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Free Minds & Free Markets

Another Surprisingly Subversive Justice

Unlike the man who nominated him, Brett Kavanaugh understands the importance of an independent judiciary.

Upon being nominated to the Supreme Court, Brett Kavanaugh said he had "witnessed firsthand" Donald Trump's "appreciation for the vital role of the American judiciary." That claim raised some eyebrows, given the president's tendency to question the authority of judges who reach conclusions he does not like.

Kavanaugh, by contrast, clearly understands the importance of an independent judiciary as a check on the other branches of government. His readiness to perform that function as a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit is reassuring, especially since the man who picked him for the Supreme Court seems to know little and care less about the legal principles that protect liberty and thwart tyranny.

One of those principles is the presumption that people should not be convicted of crimes they did not realize they were committing. Based on that presumption, Kavanaugh dissented from a 2012 decision upholding a bank robber's conviction for carrying a machine gun in the course of a violent crime.

"The majority opinion holds that a person who committed a robbery while carrying an automatic gun—but who genuinely thought the gun was semi-automatic—is still subject to the 30-year mandatory minimum sentence," he wrote. "The majority opinion thus gives an extra 20 years of mandatory imprisonment to a criminal defendant based on a fact the defendant did not know."

That same year, Kavanaugh wrote the majority opinion that overturned a military commission's conviction of Salim Hamdan, Osama bin Laden's driver, for providing material support to terrorism. Because "the relevant statute at the time of Hamdan's conduct…did not proscribe material support for terrorism as a war crime," Kavanaugh explained, the case amounted to retroactive prosecution.

I doubt that Donald Trump, who is not keen on due process or other legal niceties, understands the importance of the principles that might lead a judge to side with a bank robber or a member of Al Qaeda. I'm glad that Kavanaugh does.

Trump, who wants to jail flag burners, yank licenses from annoying broadcasters, and loosen libel rules so he can sue his critics into submission, shows little appreciation for freedom of speech. Not so Kavanaugh, who last year highlighted the First Amendment issues raised by the Federal Communications Commission's "net neutrality" rule and in 2009 sided with the abortion rights group Emily's List when it challenged Federal Election Commission regulations that made it harder to raise money for political advocacy.

Kavanaugh's broader critique of excessive deference to administrative agencies also should be music to the ears of anyone who worries about an overweening executive branch. In a 2016 Harvard Law Review article, Kavanaugh called the doctrine favoring agency interpretations of "ambiguous" statutes "an atextual invention" that amounts to "a judicially orchestrated shift of power from Congress to the Executive Branch."

Such deference also shifts power away from judges, who instead of settling on the best interpretation of the law are supposed to accept any "reasonable" reading that an agency offers as an excuse for its assertion of power. That expectation, Kavanaugh observed, "encourages the Executive Branch (whichever party controls it) to be extremely aggressive in seeking to squeeze its policy goals into ill-fitting statutory authorizations and restraints."

Kavanaugh's respect for legislators' prerogatives does not mean he is shy about checking them when they overstep their constitutional limits. In 2011 he dissented from a decision upholding the District of Columbia's "haphazard" ban on an arbitrary subset of semi-automatic rifles, which he correctly recognized as a violation of the same Second Amendment right that protects possession of handguns.

While I would prefer a justice who is more inclined to question fishy police searches, Kavanaugh, like Neil Gorsuch, is far from the reflexive authoritarian that Trump's opponents might have expected him to favor. The president's manifest lack of interest in constitutional law, to the extent that it encourages him to rely on guidance from people with better instincts, has proven to be a blessing in disguise.

© Copyright 2018 by Creators Syndicate Inc.

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  • Brian||

    "Trump, who wants to jail flag burners, yank licenses from annoying broadcasters, and loosen libel rules so he can sue his critics into submission, shows little appreciation for freedom of speech."

    Progressives hate Trump because he's their own concept of government, taken to its logical conclusion, and then handed to their ideological opposite.

  • Juice||

    I think Brian was just adding some perspective.

  • Gus diZerega||

    He was not adding any perspective of value.

  • VOTE MILES||

    Brian's comment was the opposite of partisan. He was pointing out that the ugly ambitions of the uncompromising right are the same as the ugly ambitions of the uncompromising left. It's an observation that should be repeated every opportunity.

