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Profile: Richard Epstein

Richard Epstein was a participant or observer in the following events:

Fourteen law professors and former federal officials send a letter criticizing the Justice Department’s recent legal arguments supporting the legality of the secret NSA surveillance program (see December 19, 2005 and December 21-22, 2005). The letter is signed by law professors Curtis A. Bradley, a former State Department legal advisor; David Cole; Walter Dellinger, a former acting solicitor general and assistant attorney general; Ronald Dworkin; Richard Epstein; Harold Koh, a former assistant secretary of state and a former Justice Department official; Philip B. Heymann, a former deputy attorney general; Martin Lederman, a former Justice Department official; Beth Nolan, a former presidential counsel and a former Justice Department official; William S. Sessions, the former director of the FBI; Geoffrey R. Stone; Kathleen M. Sullivan; Laurence H. Tribe; and William Van Alstyne, a former Justice Department attorney. The letter is couched in legal language, but clearly states that the signees consider the NSA surveillance program entirely illegal: “[T]he program appears on its face to violate existing law.” The signees consider and reject the Justice Department’s argument that Congress “implicitly authorized the NSA program when it enacted the Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF) against al-Qaeda” in 2001 (see September 14-18, 2001), writing: “[T]he AUMF cannot reasonably be construed to implicitly authorize warrantless electronic surveillance in the United States during wartime, where Congress has expressly and specifically addressed that precise question in FISA and limited any such warrantless surveillance to the first 15 days of war.” The signees also reject the Justice Department’s argument that the president’s “inherent constitutional authority as commander in chief to collect ‘signals intelligence’” is not prohibited by FISA. The signees conclude that the Justice Department has failed “to offer a plausible legal defense of the NSA domestic spying program. If the administration felt that FISA was insufficient, the proper course was to seek legislative amendment, as it did with other aspects of FISA in the Patriot Act, and as Congress expressly contemplated when it enacted the wartime wiretap provision in FISA. One of the crucial features of a constitutional democracy is that it is always open to the president—or anyone else—to seek to change the law. But it is also beyond dispute that, in such a democracy, the president cannot simply violate criminal laws behind closed doors because he deems them obsolete or impracticable.” [Marty Lederman, 1/9/2006; Center for Democracy and Technology, 1/9/2006 pdf file]

Entity Tags: Harold Koh, William S. Sessions, William Van Alstyne, Curtis Bradley, Beth Nolan, Geoffrey Stone, US Department of Justice, Walter Dellinger, Richard Epstein, Martin (“Marty”) Lederman, Laurence Tribe, Kathleen M. Sullivan, Ronald Dworkin, National Security Agency, Philip Heymann, David D. Cole

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

In his State of the Union address, President Bush insists that his authority to wiretap Americans’ phones without warrants (see December 15, 2005 and December 18, 2005) is validated by previous administrations’ actions, saying that “previous presidents have used the same constitutional authority I have.” He fails to note that those presidents authorized warrantless wiretaps before court orders were required for such actions (see June 19, 1972 and 1973). Since the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act passed (see 1978), no president except Bush has ever defied the law. Law professor David Cole calls Bush’s assertion of authority “either intentionally misleading or downright false.” Fellow law professor Richard Epstein predicts that the Supreme Court will strike down any such assertions, if it ever addresses the issue. “I find every bit of this legal argument disingenuous,” he says. Even many conservatives refuse to support Bush, with columnist George Will calling his arguments “risible” and a “monarchical doctrine” that is “refuted by the plain text of the Constitution.” David Keene, the chairman of the American Conservative Union, says the legal powers claimed by Bush and his officials can be used to justify anything: “Their argument is extremely dangerous.… The American system was set up on the assumption that you can’t rely on the good will of people with power.” Conservative activist Grover Norquist says flatly, “There is no excuse for violating the rule of law.” And former Justice Department official Bruce Fein says Bush and his officials have “a view that would cause the Founding Fathers to weep. The real conservatives are the ones who treasure the original understanding of the Constitution, and clearly this is inconsistent with the separation of powers.” Even former George H. W. Bush official Brent Scowcroft says that Bush’s interpretation of the Constitution is “fundamentally in error.” [Savage, 2007, pp. 203-204]

