The Baltimore Sun newspaper (6/2/02) quotes Rep. Robert L. Ehrlich, Jr. (R-Md.), who is running for Governor, as saying: "Project Exile is long overdue in this state. I promise you, as Governor, I will bring Project Exile to Maryland. Project Exile worked in Richmond (Virginia), and it can work here." The Sun says this is Ehrlich's "first significant policy proposal" since announcing he would run for Governor.
But, in reality, what this really amounts to is Ehrlich's first significant policy blunder since Project Exile has not worked, it should not work and it ought to be repealed wherever it exists!
The first thing wrong with Project Exile is that it is unconstitutional. In an excellent and well-documented, compelling analysis just published by the Cato Institute -- titled "There Goes The Neighborhood: The Bush-Ashcroft Plan To 'Help' Localities Fight Gun Crime" -- attorney and Senior Editor at Cato, Gene Healy, says that diverting state-level gun prosecutions to Federal court "is an affront to the constitutional principle of federalism.... As the constitutional and policy implications of... Project Exile emerge, [this] initiative looks less like a commonsense solution to crime and more like a political gimmick with pernicious unintended consequences."
The Constitution provides the federal government with an extremely slender grant of authority over criminal law.... The records of the Constitutional Convention indicate the federal role in criminal law was limited by design....
To prevent an excessive accumulation of federal power, the Framers refused to grant plenary police power to the federal government; instead, the Constitution grants Congress authority, pursuant to various enumerated powers, to fashion criminal statutes to protect distinctly federal interests. General law enforcement authority -- 'the ordinary administration of criminal justice,' in [Alexander] Hamilton's phrase -- is reserved to the states.
Healey says: "Unfortunately, in attempting to preserve Second Amendment rights, supporters of Exile... are conducting a frontal assault on the Constitutional principle of federalism."
Another problem with the unconstitutional Project Exile is that it is clogging our Federal courts unnecessarily. Healey quotes Judge Richard L. Williams, chief judge of the U.S. District Court in Richmond, Virginia -- where Project Exile began in 1997 -- as saying that this program has "transformed [our court] into a minor-grade police court," reducing the amount of time judges can spend on matters that are properly Federal. Judge Williams has also said that under Richmond's Project Exile: "Ninety percent of these [Exile] defendants are probably no danger to society."
Judge Richard Matsch, who presided over the Oklahoma City bombing trial, was outraged by poor prosecutorial judgment and the waste of Federal resources in bringing a Project Exile-type case into his court. Healey quotes him as saying: "How far is this policy of locking people up with guns going to go? I want to know why this is a Federal case. Who decided this is a Federal crime?"
In an important and well-documented article in U.S. News & World Report magazine (5/21/2001) by Chitra Ragavan -- titled, appropriately, "Ready, Aim, Misfire" -- it is reported that the previously quoted Judge Williams has written to U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice William Rehnquist complaining that Project Exile has turned his court into a "minor grade state police court."
Believing, obviously, that the answer is "no," Judge Williams asks: Should Federal courts "be saddled" with cases that are "totally lacking in Federal significance? I've been a lawyer and judge for 50 years. Should I be handling these issues?" Reporter Ragavan says that Richmond's state judges, while less outspoken than Judge Williams, are "equally bothered" by Project Exile.
So, what say the Feds about the unconstitutionality of Project Exile?
In an interview, we spoke with Austin Banks, Senior Special Agent and Public Information Officer for the ATF in the New Orleans, Louisiana, area.
Q: What about those who say Project Exile is unconstitutional?
A: Is that your opinion?
Q: It is the opinion of those who know the U.S. Constitution and have studied Project Exile, such individuals as Cato Institute Senior Editor and attorney, Gene Healy.
We quote to Banks some of what Healy says in this column.
A: Well, as far as the ATF is concerned, our duties are to enforce the Federal firearms laws. And --
Q: Whether these laws are Constitutional or not?
Q: But, why should the Federal government be involved with felons and gun crimes?
A: I don't know.
Banks suggests that, for an answer to the question about the unconstitutionality of Project Exile, we contact our Congressman and call the White House.
Hmmmm. So, for Austin Banks, he's just following orders. And he has, basically, no comment on whether the orders he's following are Constitutional or unconstitutional, legal or illegal. Now, where have we heard that before?
In my next column: Has Project Exile "Worked" By Reducing Violent Gun Crime? A hint -- No!