Monday, March 16, 2015

Everybody Knows Nothing

It is a long-standing piece of advice on this blog to never listen to journalists talking about a legal issue, because they will butcher it. Badly. I would like to be able to say that this is contradistinction to listening to someone who (a) is a member of Congress and (b) has written the legal provision in question. Alas, that isn't always the case either, as the latest fiasco surrounding Sen. Tom Cotton (R-AR) demonstrates.

For those of you who missed out on the latest, there is a media narrative that Senator Cotton (while a House member) introduced langauge that "would 'automatically' punish family members of people who violate U.S. sanctions against Iran, levying sentences of up to 20 years in prison." In other words, the claim is that if I violated Iranian sanctions policy, Cotton's amendment would allow for my mom to be tossed in jail for 20 years ("automatically").

The Popehat link above pretty conclusively demonstrates that this is untrue: the law prohibits trade with certain high-ranking Iranian officials; Cotton's amendment would have similarly prohibited trade with close relatives of these officials (so, for example, one could not evade the sanctions by giving a fat contract to the prohibited-person's wife). This is a policy that can be supported or opposed on the merits (it does close a loophole for getting around the sanctions program, but it also arguably punishes innocent people if the bad guy's grandson has no real connection to the human rights violations). But no matter what you think of it, it is not (and is a far cry from) what is described in the preceding paragraph -- jail terms for family members of those who violate the sanctions law.

The problem is that Cotton, Harvard J.D. '02, doesn't seem to know what his own law would do. In a colloquy with then-Rep. Alan Grayson (D-FL) (Harvard J.D., '83 -- Harvard Law really is coming out poorly here), it is evident that neither one understands how this law interacts with a mens rea requirement. Honestly, Grayson seems more confused here than Cotton does -- but since it's Cotton's language, it would be nice if had cleared things up rather than engaging in irrelevant blather about the constitutional rights of Iranian citizens. Instead we got much confusion in Congress, which, naturally, the media made far worse by conflating who can and can't be traded with with who will be punished.

In conclusion, never trust anyone about anything, because everyone is a moron.

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