Category: Politics


Self-Defense and the Fourteenth Amendment


Dance and sing you black creatures

of Mother Africa.

Move to the sound of the drums

of your forefathers.

Hold on to your drums and beat

them in defiance of the slavemaster and

let their thundering sound awaken those who sleep.

–Mabel Robinson Williams, Transition (1966)


Mabel Robinson Williams passed away last week.  Williams may have been most famous for being married to Robert F. Williams, the controversial former head of the NAACP in Monroe County, NC, but she was an intriguing theorist and fierce activist in her own right.  She recalled that her father slept every night with a pearl-handled pistol under his pillow in case the Klan’s night riders attacked.  As an adult, she served as Secretary of the local NAACP, co-founded a newsletter called The Crusader, organized a mutual aid society called CARE, and helped run Radio Free Dixie.  Mabel called herself a “co-warrior” and “helpmate” to Robert, even as she served as a nurse’s aid and later operated a day care.  When her sons joined a picket against a segregated swimming pool, she sat in the car with guns, keeping one eye out for armed whites.  She and other female members of a rifle club trained to protect their families against the Klan.  Once, Mabel came out of her house with a shotgun and chased off deputies trying to arrest her husband.

Husband and wife worked together on Negroes With Guns (1962), which articulated a theory of self-defense of constitutional rights.  The Williamses “did not advocate violence for its own sake,” nor did they urge “reprisals against whites.”  Instead, they argued that armed self-reliance was compatible with the tactics of peaceful protest promoted by Martin Luther King, Jr. to promote legal change (but they blamed proponents of non-violence for inflexibility in demanding that blacks renounce their right to self-protection).  In their view, armed self-defense was justified because of a “breakdown of the law” in failing to protect black families from armed whites.  As they tell it, Brown v. Board of Education unleashed not only generalized racial unrest in the South, but also a wave of violence directly against NAACP members and their allies.  “[T]here was no such thing as a 14th Amendment to the Constitution in Monroe, NC,” because local officials refused to enforce the law and protect the life, liberty, and property of black families.  Federal and state officials, too, were nowhere to be found.  In fact, many in the community believed that state and local officials were conspiring to deprive black Americans of their constitutional rights. Black self-defense filled this gap in the constitutional order.

Any limited theory of armed self-defense became greatly complicated by the pair’s embrace of Marxist revolutionary ideas about the worldwide liberation of the oppressed.  Negroes With Guns predicted a day when racial violence in the United States became so pervasive that “non-violence will be suicidal in itself.”  It cited with approval the legacy of John Brown favoring the “righteous use” of weapons to “destroy those things that block [the American Negro’s] path to a greater happiness in life.”  Linking armed tactics with revolutionary ends blurred the lines between constitutional preservation and constitutional usurpation–a recurring problem that faced all black power groups during this period.  In theory and practice, it became difficult to draw clear lines between self-defense and the armed instigation of foundational change.

After a protest turned unruly and Robert Williams was charged with kidnapping a white family (he claimed to be protecting the family from a mob), the pair fled.  While in exile in China, Robert briefly held the Presidency of the Republic of New Afrika, founded by the followers of Malcolm X after his assassination.  Professor Pero Gaglo Dagbovie recounts that in later years, Mabel became a community historian and keeper of an oral tradition of the Black Power period.  This tradition includes not only the major events that transpired during a tumultuous period of American history, but also popular interpretations of the law.


Contested Ideas About Consent

One of the challenging things about studying popular constitutionalism is that theories of power, community, and tactics can be all jumbled together.

For instance, from what I can gather, Cliven Bundy appears to be a rancher who holds a strong, individualist view of property rights and espouses a theory of government in which the local somehow trumps the national (and likely the state as well).  Tactically, he favors the use of private force in defense of constitutional rights and powers (he also believes that he is entitled to the assistance of local and state authorities to resist the federal government).  For now, his statements justifying the use of force seem to be limited to repelling invasions of property (his cattle, money) and personal security (his body, the safety of his family), so they can be plausibly defended on self-defense grounds (in natural law or other ethical terms, not based on statute or a written constitution).  His vague call for a “range war” muddies his claim to principled use of extralegal tactics and opens him up to charges that he is advocating organized violence against the state, so you can bet his next words and actions will be carefully scrutinized (recall that John Brown was tried for insurrection, and black nationalists were often accused of such crimes).

