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Senate Democrats Against Probable Cause

It’s recent history, but Americans’ memory for congressional affairs is short, so I’ll remind readers that Senator Arlen Specter actually became a Democrat just a few weeks ago, after years of serving in the Senate as a Republican. Yet, when it comes to constitutional rights at least, Specter is more progressive than the majority of the other Democrats on the Senate Judiciary Committee.

arlen specterYesterday, Senator Specter voted in favor of an amendment that would have required the federal government to establish that the people it targets under the Patriot Act are actually related to terrorism of foreign spying before serving them with National Security Letters that violate the Fourth Amendment of the Constitution. It wasn’t a radical civil libertarian move, but something that any sensible leader should have been able to support. Why would members of the United States Senate, after all, have a problem with enforcing the standards of the Constitution of the United States of America, which they have sworn an oath to uphold?

Well, Amy Klobuchar, Dianne Feinstein, Patrick Leahy, Sheldon Whitehouse, Herb Kohl, Ted Kaufman, Chuck Schumer and Al Franken couldn’t see it that way. They voted to support the most rotten provisions of one of the most rotten laws that was ever signed into law by George W. Bush under the excuse that someday, somewhere, maybe, someone might commit a crime against someone else. They actually argued that fear trumps freedom.

The fact is, that’s not how the law is supposed to work. The Fourth Amendment to the Constitution is very clearly worded. It reads: “The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated; and no Warrants shall issue but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.”

That’s pretty easy to understand, but most of Specter’s Democratic colleagues on the Judiciary Committee couldn’t get it, so Arlen Specter tried to explain – the Fourth Amendment requires that the government specify where and against who a search or seizure will take place, and prove that there is probable cause to believe that the target is involved in criminal activity. The Patriot Act clearly does not meet this standard. Specter said to the other members of the committee yesterday,

“The whole point of probable cause for search and seizure, to justify the interdiction of the fourth amendment, is probable cause and specificity. The roving wiretaps just don’t do that, which is the reason I voted against the wiretaps back in 2001, and it is my view, in a broader context, our committee ought to be more assertive as regarding the separation of powers. This issue has philosophical connections to what we’re doing on state secrets, where now all you have to do is have the Executive Branch assert a state secret and that forecloses the matter.”

Three Democrats listened and understood. They joined Senator Specter to vote for the amendment. Eight other Democrats still didn’t seem to comprehend what they were dealing with. They argued that the Constitution is just a suggestion that needs to give way when Americans feel scared. They voted in favor of keeping the unconstitutional abuses of the Patriot Act.

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