Friday, December 13, 2013
Judge John D. Bates (D.D.C.) earlier this week dismissed Rep. Charles Rangel's suit against House Speaker John Boehner and others growing out of Rangel's censure in 2010 for a variety of improprieties.
Rangel sued Boehner and others after politico.com posted a memo purportedly written by the chief counsel of the House Ethics Committee. Rangel argued that that memo undermined the integrity of his censure proceeding--so much so that he had a cause of action.
The defendants moved to dismiss the case, arguing that Rangel lacked standing, the case raised a political question, the defendants enjoyed immunity from suit under the Speech and Debate Clause, Rangel's complaint failed to state a claim upon which relief could be granted, and even if the court had jurisdiction it should exercise its discretion not to reach the merits.
Judge Bates agreed. He concluded that Rangel lacked standing based on injury to his reputation (causation was too attenuated), his loss of status on the House Ways and Means Committee (again, no causation, because the Democrats lost seats on the Committee after the 2010 election, and it wasn't clear that Rangel's censure caused him to lose a subcommittee seat), the political exploitation of his censure by a primary opponent (because that's not an injury), or a due process injury (again, no injury).
Judge Bates also concluded that Rangel's claims were political questions, and that each defendant is immune under the Speech or Debate Clause.
With Hobby Lobby (and Conestoga Wood) headed to the United States Supreme Court, there's more and more commentary on the issue of whether a for-profit secular corporation, or its "owners" has a right to free exercise of religion under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) and the First Amendment's Free Exercise Clause sufficient to be exempted from compliance with the ACA's so-called contraception mandate requiring most employers to provide employees with health insurance that includes contraception.
Interestingly, after the grant of certiorari, some news reports headlined the religiousity of corporations aspect while others headlined the ACA contraception provision.
The issue has generated many commentaries which often take very polarized positions. Here's a round-up:
* Garrett Epps' Hobby Lobby and the New 'Alienable' Rights in The Atlantic argues that "market triumphalism" is at the heart - - - and will determine - - - cases such as Hobby Lobby. “In case after case, the Supreme Court, and some of the lower courts, have looked at speech cases solely from the point of view of the asset holder.” The abstract “inalienable” framework of rights in the Constitution has been transformed into rights as “assets” that can be treated as property and owned by corporations, especially those that are assumed to “create” the jobs encompassing the rights being asserted by the individuals. "The employees have no right to complain; they sold their rights on the free market."
* Richard Garnett's The Righteousness in Hobby Lobby’s Cause in the LA Times argues that Hobby Lobby should be praised for maintaining and supporting responsible corporate ethics through religious commitment. "Like millions of religious believers and groups," these corporations "reject the idea that religious faith and religious freedom are simply about what we believe and how we pray, and not also about how we live, act and work." At "the heart" of these cases "is the straightforward argument that federal law does not require us to 'check our faith at the door' when we pursue vocations in business and commerce."
* Linda Greenhouse's Doesn’t Eat, Doesn’t Pray and Doesn’t Love, in NY Times contends that the conflict is not really over religion but part of the continuing culture war surround sex. “To the extent that the “contraceptive project” changes anything on the American reproductive landscape, it will be to reduce the rate of unintended pregnancy and abortion. The objection, then, has to be not to the mandate’s actual impact but to its expressive nature, its implicit endorsement of a value system that says it’s perfectly O.K. to have sex without the goal of making a baby. While most Americans surely share this view, given the personal choices they make in their own lives, many nonetheless find it uncomfortable to acknowledge.”
* Dahlia Lithwick's Un-People over at Slate argues that the "conservative crusade to declare everything a “person”—corporations, fertilized eggs—will have disastrous consequences." Lithwick notes the extension from Citizens United: "Corporate Personhood is back! And this time, it’s got God on its side.” She predicts the consequences: "If for-profit secular corporations have religious beliefs, companies run by Christian Scientists can be free to limit medical treatment and those run by Jehovah's Witnesses could object to paying for blood transfusions. Artificially created constructs that exist to shield owners from lawsuits will be able to shield owners from compliance with basic civil rights laws."
* David Catron's SCOTUS, Hobby Lobby, and Media Practice over at The American Spectator argues against the "mainstream media" characterizations: “Those Americans still naïve enough to rely on establishment news outlets for information on current events are being told that Hobby Lobby v. Sebelius and Conestoga Wood Specialties v. Sebelius are part of a sinister conspiracy to restrict access to birth control, endow corporations with religious rights, and escalate the 'war on women.'" Instead, the main question should be this: "Can the government strip individuals of their religious liberties simply because they own a controlling interest in a corporation?"