What’s harder to figure out is Bundy’s theory of consent.  Every popular constitutionalist must present a coherent theory of consent to rebut arguments that simple lawlessness is being advocated.  Secessionists favored the “compact theory” of consent, which holds that each state agreed to the formation of the U.S. Constitution and that each state could withdraw its consent.  Abraham Lincoln and defenders of the Union rejected this approach, saying that the people in the several states gave their consent and that only the people as a whole could dissolve the bonds of political community.

John Brown argued that groups of Americans (slaves, freedmen, and abolitionists) joined by their conviction and shared tragedy could disaffiliate from the existing form of government without committing treason.  From there, group-based theories of consent flourished.  Modern black nationalists and white separatists argue that racial or ethnic identity provides the basis for giving or withdrawing consent.  Typically, disgruntled Americans signal their disaffiliation through a public act: meeting in convention and signing a public declaration.

What makes sovereign citizens and their ilk different is that they often argue that each individual has the power to withhold the consent of the governed. For many observers, this is a theory of consent that descends into anarchy.  There is also a more selective, and sometimes mysterious, quality to the extent of their disaffiliation. Often, such figures “declare independence” when pressed, during criminal trials or litigation over taxes or property rights. Others, without any prompting, file documents in traditional government offices announcing their unorthodox legal views, sometimes over and over again.

Bundy has said he “respect[s] the federal government” but also that it “doesn’t have its place in the state of Nevada . . . and Clark County, and that’s where my ranch is. The federal government has no power and no ownership of this land.” Unless someone sees an open and notorious act of disaffiliation from the federal government, at this point it looks like he is engaged in selective (issue by issue?) rejection of jurisdiction, backed by an account of political structure that is clearly subversive but not fully implemented.

The task of ascertaining one’s constitutional theory is further complicated when more mainstream figures start using the language of popular sovereignty.  It can be hard to figure out how much an elected official believes and how much the official is simply catering to attitudes that are perceived to be widely shared by constituents.  See, for example, this candidate for Governor of South Dakota, who favors state nullification of unjust federal laws, admires Bundy, and shares his belief that sheriffs are the highest law enforcement officials in the land.  Lora Hubbel plainly has not disaffiliated from state government, holds radical localist views of government, supports extralegal tactics, and holds the federal government in antipathy (but it’s unclear whether she believes she owes allegiance to the U.S. government).

So, the next time you hear a political aspirant, activist, or lawyer deploy arguments about popular sovereignty, ask that person: (1) what is the basis for making such claims; (2) what tactics are justified; and (3) to what government(s), exactly, does he or she owe allegiance?


Legislative Separation of Powers

I find nowadays that many of my constitutional interests revolve around comparing the United States and Britain.  In that spirit, I want to raise the following issue about rule making within Congress.

A fundamental principle of our legal system is that no person should be a judge in his or her own case.  This idea dates back to Blackstone, and is behind many of our legal institutions and ideals.  There is, though, one significant exception.  Each House of Congress makes and applies its own rules.  This means that the majority can be a judge in its own case when the rules are inconvenient.  You can make a reasonable argument that the current lack of cooperation in Congress stems from this merger of procedure and partisanship.  The Speaker largely makes the rules in the House, and Senator Reid does the same in the Senate.  And you wouldn’t call either of these guys nonpartisan.

How do legislatures deal with this problem in other countries or in the states?  There are several options.  One is to say that the rules may only be changed by a supermajority, or may only be changed at a particular time (not just any time the majority wants).  Another thought is that there could be a norm that the rules should not be changed by the majority (even though it can be done that way).  A third possibility is that you delegate rules decisions to someone who is insulated from the majority in some way (a committee chairman or a neutral presiding officer).

None of these are being done now.  I wonder whether each House of Congress could, to so speak, do with a stronger dose of internal separation of powers.


