The Wars on Poker and Porn: America Strikes Back

After the DOJ had a busy week shutting down the three largest online poker sites and instigating criminal charges against eleven officers and directors, you would think those advocating for greater control over Americans’ lives would be content. After all, everyone knows online poker is a national menace and grave security threat; it is about time something was done about it.

But no. Social conservatives will not rest until all moral vices have been banned, so that America may be free once again. Which is why it is an absolute outrage that the DOJ has taken moves to close down the Obscenity Prosecution Task Force, even if the DOJ has offered reassurances that the elimination of the task force doesn’t mean that such prosecutions will be halted, only that it will be “[r]e-incorporating the prosecution of obscenity violations into the Child Exploitation and Obscenity Section.”

Reasons for dropping the Obscenity Task Force may include its completely inept handling of the John Stagliano case, as well as the fact that the DOJ’s own attorneys were deeply reluctant to carry out such prosecutions. But, as a disturbingly large portion of the Senate made clear in a letter to the DOJ, that is not good enough. Prosecuting porn is vital to the nation’s future, and the Senate is greatly distressed by the dearth of obscenity prosecutions that have occurred under the Obama administration:

Earlier this month, [Sen. Orrin] Hatch and 41 other senators sent a letter to Holder pushing him to bring criminal cases against “all major distributors of adult obscenity.”

“We write to urge the Department of Justice vigorously to enforce federal obscenity laws against major commercial distributors of hardcore adult pornography,” said the April 4 letter, circulated by Hatch. “We know more than ever how illegal adult obscenity contributes to violence against women, addiction, harm to children, and sex trafficking. This material harms individuals, families and communities and the problems are only getting worse.”

I expect that, within the next week, the DOJ will follow up by announcing prosecutions against rock ‘n’ roll, indecent dancing, and overly-fatty desserts.


The Bad News

The Department of Justice and Federal Trade Commission are looking to update the horizontal merger guidelines.

From the Questions for Public Comment [PDF], the agencies list two goals for Horizontal Merger Guidelines reform: “First, updated guidelines could more accurately and clearly describe current Agency practice. Second, updated guidelines could reflect and incorporate learning and experience gained since 1992.” This sounds innocuous enough, right? We’re just going to change the merger guidelines so they actually describe what we’re really doing anyway, and adding in some new things we learned. No biggie.

Well, I’ll save my snark until after the ‘series of public workshops’ has been completed and new guidelines have proposed or adopted. And I’m being somewhat more disingenuous than is called for, as the questions the FTC and DOJ have put out to solicit public input on are actually very thoughtful and unbiased, and bring up issues of antitrust law that very much ought to be addressed. But I’ll admit it: the prospect of a change in merger guidelines under a Democratic Administration doesn’t exactly have my heart leaping for joy.

For a good discussion on the effects of a Guidelines update, both pro and con, check out “Should the Agencies Issue New Merger Guidelines?: Learning From Experience”. His conclusion:

“I believe that the business community and merger practitioners understand current enforcement policy on horizontal mergers quite well. This is true with respect to general policies and also with respect to fine points on market delineation, competitive effects analysis, and evaluation of efficiencies claims. Therefore, I perceive no significant uncertainty that should be addressed through revising the Horizontal Merger Guidelines.”


The Good News

The Department of Justice is looking to rollback the overuse of the state secrets privilege.

Some of the changes are vaguely worded and do not appear to be likely to impose all that much of a constraining effect. Announcements that the DOJ “commits not to invoke the privilege for the purpose of concealing government wrongdoing or avoiding embarrassment to government agencies or officials” and “commits to provide periodic reports on all cases in which the privilege is asserted to the appropriate oversight Committees in Congress” sound good, but are pretty hollow of content.

But two of the changes do appear to be significant. First is the shift to a “significant harm” standard. Under United States v. Reynolds, the Supreme Court found that the federal government was entitled to invoke the state secrets privilege if, “from all circumstances of the case, […] there is a reasonable danger that compulsion of the evidence will expose military matters which, in the interest of national security, should not be divulged.” 345 U.S. 1, 10 (1953). Under the new DOJ policy, which will go into effect October 1, 2009, “the Department will now defend the assertion of the privilege only to the extent necessary to protect against the risk of significant harm to national security.”

The second important policy change is that any invocation of the privilege will have to be made at the highest level of the DOJ, by the Attorney General himself. This is a good move. Any “state secret privilege” should only be brought into play in extreme circumstances, and should not be entered into casually. The AG is one step removed from the President himself, and hopefully this will lead to a greater degree of accountability in the process.

Then again, if I were going to be extremely cynical, I would suggest to you that the Executive Branch is only adopting this new policy — which is modest in scope — as a preemptive measure, to ensure that the Legislative Branch does not usurp control over reforming the state secrets privilege. But this is Washington, D.C., why would anyone be cynical here?