The Kansas Education Funding Case and Constitutional Democracy

(Co-authored with John Rury, Professor of Education at the University of Kansas – published in the Huffington Post, Jan. 16, 2015).

brown-v.-Board2The ongoing debate in Kansas over school funding is important not only for the state’s education policy, but also for how we think about our democracy. Controversy was rekindled at the end of December when a three judge panel of the District Court in Shawnee County issued a judgment declaring the legislature’s current funding formula inconsistent with the Kansas Constitution. The panel noted that the formula was both inadequate and inequitable, and that as much as $802 million in additional resources for public education could be required for the legislature to meet its constitutional obligations.

Echoing other Republican legislators and conservative pundits, Senator Steven Fitzgerald of Leavenworth was quoted in the Kansas City Star describing the ruling as “terrible,” adding “people who voted for their representatives aren’t going to be too happy with the unelected judges saying their money has to go more into the schools.” This suggests that courts should be subordinate to the majoritarian legislature, which in turn should have complete discretion over how, or even whether, to fund education for everyone.

But this argument misapprehends the nature of constitutional democracy. As conceived since the nation’s founding, constitutions are understood to provide the legal framework for democratic government, distribute political authority among its branches, enshrine rights, and lay out the fundamental values and principles by which to live for generations to come. Given this, other laws and government action must be consistent with the constitution, or be deemed invalid. … Read more…

Boston and the Dangerous Calls for “Enemy Combatant” Status

(Published in the Huffington Post,  Apr. 30, 2013, and The Truman Doctrine blog, Apr. 30, 2013)

The Obama Administration announced last week that it would prosecute Boston bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev in the Federal criminal justice system. This should have been unremarkable, but it came amidst a cacophony of voices demanding that Tzarnaev be classified and treated as an “enemy combatant.” There were calls to similarly classify the Christmas day bomber, the Times Square bomber, and several other terrorist suspects captured in the United States. Such claims have no legal validity, and are indeed dangerous.

The calls for “enemy combatant” status not only came from various so-called pundits on Fox News and the like, but also from more serious quarters. Senator Lindsey Graham criticized the administration, arguing that Tsarnaev should be classified as an “enemy combatant” under the law of armed conflict for the purposes of extracting intelligence.

Alberto Gonzales, former White House in the Bush administration stated in an interview last week that “nothing prevents the President from deciding: ‘This isn’t working, it’s not going the way we hoped it would go, so I’m pulling him out of the criminal justice system and I’m designating him an enemy combatant.'” … Read more…

On the Anniversary of the Iraq Invasion

(Published in the Truman Doctrine Blog, part of a series of 250 word entries on how the Iraq War shaped one’s life and ideas)

Back in 1990, in the run-up to the Gulf War, I was a naval officer, and like most of the world, supported the need to use military force. As a student of history, I understood that force is sometimes necessary in the face of aggression.

By 2003, I was a lawyer, and like much of the rest of the world, I viewed the invasion of Iraq as unnecessary, unwise, and unlawful. The Bush administration’s rationales shifted from “preventative” self-defense against Iraq’s WMD, to resurrection of the U.N.’s authorization to use force in the Gulf War, to claims of links to Al Qaeda and 9/11. In the absence of WMD, the government even stooped to advancing human rights justifications for the attack. None were valid.

I was not directly affected by the war, but I was increasingly disturbed by the developments in Iraq, and the so-called “global war on terror” to which it was inextricably linked. The hundreds of thousands of civilian dead, Guantanamo Bay, Abu-Grahib, the torture memos, targeted killing – and all distorting the law and eroding the rule of law, at home and in the international system.

These contributed to my decision to leave practice and head back to school to research the legal constraints on the use of military force. I became a law professor. So in this way I suppose the war helped shape my life’s path. And I strive for a time when such unjust wars will be more difficult for democratic governments to wage.

The Fallacies of the Torture Debate

(Published in The Huffington Post, May 19, 2011)

The torture debate has once again seeped into the public discourse in America, and it has us focusing once again on all the wrong issues. Suggestions have been made that information that Khalid Sheikh Mohammed provided while being water-boarded helped lead the CIA to bin Laden’s door. This has prompted the likes of John Yoo (author of the notorious torture memos signed by Jay Bybee) and former Attorney General Michael Mukasey, to argue that the case for water-boarding has been vindicated. Others, including Senator John McCain, have refuted the assertions that the trail to Bin Laden can be traced back to so-called “enhanced interrogation techniques.” In short, the debate is once again centering on the question of whether torture is effective.

First, it should be noted that the debate misconstrues the effectiveness argument. Few people would assert that torture can never produce so called “actionable intelligence.” The point, made extensively by FBI interrogators and other specialists in the field, is that torture produces less reliable intelligence than traditional (and lawful) methods of interrogation, since the victim will say anything to avoid the pain, some of it true but much of it not, creating the problem of trying to distinguish between fact and fiction. Moreover, a policy of torture creates longer term strategic costs in the effort to win over hearts and minds, which ultimately makes it counter-productive and ineffective from a broader perspective.

The key point, however, is that effectiveness is entirely beside the point. We should oppose and reject the use of torture even if it could be shown that it is effective. To his credit, John McCain also makes this argument. For those who do oppose torture, it is a profound mistake to be engaging in this debate about effectiveness. First of all, the arguments get reduced to the overly simplistic and binary question of whether it ever works, which is of course vulnerable to attack — just one example of torture producing one piece of accurate intelligence tends to undermine the entire position. Hence the debate today. But more importantly, engaging in this debate tends to suggest that if torture were found to be effective, then perhaps we might have to use it. But we would not, or should not, so why get trapped in this debate? We ought to stick to the real reasons for our objections.

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