  • Brian||

    Let me write this down... Hihn's mental health notes... now, go on...

  • jay||

    don't you think it might not be a tribal jab. We have diversity of everything except ideological diversity. It isn't surprising that we would reach a point where the "left" would be able to create its own opposition. In the 40's we practically blew up the world over whether we wanted a one world internationalist socialist govt or many socialist countries with nationalist aspects. Its what happens where there is only one ideology(which created the tribalism) that also happens to be wrong.

  • UltraModerate||

    If you ask any conservative to defend Trump without mentioning Obama, Hillary, or Democrats, their brains will melt.

  • VOTE MILES||

    Only one word needs to be said in defence of Trump: Gorsuch. Not only will it suffice; it will cause the democrat's brain to melt.

  • Elias Fakaname||

    Fake Michael, he was actually agreeing with your assertion that left minus right equals zero.

  • Juice||

    Hey, if you want Trump to nominate you to the Supreme Court, what do you say?

  • MatthewSlyfield||

    "BULLSHIT. It is NOT respect for an independent judiciary when Kavanaugh argues, often and forcefully, that Presidents should not be indicted ot even subpoenaed"

    He made an argument that remotely resembles that, ONCE, in a law review article.

    Judge Kavanaugh and Prosecutions of Sitting Presidents


    With that in mind, it would be appropriate for Congress to enact a statute providing that any personal civil suits against presidents, like certain members of the military, be deferred while the President is in office. The result the Supreme Court reached in Clinton v. Jones—that presidents are not constitutionally entitled to deferral of civil suits—may well have been entirely correct; that is beyond the scope of this inquiry. But the Court in Jones stated that Congress is free to provide a temporary deferral of civil suits while the President is in office. Congress may be wise to do so, just as it has done for certain members of the military.Deferral would allow the President to focus on the vital duties he was elected to perform.

    Note:

    1. The argument is for deferral until the President is out of office, not for immunity.
    2. The argument is that such deferral could be provided for by Congress, not by judicial fiat. That Congress could do so is well supported by the SCOTUS decision in Clinton v Jones.
    3. The argument in regards to criminal matters is the same, deferral not immunity provided by an act of Congress, not by the courts.

  • Elias Fakaname||

    Logical discussion with fake Hihn is a waste of time. He only rants and raves.

  • Cynical Asshole||

    It's kind of like trying to having a discussion with a crazy homeless person who's screaming at a brick wall.

  • MikeP2||

    "like" ?

  • Elias Fakaname||

    I suspect fake a Hihn is writing his manifesto in between ranting and raving in the comments sections here. When I say writing, I mean doing it by smearing his own fecal matter on a wall, or a number of walls. Amd probably the floor too.

  • FreeRadical||

    Very true but at least I found benefit from MatthewSlyfield's comment.

  • DajjaI||

    It never ceases to impress me how these public servants fight to limit the power of the very government that pays their salary. And yes I think it's just so funny how Trump is cornered into having to appoint them. Poor guy. Having said that, I think he will do great in this European summit. Because EU is going to hell because they don't have freedom. Whereas US is doing great, and Trump will take credit for it, whether he deserves to or not.

  • Daniel||

    "Kavanaugh, by contrast, clearly understands the importance of an independent judiciary as a check on the other branches of government. His readiness to perform that function as a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit is reassuring, especially since the man who picked him for the Supreme Court seems to know little and care less about the legal principles that protect liberty and thwart tyranny."

    Translation: Trump proves he has no appreciation for the limitation of executive power by appointing a judge that supports checks of government power.

  • Bearded Spock||

    One has to admire the logical pretzel Sullum must twist himself into in order to praise Trump while not appearing to praise him.

    Most of the "Trump is a stinky poopy head!" language in this column is pure virtue-signaling; it's Sullum's way of maintaining his bona fides with the Beltway press corps.

  • JB Say||

    Jacob doesn't want to get heckled out of restaurants. Cut him some slack. But surprised? Kavanaugh was on a list, then a shorter list. Trump likes to bluff and bluster but he's thinking strategically it should be obvious by now.

  • Paulpemb||

    "One of those principles is the presumption that people should not be convicted of crimes they did not realize they were committing. Based on that presumption, Kavanaugh dissented from a 2012 decision upholding a bank robber's conviction for carrying a machine gun in the course of a violent crime.

