“Sheldon Silver, the disgraced ex-speaker of the New York state Assembly, was sentenced to seven years in prison — less than the 12 years he was sentenced to previously” before an appeals court ordered retrial [Kaja Whitehouse, New York Post, more (wanted to keep some of the money); Adam Klasfeld/Courthouse News; our coverage over the years]
Another step toward criminalizing advocacy: writing in the Washington Post, Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) urges the U.S. Department of Justice to consider filing a racketeering suit against the oil and coal industries for having promoted wrongful thinking on climate change, with the activities of “conservative policy” groups an apparent target of the investigation as well. A trial balloon, or perhaps an effort to prepare the ground for enforcement actions already afoot?
Sen. Whitehouse cites as precedent the long legal war against the tobacco industry. When the federal government took the stance that pro-tobacco advocacy could amount to a legal offense, some of us warned tobacco wouldn’t remain the only or final target. To quote what I wrote in The Rule of Lawyers:
In a drastic step, the agreement ordered the disbanding of the tobacco industry’s former voices in public debate, the Tobacco Institute and the Council for Tobacco Research (CTR), with the groups’ files to be turned over to anti-tobacco forces to pick over the once-confidential memos contained therein; furthermore, the agreement attached stringent controls to any newly formed entity that the industry might form intended to influence public discussion of tobacco. In her book on tobacco politics, Up in Smoke, University of Virginia political scientist Martha Derthick writes that these provisions were the first aspect in news reports of the settlement to catch her attention. “When did the governments in the United States get the right to abolish lobbies?” she recalls wondering. “What country am I living in?” Even widely hated interest groups had routinely been allowed to maintain vigorous lobbies and air their views freely in public debate.
By the mid-2000s, calls were being heard, especially in other countries, for making denial of climate change consensus a legally punishable offense or even a “crime against humanity,” while widely known advocate James Hansen had publicly called for show trials of fossil fuel executives. Notwithstanding the tobacco precedent, it had been widely imagined that the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution might deter image-conscious officials from pursuing such attacks on their adversaries’ speech. But it has not deterred Sen. Whitehouse.
Law professor Jonathan Adler, by the way, has already pointed out that Sen. Whitehouse’s op-ed “relies on a study that doesn’t show what he (it) claims.” And Sen. Whitehouse, along with Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) and Edward Markey (D-Mass.), has been investigating climate-dissent scholarship in a fishing-expedition investigation that drew a pointed rebuke from then-Cato Institute President John Allison as an “obvious attempt to chill research into and funding of public policy projects you don’t like…. you abuse your authority when you attempt to intimidate people who don’t share your political beliefs.”
As if trial lawyers didn’t already have enough good friends in the U.S. Senate, Democratic challenger and former state attorney general Sheldon Whitehouse is making a strong bid to unseat incumbent Lincoln Chafee for a Senate seat from Rhode Island. (Jim Baron, “Poll: Senate race even; Gov. surges”, Pawtucket (R.I.) Times, Oct. 3; “Democrats bet on former attorney general to take back Senate seat”, AP/WPRI, Sept. 14). Of the fifty state attorneys general, Whitehouse was the only one willing to sign up for the Motley Rice law firm’s crusade to attach retroactive liability to former makers of lead paint and pigment; see Jun. 7, 2001, Oct. 30-31, 2002, Mar. 5-7, 2003, Feb. 23, 2006, etc. For more on Whitehouse’s enthusiasm for such creative litigation, see Oct. 26, 1999 (latex gloves).
On Wednesday, at a rally on the Supreme Court steps, Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) cut loose with a truly amazing diatribe against Justices Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh, declaring that the two would “pay the price” and “won’t know what hit you if you go forward with these awful decisions.” Schumer’s menacing if vague comments drew prompt disapproval from a broad range of legal figures, such as the heads of the American Bar Association and New York City Bar Association as well as Democratic SCOTUS shortlister Neal Katyal and Harvard’s Larry Tribe. Chief Justice John Roberts weighed in with a rare public rebuke: “threatening statements of this sort from the highest levels of government are not only inappropriate, they are dangerous.”
