Posts Tagged ‘attorneys general’

Are the climate-speech subpoenas constitutional?

New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman is pursuing an investigation of the Exxon Corporation in part for making donations to think tanks and associations like the American Enterprise Institute and American Legislative Exchange Council, which mostly work on issues unrelated to the environment but have also published some views flayed by opponents as “climate change denial.” Assuming the First Amendment protects a right to engage in scholarship, advocacy, and other forms of supposed denial, it is by no means clear that information about such donations would yield a viable prosecution. Which means, notes Hans Bader of the Competitive Enterprise Institute, that the New York probe raises an issue of constitutional dimensions not just at some point down the road, but right now:

A prolonged investigation in response to someone’s speech can violate the First Amendment even when it never leads to a fine. For example, a federal appeals court ruled in White v. Lee, 227 F.3d 1214 (9th Cir. 2000) that lengthy, speech-chilling civil rights investigations by government officials can violate the First Amendment even when they are eventually dropped without imposing any fine or disciplinary action. It found this principle was so plain and obvious that it denied individual civil rights officials qualified immunity for investigating citizens for speaking out against a housing project for people protected by the Fair Housing Act.

In another case, in which a company had been sued seeking damages over its participation in trade-association-related speech, a federal appeals court found that the pendency of the lawsuit all by itself caused enough of a burden on the firm’s speech rights that the court used its mandamus power to order the trial judge to dismiss the claims, a remarkable step.

Moreover, Bader writes, a string of federal precedents indicate that the constitutional rights Schneiderman is trampling here are not just Exxon’s but those of the organizations it gave to, which have a right to challenge his action whether or not the oil company chooses to do so:

These groups themselves can sue Schneiderman under the First Amendment, if Schneiderman’s pressure causes them to lose donations they would otherwise receive. Government officials cannot pressure a private party to take adverse action against a speaker.

Meanwhile, writing at Liberty and Law, Prof. Philip Hamburger of Columbia Law School takes a different tack: the subpoenas imperil due process and separation of powers because they issue at the whim of Schneiderman’s office. Earlier ideas of constitutional government “traditionally left government no power to demand testimony, papers, or other information, except under the authority of a judge or a legislative committee.” In more recent years executive subpoena power has proliferated; so has the parallel power of lawyers in private litigation to demand discovery, but the latter at least in theory goes on under judicial supervision that can check some of its abuse and invasiveness. Extrajudicial subpoenas by AG offices are particularly dangerous, Hamburger argues, because of their crossover civil/criminal potential: the targets do not enjoy a high level of procedural protection when “attorneys general claim to be acting merely in a civil rather than a criminal capacity,” yet the same offices can and do threaten criminal charges. Especially dangerous is New York’s Martin Act, a charter for general invasion of the private papers of anyone and anything with a connection to New York financial transactions.

An attorney general’s concern about fraud or the “public interest” is no justification for allowing him to rifle through private papers. When he thereby extracts the basis for a criminal prosecution, he evades the grand jury process. When he thereby lays the groundwork for a civil enforcement proceeding, he evades the due process of law, for there ordinarily is no discovery for a plaintiff until he commences a civil action. Even worse, when a prosecutor uses a subpoena to get a remunerative settlement, it is akin to extortion — this being the most complete end run around the courts.

Previously on the probe here and here (and earlier here and here), and on the New York attorney general’s office here and here.

[cross-posted from Cato at Liberty]

California AG wants nonprofits’ donor lists

“Do you donate to the Sierra Club or the National Rifle Association? California Attorney General Kamala Harris wants to know who you are, what your address is and how much you give….

“Every American has the right to support the causes we believe in without the fear of harassment and retaliation. Disclosure mandates undermine this basic freedom, dry up donations to charities and silence political speech.” [Jon Riches, Sacramento Bee]

December 23 roundup

Climate speech: “One assumes that there is something illegal about that, but, even if there isn’t…”

Environmentalist writer Bill McKibben, often cited as a key intellectual influence behind the push to have some climate advocacy by business declared illegal, concedes to a friendly interviewer that he’s “not sure what the legality of all this is” concerning ExxonMobil’s alleged conduct: “one assumes that there is something illegal about that, but, even if there isn’t…” [Rolling Stone] William Tucker alleges, based on his account of a personal encounter some years back, that the New Yorker writer himself elects to de-emphasize as politically unhelpful (as opposed to actually false) some scientific insights favorable to nuclear generation of electricity [Real Clear Energy, no #McKibbenKnew hashtag yet]

Meanwhile, New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman confirmed to Judy Woodruff that donations to “climate denial organizations” such as the center-right American Enterprise Institute (!) are central to his probe [PBS] I worked at AEI back in the 1980s but have no recollection of spending time on any issues related to climate change, although perhaps I had better wait for the subpoena before saying anything definitive.

