Friday, February 29, 2008

Blowhard Central

Bill Cunningham is the Cincinnati talk show host who, while warming up a crowd for John McCain, referred several times to Senator Obama as "Barack Hussein Obama." In case you were wondering whether Mr. Cunningham is a blowhard or a completely insincere and laughably disingenuous blowhard, listen to his NPR interview with Robert Siegel (no relation to yours truly, by the way). With an air of injured innocence, Cunningham proclaimed that he just used that name because "it's his name." He even said that the President's middle name is "normally" employed -- to give the President more respect.

It's almost superfluous to point out what hogwash this is. In the Cunningham clip palyed in the interview, Cunningham said that maybe the media would "start covering Barack Hussein Obama the same way they cover Bush." He didn't say, "start covering Barack Hussein Obama the same way they cover George Walker Bush." No one calls the current President Bush "George Walker Bush." Many people call him "George W. Bush" but references to "George Walker Bush" are rare. In fact, when some Democrats used to call his father "George Herbert Walker Bush" they were pulling exactly the same cheap trick Cunningham is pulling now: suggesting that the name said something unfavorable about the candidate -- in that case, that the candidate was insufferably patrician.

Cunningham used the middle name because it sounds foreign and Islamic and happens to match the name of one of America's former enemies. It's a raw appeal to prejudice. His hollow denials just show him up for the blowhard he is.

Thursday, February 28, 2008

The Audacity of Turkey

Secretary of Defense Robert Gates is taking a "sharper tone" toward the Turkish raids in Northern Iraq, saying that "It’s very important that the Turks make this operation as short as possible and then leave."

Wow -- Turkey seems to think that a nation can just invade Iraq. Without any other nation's permission. And stay as long as it thinks necessary to achieve its objectives. And just because it perceives happenings in Iraq as a threat to its own national security.

Imagine that. Obviously we can't support that. Nope, they'd better leave right away.

Tuesday, February 26, 2008


With Ralph Nader determined to help Republicans again by running for President and siphoning off a couple percent of Democratic votes (hopefully not many Democrats are stupid enough to vote for him this time), what we need is a third-party candidate to do the same thing on the other side. Fortunately, there is a substantial opening for such a candidacy. After all, McCain is too moderate for the Republican right wing. So there's real room for a true-blue conservative to run to McCain's right.

I doubt that Mike Huckabee will go the third-party route, but perhaps Ron Paul will see that the country really needs him, even if the Republicans don't want him as their nominee. He could pick up a good 5% of the vote, perhaps -- it's not that hard to pick up 5% at either end of the spectrum if you're willing to take sufficiently extreme positions. And Paul did run as the Libertarian Party candidate for President in 1988.

Are you listening, Dr. Paul? Don't you think your country needs you? Get yourself on those ballots!

Sunday, February 24, 2008

Butt Out, You Bum

Look, I can understand that if you were once famous and influential, it must be tough to accept that the next significant story about you will be your obituary. I'm sure the bigger you were, the harder it is being a washed-up, dried-out, over-the-hill has-been.

But that doesn't make it appropriate for you to screw up the presidential race. It doesn't mean you should run a race that does nothing but feed your mountainous ego and that can't do any good while having every chance of doing harm.

There's no doubt about it: Ralph Nader put George W. Bush in the White House. Of course he's not the sole cause. Gore's lame campaign bears a lot of responsibility too. But Nader is what we lawyers call a "but-for" cause of the Bush presidency. If Nader hadn't been running, Gore would have won. It's that simple.

Moreover, this was entirely predictable. Maybe when Nader started his quixotic quest, he could have legitimately imagined that it wouldn't cause any harm. But as election day 2000 approached, it was all too clear that the election was going to be a squeaker, and that Nader's candidacy could make all the difference. He had plenty of time to see this and to ask his supporters to vote for Gore. But he didn't. He stuck it out, screwed up Florida, and handed the election to Bush. To satisfy the ego of some aging 60s leftover, we all have to put up with eight years of government favoring the rich, five years of the Iraq war, and a lifetime of Justices Roberts and Alito.

I used to respect Ralph Nader. Back in his day he took courageous stands, employed impressive organizational skill, and actually achieved things.

But now and forever, I will think of him solely as the man who put Bush in the White House because he was too sanctimonious to support someone who was only very liberal, not super-liberal.

Get lost, you stinking bum. You're not going to accomplish anything good and you might just screw up the election again. You're just proving what we all think about you now -- that you don't give a damn about the country; all you care about is yourself.