    'The majority opinion holds that a person who committed a robbery while carrying an automatic gun—but who genuinely thought the gun was semi-automatic—is still subject to the 30-year mandatory minimum sentence,' he wrote. 'The majority opinion thus gives an extra 20 years of mandatory imprisonment to a criminal defendant based on a fact the defendant did not know.'"

    It seems to me like what sort of weapon you are using to rob a bank is something that somebody could reasonably be expected to know, though. It's hard for me to muster up much sympathy for the defendant in this case.

  • FreeRadical||

    But the whole point of being a good judge is to uphold the Constitution, whether a defendant generates "sympathy" or not.

    You seem to be advocating a progressive idea: that laws should be applied arbitrarily where everything is about vacuous and emotional virtue signalling.

  • Paulpemb||

    So we're expected to believe this guy just happened to pick up one of the most tightly controlled and highly regulated objects in America and decided to commit a felony with it just because he thought it was 'only a sem-automatic firearm and not fully automatic?

    You probably believe Hillary never had any intent to send classified material over her private e-mail server, too.

  • FreeRadical||

    All of what you wrote is irrelevant. I'm trying to add precision to the debate. Read my other comments.

  • Arcxjo||

    Exactly. It's not much of a mental stretch to say that deciding to rob a bank IS mens rea.

  • FreeRadical||

    Arcxjo, that's not how mens rea works. Each element of a crime is completely separate from the others, and each must be separately proved.

    So, it doesn't matter that the guy was knowingly doing other bad things. Evidently, he honestly thought his weapon was a semi. Thus, it's impossible to have mens rea for that element.

  • Bubba Jones||

    How does one "accidentally" come in possession of a machine gun?

  • FreeRadical||

    I don't know. I'm just trying to explain how laws are applied by judges and add some precision to the conversation. All that matters is that the judge thought the man didn't know what he possessed and therefore could not have mens rea with respect to that particular element.

  • MisterDamage||

    From Kavanaugh's dissent: "virtually any semiautomatic weapon may be converted, either by internal modification or, in some cases, simply by wear and tear, into a machinegun . . . . Such a gun may give no
    externally visible indication that it is fully automatic."

  • JB Say||

    Agreed but any decision that might help restore mens rea would be a big step in the right direction.

  • TGoodchild||

    Strange how Trump continues to behave in ways which conflict with what he blathers on about...let's continue to treat everything word the guy produces as gospel and then write articles about how we're confused, to his discredit.

    Reason!

  • Daniel||

    Exactly.

    Trump: Says something that is boisterous and obnoxious.

    Reason: Trumps says crazy shit he must actually mean! He is terrible.

    Trump: Actually does something moderate or completely to the opposite of what he said.

    Reason: He does nothing he says he said he will do. We're so conflicted Trump must be terrible.

  • Mark22||

    Reason writers don't seem to have figured out that the job of politicians is politics, leadership, and management and what the essence of those jobs is.

    The Reason writer's understanding of human behavior and management seems to be stuck at the teenage "everybody is like a super-smart Borg" level.

  • Bearded Spock||

    Its almost as if Reason writers are more concerned with their public image than they are with Trump's policies.

  • Just Say'n||

    There's nothing wrong with pointing out how ridiculous the verbal diarrhea that comes out of his mouth is. But, I take issue with the continued insistence that stupid thing that the president says is without precedent. We had a lot of stupid presidents that did a lot of stupid things, but the continued fixation with this latest baddie only bolsters the argument that it's not the powers that we have granted to the president that is the problem, but rather the current TOP MAN.

    Which is not to say that they didn't also criticize the previous occupants for the same actions, but it was never a central fixation. Presidents criticizing judges is as American as apple pie.

  • Mark22||

    There's nothing wrong with pointing out how ridiculous the verbal diarrhea that comes out of his mouth is.

    Indeed, if you want to look like a fool, there is nothing wrong with it.

  • FreeRadical||

    What, criticizing the stupid shit Trump says makes you look like a fool?

    No, slavishly loving everything he does, or refusing to call him out on bullshit makes you look like a fool.

    And none of that has anything to do with whether you like or dislike any particular policy or action of this administration.

