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Professional Troublemaker

 Jonathan Corbett, Civil Rights Advocate

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Legal Rants

What a President Can Do With an Executive Order — And Why Trump’s Muslim Ban is Illegal

trump_signingOn Sunday I published a post about Trump’s “Muslim ban,” a decision to exclude green card holders and refugees from 7 Muslim countries.  The post was the most shared on this blog ever (over 10,000 shares on Facebook alone!), and attracted a lot of comments.  Some people felt that Trump’s decision, which he made by “executive order,” was perfectly legal.

Is it?

Well, let’s start with what a President does.  We know he runs the executive branch, but what does that mean?  The President’s authority comes from the U.S. Constitution (either directly or from Congress giving him some of their authority), and we can mostly divide what a President does into two categories:

  1. “Foreign stuff” – The President is our chief diplomat, the commander of our military,  and the person with whom other countries must negotiate when they want something from the United States.  These powers are granted in Article II, Section 2, of the Constitution.
  2. “Domestic stuff” – Some of this we’re familiar with: things like signing and vetoing laws, appointing U.S. Supreme Court justices, granting pardons, and the like.  These powers are also granted by Article II, Section 2.  Then there are the powers granted by Congress to run more day-to-day affairs.  Through the use of agencies, such as the FCC, FDA, FBI, and hundreds of others, the executive branch accomplishes its work, and the President is the head of those agencies.  And, sometimes Congress gives power specifically to the President rather than to an agency.

With this background, an executive order is a direction that an agency of the government enforce the law in a certain way, or to make a formal use of a power specifically granted to the President by Congress.  Since 1907, the Office of the Federal Register has cataloged and numbered each executive order — the Muslim ban order was #13769.

When it comes to agencies, the President gets to fill in the blanks.  So, a President could order the FBI to step up their enforcement of marijuana laws because Congress allows the FBI to enforce the laws, but didn’t specify how much emphasis should be placed on marijuana.  A President could also order the IRS to send bills to taxpayers only in gold-foil envelopes, because Congress authorized the IRS to send bills, but did not say what the envelopes in which they are sent must look like.

But, the President may not order something contrary to the law, nor fill in the blanks where there are no blanks to fill.  For example, Obama couldn’t order the FCC to confiscate the cell phones of those who text-and-drive, because that doesn’t fit into any grant of power by Congress to the FCC.

So, did the President issue the Muslim ban order pursuant to a legitimate grant of power by Congress?

No.  Here’s why.  Trump could try to defend his actions on the basis of a law passed by Congress numbered as 8 U.S.C. § 1182(f), which states in part: “Whenever the President finds that the entry of any aliens or of any class of aliens into the United States would be detrimental to the interests of the United States, he may by proclamation, and for such period as he shall deem necessary, suspend the entry of all aliens or any class of aliens as immigrants or non-immigrants, or impose on the entry of aliens any restrictions he may deem to be appropriate.”

At first glance, it does seem like Congress authorized the President to discriminate against anyone as long as he deems it necessary or appropriate.  But, if you scroll back up to the top of the page and read one sentence a little more carefully, you may see Trump’s problem: “The President’s authority comes from the U.S. Constitution (either directly or from Congress giving him some of their authority)…”

Congress cannot give the President authority which it does not have to give.  The U.S. Constitution does grant Congress the authority to deal with immigration, but that authority is restrained by limits set by other parts of the Constitution.  Specifically, the 14th Amendment reads in part: “No state shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any state deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.”

This is the “Equal Protection Clause” you’ve surely heard of, and the U.S. Supreme Court has broadly interpreted it to prevent the government from discriminating against any race, religion, or national origin (among others), unless the government has an extraordinarily strong reason for doing so and cannot do so in another way which would be less discriminatory.  (It has also applied the 14th Amendment to the federal government even though the text of the law uses the word “states.”)

