Wednesday, April 15, 2015

On the Constitutional Implications of Privacy

On the Constitutional Implications of Privacy: Aside from a few state constitutions, namely California, Florida, and Montana, there is no explicit "right to privacy" in American constitutional law. Over time, however, there have been various judicial interpretations which have sought to mesh the concepts of privacy and constitutionality. One of the first examples of this involved an 1890 Harvard Law Review article titled "The Right to Privacy" by-then law firm partners Samuel Warren and Louis Brandeis. Later in his career, Brandeis would become a U.S. Supreme Court Justice, and explicate what was perhaps the greatest defense of privacy rights in Olmstead v. United States (1928). Yet apart from Brandeis, one might look to the Bill of Rights as an early source of privacy rights. There are two amendments in particular that speak implicitly to privacy rights, and they include Amendments IV and V. These amendments were at the heart of the Olmstead case, which involved a police wiretap of a suspected bootlegger's telephone line. Amendment IV protects American citizens from "unreasonable searches and seizures," while Amendment V claims "private property" cannot be taken for "public use" without "just compensation." Also, Amendment V protects "mental privacy" in that no American citizen can be forced to serve as a "witness against him/herself."

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

On T. Thomas Fortune and Black Newspapers


On T. Thomas Fortune and Black Newspapers: As co-founder and editor of one of the first African-American newspapers since the Antebellum Era, Timothy Thomas Fortune became an influential figure in New York City's post-Civil War black community. The name of Fortune's newspaper was the New York Age, and it published (both daily and weekly) at various times throughout its existence from 1887 to 1953. The primary purpose of black newspapers like the New York Age was to inform African Americans about where to live, shop, and attend church/school in cities. This idea was especially true for former slaves from the rural South, who may have migrated to the urban North in search of better jobs, better schools, and better housing. Indeed, many of these former slaves from the rural South, of which Fortune was one (born a slave in Florida in 1856), were illiterate. Thus, maps and pictures became important sources of information within early black newspapers. But like other African-American newspapers, Fortune produced his with a white audience in mind. Causes such as anti-lynching and anti-segregation were frequently touted in editorials. And attempting to generate cross-racial support for such causes was actually what helped give birth to civil rights organizations like the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in the early twentieth century.

Sunday, March 15, 2015

On the Peculiarities of General Dan Sickles

On the Peculiarities of General Dan Sickles: If there was ever an American Civil War General who led an extraordinary life not named Robert E. Lee or Ulysses S. Grant, it was Daniel E. Sickles. For starters, he lived to the age of 94, having been born in 1819 in New York City, and later dying there in 1914. Prior to the Civil War, Sickles worked as a lawyer and served as a legislator in the New York State Assembly. He married a woman who was half his age in the early 1850s, and by 1857, he was elected to serve in the U.S. Congress as a Representative from New York. While in Washington D.C., his young wife (who was only about 20 at the time) had taken up an affair with the local district attorney (who also happened to be Francis Scott Key's son). Upon learning of his wife's infidelity, Sickles proceeded to shoot and kill Philip Barton Key II. At the trial, Sickles pleaded "temporary insanity" and was actually acquitted of murder. His plea is often considered the first use of an "insanity" defense in the history of American jurisprudence. But aside from Sickles' legal issues, he is perhaps best known as the General who lost his leg during the Battle of Gettysburg in 1863. Although the cannonball that tore through his leg effectively ended his military career, Sickles was happy to donate both the cannonball and his amputated leg to the newly formed Army Medical Museum. And on every anniversary of the amputation, Sickles visited the display that contained his shattered leg.

Sunday, March 1, 2015

On Buddy Cianci's Providence

On Buddy Cianci's Providence: As mayor of Providence for two (non-consecutive) decades, Vincent "Buddy" Cianci epitomized the city's "underworld" reputation. Ever since Providence's founding by Roger Williams in 1636, it has been known as a refuge for religious exiles, political prisoners, and career criminals. Situated under the arm of Massachusetts, it has been referred to as both "the sewer" and "the armpit" of New England. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, Catholic immigrants, mainly from Ireland and Italy, converged upon the city to work in its burgeoning textile industry. It was under these circumstances that some of Cianci's ancestors emigrated from Italy to Rhode Island in the 1890s. By the early 1900s, Providence's various neighborhoods had become divided along ethnoracial lines. The Italians settled in Federal Hill, the Irish in Smith Hill, the "old-moneyed" WASPs in College Hill, and the African Americans in Wanskuck. Cianci actually grew up in Cranston, but he attended private school in the wealthy College Hill neighborhood (where Brown University is located). Yet as the city's youngest-elected and first-ever Italian mayor, Cianci sought to smooth over the city's ethnoracial divides (which persisted throughout the decades). And although he survived two felony convictions, with the second one sending him to prison for five years, Cianci has become an icon in Providence. The city will not be the same without him.

Sunday, February 15, 2015

On the Birth of American Judicial Review

On the Birth of American Judicial Review: This concept may seem somewhat rudimentary, but it's crucial to the founding of the United States federal government. In 1803, a major case involving the constitutionality of a federal law came before the Supreme Court, which did not have a permanent home in Washington D.C. till around 1810. Known as Marbury v. Madison, Chief Justice John Marshall, whose formal legal training was no longer than six weeks, held that part of the Judiciary Act of 1789 was "unconstitutional." In doing so, Marshall established the principle of "judicial review," which saw the Supreme Court curbing the power of Congress (and the Presidency). This principle essentially completed the trifecta of "checks and balances" that the Constitution's writers had originally envisioned (and borrowed from Montesquieu). Ultimately, it would be fifty-four years before the Supreme Court invalidated another federal law (see the 1857 Dred Scott decision). And although Alexander Hamilton had discussed "judicial review" in his Federalist No. 78 essay, the concept had never been put into practice. Thus, until Marshall rose to the occasion in the Marbury case, the Supreme Court (or Judicial Branch) was commonly viewed as the weakest (or least effective) branch of the federal government.