  • Mark22||

    Politicians use language as a tool. So, the measure of whether Trump's use of language is "stupid" or not is not whether you judge it to be "stupid" but whether it works politically. And it clearly does work politically. Meaning, if he didn't say "the stupid shit" that he says, he probably wouldn't be president and his approval rating probably wouldn't be going up.

  • Samshile||

    bingo! In addition, he uses heavy doses of sarcasm. I lie all the time with over-the-top comments and my friends love it. It is described as exaggeration for entertainment or to make a point. Trump is freaking funny and the hyper sours make no attempt to understand it NONE.

  • FreeRadical||

    Yes.

    The fixation on Trump is a universal condition. Both his followers and his detractors have created a cult of personality around him that consumes their logic. You know, Trump Derangement Syndrome.

    The widespread prevalence of TDS is a sad indicator that most people only think in terms of TOP MEN. I try to argue with people that they need to separate the presidency from the President; that the powers of the office are the problem and not the man.

    They just look blankly at me and then proceed with the verbal diarrhea that is a common symptom of TDS.

  • Cynical Asshole||

    The fixation on Trump is a universal condition. Both his followers and his detractors have created a cult of personality around him that consumes their logic. You know, Trump Derangement Syndrome.

    We need to come up with a name for the opposite condition from TDS that his admirers seem to suffer from in order to re-enforce the point that they're both nuts.

    Trump Worship Syndrome (TWS)?
    Or maybe Trump Fluffing Syndrome (TFS)? I don't know, something like that.

  • FreeRadical||

    Well, I was thinking that TDS works just fine for both the positive and negative strains. But I'm always open to creative ideas.

    Alternative TFS: Trump Fellating Syndrome.
    TMS: Trump Manlove Syndrome.
    ... Hmm, I'm running dry here...

  • Ship of Theseus||

    See: Mark22 above.

  • hello.||

    Don't sweat it. Retards commonly run out of ideas fairly quickly.

  • FreeRadical||

    Funny. Thanks for providing a perfect example of a person suffering from TDS.

  • hello.||

    We need to come up with a name for the opposite condition from TDS that his admirers seem to suffer from

    Reality?

  • FreeRadical||

    TOP MEN. You loves you some TOP MEN.

  • hello.||

    "I think one thing that should be distinguished here is that the media is always taking Trump literally. It never takes him seriously, but it always takes him literally. ... I think a lot of voters who vote for Trump take Trump seriously but not literally, so when they hear things like the Muslim comment or the wall comment, their question is not, 'Are you going to build a wall like the Great Wall of China?' or, you know, 'How exactly are you going to enforce these tests?' What they hear is we're going to have a saner, more sensible immigration policy."
  • Cranedoc||

    Our Republic is best protected, and it's longevity ensured when our leaders and arbiters adhere to the Constitutional framework that makes it possible. Supreme Court justices shouldn't HAVE an AGENDA! Instead, they should provide a check on the other two branches of government when their overreach infringes on the Constitution.

    I don't see what's so hard about that?

    Kavanaugh is an excellent choice in this regard, as he's shown a dedication to the Constitution throughout a long career as a judge. This isn't about Trump or his agenda. This isn't about Trump and the jackals in the media or the pestilential investigation into "muh Russia." This is about swearing in a justice who will preserve our government for the future, and provide a check against the excesses committed by partisan politics and ideological lawmaking.

  • BSL1||

    What I've read about Mr. Kavanaugh's history shows not a dedication to the Constitution, but to the legal profession and politics. He may provide help in preventing poor majority opinions in the future, but he shows no intent to correct poor opinions of the past.

  • OpenBordersLiberal-tarian||

  • Just Say'n||

    Insulting working class people to own the cons.

  • arbe59||

    And Hillary still doesn't understand why she lost. She thinks it's because non-colored women are still cowed into supporting the political allies of the men in their lives.

  • Rock Lobster||

    It's handmaids all the way down.

    Poor Hillary.

  • Mark22||

    Quality comedy from an intellectual giant!

  • Cynical Asshole||

    Oh, snap!

    When I think of someone "destroying" someone else, I think of insults that sound like they were written by a catty teenage girl.

  • Samshile||

    Dood is not funny. Sour and pathetically lame come to mind.