This is, in my opinion and the opinion of every federal judge to consider the matter so far, where Trump must fail.  Congress does not have the authority to give Trump a power that violates the Equal Protection Clause, and therefore to the extent that 8 U.S.C. § 1182(f) may purport to do so, it is void.  People may argue about whether the government has a compelling reason to discriminate here, but there is little argument that there is not a way to secure our country in a less discriminatory manner.  Trump’s order is, therefore, illegal.

Federal Judge Sends U.S. Marshals to Prevent Trump from Enforcing Muslim Ban

foreign-us-customsOn Friday, our new President signed an executive order banning those from 7 Muslim countries from entering the United States, even if they had been granted refugee status, and even if they were green card or visa holders.  This blatant discrimination based on national origin (and, let’s be honest, it’s really based on religion, given that all 7 countries are Muslim-majority and Trump had flat-out said he would ban Muslims during his campaign) guaranteed a legal showdown which began yesterday after at least a dozen people with passports from those 7 nations were detained at JFK airport in New York.

Yesterday, attorneys for Hameed Khalid Darweesh filed a class action lawsuit requesting a writ of habaes corpus (court order to free a person) on behalf of Mr. Darweesh, who apparently was detained under this new order, and anyone similarly situated to him.  It’s worthy of note that this man is a refugee from Iraq who cannot return to his home country because he assisted the U.S. military during our operations there.  Filed with his petition was a motion for an emergency temporary restraining order, asking the court to prohibit U.S. Customs & Border Patrol from enforcing Trump’s order, and U.S. District Judge Ann Donnelly, after conducting an astoundingly prompt hearing,  granted that request, ordering all officers of the United States be:

ENJOINED AND RESTRAINED from, in any manner or by any means, removing individuals with refugee applications approved by U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services as part of the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program, holders of valid immigrant and non-immigrant visas, and other individuals from Iraq, Syria, Iran, Sudan, Libya, Somalia, and Yemen legally authorized to enter the United States.

This is widely reported by the media (CNN, The Guardian, New York Times), but perhaps because of the late hour and lack of legal analysts on hand, they missed the significance of the next paragraph of Judge Donnelly’s order:

IT IS FURTHER ORDERED that to assure compliance with the Court’s order, the Court directs service of this Order upon the United States Marshal for the Eastern District of New York, and further directs the United States Marshal Service to take those actions deemed necessary to enforce the provisions and prohibitions set forth in this Order.

I’ve never seen an order like that directed against the U.S. government in my life.  What the judge just did is sent federal law enforcement affiliated with the court to JFK airport to make sure other federal law enforcement obeys the order.  In other words, Judge Donnelly does not trust that the Trump administration will follow the law and pre-emptively sent muscle to carry out her order.

If you’re to believe the Daily Kos, a source that I don’t necessarily consider reliable due to political bias on par with Fox News, but in the other direction, the U.S. Marshals were sent with good reason: they report that in other airports, U.S. Customs & Border patrol has ignored the order.  [Update: The Guardian also reporting non-compliance by CBP.]

If Trump chooses to direct his agencies to ignore court orders, this could be a very rapid beginning and end to his administration, as I cannot imagine Congress not impeaching a president who does so.  This situation may come to a head quite soon… stay tuned…


“Jon Corbett is a civil rights advocate known for filing the first lawsuit against the deployment of TSA nude body scanners, as well as defeating the body scanners live in ‘How to Get ANYTHING Through TSA Nude Body Scanners.’  Presently a law student, he continues to advocate for travel and privacy rights.  Twitter: @_JonCorbett, Web:https://professional-troublemaker.com/

Fighting for civil rights in court is expensive!  Want to contribute to the fight against government assholery? Donate via PayPal, Venmo, Chace QuickPay, Bitcoin, or check

Should You Agree to “Arbitration Clauses?”

arbitrationIt is increasingly common to find consumer contracts (the things you agree to when you buy stuff or services, like a rental car, Netflix subscription, or anything that contains a written warranty) containing “arbitration clauses.”  They’re usually in capital letters or bold print, most often buried many clauses deep in the contract, and say something to the effect of this:

