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June 18, 2019

Want to See My Genes? Get a Warrant

[Cross-posted from the New York Times]

Someone broke into a church in Centerville, Utah, last November and attacked the organist who was practicing there. In March, after a conventional investigation came up empty, a police detective turned to forensic consultants at Parabon NanoLabs. Using the publicly accessible website GEDmatch, the consultants found a likely distant genetic relative of the suspect, whose blood sample had been found near the church’s broken window.

Someone related to the person on GEDmatch did indeed live in Centerville: a 17-year-old high school student. Alerted by the police, a school resource officer watched the student during lunch at the school cafeteria and collected the milk carton and juice box he’d thrown in the garbage. The DNA on the trash was a match for the crime scene evidence. This appears to be the first time that this technique was used for an assault investigation.

The technique is known as genetic genealogy. It isn’t simply a matter of finding an identical genetic match between someone in a database and evidence from a crime scene. Instead, a DNA profile may offer an initial clue — that a distant cousin is related to a suspect, for instance — and then an examination of birth records, family trees and newspaper clips can identify a small number of people for further investigation.

The identification of Joseph DeAngelo in the Golden State Killer case also relied on genetic genealogy. He was charged with 26 counts of murder and kidnapping after a genealogist helped investigators in California identify a third cousin of Mr. DeAngelo’s through GEDmatch and other genealogical records.

While there may be broad public support for a technique that solved serial murders, just because technology allows for a new type of investigation doesn’t mean the government should be allowed to use it in all cases.

Genetic genealogy requires lots of DNA samples and an easy way to compare them. Americans have created millions of genetic profiles already. A 2018 study published in Science predicted that 90 percent of Americans of European descent will be identifiable from their DNA within a year or two, even if they have not used a consumer DNA service. As for easy access, GEDmatch’s website provides exactly this opportunity. Consumers can take profiles generated from other commercial genetic testing services, upload them free and compare them to other profiles. So can the police.

We should be glad whenever a cold case involving a serious crimes like rape or murder can be solved. But the use of genetic genealogy in the Centerville assault case raises with new urgency fundamental questions about this technique.

First, there is now no downward limit on what crimes the police might investigate through genetic genealogy. If the police felt free to use it in an assault case, why not shoplifting, trespassing or littering?

Second, there’s the issue of meaningful consent. You may decide that the police should use your DNA profile without qualification and may even post your information online with that purpose in mind. But your DNA is also shared in part with your relatives. When you consent to genetic sleuthing, you are also exposing your siblings, parents, cousins, relatives you’ve never met and even future generations of your family. Legitimate consent to the government’s use of an entire family tree should involve more than just a single person clicking “yes” to a website’s terms and conditions.

Third, there’s the question of why the limits on Americans’ genetic privacy are being fashioned by private entities. The Centerville police used GEDmatch because the site owners allowed an exception to their own rules, which had permitted law enforcement access only for murder and sexual assault investigations. After user complaints, GEDmatch expanded the list of crimes that the police may investigate on its site to include assault. It also changed default options for users so that the police may not gain access to their profiles unless users affirmatively opt-in. But if your relative elects to do so, there’s no way for you to opt out of that particular decision. And what’s to stop GEDmatch from changing its policies again?

Finally, the police usually confirm leads by collecting discarded DNA samples from a suspect. How comfortable should we be that a school resource officer hung around a high school cafeteria waiting to collect a teenager’s “abandoned” DNA?

All of these issues point to one problem: Police use of genetic genealogy is virtually unregulated. Law enforcement agencies and cooperating genetic genealogy websites are operating in a world of few limits. There are not only few rules about which crimes to investigate, but also unclear remedies in the case of mistakes, the discovery of embarrassing or intrusive information, or misuse of the information.

If these concerns sounds similar to other technology and privacy problems we’re facing, they should. Our genetic and digital identities raise similar questions of autonomy, civil liberties, and intrusion by public and private entities.

