Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Immunity for Phone Companies?

Suppose an FBI agent approached a generally law-abiding citizen that I'll call "Shmerizon," and the following conversation ensued.

FBI Agent: I'd like you to whack Shmarlos the Shmackal. He's a terrorist.

Shmerizon: By whack, you mean . . . .

FBI Agent: You know what I mean.

Shmerizon: Uhm, isn't that illegal?

FBI Agent: I'm with the government. If I tell you to do this in the interest of national security, it's not illegal. Understand?

Shmerizon proceeds to kill Shmarlos, even though another citizen, Shmest, when presented with the same demand, refused to act without a court order. Now suppose that instead of prosecuting Shmerizon for murder, and without denying that what Shmerizon did was clearly illegal at the time notwithstanding the FBI Agent's statements, the government decides that Shermizon should be given retroactive immunity for the murder because he shouldn't be punished for helping out his government in time of need. Even assuming one finds Shmerizon's plight sympathetic, shouldn't the most minimal commitment to notions of government regularity require that any immunity for Shmerizon be coupled with some form of accountability on the part of the FBI Agent or his superiors who asked that Shmerizon commit murder?

Is the only difference between this situation and the actual current proposal for immunity for the phone companies that violated FISA the fact that we think that murder, even of a bad guy like Shmarlos the Shmackal, is properly illegal, while President Bush and many in Congress think that FISA's restrictions were not just unwise but so grossly unwise as to vindicate anyone who ignored them? And why do I hate freedom?

Posted by Mike Dorf


Derek said...

Another difference could be that murder is both immoral and illegal whereas you might think that violating FISA, while illegal, is not necessarily immoral. I don't know why you hate freedom.

Benjam said...

sorry to be off point but did anyone else see douglas kmiec (pepperdine law) on tucker? he was asked if it would be legal for bill clinton to be appointed to the supreme court by president hillary clinton. kmiec went on to cite THE FEDERALIST PAPERS (and not the US Constitution) as proof that a president can appoint whomever she wants to the court, subject to the advice and consent of the senate. then he spent several minutes talking about clinton's disbarment before adding that a law license is not a "formal" requirement for the job. they should have brought on ken starr to add balance to the interview. if hillary weren't running such a sleazy campaign, i would almost feel bad.

Neal said...

Is this too many steps beyond the reasoning of Boyle v. United Technologies ??

The tort remedy for a violation of FISA would likely be damages, but Shmerizon can probably invoke some sort of Boyle-esque agent of the executive branch immunity under Article II.

Juan said...

It's not that you hate freedom, you're just a little bit too in love with the rule of law.

egarber said...

I know this has been answered somewhere, but let me ask:

1. Is it clear that the companies knew they were breaking the law?

2. Does (1) even matter?

3. Would it matter if the FBI guys at the time insisted that they were NOT breaking the law?

Sobek said...

If Shmerizon were a natural person, the executive could issue a pardon for doing something immoral but necessary. Um, make that "necessary." Corporations can't really be pardoned, that I know of. Is retroactive immunity from tort liability analogous to a federal pardon?

And as to egarber's third question, I think that's critical. An order to kill someone will in virtually every case at least raise a red flag about the legality and ethics of the instruction. An order to divulge information, from the very government with that has power to prosecute wrongful divulgence (or to enforce judgments on behalf of private parties for wrongful divulgence) is not obviously illegal or unethical.

And why do you hate freedom?

Douglas said...

Actually, the hypothetical as written is common and we immunize those people. We call them police officers and members of the military. If a line of armed military of police were confronting a group and a duly designated office ordered them to fire, you can be sure that anyone who refused that order would be prosecuted under the appropriate jurisdiction for the like of mutiny. At least the threat would be made. If they obeyed the order, they would, in all likelihood, be acquitted if accused of murder.

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