Cato Institute legal scholar Ilya Shapiro wrote an amusing blog post today in which he savages Senate Majority Whip Dick Durbin, D-Ill., and his efforts to intimidate donors to the American Legislative Exchange Council. Shapiro concludes the post by daring the senator to invite him to testify on exactly why his efforts constitute an abuse of power.
The post was inspired by the fact that Cato received a form letter dated Tuesday from Durbin. The letter claimed that “public documents indicate that your organization funded ALEC at some point.” (The letter provided no citation to back up this claim.) It then demanded to know if Cato had ever been part of ALEC or provided any funding to it in 2013 and asked if the institute backs the “stand your ground” legislation ALEC once promoted.
In September, I plan to convene a hearing of the Senate Judiciary Committee Subcommittee on the Constitution, Civil Rights and Human Rights to examine “stand your
ground” laws, and I intend to include the responses to my letters in the hearing record. Therefore, please know that your response will be publicly available.
Exactly why Cato got a version of the letter is unclear. It is a nonprofit think tank that does not make donations to other groups. Presumably somebody on Durbin’s staff just didn’t bother to do elementary checking.
Cato President John Allison responded Thursday. He said Durbin was engaging in “an obvious effort to intimidate those organizations and individuals” associated with ALEC. He concluded:
Your letter thus represents a blatant violation of our First Amendment rights to freedom of speech and to petition the government for a redress of grievances. It is a continuation of the trend of the current administration and congressional leaders, such as yourself, to menace those who do not share your political beliefs—as evidenced by the multiple IRS abuses that have recently been exposed.
Your actions are a subtle but powerful form of government coercion.
We would be glad to provide a Cato scholar to testify at your hearing to discuss the unconstitutional abuse of power that your letter symbolizes.
Senator Durbin, care to invite me to testify at your little hearing? I rather enjoyed discussing Citizens United at the kabuki theatre you ran last year — though you seemed more interested in accusing me of being a pawn of the Koch brothers (with whom I have no beef, but who were actually suing Cato at the time) — and would be happy to have another tete-a-tete with my fellow University of Chicago Law School alum.
ALEC is a conservative-leaning organization that advocates for policy changes at the state level, just as numerous liberal-leaning organizations like the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities also do. Since national media rarely focus on state-level politics, ALEC mostly flew under the radar for years, but it has lately become one of the left’s favorite boogeymen.
In particular, it is blamed for the prevalence of “stand your ground” laws in states, which in turn have linked to the shooting of Florida teen Trayvon Martin. Durbin’s letter references both Martin and the law, implicitly making the claim that it contributed to the teen’s death.
As Shapiro notes — contrary to the wide-spread impression given out by various media outlets and liberal groups — Florida’s "stand your ground" law was not in any way involved in Martin’s death. Nevertheless, the case has made such laws politically toxic. ALEC itself has backed away from them. Durbin’s hearing is an attempt to shame the group and its donors.
Durbin has a history of using federal regulatory agencies to harass and intimidate political groups he dislikes. He specifically asked the IRS in 2010 to probe conservative groups.