Schumer proceeded to dig in and even blast Roberts personally for the criticism. By Thursday, he was ready to concede grudgingly that he “should not have used the words I used. They didn’t come out the way I intended to,” while still staying on the offensive in every other respect and accusing his adversaries of “manufacturing” the uproar.
I’ve got a new post at Ricochet reviewing the controversy, including its much-echoed “what about…?” dimension:
Defenders of Schumer assailed the chief justice for not having weighed on some other inappropriate Trump sallies, including his ill-grounded speculation recently (never filed as an actual motion) that Justices Ruth Ginsburg and Sonia Sotomayor should recuse themselves from Trump matters, and his aspersions on the judge in the Roger Stone case. Those are part of a frequent and blatant Trump habit of trash-talking judges, both as a candidate (calling the judge in the Trump University case “Mexican” and “a hater”) and as President (“so-called judge” among numerous others). Some — I’m one — would say that this is among Trump’s very worst and most damaging patterns of behavior.
But as cooler heads noted, including Ruth Marcus of the Washington Post, the chief justice is not a playground proctor who can step in to write up every demerit; he needs to save his efforts for the instances that are most dangerous, as he in fact has done.
The wider picture, it might be noted, is one in which nasty swipes at judges have been routinized for years, from a range of public figures and also from former President Barack Obama, both in his 2010 State of the Union speech and also repeatedly during the court review of ObamaCare. Still, none of these have gone as far to suggest personal threat as did Schumer — not even the extraordinarily inappropriate amicus brief filed by Sens. Sheldon Whitehouse and four other Senate Democrats last August, assailing the Court’s legitimacy and warning that “restructuring” at the hands of political branches lies ahead if it does not mend its ways.
I conclude that Schumer needs to go back and apologize, seriously this time. And it’s time for all who’ve fallen short of defending judicial independence — Republicans and Democrats alike — to do so. [cross-posted from Cato at Liberty]
- California state agency in charge of Prop 65 enforcement seeks to effectively reverse judge’s recent ruling and exempt naturally occurring acrylamide levels in coffee from need for warning [Cal Biz Lit] Prop 65 listing mechanism requires listing of substances designated by a strictly private organization, spot the problem with that [WLF brief in Monsanto Co. v. Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment]
- Yes, those proposals to ban plastic straws are a test run for broader plastic prohibitions [Christian Britschgi, Honolulu Star-Advertiser] Impact on disabled users, for whom metal, bamboo, and paper substitutes often don’t work as well [Allison Shoemaker, The Takeout] Surprising facts about fishing nets [Adam Minter, Bloomberg, earlier]
- “A closely watched climate case is dismissed; Will the others survive?” [Daniel Fisher on dismissal of San Francisco, Oakland cases] Rhode Island files first state lawsuit, cheered by mass tort veteran Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) [Spencer Walrath/Energy in Depth, Mike Bastasch/Daily Caller]
- Meanwhile back in Colorado: Denver Post, Gale Norton, other voices criticize Boulder, other municipal climate suits [Rebecca Simons, Energy in Depth, earlier here and here]
- Waters of the United States: time to repeal and replace this unconstitutional rule [Jonathan Wood, The Hill, earlier on WOTUS]
- “What you’re talking about is law enforcement for hire”: at least nine state AG offices “are looking to hire privately funded lawyers to work on environmental litigation through a foundation founded by” nationally ambitious billionaire and former NYC mayor Michael Bloomberg [Mike Bastasch]
In the name of curtailing money laundering and the risk of terrorist finance, Sens. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) and Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) have introduced a bill that would require extensive reporting on the ownership of small corporations and limited liability companies. Provisions of the law “would regulate many lawyers and law firms as financial institutions under the Bank Secrecy Act,” notes the ABA Journal, and require them “to gather extensive beneficial ownership information on businesses when they incorporate. The information would be held and disclosed on request to many governmental agencies and financial institutions.” The businesses themselves would also face direct reporting and regulatory burdens.
