Not illegal not constitutional: What current events say about our legal protection

Gary PruittCan scandals that involve public criminal suits over constitutional violations blow over on a technicality.  Well says the Washington post blog, technically yes.  In light of two recent gray-area scandals we’re asking, how?

Last week was quite the week for news makers and news deliverers.  In an effort to uncover the leaky source of a story of a foiled terror plot, the Justice Department subpoenaed Associated Press direct lines, cell phones, home phones and office numbers of sources and journalists.  On Sunday, AP president and CEO Gary Pruitt called the phone records probe unconstitutional.  He said, “We don’t question their rights to conduct these sorts of investigations.  We just think they went about it the wrong way—so sweeping, so secretively so abusively, so harrasingly, and over-broad that it… is an unconstitutional act.”

Host of CBS’ Face the Nation Bob Schieffer explained that the importance stretches beyond a journalist’s scoop.  The significance of a reporter’s autonomy extends into the function of democracy and the rights of news organizations to report and distribute information of public need — maintaining transparency and protecting the overreach of government.

Under their own rules, they are required to narrow this request as narrowly as possible so as to not tread upon the First Amendment.– Gary Pruitt

Pruitt goes on to say that the process  he would have expected would have been either a collaborative narrowing effort, that limited the “sweeping” aspect of the investigation, or one that took place in the justice department.  The important repercussions in this scandal include of course, the loss of important sources afraid to be monitored by the government.

In a, yes, separate scandal last week, the IRS was found to have placed extra scrutiny on various conservative groups, but as the Washington Post Blog pointed out, most likely, no one will go to jail over the issue.

“I am not aware of any statute that prohibits IRS targeting of applicants,” said Republican lawyer Jan Baran, who served as general counsel to George H.W. Bush and the RNC.

Other politically inclined lawyers agree.  We thought an interesting topic based on these two events and many others this century are the following questions:

  • What is simultaneously not illegal and not constitutional?
  • When does something cross over from threatening the constitution to blasting through it?
  • In the end is technical justice process truly positive for society?
  • Do we trust that unconstitutionality is still enough to protect us from injustice?

Want to take on a discussion, or report on these topics? Pitch us now or comment below!

Other Media: WGBH’s Series hosted by Peter Sagal is an episodic look at the Constitution and what it means in life and public policy. It’s worth a watch!

Watch It’s a Free Country: Know Your Rights! on PBS. See more from Constitution USA with Peter Sagal.