More Rule of the Clan Over at Cato

Those of you who enjoyed our symposium on The Rule of the Clan should check the latest on Mark Weiner’s excellent book over at Cato. The event called The State, the Clan, and Individual Liberty. Mark’s initial essay is up. Essays by Arnold Kling, March 12; Daniel McCarthy, March 14; and John Fabian Witt, March 17 will follow. It promises to be another round of heady discussion about core questions on how we order our society.

Here Mark’s opening to get you started:

Many conservatives argue as a basic tenet of their political thought that individual liberty thrives when the state is limited and weak. “As government expands, liberty contracts,” explained President Ronald Reagan in his farewell address, calling the principle “as neat and predictable as a law of physics.” This view is especially pronounced among libertarians, and for libertarians of an anarchist perspective, the opposition between the individual and the state is fundamental and irreconcilable.

I believe this view is significantly mistaken. From the perspective of comparative law and legal history, it represents a dangerous illusion characteristic of citizens who already enjoy the benefits of modern liberal government. Although the state can be an instrument of tyranny, robust government capable of vindicating the public interest is vital for individual autonomy.


UCLA Law Review Vol. 61, Issue 2

Volume 61, Issue 2 (January 2014)

Negotiating Nonproliferation: International Law and Delegation in the Iranian Nuclear Crisis Aslı Ü. Bâli 232
Detention Without End?: Reexamining the Indefinite Confinement of Terrorism Suspects Through the Lens of Criminal Sentencing Jonathan Hafetz 326
Transparently Opaque: Understanding the Lack of Transparency in Insurance Consumer Protection Daniel Schwarcz 394



California’s Unloaded Open Carry Bans: A Constitutional and Risky, but Perhaps Necessary, Gun Control Strategy Charlie Sarosy 464
Exclusion, Punishment, Racism and Our Schools: A Critical Race Theory Perspective on School Discipline David Simson 506





A silly game for those at AALS and the blogger event

Someone thinks they can tell what your politics are based on what you drink:

Consumer data suggests Democrats prefer clear spirits, while Republicans like their brown liquor. Democratic drinkers are more likely to sip Absolut and Grey Goose vodkas, while Republican tipplers are more likely to savor Jim Beam, Canadian Club and Crown Royal. That research comes from consumer data supplied by GFK MRI, and analyzed by Jennifer Dube of National Media Research Planning and Placement, an Alexandria-based Republican consulting firm.

I assume a political consulting firm wants to know this data so that it can target potential voters, especially those likely to vote and vote a certain way.

Then again, I wonder at the biases here. It does not look like the brand scatter relates only to price. So bourbons may be more favored in Republican areas. But San Francisco, that conservative stronghold, has a an excellent run of rum and whiskey focused bars.

Maybe the best idea is to be equal opportunity as a drinker. Start with gin, move to rum, have some wine, close with whiskey or port. Or drink cocktails. In the words of Radar O’Reilly “Uh, sir, if you’re thirsty. Compliments of Colonel Blake. Scotch. Gin. Vodka. And for your convenience all in the same bottle.”

For now, enjoy guessing what your colleague’s drink says about their politics.


On the NSA and Media Bias: An Extended Analysis

By Albert Wong and Valerie Belair-Gagnon, Information Society Project at Yale Law School

In a recent article in the Columbia Journalism Review, we reported that major US newspapers exhibited a net pro-surveillance bias in their “post-Edward Snowden” coverage of the NSA. Our results ran counter to the general perception that major media outlets lean “traditionally liberal” on social issues. Given our findings, we decided to extend our analysis to see if the same bias was present in “traditionally conservative” and international newspapers.

Using the same methods described in our previous study, we examined total press coverage in the Washington Times, one of the top “traditionally conservative” newspapers in the US. We found that the Washington Times used pro-surveillance terms such as security or counterterrorism 45.5% more frequently than anti-surveillance terms like liberty or rights. This is comparable to USA Today‘s 36% bias and quantitatively greater than The New York Times‘ 14.1% or the Washington Post‘s 11.1%. The Washington Times, a “traditionally conservative” newspaper, had the same, if not stronger, pro-surveillance bias in its coverage as neutral/”traditionally liberal”-leaning newspapers.