…IN THE EVENT A DISPUTE SHALL ARISE BETWEEN THE PARTIES TO THIS CONTRACT, IT IS HEREBY AGREED THAT THE DISPUTE SHALL BE REFERRED FOR BINDING ARBITRATION IN ACCORDANCE WITH THE FEDERAL ARBITRATION ACT. THE ARBITRATOR’S DECISION SHALL BE FINAL AND BINDING AND JUDGMENT MAY BE ENTERED THEREON…

What this language means is that if you and the company have a dispute, you both agree that you won’t take it to court, but will instead hire a “neutral” “arbitrator” to resolve the issue.  The arbitrator can award any amount of money he or she sees fit, based upon the contract and the law.

Here’s why this sucks for the consumer:

  1. Your right to proceed class action is cancelled.  A “class action” is a lawsuit where lots of people claim that a company wronged them in the same way.  Generally, it is for small amounts (maybe only a few dollars) that wouldn’t make sense for 1 person to waste their time going to court for, but if there are 10,000 people just like you and you can all sue in one joint lawsuit, the company can be held accountable.  You generally can’t “contract away” the right to proceed as a class under most states’ laws, but by requiring arbitration, the Federal Arbitration Act (FAA) takes over the terms of dispute resolution, and the FAA allows for class rights to be signed away.  You should therefore take an arbitration clause as a sign that the company is afraid that it has, or may, piss off a large consumer base, and wants to protect itself from any damages that can come from that.  It’s a bad sign.
  2. Your right to an appeal is cancelled.  An arbitrator’s award, in general, cannot be appealed.  Did your arbitrator turn out to be biased, or literally fall asleep during proceedings?  Too bad, according to the FAA.  With exceptions too narrow to be worth pursuing, a court cannot overturn an arbitrator’s award, no matter how unfair.
  3. Your right to a cheap, quick resolution of small claims might be cancelled.  Some arbitration clauses allow small claims to be heard by a small claims court — and some arbitrators refuse to hear cases based on contracts without such an allowance.  This is a good thing: small claims can generally be resolved in less than 3 court appearances, for nominal court fees, without the need for an attorney, and within a few months.  But, some arbitration clauses do not allow for this, and therefore even a claim for $5 comes with a hefty arbitration fee and longer, and more difficult, proceedings than in small claims court.  The text of the arbitration clause will tell you if you can resort to a small claims court, but even this is not guaranteed, as some states will allow any party in small claims court to move a case to a regular civil court, at which point the company can argue that arbitration is now required. (Not the first time I’ve written about Citibank being sneaky and abusive!)
  4. No case law is created.  “Case law” is the decisions of courts in the past that influence decisions of courts in the future.  For courts of the same jurisdiction and same level or lower, a decision on an issue is usually binding.  For example, if the U.S. Supreme Court decides that TSA body scanners are unconstitutional and Plaintiff X, who was forced to go through one, gets $100 in damages, every other court in the country must follow suit and award similar damages to anyone who presents a similar case.  When an arbitrator makes a ruling, it may or may not be public, but either way, it is binding on no one.  Therefore, if the company has wronged 10 people in the same way, but has an arbitration agreement, even if the 1st to arbitrate wins, people 2 – 10 still need to argue the issue anew.
  5. Oh, you thought the arbitrator was neutral?  There’s a pretty big conflict of interest here.  The companies are the ones including arbitration agreements in their contracts and sending work to the arbitrators.  If one of the two parties sends all the work and the other does not, where does loyalty lie?  Even if an individual arbitrator is conscientious enough to remain neutral, what effect does the conflict of interest have on the rules that the arbitrator has to follow?

For balance, I’ll note that arbitration can have some benefits for the consumer.  For example, if the claim is for a large amount of money, it will be a shorter “trial,” and therefore you’ll be paying your attorneys less money.  Arbitrators are also more likely to award attorney’s fees to you if you win.  Also, in non-consumer contracts, you may sometime have an edge.  A friend of mine involved in an employment contract dispute against a major corporation recently lamented to me that the attorney’s fees to take the major corporation — which could afford to prolong litigation to gain an advantage — may be unsustainable, forcing this friend to consider settlements beneath what his or her claim was worth.  But in consumer contracts, the overall balance is clearly in favor of the company (which, of course, is why they put the clause in there in the first place).

