This is the second in our series on Marvel’s Civil War event. We started with some framing issues, namely that there are problems with the way the series treats the law in general. Now we’re going to look at some of the specifics about how the stories implement the law as a plot point.
I. The Deadline
For the first few months of the event, much of the drama centered on what would happen at the stroke of midnight when the Superhuman Registration Act (“SHRA”) went into effect. Civil War #2 actually shows a screen in what is probably Times Square announcing “Registration Act Becomes Law” at midnight on that day. The gist is that it seems that Congress passed the bill and the President signed it into law, and the text of the bill said that it was slated to go into effect at some point in the future. Is that really how laws work?
Sort of. Yes, it’s entirely possible for a law to incorporate a delay in its effectiveness. The 2010 health care reform law contains numerous provisions which will not go into effect for years, and even the ones that are currently operative did not generally become so the instant the bill was signed. There are dates, specified in the bill, when certain provisions go into effect. This is actually pretty common, as at the very least, Congress tends to like at least some lead time to permit the Library of Congress to update the United States Code before the new code sections are to be effective. Having bills become effective as soon as they’re signed can be useful, but where time is not of the essence, picking a date in the near future tends to make the logistics of the process run a bit more smoothly.
So yes, if Congress were to pass a version of the SHRA, there would be a deadline beyond which superhumans would be required to register, and something big would likely go down on that day. But the deadline for registration would probably not be the date the law became effective. Why? Because before the law becomes effective, there is no way for anyone to register. The law which creates the need for registration also creates the process for registration, so before the law is effective, a superhuman who wanted to register would have no way of doing so. This is actually inadvertently hinted at in the way registration is portrayed in the stories. We never see superhumans headed down what amounts to the superhuman DMV. Instead, they’re all approached, in person, either individually or in small groups, by agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., asking them to sign the paperwork. Where that paperwork came from is never really addressed—Who wrote it? When? If it was before the bill became law, under whose authority?—but it’s all a pretty ad hoc process. We’ll talk about the constitutional problems with this in a minute, but that aside, even if Congress were silly enough to pass a the SHRA, it’s highly doubtful that they’d require each and every superhuman to be served with papers personally. The DMV may suck, but it does basically work, and there’s no reason to think that Congress wouldn’t create an analogous agency (or empower an existing one) to take care of this.
Still, though the portrayal is rather inconsistent and not without its problems, with two relatively minor tweaks the writers could still create a situation where the country was holding its breath as the clock ticks towards midnight on Registration Day. First, the law would go into effect without much fanfare, and it would authorize a federal agency to promulgate the rules and develop the process whereby superhumans could register. The agency would probably have a fixed—and short!—amount of time to do this. Second, the law would specify another date after the agency deadline, probably 30, 60, or 90 days, by which all superhumans would be required to register. It would be that date, not the date the bill became law or first went into legal effect, which would be the focus of the drama. And it would be that date, not the date when Tony Stark shows up at your door with a bunch of papers for you to sign, beyond which an unregistered superhero would be in violation of the law. That’s just how these things work.
II. Due Process
Due process is basically the constitutional doctrine that no one can be punished or have their legal rights adversely affected without there being some kind of procedure. For example, if the government wants to imprison someone for committing a crime, there must be a trial, the defendant must have the option of a jury trial, the defendant must have access to competent counsel, and the prosecution must prove its case beyond a reasonable doubt—among other things. Similarly, in the civil context, no one can have a judgment enforced against them unless they were properly served, i.e. notified of the lawsuit.
So if the SHRA were to work the way it seems to in the comics rather than in the way outlined above (which, you will note, still lets the story proceed largely intact), a superhuman arrested for failure to register would have a number of arguments that this violated his constitutional right to due process.
First, there’s the fact that the law requires superhumans to register by a certain date without actually giving them any opportunity to do so. There do not appear to be any logistical structures in place to permit registration before the stroke of midnight when the bill became law, so arresting people ten seconds later is just unfair. Any hero who wasn’t served with papers could plausibly argue that he’d love to register if only someone would tell him how.
Second, there’s the timing issue. Cars must be registered, but most states give you a week if not a full thirty days to register a car after you buy it. Why? Because the DMV isn’t always open, because people have jobs, and because there’s just no good reason to insist that it happen right away. So when the cape-killers come to knock down his door at five seconds past midnight, why can’t a hero just say, “Gentlemen, my wife is sleeping, my kids are sleeping, and until you so rudely awakened me, I was sleeping. Can this not wait until morning?” Really, there doesn’t seem to be any reason why not. Heck, why not just make the deadline noon instead of midnight? But even that wouldn’t really solve the problem. People, even superhumans, have lives, things to do, obligations, responsibilities, the whole nine yards. If the government’s going to come along and add another thing to that neverending list, the least it can do is give people a chance to work it into their schedule. Complete failure to do that would almost certainly constitute a due process violation. Again, even if this were done right, there’s still plenty of drama to be had here. It would only have taken a panel or two to show that a month had gone by since the act become law, and that any superhuman who was going to register had his chance to do so. On with the cape-killers and the fighting and the angst.
Ultimately, this issue is kind of a toss-up. The writers got it wrong, but they did so in the name of drama, and as it turns out, a few relatively minor tweaks to the way the law was conceived would have permitted most of that drama. But what’s disappointing is that if they had adopted those tweaks, the pro-reg side would have seemed a lot more reasonable. Luke Cage wouldn’t have been able to make his rather overwrought comparison to race lynchings in the 1960s if instead of Iron Man and a squad of cape-killers, he had gotten a registration packet in the mail and a month to think about it. If he defies the law then, he looks less like someone who just wants to get a good night’s sleep without having his home invaded by federal troops and more like someone who really is taking a principled but morally ambiguous stance. And when Stark does show up, he’d be able to take the position that Cage had plenty of opportunity to trundle on down to the local registration office (or file a lawsuit opposing the law!), that he’d had every chance to do this like a civilized adult, but was now choosing the hard way. As the event seems to have wanted to explore those issues, getting the law wrong leaves the story more than a bit lop-sided.