  • Rock Lobster||

    Well, the "I don't know much," part of Colbert's quote is accurate, at least.

    What an insufferable dickhead.

  • Mickey Rat||

    If Gorsuch and Kavanaugh are not the "reflexive authoritarians Trump's opponents expect him favor" then maybe his opponent's expectations are built on a strawman. It certainly dies not reflect well on their judgement.

  • Just Say'n||

    "That claim raised some eyebrows, given the president's tendency to question the authority of judges who reach conclusions he does not like."

    Another norm broken that totally never happened before

  • BYODB||

    If I'm not mistaken, I'm pretty sure Andrew Jackson had a pretty big fucking problem with the courts and even more specifically with the SCOTUS. Also, if I'm not mistaken, that was a pretty fucking long time ago.

    Literally nothing new to see here.

  • Samshile||

    Obama 2010 State of the Union guttersnipping

    Roberts said anyone is free to criticize the court and that some have an obligation to do so because of their positions.

    "So I have no problems with that," he said. "On the other hand, there is the issue of the setting, the circumstances and the decorum. The image of having the members of one branch of government standing up, literally surrounding the Supreme Court, cheering and hollering while the court -- according the requirements of protocol -- has to sit there expressionless, I think is very troubling."

  • Rock Lobster||

    He who laughs last laughs best.

    Obama must be very amused. His schtick at the 2010 SOTU is surpassed only by his performance at the 2011 White House Correspondent's Dinner, where he thought it would be uproriously funny to poke Trump with a stick. Oh well.

  • Rock Lobster||

    He who laughs last laughs best.

    Obama must be very amused. His schtick at the 2010 SOTU is surpassed only by his performance at the 2011 White House Correspondent's Dinner, where he thought it would be uproriously funny to poke Trump with a stick. Oh well.

  • Rock Lobster||

    *uproariously*

    Oops. And... goddamned squirrels.

  • atheistrepublican||

    I believe a certain immediate past president distinguished his administration by having the most 9-0 reversals by the Supremes in matters where the administration had taken a position. Now, you can take the position that that was merely "pushing the envelope", but is that the way we want our government to behave? It pushes the envelope until and unless another branch affirmatively stops it?

  • Rhywun||

    The president's manifest lack of interest in constitutional law, to the extent that it encourages him to rely on guidance from people with better instincts, has proven to be a blessing in disguise.

    I'll take the current president's so-called "lack of interest" over the previous one's so-called "expertise" any day.

  • Mark22||

    It's almost like Trump is an experienced manager, as opposed to Obama, who was an academic and block party organizer thrust into a management without the necessary skills or experience.

  • Cranedoc||

    Maybe Trump just couldn't find another Wide Latina?

  • Unicorn Abattoir||

    Odd, because wide Latinas are easy to come by around me.

  • Elias Fakaname||

    That new one from NY seems pretty thin.

    Would

  • Rock Lobster||

    "From each according to her ability, to each according to his needs."

    Works for me.

  • Mark22||

    Upon being nominated to the Supreme Court, Brett Kavanaugh said he had "witnessed firsthand" Donald Trump's "appreciation for the vital role of the American judiciary." That claim raised some eyebrows, given the president's tendency to question the authority of judges who reach conclusions he does not like.

    Good grief, Jacob, are you incapable of distinguishing between public criticism and actual interference?

    For the president to say nasty things about misbehaving judges (and there are plenty of them, just look at SCOTUS) is not a violation of the independence of the judiciary.

  • MikeP2||

    "The president's manifest lack of interest in constitutional law, to the extent that it encourages him to rely on guidance from people with better instincts, has proven to be a blessing in disguise."

    Blessing in disguise? huh. you mean the basic quality that differentiates good executives from bad ones? That self-aware executives realize they aren't subject-matter experts and thus need to surround themselves and rely on to inform decision making. That leading executives know their proper role is to define the direction and policy and rely on experts to define strategies, tactics, and actions.

    huh. wow. who'da thunk it. That a moderately successful business man would know how to act as a proper executive. funny that.

  • Rat on a train||

    "I think that I'm a better speechwriter than my speechwriters. I know more about policies on any particular issue than my policy directors. And I'll tell you right now that I'm gonna think I'm a better political director than my political director."