But what can you really do about it?  Well, to start, many arbitration clauses have an “opt-out” option, whereby you notify the company that you disagree, and the clause no longer applies.  If this is an option in your contract, follow the instructions carefully to make an effective opt-out (before the TSA bans those opt-outs too :)).  If it doesn’t, you can try negotiating the contract, even if the company is large.  If it’s a paper contract, you may “negotiate” simply by crossing out the provision and initialing the change before signing. You’d be shocked as to how many times I’ve crossed out arbitration agreements and simply said, “I don’t arbitrate,” and they’ve said “Um, ok I guess.” If all else fails, tell them you’re heading to a competitor.  Lost sales are, in the end, the greatest motivator to companies to create fair agreements with their customers.

My 10 Year Civil Law Anniversary

“How did you get into filing lawsuits?  Like, if I wanted to sue the government, I wouldn’t even know where to start.”

When I first filed suit against the TSA, almost 5 years ago now, I had a little bit of experience. Ten years ago this month, a collection agency ignored me when I told them I didn’t owe any money, proceeding instead to put a disputed account on my credit report.  So, I looked into what my options were, and found out that there are a lot of federal laws surrounding third-party collection of debts.  Collection agencies have to provide some very specific dispute resolution procedures, represent things honestly, and avoid abusive practices.  These laws, found mostly in the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act, 15 USC § 1692 prohibit things like:

  • Threatening to take an action that it can’t, or doesn’t plan to, take (even “we’ll take you to court if you don’t pay” is illegal if they don’t have any plans to actually sue)
  • Pretending to be an attorney
  • Communicating false information (e.g., to a credit reporting agency)
  • Failing to communicate that a debt is disputed when it is
  • Calling before 8 AM or after 9 PM
  • Repeatedly calling with intent to annoy
  • Sending letters with markings on the outside (e.g., “DEADBEAT”) to embarass you into paying

15 USC § 1692(c) – (f).  They also require notice to be sent in writing with a disclosure of the right to dispute and receive verification of the debt from the original creditor.  § 1692(g).

And so, I filed Corbett v. GC Services, Inc., 05-CV-7680 [PACER subscription required] (S.D.N.Y., Aug. 31, 2005), alleging violations of the Fair Debt Collection Practices Act for not complying with a bunch of the rules above.  I looked up what other lawsuits looked like and wrote my own styled in the same way.  I reviewed the rules of the court.  Then I went down and paid a $250 filing fee (a bargain, as the fee is now $400), and I was in.

Justice was truly blind, as the late U.S. District Judge Richard C. Casey entered the courtroom for our first (and only) status conference with a seeing eye dog.  He seemed irritated at everyone, but denied an oral motion by the defendant to change venue and ordered the case to proceed.  G.C. Services ended up settling for an amount that I’m prohibited from disclosing, thus marking my first victory in civil court.

With that experience and a few other similar ones, when 2010 came around and the TSA was demanding to see us naked in order to fly, I was familiar with the federal courts.  Screwing around with asshole debt collectors was fun and profitable, but civil rights advocacy is fulfilling on a whole new level.  My first year of law school is almost complete, and I look forward to all the difference I can make over the decade to come.

New York Tragedy: The Death of Kalief Browder

I wish I were writing this week about how the TSA misses 95% of weapons when screeners are covertly tested, how they “reassigned” the TSA acting director as a result, or how the TSA hired people on its own terror watch list as screeners. But since apparently no one actually is targeting our skies anymore (as clearly the TSA is not stopping anyone), the TSA is now merely a joke.