Wednesday, February 20, 2008

Tax Tip

April 15 is approaching, faithful readers, and of course, I know the question on all of your minds is, "what about all that stuff I stole last year? How do I account for it on my taxes?"

Not to fear; helpful tax tips are here, and straight from the IRS, too. Page 90 of Publication 17, "Your Federal Income Tax," provides the simple answer:

"Stolen property. If you steal property, you must report its fair market value in your income in the year you steal it unless in the same year, you return it to its rightful owner."

Sorry, it's too late to return that property you stole last year. You'll just have to report it now. You got its fair market value appraised, didn't you?

And here's your Bonus Tax Tip! What about those bribes? Page 87: "If you receive a bribe, include it in your income."

As another author might say, I am not making this up.

Monday, February 18, 2008

Lincoln Lost

Quiz Question: What is the official name of the holiday celebrated by our federal government today?

I bet you said, "President's Day."


There's a popular conception that Washington's Birthday and Lincoln's Birthday were merged into one holiday called "President's Day." Actually, Lincoln's Birthday was never a federal holiday, and, as the official list shows, today's holiday is simply called "Washington's Birthday." Lincoln's Birthday was once a holiday in some states (do click on that one, it's a cool link to a NYT article from 1906), but never at the federal level, although it is officially listed as a day when the U.S. flag should "especially" be displayed.

Thanks to poor statutory drafting, Washington's Birthday is celebrated on the third Monday in February, so that even when Washington's real birthday of February 22 falls on a Monday, it can never coincide with the holiday. When February 22 is a Monday, it is the fourth Monday in February, because in those years February 1, 8, and 15 are also Mondays.

In another blow to popular opinion, Washington was actually born on Feburary 11, 1731. What's up with that? The answer is that his birthday got changed to February 22 in 1752, when Britain finally adopted the Gregorian calendar. The calendar change required skipping ahead 11 days to catch up with the difference between the old and new calendars.

President's Day is said to be an invention of retailers who discovered that a generic holiday moved more merchandise than a holiday celebrating a specific President.

Just a little useful information from your friendly blogging law prof at George Washington University.

Sunday, February 17, 2008

Feeling Less Safe?

The Protect America Act expired yesterday, after the House of Representatives went on recess without passing a Senate-approved version of new amendments to the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act.

For those new to the story, Congress passed the PAA last summer after the Bush administration claimed that it needed new wiretapping authority to protect against terrorist threats. Because the PAA was intrusive on civil liberties, Congress included a sunset provision that made the act expire after six months, during which Congress hoped to work out a better version.

Intense wrangling over the better version developed, particularly with regard to the question of whether telecom companies should be immune from suit for complying with administration data request -- or, to put it less politely, for spying on their customers. The Senate said yes, but the House version of the bill hadn't included such immunity.

As usual, President Bush forecasts dire danger to U.S. security if the Congress doesn't give him all the surveillance power he wants. But for a change, the House refused to cave in to the President's fear mongering.

It's about time someone stood up to the President on this issue. I'm all for protecting America from terrorism, but civil liberties matter too, and the President can't expect to have everything his own way. His uncompromising approach is just as responsible for any security risk that we're now facing as any Democratic desires. Congress offered another temporary extension of the PAA while things got worked out, but the President refused.

With the PAA's authority expired, the administration will need to get judicial approval for wiretapping more often. Is that a major security hazard? I'm having trouble seeing it.

Wednesday, February 13, 2008

The Lord Chancellor Speaks

Interesting speech today at GWU Law School (where I teach) by Jack Straw, the Lord Chancellor of Great Britain.

The Lord Chancellor said he wanted to see Britain adopt a Bill of Rights and Responsibilities, possibly as part of a larger project to codify the British Constitution.

Americans take a written Constitution for granted, but Britain doesn't have one. When a British lawyer refers to the British Constitution, he means the way the government is constituted. No one document sets forth all the rules, although there are several important documents that play a role: the 1689 Bill of Rights, the 19th century Reform Acts, and the Parliament Acts.

The Lord Chancellor said that while "an innate understanding of rights is a part of our national psyche," because the sources of rights are scattered, British people "might struggle to put their finger on what those rights are or in which texts they are located. "

As far as I can tell, this speech was the official announcement of this important policy initiative. It was rather exciting to see such a speech given in a university setting. It called to mind how the Marshall Plan was originally announced at a Harvard University commencement.