  • MikeP2||

    huh....I just learned that the Oxford English Dictionary defines politician as
    "US A person who acts in a manipulative and devious way, typically to gain advancement within an organization."

    wow....who could believe that. It's almost like a politician says one thing and does another. That means....how should we phrase it... that actions may be more important that words. wow. mind....blown.

  • Rock Lobster||

    Obama channeling LBJ: "I'll have those bitter clingers voting Democrat for a hundred years."

  • posmoo||

    This puports to demostrate that Trump has a dangerous and presumably unique history of questioning the judiciary by linking to an earlier reason article that links to another earlier reason article to support the notion that "That claim raised some eyebrows, given the president's tendency to question the authority of judges who reach conclusions he does not like."

    Unfortunately what the linked article says that this behavior was standard under Obama as well.

    "conservatives were outraged when President Barack Obama saw fit to give a press conference in which he lectured the Supreme Court about why it would be "judicial activism" for the Court to strike down Obamacare on constitutional grounds."

    reason didn't have a problem with Obama's comments at the time, at least not enough to bitch and moan about him every time he accidentally got something correct, wait he never did. It begs the question why does this magazine preface every article that seems to agree wholeheartedly with a trump action with a statement that Trump accidentally did something correct, yet again, while the were mute when Obama said the same types of things, and then nominated authoritarians to the court?

    I'm really starting to believe that the significant amount of reason's writers don't actually support the ideals they puport to and are probably cryptoleftists.

  • Rock Lobster||

    "Cosmotarians" is the accepted nomenclature, I believe.

  • Gus diZerega||

    Consider what Kavanaugh has said about the powers of the president.

    "Having seen first-hand how complex and difficult that job is, I believe it vital that the President be able to focus on his never-ending tasks with as few distractions as possible. The country wants the President to be "one of us" who bears the same responsibilities of citizenship that all share. But I believe that the President should be excused from some of the burdens of ordinary citizenship while serving in office."

    Of course his views were very different when working for Ken Starr...

    There was once a time when libertarians argued law should trump power. Apparently that is no longer the case for some who write for 'Reason.'

  • aajax||

    Given that he owes the Federalist Society his inclusion on the list of potential nominees and Trump his actual nomination, it will be interesting to see how interested he will be in restraining the imperial presidency and the executive branch.

  • VOTE MILES||

    Or maybe he'll just conclude that he was selected on merit and that since his appointment is for life he can just keep doing what he does and not trouble himself with partisan considerations. Stranger things have happened.

  • hello.||

    Yes if there's one thing the Federalist Society is known for it is supporting an imperial presidency and a weakened judiciary. It is a shame he wasn't selected purely on merit with no political consideration like Obama's former solicitor general and the vastly unqualified "wise latina".

  • CHarris360||

    Clickbait. The title is "Another Surprisingly Subversive Justice". Yet the article seems to be saying the opposite. He "clearly understands the importance of an independent judiciary as a check on the other branches of government." He "highlighted the First Amendment issues raised by the Federal Communications Commission's "net neutrality" rule and in 2009 sided with the abortion rights group...Kavanaugh's respect for legislators' prerogatives does not mean he is shy about checking them when they overstep their constitutional limits." And so forth. How is ANY of that "subversive"???

  • hello.||

    That claim raised some eyebrows, given the president's tendency to question the authority of judges who reach conclusions he does not like.

    Trump must have done something pretty egregious to have earned that reputation. He must have scolded the supreme court on national television during his state of the union address for reaching a conclusion he didn't like while the judges had to look on silently. Or maybe he defied a court order that overturned one of his executive orders placing a stay on oil exploration.

  • CapitalistRoader||

    You know, it's weird. Obama, a Constitutional Law professor, lost in the Supreme Court more than any modern president. Yet Trump is winning handily in that court and he doesn't even hold a J.D.

    Could it be that the President has decades of experience managing large, complex organizations and has learned to delegate responsibilities to people more learned than himself? And the previous president was an educated fool who bragged about his supposed superior intellect?

    I think that I'm a better speechwriter than my speechwriters. I know more about policies on any particular issue than my policy directors. And I'll tell you right now that I'm gonna think I'm a better political director than my political director.
    President Barack Obama, November 2008

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