What’s not a joke is that a 22-year-old man is dead in New York, a suicide spurred by a systematic violation of his rights by the courts, “New York’s Boldest” (The NYC Department of Corrections), and the Bronx District Attorney’s Office. Kalief Browder was arrested when he was just 16 years old, accused of stealing a backpack. He plead not guilty and asked for a speedy trial, but because of delays by the NYC DA’s office, he was held for 3 years without trial before a judge told the city they had to let him go. A total of 31 court dates were scheduled, most resulting in an adjournment at the DA’s office’s request.

If that’s not bad enough, he experienced significant abuse and neglect on Rikers Island, the notorious NYC jail. Video taped beatings by guards, absurdly long stints in seclusion in solitary confinement, and abuse by his fellow inmates were this man’s life for more than 1,000 days without being convicted of a crime. While there is evidence that he may not have committed the crime in the first place, he likely would have served months — or less — had he merely plead guilty. Traumatized by his experience and struggling to integrate back into society after having those pivotal years taken from him, he took his own life last Saturday.

What does it say about our justice system that asking for a trial can result in spending more time in jail than pleading guilty, even if the result of the trial is a not guilty finding? What kind of judge refuses to release this man on a reasonable bail (or on his own recognizance) once they realize, “Hey! He’s already been in jail longer than we’d keep him if he were tried and convicted?!” What kind of DA postpones a man’s fate dozens of times because he can’t manage to prepare for a simple trial over 36 months? And where did our constitutional right to a speedy trial go??

Amendment VI – “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 wherein 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.”

I hope there will be protests — I will be there. In the meantime, if you’d like to express your thoughts on the matter: Robert T. Johnson, Bronx District Attorney, 198 East 161st Street, Bronx, NY 10451, ph: 718-590-2312, fax: 718-590-2198, angueirl@bronxda.nyc.gov

Federal Judge: No, you can’t search people’s laptops at the border for no reason.

At least as far as a forensic search (more than just turning it on and having a quick look) goes. In 2012, Homeland Security was conducting an investigation based on a jailhouse informant who said that Jae Shik Kim was involved in a 2008 crime. So, they did some investigating, found incriminating details, and applied for a search warrant. No, of course not, that would be too much work. Instead, they waited until Mr. Kim was crossing the border on an international flight and seized his laptop with no warrant an no more evidence than the tip, under the Obama administration’s “I do what I want!” policy regarding searching electronic devices at the border (scroll down to item 5.1.2 for what CBP thinks is lawful).

U.S. District Judge Amy B. Jackson has finally issued the government a long overdue smack-down in this regard. While her ruling is based on the particularly egregious circumstances of this case (waiting for someone to leave in order to get around a warrant, seizing the laptop without searching it and transporting it to be imaged and forensically analyzed, the flimsy tip, and the lack of any allegation of a current crime), she resoundingly rejects CBP’s assertion that it needs no suspicion to do whatever it wants at the border regarding digital devices.

Good on you, Ms. Jackson.

Texas Cops Rape Woman On Side of Road, Again, 18 Months After Paying $185,000 Settlement

Texas Cops Rape Woman On Side of RoadThere is a competition out there for worst policing in this country. New York has random searches without cause (cause… you know, the thing required by the 4th Amendment) known as “stop-and-frisk” (now replaced by sitting around and doing nothing in protest of the mayor refusing to grant them permission to brutalize protesters and other minorities). The heartland and midwest are the epicenter of random acts of civil forfeiture — cops confiscating cash from motorists because it “must be” drug money. Florida has a problem with law enforcement killing those in custody, refusing to investigate, and getting testy when someone decides that outside investigations are necessary.

But then there’s Texas, where police assholery is Texas-sized.

About a year and a half ago, a story broke where two women were “cavity searched” on the side of the road on suspicion of having drugs. That suspicion was based on no actual evidence, of course — just “a hunch” by the officers, which proved to be mistaken. A female police officer literally bent these women over on the side of the road and placed her fingers inside of these women’s vaginas (and no, she didn’t even have courtesy to change gloves between the two searches). The state settled a lawsuit for $185,000, and a grand jury indicted the female officer. She eventually plead guilty and was sentenced to a slap on the wrist.