Without legal limits, genetic genealogy will become a more popular tool for the police. Rather than wait for the courts to deal with difficult and novel issues about genetic surveillance and privacy, state legislatures and attorneys general should step in and articulate guidelines on how far their law enforcement agencies should go. Congress and the Federal Trade Commission should take further steps to protect the privacy and security of consumer genetic data.

If the police are to be given unlimited access to the genetic information of your entire family tree, they should have it at the end of a public debate, not by default.

May 24, 2019

Episode 32: 'Contempt Power'

What is Congress' contempt power, and how can lawmakers us it to force cooperation with their investigations? Episode 32 of "What Trump Can Teach Us About Con Law" answers these questions.

April 22, 2019

Ep. 31: "Executive Privilege"

In light of all the recent news surrounding the Mueller investigation's findings, episode 31 of the "What Trump Can Teach Us About Con Law" podcast looks at "executive privilege," a term that is relatively new and that rarely has been tested in court.

 

January 2, 2019

Episode 30: "The 25th Amendment"

The latest episode of the "What Trump Can Teach Us About Con Law" podcast explores President Grover Cleveland's secret surgery, the 25th Amendment, and what the Constitution tells us about presidential fitness, disability and President Donald Trump.

 

November 2, 2018

Trump is not above the law

By Kevin R. Johnson

[Cross-posted from the Daily Journal]

Earlier this week President Donald Trump called to abolish birthright citizenship, which few reputable scholars believe would be constitutional. This latest action on immigration demonstrates what is becoming more and more apparent: Trump does not feel bound to the rule of law. His immigration initiatives share two fundamental characteristics. First, he seeks to reduce immigration and specifically to reduce the number of immigrants of color coming to, and living in, the United States. Second, despite the frequent claim that the administration is committed to simply enforcing the immigration laws, he attacks judges that issue rulings that he does not like, calls for changes to our immigration laws that he calls ridiculous, and all-too-often ignores laws with which he disagrees.

In 1965, Congress amended the immigration laws to explicitly prohibit discrimination in the issuance of visas on the basis of "race, sex, nationality, place of birth, or place of residence." Passed on the heels of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, the 1965 amendment repealed laws mandating racial and national origin discrimination in the U.S. immigration laws. In so doing, Congress established a blueprint for immigration diversity, allowing millions of people of color to immigrate to the United States. The trajectory toward a more diverse nation, however, is likely to change due to a myriad of policies embraced by the Trump administration that can be aptly characterized as waging war on immigration diversity and the rule of law.

Trump's racial goals should not be surprising. Unlike any president in modern U.S. history, he regularly makes racially explosive comments about Mexicans as "rapists" and "criminals," Salvadorans as MS-13 gang members, Muslims as "terrorists," and El Salvador, Haiti, and nations in Africa as "s***hole countries." Trump has followed up on the incendiary rhetoric with a number of policies -- many of them in tension with the law -- that aim to restrict noncitizens of color from immigrating to the United States.

Consider a few of the Trump administration policies that emphatically demonstrate the President's desire to restrict immigration diversity and, in many instances, have been found to be unlawful.

First, within days of his inauguration, Trump issued an executive order that was intended to bar immigrants from a number of predominantly Muslim nations from entering the United States. When the first ban was enjoined, another one followed. The second version was struck down by the courts, in no small part because of the failure to comply with the law and because of the President's own venomous anti-Muslim statements. Although the third draft of the Muslim ban was upheld on national security grounds by the Supreme Court in Trump v. Hawaii, four justices found that it was motivated by anti-Muslim animus.

Second, Trump has called for ending "chain migration" by restricting family-based immigration to the United States. He also has expressed support for the RAISE Act, which would reduce legal immigration by one-half through reducing family-based immigration, primarily impacting people from Mexico, India and China. Those nations today send the most immigrants to the United States.

The Trump administration also has sought to restrict legal immigration with a recent proposed rule that would tighten the "public charge" exclusion, which has resulted in many immigrants declining to seek public benefits to which they are lawfully entitled.