Entity Tags: David D. Cole, Brent Scowcroft, American Conservative Union, Bruce Fein, Richard Epstein, Grover Norquist, Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act, David Keene, George Will, George W. Bush

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

Civil libertarians, both conservative and liberal, join in filing a legal brief on behalf of suspected al-Qaeda sleeper agent Ali Saleh Kahlah al-Marri (see December 12, 2001), whose lawyers are preparing to file a suit challenging his detention as an “enemy combatant” (see February 1, 2007). Liberal and progressive law school deans Harold Koh of Yale and Laurence Tribe of Harvard are joined by conservatives such as Steven Calabresi, a former Reagan White House lawyer and co-founder of the staunchly conservative Federalist Society, in a brief that argues an immigrant or a legal resident of the US has the right to seek his freedom in the US court system. Al-Marri is a Qatari citizen who attended Bradley University in Illinois. The brief argues that the Military Commissions Act (MCA) (see October 17, 2006) is unconstitutional. The brief “shows the phrases ‘conservative’ and ‘libertarian’ have less overlap than ever before,” says law professor Richard Epstein, a Federalist Society member who signed it, adding, “This administration has lost all libertarians on all counts.” Koh says: “This involves the executive branch changing the rules to avoid challenges to its own authority. Serious legal scholars, regardless of political bent, find what the government did inconsistent with any reasonable visions of the rule of law.” Epstein, who says Koh is “mad on many issues,” agrees, calling the al-Marri case “beyond the pale.” He says, “They figured out every constitutional protection you’d want and they removed them.” Lawyer Jonathan Hafetz, representing al-Marri, says the case brings up issues about what the framers of the Constitution intended—something libertarians and judicial conservatives often look to. [Associated Press, 12/13/2006]

Entity Tags: Richard Epstein, Ali Saleh Kahlah al-Marri, Federalist Society, Harold Koh, Steven Calabresi, Jonathan Hafetz, Laurence Tribe

Timeline Tags: Torture of US Captives, Civil Liberties

Author and reporter Charlie Savage observes that the Bush administration went far beyond the Reagan-era vision of a “unitary executive” (see April 30, 1986). He writes that the administration decided early on—perhaps before taking office in January 2001—to combine the “unitary executive” theory with the older concept of the “inherent powers” of the presidency (see 1901-1909 and June 30, 1950). Savage writes: “The new and improved Unitary Executive Theory said that Congress could not regulate any executive power, but the theory said nothing about the potential scope of such power. When fused, the two theories transformed any conceivably inherent executive power into an exclusive one. The president could do virtually anything, without any check by Congress.” Savage notes that most legal experts from across the political spectrum have roundly rejected both theories, as has the Supreme Court (see June 2, 1952 and June 1988). “The Bush-Cheney administration legal team regularly ignored the existence of such precedents in its secret advisory opinions” (see November 16-17, 1987 and September 25, 2001). The Bush administration also used an unusual reading of Alexander Hamilton’s discussion of the executive branch’s “unity” in the Federalist Papers, article 70, in which Hamilton advocated that the president’s powers should not be limited by a body of lawmakers. As Savage points out, most legal scholars call this reading “extremely misleading,” and note that Hamilton was writing about the Founding Fathers’ decision to have a single president instead of an executive committee. In fact, Hamilton explicitly repudiated the idea of a “unitary executive” in Federalist 69. Savage writes: “Over and over again, the presidentialists’ most important legal writings failed to make any mention of Federalist 69, even as they selectively quoted tidbits of Federalist 70—and quoted them out of context—as proof for their power to act beyond the limits of statutes passed by Congress.” Conservative law professor Richard Epstein calls the Bush administration’s legal theory “just wrong,” and its lawyers’ failure to acknowledge Federalist 69 “scandalous.” Epstein says: “How can you not talk about Federalist 69? All you have to do is go on Google and put in ‘Federalist Papers’ and ‘commander in chief,’ and it pops up.” [Savage, 2007, pp. 124-127]

Entity Tags: Charlie Savage, Richard Epstein, Bush administration (43)

Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties

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