Daniel Fisher at Forbes notes the likely course of the “fishing expedition”: “if you are the New York attorney general you can create public theater to bring pressure on a particular defendant.” Fisher notes that oil majors face political risks in Africa, central Asia and thanks to our feckless politicians, the United States too (duplicate link fixed now). Michael Bastasch at the Daily Caller notes evidence that Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), an impresario of the climate prosecution push, conferred behind the scenes with scientists who signed a letter endorsing the effort. And Richard Epstein discusses the various developments in a Hoover podcast.

September 16 roundup

  • Study hyped as showing vaping serves as gateway to smoking doesn’t actually show that [Jacob Sullum]
  • Your guano ticket to land-based wealth: 1856 law on bird droppings can help you claim an island [Mark Mancini, Mental Floss]
  • Dignity of the bench: “Judge lied about claimed toilet-lid attack outside courthouse, jury finds” [ABA Journal; Waterloo, N.Y.]
  • Someone’s using someone: “Providence using plaintiffs bar to become player in antitrust cases” [Jessica Karmasek, Legal Newsline, related]
  • Competitive Enterprise Institute picks what it considers the nation’s six worst state AGs, most names are familiar to our readers [Hans Bader/CEI, more, full report in PDF, and thanks for link]
  • “Frivolous Serial Pro Se Litigant Upset Journalists Portrayed Him As A Frivolous Serial Litigant” [Tim Cushing, TechDirt]
  • Model of arbitration in Njal’s Saga: binding, provided it roughly tracks outcome of averted violence [Tyler Cowen]

“Pennsylvania AG, Facing Trial for Perjury, Uses Twin Sister as Courthouse Decoy”

In case you had any doubt that the Kathleen Kane ethical saga in Pennsylvania is destined for a Hollywood treatment [Kathryn Rubino, Above the Law; Beth Ethier, Slate, whence the above headline] Relatedly or otherwise, our friends at the Competitive Enterprise Institute have named their pick of the nation’s six worst state attorneys general, with Kane topping the list [Hans Bader/CEI, and thanks for link]

The very model of a Left attorney general

My lengthy profile of New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman in the new City Journal ranges over many topics, including mortgage and Wall Street settlements; Uber, Lyft, AirBnB and the sharing economy; unions’ efforts to light legal fires under fast-food operators; the unreconstructed Left politics of Manhattan’s Upper East Side; and much more, including Schneiderman’s dubious campaign against herbal supplement retailers. One section that I hope is of interest beyond New York is a sidebar on the politics of state attorney general offices. An excerpt:

…State attorneys general really took off as players on the national scene in the 1970s and 1980s, a period in which the number of staff attorneys in AG offices quadrupled, according to figures in Paul Nolette’s new book, Federalism on Trial. Once the National Association of Attorneys General, or NAAG, began to take a more active role in helping beef up and coordinate formerly scattered efforts, multistate AG litigation, in which many state offices band together to file suit, began to grow, from fewer than five cases a year three decades ago to 40 to 50 cases a year more recently.

Is this a spontaneous upsurge reflecting the decentralized genius of our system? Not quite: as Nolette explains, Congress was, in fact, busy over this period funneling federal grants to state AG offices to build up their strike-force capacity against business defendants, while revamping laws to give them more enforcement power. The executive branch helped, too: “[F]ederal agencies have aggressively promoted [state AG] litigation working groups,” Nolette writes….

The tobacco episode — and the idea it encouraged that AGs should step in to reform national industries through litigation and master settlement when the U.S. Congress declined to do so — changed everything. One of its consequences was to send hundreds of millions, even billions of dollars in settlement money sloshing through the formerly sleepy AG offices:

…It’s common for AGs’ offices to keep at least enough money from settlements to cover their own investigation; state laws vary widely, however, on whether they have to turn over surplus money to a general fund. When they don’t do so, the AG office can quickly become a power center, handing out (in effect) appropriations that bypass the state legislature’s scrutiny. In states like Arkansas, Massachusetts, and West Virginia, AG offices have channeled settlement funds to health nonprofits, police and fire charities, and agencies of their own choosing within state, county, and local government. Other favored beneficiaries include legal-aid programs, bar associations, and law schools—the legal profession being, of course, a key political constituency of any AG’s office. With control over big money flows, smart AGs can populate a political landscape with grateful allies. …

Last week I linked a sidebar on the legal system’s failure to protect businesses (small banks, in this case) from the exercise of arbitrary authority by officials like Schneiderman. While my piece is critical of his enforcement actions, it also makes clear that most of what he’s up to simply applies the set of far-reaching powers assembled by earlier state attorneys general before him, from Eliot Spitzer and Andrew Cuomo in New York to figures in other states like Jerry Brown, Richard Blumenthal, Jim Hood, and even Bill Clinton. Whole thing here.

Criminal charges against Pennsylvania AG Kathleen Kane

We’ve covered her travails ethical and otherwise, and now she’s facing charges of “obstructing administration of law or other government function, official oppression, criminal conspiracy, perjury and false swearing.” [PAPolitics.com; Pittsburgh Tribune-Review; Wallace McKelvey, Harrisburg Patriot-News] At Philadelphia Magazine, Patrick Kerkstra recalls the sugary treatment Kane was getting from the press, including himself, as recently as 2013.