Third, the Trump administration's "zero tolerance" policies have been enthusiastically directed at migrants from Mexico and Central America. In response to Central Americans seeking asylum, the Trump administration adopted a harsh detention and family separation policy, blaming it on the Democrats and the courts. A public outcry and persistent litigation compelled the Trump administration to end family separation. Now we see similar rhetoric being used against asylum seekers from Central America -- known as the "migrant caravan" -- who are currently in route to the U.S. border.

Courts have played important roles in stopping the administration from engaging in racially charged policies designed to stop Latino families from immigrating to the United States. In particular, the courts have upheld the rights of immigrant children subject to detention under what is known as the Flores settlement, which the Clinton Justice Department agreed to comply with in the detention of minors. The administration continues to resist this legal precedent. It has proposed to undo the Flores settlement so that the administration can detain immigrant children and their families indefinitely.

The Trump administration has challenged "sanctuary" states and cities for refusing to fully cooperate with the U.S. government. Although blocked by the courts, the administration has tried to halt federal funding from going to "sanctuary" cities.

In addition, the Trump administration has sought to eliminate the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals, aka DACA, policy for undocumented youth. The policy benefited hundreds of thousands of young undocumented immigrants, with an especially large percentage from Mexico and Central America. Courts have enjoined the rescission of DACA.

The Trump administration announced the end of Temporary Protected Status for Haitians, Salvadorans, Nicaraguans, and nationals of other developing nations. Litigation has challenged those actions.

The Trump administration has aggressively increased removals and adopted approaches that would ensure that more than 95 percent of the noncitizens removed are from Mexico and Central America.

Collectively, these policies would significantly reduce diversity in the number of immigrants admitted to permanently reside in the United States each year. Importantly, such policies violate the spirit if not the letter of the 1965 amendment to the immigration laws and Congress's goal of promoting diversity in immigration law.

Courts time and again have prohibited the Trump administration from pursuing immigration policies that violate the law. Legal and political attention must continue to be paid to these policies in order to prevent the country from returning to its pre-1965 immigration law policy of establishing a white nation. The unlawful war on immigrant diversity should not be permitted to continue.

 

October 8, 2018

A 'Kavanaugh Special Episode' of 'What Trump Can Teach Us About Con Law'

Episode 28 of the podcast "What Trump Can Teach Us About Con Law" explores the Brett Kavanaugh Supreme Court confirmation process, and constitutional rules pertaining to justices, including how and when one might be impeached.

September 18, 2018

Episode 27: "Treason"

Episode 27 of "What Trump Can Teach Us About Con Law" looks at treason, a topic that has come up a lot in recent months, in relation to President Trump's own behavior and because he tweeted "Treason?" after that anonymous New York Times op-ed that the Times attributed to a senior administration official. The episode provides historical context through the case of Bill Blizzard, a 1920s union organizer charged with treason against the state after leading an army of West Virginia coal miners into battle against non-union forces, including the local sheriff.

 

September 10, 2018

Originalism is at war with America

By Alan Brownstein

[Cross-posted from The Hill]

President Trump is nominating federal judges, and Supreme Court Justices such as Judge Brett Kavanaugh, who claim to be committed to “originalism.” This approach to constitutional law requires that the Constitution be interpreted to mean today what the text was intended or understood to mean at the time it was written. But originalism conflicts sharply with American reality and American ideals.  

Years ago, Frank Sinatra sang a song about what America meant to him. The last line was “But especially the people, that’s America to me.” If that’s what America is, then originalism is unamerican.  Because there is no place for the over 300 million Americans today in originalist interpretations of constitutional law. We just don’t count.

Who does count? Only the people who were here in the 1780’s and 90’s or when specific constitutional amendments were adopted. The vast new diversity of the American people today has nothing to offer to our political foundations. 

Both originalists and non-originalists look to American history to interpret the Constitution. But to originalists, most of that history stops 230 years ago. The American constitutional story largely begins and ends on the first page. To non-originalists, American constitutional law, like America itself, is a story that never ends.

The key issue separating originalists and non-originalists is what to do with all of the rest of American history after the Constitution was ratified. When courts interpret the Constitution, just how much weight should be assigned to the collective experience of the American people over the last 230 years. The originalist answer is none or as little as possible. What matters most is what judges decide constitutional language meant over two centuries ago.