I asked the Lord Chancellor if the British Bill of Rights would be put to the British people for ratification or if it would be an ordinary act of Parliament. He didn't explicitly answer (I gathered that the latter was the plan) but he said that if the project for codifying the whole British Constitution were to forward, the plan was to put that to a referendum. He said that the British political parties agree that certain changes would be so significant -- switching currency to the Euro, for example, or leaving the European Union -- that they would require popular ratification.

Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Election Day

Here in Disenfranchisement City, also known as the District of Columbia, we citizens have no representatives in Congress and even the laws passed by such elected officials as we have can be overridden by a Congress made up of Representatives and Senators elected from everywhere but here. Moreover, the District is more than 70% Democrats, so our general elections are usually pretty meaningless -- the Democrats always win. Well, not absolutely always, but almost.

So it's a rare day in the District when we actually have something to vote for. The Democratic primary election for mayor really matters. That's exciting.

And then there's today. This is the first time ever since I've been here that the presidential preference primary has been held in DC at a time when the nomination was still up for grabs.

The polls were packed! I actually had to wait in line! There were eligibility issues! People were trying to vote who weren't registered with a party, who didn't live in the District, or who had moved within the District since the last election. The election officials were courteously, if somewhat slowly, handling the problems.

It was almost like living in a place that actually had real elections. A rare taste of democracy for DC.

Friday, February 8, 2008

The Sad Aftermath

Faithful readers, I know you regard my musings on income tax protestors as an eccentric distraction from things you actually care about, but I can't help but give one more warning to those thinking about falling for bizarre tax theories in light of the latest development in the case of those champion tax kooks, Ed and Elaine Brown. The two have been incarcerated since last October, after a sneak raid by the feds ended their 8-month standoff, which they spent holed up in their New Hampshire home, proclaiming that there was no law requiring them to pay taxes and that the federal court in which they had been convicted was a "fiction."

Reality is perhaps a little clearer from inside a prison cell. Yesterday, the government to which that fictional court belongs conducted the second of two auctions of the Browns' property in an effort to raise money to pay off their tax arrearages. (The linked story says that the Browns owe more than $2 million in back taxes, but what I recall from their trial is that they owe back taxes on $2 million in income. So probably they owe something like $600,000 in taxes, although who knows what the total is with interest and penalties.) A 2-pound bar of gold went for $32,000 (roughly market price -- that's $1000 an ounce), and their coin collection, cars, and other items brought the total raised to about $100,000.

So to anyone thinking of falling for crazy tax protestor theories, just bear in mind what it can lead to -- not only can the government throw your ass in jail, once that's done it can sell your stuff. Not a happy sight.

Wednesday, February 6, 2008

After Super Tuesday

I thought it would be all over. The states finally figured out that there are advantages to voting early in primary season -- how could they not have figured this out before, one wonders -- and they jammed themselves up on the earliest day allowed by party rules. So today could have been it -- clearly annointed nominees.

But it was not to be, at least not on the Dem side. Hillary and Barack remain locked in a tight race, basically tied in elected delegates. Hillary's lead of about 90 delegates comes almost entirely from the superdelegates.

Partly this comes from the arcane delegate allocation rules. I like the concept of proportional allocation of delegates better than the winner-take-all method used by the Republicans in many states. But the Democratic method isn't really proportional allocation. You might think that prportional allocation means that if a candidate gets 55% of the vote in a state, that candidate gets 55% of the delegates (subject to being off by one because of rounding). But strangely, the rule first divides a state up by congressional districts and then allocates delegates proportionally in each district. So if a district has four delegates, a candidate in a two-person race needs to win more than 62.5% of the vote in that district to get three of them (because 62.5% is halfway between 50% and 75%). With Hillary and Barack running pretty even, the delegate allocation will almost surely be evenly divided in districts with an even number of delegates.

Do we really want the nomination to be determined by which candidate does slightly better in those districts that have an odd number of delegates? The whole thing is strange.

Friday, February 1, 2008

Train Leaving the Station

No legal content today, but I couldn't help but by struck by the story that even though travel is starting to return to normal in Guangzhou, China, following snowstorms that disrupted trains, there were still 400,000 people stranded at the Guangzhou railroad station. And that's down by half from the peak of the problem!

Can you imagine 800,000 people stuck at a railroad station? That's bigger than the entire population of the District of Columbia. If every man, woman, and child in town went down to Union Station and camped out there, the scene wouldn't be as bad as Guangzhou.

I remember once being at a huge political rally in downtown DC, in a crowd later estimated to be 750,000. As we were marching, there was a jam-up as we tried to turn a corner. For about half an hour it wasn't possible to move six inches in any direction.

800,000 people trying to get on a train. Things obviously happen on a grand scale in China.