In contrast, The Guardian, the major UK newspaper where Glenn Greenwald has reported most of Snowden’s disclosures, did not exhibit such a bias. Unlike any of the US newspapers we examined, The Guardian actually used anti-surveillance terms slightly (3.2%) more frequently than pro-surveillance terms. Despite the UK government’s pro-surveillance position (similar to and perhaps even more uncompromising than that of the US government), the Guardian‘s coverage has remained neutral overall. (Neutral as far as keyword frequency analysis goes, anyway; the use of other methods, such as qualitative analysis of article tone, may also be helpful in building a comprehensive picture.)

Our extended results provide additional context for our earlier report and demonstrate that our analysis is “capturing a meaningful divide.”

On a further note, as several commenters suggested in response to our original report, the US media’s pro-surveillance bias may be a manifestation of a broader “pro-state” bias. This theory may be correct, but it would be difficult to confirm conclusively. On many, even most, issues, the US government does not speak with one voice. Whose position should be taken as the “state” position? The opinion of the President? The Speaker of the House? The Chief Justice? Administration allies in Congress? In the context of the Affordable Care Act, is there no “pro-state” position at all, since the President, the Speaker, and the Chief Justice each have different, largely irreconcilable views?

Schmayek’s Shutdown

MirowskiCoverIf you asked Ted Cruz or Jim DeMint who was the guiding spirit of their government shutdown, they’d probably mention Friedrich von Hayek. The Nobel Prize winning economist warned the world that “socialism” would put citizens on a “road to serfdom.” For the Tea Party, PPACA is a horror, perhaps even a new form of slavery, a threat to liberty even darker than the feudal past Hayek evoked.

But there is another figure just as important to current neoliberal thought as Hayek. Carl Schmitt provided jurisprudential theories of “the emergency” and “the exception” that highlighted the best opportunities for rapid redistribution of wealth upwards. In Never Let a Serious Crisis Go to Waste, Philip Mirowski explains how neoliberal thought, far from advocating a shrinking of the state, in fact sparks a redirection and intensification of its energies. As he puts it, “A primary function of the neoliberal project is to redefine the shape and the function of the state, not to destroy it” (56). Moreover, the “strong state was necessary to neutralize what [Hayek] considered to be the pathologies of democracy” (84). Even a temporary dictatorship can work in a pinch.

The shutdown is a brilliant strategy to meld Hayekian substance and Schmittian procedure. As Aaron Bady has observed,

A shutdown is a state of exception when the government gets to do things it normally can’t do, like close the Environmental Protection Agency, de-fund WIC, close the national parks, send a lot of government employees home [in what is in many ways a lock-out], and all sorts of other stuff. A shutdown is a moment in which a choice gets made about which laws to obey and which laws to ignore, when the government gets to decide that some people are essential and some people aren’t.

Read More


UCLA Law Review Vol. 61, Discourse

Volume 61, Discourse Discourse

Fighting Unfair Credit Reports: A Proposal to Give Consumers More Power to Enforce the Fair Credit Reporting Act Jeffrey Bils 226
A Legal “Red Line”? Syria and the Use of Chemical Weapons in Civil Conflict Jillian Blake & Aqsa Mahmud 244
Alleyne v. United States, Age as an Element, and the Retroactivity of Miller v. Alabama Beth Colgan TBD

Peter Thiel’s Government Shutdown and McCutcheon v. FEC

“I no longer believe that freedom and democracy are compatible.” – Peter Thiel

Dear concurrers: I’m excited to be guest blogging this month. Look forward to comments and discussion–there’s a lot going on (a shut down, a major Supreme Court decision), and I’ll just be posting thoughts, reactions, ideas, related to politics, power, and the Supreme Court. I will likely be focusing on McCutcheon v. FEC (nice summary by Rick Hasen here). Today, I have just a few thoughts about the government shutdown: namely, I want to connect it to the last big Supreme Court case, Citizens United. Unlike Peter Thiel, I think freedom and democracy are compatible, so long as there are good structural rules in place enabling their co-habitation. One set of those structural rules are those that create barriers to unlimited political giving and spending.

Remember this ad?

Hillary: The Movie

It should be on your mind for two reasons.

Read More