearing of this, I didn’t think it was something that I could sit on the sidelines for. So here I am immersing myself in a political debate that should have bigger ramifications than it probably will.

Treason is defined in the dictionary as:

1. the offense of acting to overthrow one’s government or to harm or kill its sovereign.
2. a violation of allegiance to one’s sovereign or to one’s state.
3. the betrayal of a trust or confidence; breach of faith; treachery.

It is the only crime that is specifically mentioned in the US Constitution. (Article 3, Section 3)

“Treason against the United States, shall consist only in levying War against them, or in adhering to their Enemies, giving them Aid and Comfort. No Person shall be convicted of Treason unless on the Testimony of two Witnesses to the same overt Act, or on Confession in open Court.”

Keep your mind on what you just read as there is a possibility that you will be contemplating them as we go through this whole ordeal.

The United States has been negotiating for a nuclear agreement with Iran since 2006 along with 5 other countries which is known as the P5+1 group. The five countries are the US, Great Britain, France, Russia, and China, and the +1 being Germany. The goal is to keep Iran from having nuclear missiles. In 2013, and interim agreement was reached with a comprehensive agreement due later this month.

With the deadline approaching some Senators have expressed concern over what a final comprehensive deal might look like and have a desire for the final deal to be debated on voted on in the Senate as a treaty would be under Article 2, Section 2, Clause 2 of the US Constitution. However, freshman Senator Tom Cotton (R-Ark) has gone even a step further by submitting a letter with 46 other signatures of Republican Senators to the leader of Iran expressing that any nuclear treaty with the country would not be upheld once President Obama leaves office.

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Now let me bring in the Logan Act which was passed by Congress in 1799. It prohibits unauthorized citizens from negotiating with foreign governments. Violation of this act is a felony.

“Any citizen of the United States, wherever he may be, who, without authority of the United States, directly or indirectly commences or carries on any correspondence or intercourse with any foreign government or any officer or agent thereof, with intent to influence the measures or conduct of any foreign government or of any officer or agent thereof, in relation to any disputes or controversies with the United States, or to defeat the measures of the United States, shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than three years, or both.”

Under Article 2, Section 2, Clause 2 of the US Constitution, “[The President] shall have Power, by and with the Advice and Consent of the Senate, to make Treaties, provided two thirds of the Senators present concur…” The President has the power to appoint ambassadors and to conduct negotiations with foreign governments. The Senate does not come in to the equation until the vote for approval is needed. By this, Senator Cotton does not have the authority to approach Iran on any subject that is concurrent with the ongoing negotiations. To have done so is a violation of the Logan Act.

According to a recent article on Politico, this is not the first time that one party has accused the other of violating the Logan Act. Republicans screamed it in 1987 after Congress cut off aid to Nicaragua’s Contra rebels. Democrats ran (and ultimately won both chambers of Congress) in 2006 on forcing then-President George W. Bush to come up with a timetable for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.  Speaker Pelosi would also go against the wishes of the White House in 2007 and travel to Damascus to meet with Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad.

So where does all of this then fall in? If it has been done before then should we just brush it aside again? In this case, I would suggest no. It does violate international law. It does undermine the full faith and credit of the US, which is already shaky in the world as it is especially in regards to Iran where neither side completely trusts the other. Senator Cotton had no authority to write and send that letter which was in an effort to derail negotiations with a foreign government before a final deal is reached. It was out of his jurisdiction as a US Senator.

Remember those definitions of treason at the beginning? If this isn’t it then it comes dangerously close to that line. The overall goal of the letter was to do harm and to instill a sense of a betrayal of trust and confidence against our country.

How Much “Political Speech” Can You Buy?

The ruling by the Supreme Court in the case McCutcheon v. FEC could have been predicted.  This is the same court that gave us the ruling on Citizens United v. FEC (with the exception of Elana Kagan replacing John Paul Stevens).  Where Citizens United determined that corporations and unions are people and that money is equal to the freedom of speech, the McCutcheon verdict goes a step further by striking down maximum limits on campaign contributions.

The McCutcheon verdict actually overturns a 1976 ruling in the case Buckley v. Valeo in which the court ruled that independent spending is political speech and is protected by the First Amendment; however, contributions could be capped in order to prevent corruption.  The campaign limits were put in place by Congress following the Watergate scandal to discourage large contributors from buying votes and to restore faith into the system.

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So what are the specifics of this latest ruling?  The McCutcheon ruling only concerns contributions from individuals.  There are still laws in place that affect corporations and unions in this particular instance.  And it does not undermine limits on individual contributions to candidates for President and Congress which is currently set at $2600 per election.

The ruling states that individuals have the right to give the legal maximum amount to candidates for Congress and president (as well as to the parties and PACs) without worrying that they will come up against the limit placed on all contributions which is placed at $123,200 for the 2014 election.

Chief Justice John Roberts, writing for the majority, stated, “There is no right in our democracy more basic than the right to participate in electing our political leaders.”  Justice Clarence Thomas, in agreement with the Chief Justice, wrote his own opinion stating that he would have rather had wiped out all contribution limits.

So apparently our republic is open to those who have deeper pockets.  This is nothing that is really new.  In the later decades of the 1800s (after the Civil War), politicians were controlled by Tammany Hall in New York City.  This would even continue into the beginning of the 20th century when the wealthy industrialists of the day had more clout than even the President.

Since the 2010 ruling in Citizens United, we have seen what an influx of money can do in an election.  The money spent in the 2012 election cycle was by far greater than any election to date, and it is very likely that the 2016 election will break that record as even more campaign finance limits have now been struck down.

It is technically illegal to bribe an elected official, and it is illegal for for an elected official to accept that bribe.  However, with these latest rulings (Citizens United and McCutcheon), is this any different than just legal bribery?  The more money you have, the more “political speech” you possess… or at least that is what they want you to think.  In reality, the more money you have and can contribute, the more you can buy that vote or influence that party platform.

Justice Breyer wrote in his dissent that “If the court in Citizens United opened a door, today’s decision may well open a floodgate.”  Considering the aftermath of Citizens United, he is probably correct.  Our elections will no longer service the people as a whole, just those with the deepest pockets.  And it will continue to disenfranchise more voters and drive them away from the polls.

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