Sen. Durbin’s “Stand Your Ground” intimidation

by Walter Olson on August 9, 2013

Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Ill.), a close ally of labor union and trial lawyer interests on Capitol Hill, is sending out hundreds of letters to groups linked to ALEC, the free-market group of state legislators that has occasionally involved itself in other issue areas like criminal and self-defense law, promising to shame those supporters at a public hearing for the notional link to the Trayvon Martin affair. (ALEC backed the passage of some state “stand-your-ground” laws, which as we have grown weary of repeating, did not form the basis for George Zimmerman’s successful claim of self-defense; a new Quinnipiac poll finds that American voters back “Stand Your Ground” laws by a 53-40 margin, so that campaign against these laws has evidently flopped badly)

Mostly these letters were designed to intimidate businesses that might support ALEC, but Durbin also sent one of the browbeating letters to the Cato Institute, which might have been a mistake. As related by colleague Ilya Shapiro:

Earlier this week, we received a letter from Durbin asking two questions (you’ll have to pardon the awkward grammar; this went out to hundreds of groups, so Durbin’s staff apparently had no time for proofing):

Has Cato Institute served as a member of ALEC or provided any funding to ALEC in 2013?

Does Cato Institute support the “stand your ground” legislation that was adopted as a national model and promoted by ALEC?

And, by the way, Durbin wants recipients of his polite inquiry to know, “I plan to convene a hearing of the Senate Judiciary Committee Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Human Rights to examine ‘stand your ground’ laws, and I intend to include the responses to my letters in the hearing record. Therefore, please know that your response will be publicly available.”

Well, I’m proud to say that Cato isn’t going along with this charade. Our president John Allison has responded to Durbin with a letter that I’ll quote in its entirety:

Dear Senator Durbin:

Your letter of August 6, 2013 is an obvious effort to intimidate those organizations and individuals who may have been involved in any way with the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC).

While Cato is not intimidated because we are a think tank—whose express mission is to speak publicly to influence the climate of ideas—from my experience as a private-sector CEO, I know that business leaders will now hesitate to exercise their constitutional rights for fear of regulatory retribution.

Your letter thus represents a blatant violation of our First Amendment rights to freedom of speech and to petition the government for a redress of grievances. It is a continuation of the trend of the current administration and congressional leaders, such as yourself, to menace those who do not share your political beliefs—as evidenced by the multiple IRS abuses that have recently been exposed.

Your actions are a subtle but powerful form of government coercion.

We would be glad to provide a Cato scholar to testify at your hearing to discuss the unconstitutional abuse of power that your letter symbolizes.

Sincerely,

John Allison

The Wall Street Journal is on the issue today, and so is the Chicago Tribune, reproaching hometown Sen. Durbin for his propensity to “use the power of his high federal office as a cudgel against his enemies.” Incidentally, while Cato takes no official position so far as I know on “Stand Your Ground” laws, I have been active in discussing them: in the Orlando Sentinel, New York Times, Daily Caller, Bloomberg TV, Cato podcast and other places, and in many places here, including discussions of the campaign against ALEC here, here, here, and here (Paul Krugman at his most careless). Do you think I could ask the Senator to shame me by name at the hearing?

P.S. One of the rare occasions when my opinions diverge from Ira Stoll’s.

{ 8 comments }

1 Eponymous Nicholas 08.09.13 at 2:48 pm

It’s hard to judge Durbin’s letter as is offensive or oppressive when Cato can’t even be bothered to print the letter. The two questions they excerpted are totally unremarkable, dry and factual. It is enough to make me think that Cato is trying to pump its donors for money, making a mountain out of a not-even-molehill.

Also, as an amateur grammar nazi I’m wondering what is the problem with the phrasing of the questions? It seems okay to me.

2 Walter Olson 08.09.13 at 3:03 pm

Somehow I am not surprised, Nicholas, at your finding nothing offensive or oppressive about the Senator’s launching an investigation against those who donate or associate with a private group whose views on public policy he finds disagreeable. Or that you would review the whole matter too hastily to note that Cato has indeed “bothered to print the letter” in question, as linked in Ilya Shapiro’s Cato blog post on the topic. I will link it here so that you don’t need to go to the trouble of linking through.

3 Tamara 08.09.13 at 3:05 pm

Mr. Nicholas, if you go to the link in Mr Olson’s post, Mr Shapiro includes a link to a .pdf of Mr Durbin’s full letter.

4 prior probability 08.09.13 at 3:07 pm

Memo to Cato Institute: I’m no fan of Senator Durbin, but if his threatening letter is so foul, why not just toss it in waste bin (or write back with your own letter calling him out)? His tactics may (or may not) be a form of intimidation, but isn’t this how the game of politics is usually played? Let him convene all the “show hearings” he wants … as long as groups on all sides of the self-defense issue are allowed to testify, what harm is there?

5 John Burgess 08.09.13 at 5:25 pm

@prior probability… Haven’t seen many congressional hearings, have you? Whatever makes you think that sides inimical to the chairman’s point of view are allowed to testify? They aren’t even invited to attend unless other congressional elements makes a particular stink about it.

Opponents of the official line might — just might — be invited to submit something in writing. They’re certainly not going to be invited to detract from the politicians’ camera time.

6 Bob Lipton 08.09.13 at 6:44 pm

Prior, I have watched a few senate hearings and they have been show trials. Either they are softball questions, like Jamie Dimon in 2009 or hectoring, like the oil companies’ CEOs in…. was in 2006?

Bob

7 Fox2! 08.10.13 at 1:40 am

And then there are the entirely fake non-hearing hearings put on by only one side. E.g., Sandra Fluke

8 Bissmich 08.10.13 at 7:03 pm

Hey Dick – how about including this in your hearing:

Since our Justice Department and Executive Branch can now apparently pick and choose which laws to follow and which to ignore, my neighbors and I have done the same. Although ‘Stand Your Ground’ isn’t the law in our state – it is now the law in our neighborhood. Thankfully, here in the country with no police department and the sheriff more than an hour away, we’ve got everybody with an excavator on speed dial. Thieves and other assorted human detritus are nervous.

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