The ABA is opposing provisions in this bill on the ground that they would infringe on traditional attorney-client privilege. “Concerns about erosion of attorney-general privilege have played a role in resisting numerous bad regulatory and prosecutorial initiatives in recent years,” I write in a new Cato piece. “Now if only the rest of us who are not lawyers could get someone to stand up so effectively against the government on behalf of our privacy interests.”
- “Rockefeller Foundations Enlist Journalism in ‘Moral’ Crusade Against ExxonMobil” [Ken Silverstein] Massachusetts was using courts to investigate heretics back before the oil industry was even whale oil [Reuters on subpoena ruling] Washington Post shouldn’t have run Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) on climate politics without noting his brutal efforts to subpoena/silence opponents on that topic;
- “Should you go to jail if you can’t recognize every endangered species?” [Jonathan Wood]
- Sandy Ikeda reviews Robert H. Nelson, Private Neighborhoods and the Transformation of Local Government [Market Urbanism]
- D.C. Circuit shouldn’t let EPA get away again with ignoring cost of power plant regs [Andrew Grossman on Cato amicus brief]
- Under what circumstances should libertarians be willing to live with eminent domain in the construction of energy pipelines? [Ilya Somin and earlier] Economic benefits of fracking are $3.5 trillion, according to new study [Erik Gilje, Robert Ready, and Nikolai Roussanov, NBER via Tyler Cowen]
- “Dramatically simpler than the old code…[drops] mandates for large amounts of parking.” Buffalo rethinks zoning [Aaron Renn, City Journal] Arnold Kling on California’s housing shortage; John Cochrane on an encouraging Jason Furman op-ed; “Zoning: America’s Local Version Of Crony Capitalism” [Scott Beyer]
Are you now, or have you ever been, a supporter of the Hoover Institution, the Mercatus Center, the Heritage Foundation, or the Acton Institute? Lachlan Markay, Free Beacon:
Democratic senators have been assigned conservative nonprofit groups to call out by name on the chamber floor in speeches on Monday and Tuesday criticizing corporations and advocacy groups for opposing Democratic climate policies, internal emails reveal.
…[Rhode Island Sen. Sheldon] Whitehouse and his allies, including Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D., Nev.), have crafted a schedule for floor speeches on Monday and Tuesday that assigns each participating Senator at least one group to go after by name.
Most of the groups have already been targeted by state Democratic officials that have undertaken a coordinated legal campaign against oil giant ExxonMobil since last year. Many were named in subpoenas sent to the company by state attorneys general as part of that effort.
The ringmaster, once again, is Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island — yes, that Sheldon Whitehouse, whose hometown Providence Journal rightly called out his current campaign to sic the law on improper climate opinion as likely to “have a chilling effect on free speech, by intimidating dissenters into silence.” The leader on the House side is Rep. Ted Lieu (D-Calif.), also getting to be a familiar name.
One reason this is more sinister than your ordinary political sideshow: the proposed concurrent resolution urges right-leaning nonprofits “to cooperate with active or future investigations” of purportedly unlawful opinion-slinging. One of the most junior senators, Gary Peters of Michigan, apparently drew the short straw in the heresy posse and was assigned to attack my own Cato Institute (which publishes this site) at 6:30 this evening.
The senators participating in this appalling exercise besides Sens. Whitehouse, Reid, and Peters, all Democrats, are Sens. Ben Cardin of Maryland, Tim Kaine of Virginia, Barbara Boxer of California, Martin Heinrich of New Mexico, Chuck Schumer of New York, Al Franken of Minnesota, Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, Dick Durbin of Illinois, Tom Udall of New Mexico, Jeanne Shaheen of New Hampshire, Jack Reed of Rhode Island, Edward Markey of Massachusetts, Brian Schatz of Hawaii, Jeff Merkley of Oregon, Richard Blumenthal of Connecticut, and Chris Coons of Delaware.