Put bluntly, this originalist commitment to a constitution frozen in time and divorced from the changes America has undergone over the centuries repudiates the core values of the American experience.

Think about what is distinctive and special about America. European governments were chained to centuries of history and tradition. That was the old world. America is the new world. We are the pragmatists, the experimenters. We try things out and continue what works and discard what doesn’t. We do that with everything including law. But that’s not the America of originalists. From their perspective, constitutional law is fixed and immutable. It cannot evolve. Judges cannot learn from American experience.

Non-originalists believe that the American people have worked with constitutional law for over two centuries. We learned a lot. We struggled to create constitutional doctrine that reflects who we actually are as a people, not some ideologically manipulated picture of who a few judges think we once were.

Unlike originalists, non-originalists recognize that the Constitution must take account of the changed understanding in our society of the status and rights of women. Accordingly, privacy and autonomy rights including the right to access to medical contraceptives must be protected and gender discriminatory laws must be subjected to rigorous scrutiny.

Unlike originalists, non-originalists understand how much our society has learned over time about the LGBT community. Because they are no longer in hiding in response to persecution, we can now see our gay and lesbian family members, friends, neighbors, co-congregants, and colleagues as people with the same needs and rights as the rest of us. At the constitutional level, this means that laws criminalizing sodomy or prohibiting same-sex couples from marrying must be struck down.

Unlike originalists, non-originalists have learned that democracy needs constitutional protection against political threats the framers may have under-estimated or ignored. Courts cannot close their eyes to elections being manipulated through burdens on voting and gerrymandered districts. The Constitution must be interpreted to protect voting as a fundamental right and to insist, at a minimum, that election districts must be of equal size and reflect the principle of one person, one vote.

Put simply, non-originalists believe that constitutional case law is a process grounded in the on-going experience of the American people. Older decisions can be challenged because of their real world consequences. Non-originalist judges may make mistakes. When that happens, eventually the wrongfully decided cases are overruled. Constitutional law does not become permanent unless it works, unless it resonates with the beliefs of the American people overtime.

Originalists believe that history has an iron grip on constitutional meaning. The great constitutional questions of the day turn on lawyers debating what people understood centuries ago, not on the needs of Americans today and the values we have forged over centuries of struggle.

Alan Brownstein is a professor of law emeritus at the University of California, Davis School of Law. He has written numerous articles for academic journals and opinion pieces for other media on a range of constitutional law subjects. He is a member of the American Law Institute and serves on the Legal Committee of the Northern California American Civil Liberties Union. He received his B.A. degree from Antioch College and earned his J.D. (magna cum laude) from Harvard Law School, where he served as a Case Editor of the Harvard Law Review.

 

 

August 21, 2018

Episode 26: "Roe"

Ep. 26 of "What Trump Can Teach Us About Con Law" looks as Roe v. Wade as it relates to President Trump, his Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh, and the Constitution. This episode also examines the unusual trajectory of Roe plaintiff Norma McCorvey's life in the decades following the 1973 Supreme Court decision.

 

June 11, 2018

President Twitter and the First Amendment

by Elizabeth Joh

Can Trump block people on Twitter? It turns out, the First Amendment has something to say about that. Episode 23, "President Twitter and the First Amendment" of What Trump Can Teach Us About Con Law podcast is now available.

More about What Trump Can Teach Us About Con Law: Professor Elizabeth Joh teaches Intro to Constitutional Law and most of the time this is a pretty straightforward job. But with Trump in office, everything has changed. Five minutes before class Professor Joh checks Twitter to find out what the 45th President has said and how it jibes with 200 years of the judicial branch interpreting and ruling on the Constitution. Hosted by acclaimed podcaster Roman Mars (99% Invisible, co-founder Radiotopia), this show is a fun and casual Con Law 101 class that uses the tumultuous and erratic activities of the executive branch under Trump to teach us all about the US Constitution. Proud member of Radiotopia from PRX.