Did Texas learn their lesson? Of course not, they just did it again.

Guys Sue Red Bull Because It Didn’t “Give Them Wings”

One of the things I hate, and pretty much every non-lawyer hates, about the legal system is that at the end of the day, the only real winners are the lawyers, who bill $250 – $1,000+ per hour to fight over what is often an absurd battle. Take, for example, Careathers v. Red Bull:

Benjamin Careathers, a regular consumer of the fizzy drink, sued the company for false advertising, arguing that after 10 years drinking Red Bull he neither had wings nor any enhanced athletic or intellectual performance.

Source: The Telegraph

Now, I love Red Bull. I drink it all the time, and I follow their marketing campaigns because they are brilliant, so I’m interested as a businessman, and because they’re fun, so I’m interested as a consumer. Red Bull sponsors events all over the world, including their very own “Flugtag” event, and they have their catchy, “Red Bull Gives You Wings” tag line. But, as a consumer, I never expected to be “given wings,” nor did I believe any of the other stuff the lawsuit claims, such as their assertion that Red Bull misled consumers into thinking that Red Bull was scientifically proven to be superior to its competition. No, I buy Red Bull because I like it, not because I am delusional.

The case was certified as a class action, with the class being every Red Bull consumer since 2002. Red Bull has decided to settle this case rather than fight (by giving every customer $10 of free Red Bull), which brings us to the real reason for this suit, of course: the lawyers are asking for a $4.75 million dollar fee. I’m disappointed that Red Bull didn’t fight this battle, but totally understand that it’s a “cheap” (comparatively) way to make them go away and almost acts as a promo in itself as people rush to get their free 4-pack.

Luckily, as a member of the settlement class, I get to express my disappointment to the court, and will be filing my objection to the Red Bull settlement on Monday. Will this actually change anything? Probably not on its own, but courts have been known to reduce fees when finalizing settlements on class actions, so I hope my objection will weigh on that.

Life Lesson for a Civil Rights Advocate: You Can’t Fix Everything

One of the most difficult things I’ve found about doing civil rights advocacy is this: there are so many things wrong in this country, and you can’t make time to fight them all. Once you learn that it is, in fact, possible to challenge the injustices in this world (and that many times, if you don’t challenge them, no one else does), it becomes far too tempting to just take on another issue. When Edward Snowden’s revelations about the NSA came out, for example, it took all my willpower to not write up a lawsuit. (I couldn’t resist having a little fun, and created a Web site for people to request their NSA file called My NSA Records, but no legal challenges from me.)

If one takes on too many challenges, sufficient focus to complete any of the challenges will be lost. Indeed, sufficient focus to maintain the rest of your life can become lost as well, especially if you’re working a full-time job in addition to fighting the man (if anyone would like to sponsor a full-time civil rights advocate, let me know!).

The same goes for continuing current cases when they’ve lost meaning. My case against NYPD stop-and-frisk was dismissed last month after a judge ruled that I couldn’t prove that I was dealing with actual police officers. Four men, who looked like cops, in a dark sedan that looked like an undercover cop car (complete with console electronics) identified themselves as police, detained me, searched me with neither consent nor cause, and then let me go without taking anything. I didn’t ask for a badge because I thought I’d get a face full of sidewalk and because I had no doubt that these men were real cops, but the city claims they have no record of cops being there.

It makes no sense that these men were just random troublemakers looking to pat down random people on the street, and I believe the judge made a clear error in determining that no reasonable jury could find that the NYPD was responsible for my constitutional injury. But, taking that argument to the Court of Appeals, I believe, will take my focus off of the cases that are more important to me — my work against the TSA — and in light of the fact that stop-and-frisk was recently ruled unconstitutional in another case, I’ve decided it would be a distraction with minimal benefit. The war on stop-and-frisk has, hopefully, already been won.

The people who are the best at what they do are the best because they have the sharpest focus. They know what they want and they work every day to get it. I shall continue to sharpen my focus on the issues that are really important to me.

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