Some early reactions: “All that is lacking are their public confessions” — Ronald Bailey at Reason (whose associated Reason Foundation is among the targets). “‘Assigned’ groups to attack? That sounds like middle school mean girl behavior.” [C.B. on Facebook] Peter Roff at U.S. News on how the Senators can’t (yet) make dissent illegal but can make it costly. And a reminder: the “Exxon Knew” crowd knew Whitehouse’s RICO-for-speech theory was wrong because their own allies had told them, but went ahead anyway.
More, Matt Welch at Reason:
…Since the targets of this shaming exercise are not being afforded the courtesy to rebut the charges in the forum at which they are being smeared, consider this a prebuttal…
This coordinated campaign would be an assault on free speech even if it were not drenched in conspiratorial inaccuracy. Democratic lawmakers, attorneys general, and activists are systematically singling out free-market think tanks for potential criminal prosecution and one-sided disclosure requirements based on the content of the think tanks’ research and commentary. They are literally trying to criminalize dissent. If successful, they will establish as “fraud” or “racketeering” any future think-tank work that runs afoul of political orthodoxy. …
Sadly, this heavy-handed act of government intimidation will likely go as unnoticed as Hillary Clinton’s long track record against free speech. Why? Because generally speaking both the mainstream press and the organized left reserve their First Amendment outrage for politicians they disagree with. Their silence is shameful, and deafening.
[Updated to correct error on Lachlan Markay’s name, sorry]
Seriously, what’s their problem? [Hans Bader on the Rhode Island attorney general’s proposal for a ban on many hostile social media posts, covered here earlier] Meanwhile, a Providence Journal editorial blasts home-state Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse:
…in dealing with [carbon dioxide emissions], or any crisis, it is vitally important that America not discard its essential values of freedom.
Regrettably, Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-R.I., continues to make noises about using government to prosecute some of those who willfully persist in questioning the scientific consensus on climate change. …
This is troubling: a U.S. senator and attorney general [Loretta Lynch], both sworn to uphold the Constitution, mulling legal action against American citizens and companies for the “crime” of challenging a scientific theory. A number of Democratic attorneys general — including Rhode Island’s Peter Kilmartin — have also expressed interest in prosecuting those whom they believe are deliberately misleading the public about this issue.
Turning such disagreements into punishable acts of fraud would seem to be legally difficult. But that may not be the point. The threat alone could have a chilling effect on free speech, by intimidating dissenters into silence. Such an approach would be an affront to the scientific method, which involves the free exploration of ideas. …
President Thomas Jefferson said in his first inaugural address: “Error of opinion may be tolerated where reason is left free to combat it.”
There is no reason to pit environmentalism and free speech against one other. We can join together to protect our planet without trying to silence those who argue against us.
Some more recent commentary on the AG subpoena investigation Sen. Whitehouse helped orchestrate: Richard Epstein, George Will, Ronald Rotunda. As Prof. Rotunda points out, the government not only declines to prosecute advocacy research in other contexts, but often funds it. And the 2012 Alvarez v. U.S. (stolen valor) case establishes that outright, knowing lying for advantage often receives constitutional protection as well, on the recognition by the courts that “if the government can punish that, we go down a steep slippery slope. … The marketplace of ideas, not the subpoena power of government, should decide what is true or false.” More: “The environmental campaign that punishes free speech” [Sam Kazman and Kent Lassman (CEI), Washington Post]
Remember that “scientists’ letter” in which twenty or so credentialed scientists signed their names to a letter asking that so-called climate deniers be investigated, as Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) had been demanding? On inquiry, however, some of the signatories did not seem to know much about the letter or to be particularly committed to the idea. According to David Rifkin and Andrew Grossman’s new Wall Street Journal piece (ungated here), open records requests have now established that the letter was coordinated by Sen. Whitehouse himself. Background here, here, etc.
Rifkin and Grossman also announce the formation of a new, and badly needed, Free Speech in Science Project. “The project will fund legal advice and defense to those who need it, while executing an offense to turn the tables on abusive officials.”