* Sally Cohn's When Religion and Liberty Collide over at the Daily Beast draws on originalist interpretations of the First Amendment's religion clauses that "freedom *from* religion" is central. She contends that "the settlers who came to America wanted to express their own religious beliefs, but an equal if not greater motivation was escaping the reality of religious tyranny embedded in government," and to "put it mildly, our forbearers would be appalled by how right-wing conservatives are trying to use government to force their religious views on all of us."
* David Skeel's Corporations and Religious Freedom in WSJ argues that even if corporate religious rights are recognized, that doesn't mean there will be a flood of cases. Corporations will need to meet the sincerity requirement "and sincerity is much easier to determine with a corporation than with an individual, since there is no need to look inside the heart of a corporation. If a corporation's certificate of incorporation requires that it be operated in accordance with religious principles, or if its board of directors has established a clear and explicit practice of pursuing religious objectives, it would qualify. Otherwise it would not."
* Clarence Page's Law Protects All Faiths, Not All Behavior Op-Ed in The Chicago Tribune discusses the legal landscape in accessible terms, ultimately relying upon the belief/practice distinction as articulated "in the 1878 test case of the bigamy conviction of George Reynolds, the personal secretary to Mormon leader Brigham Young."
* Angelo Young's The Same Religious Conviction That Has Hobby Lobby Challenging Obamacare is Also Why Its Full Timers Start at $14 an Hour with Evenings (and Thanksgiving Off) in International Business Times argues exactly what its title captures. Focusing on Hobby Lobby, the article has an interview with David Green, the 73-year-old founder, including Green's comments about salary increases because "Our idea is that we should care about our people. It’s just a basic Christian do-unto-others idea."
* Amanda Marcotte's Christian Conservatives Have Perfected Playing the Victim Card in Salon (via alternet) argues that by the controversy is fueled by conservatives "redefining “religious freedom” to mean its opposite." She says the "hope is that by repeatedly using the term “religious freedom” when they mean “giving the Christian right power to impose their faith on others,” they can eventually drain the phrase of all its meaning and finally, after decades of fighting secularism, make it easier for the religious right to strip away individual protections for religion.”
* Megan McArdle's A Fight Over Contraception Won’t Help Obamacare Op-Ed in Bloomberg contends that the Obama Administration should "pick its battles carefully." She argues that if the ACA is to be " viable for the long term" it will "need the support of folks like Hobby Lobby."
We previously discussed
Ruthann Robson's Puzzling Corporations: The Affordable Care Act and Contraception Mandate originally published over at Jurist, and
Marci Hamilton's Why the En Banc Tenth Circuit’s Interpretation of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act in Hobby Lobby v. Sebelius Is Indefensible, originally published over at Justia.
The Senate yesterday confirmed Nina Pillard (Georgetown) to the D.C. Circuit, after previously filibustering her nomination. (The Senate earlier this week confirmed Patricia Millett, another earlier filibustered nominee.)
Think Progress has a really nice piece comparing Pillard to Ruth Bader Ginsburg on her contribution to women's rights, and predicting that she'll "imediately rocket to the top of the Democratic shortlist of potential nominees to the Supreme Court." From TP:
Pillard was a member of the legal team in United States v. Virginia, which eliminated the Virginia Military Institute's discriminatory policies against women and cemented the rule that no law may engage in gender discrimination unless there is an "exceedingly persuasive justification" for doing so. Seven years later, Pillard argued and won Nevada Department of Human Resources v. Hibbs, an important case helping women (and men) with families have a fair opportunity to participate in the workplace.
Indeed, it is likely that there is only one other judge currently on the bench who accomplished as much as a litigator for women's rights as Judge Pillard did in her career as an attorney--Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
Thursday, December 12, 2013
Janet Reitman's excellent article in Rolling Stone entitled "Snowden and Greenwald: The Men Who Leaked the Secrets" and subtitled "How two alienated, angry geeks broke the story of the year" is worth a read, nevermind the tags meant to attract Rolling Stone's target demographic. With this past summer's New York Time magazine article "How Laura Poitras Helped Snowden Spill His Secrets" by Peter Maas, there is much in both of these pieces that merits consideration.
True, the articles are journalistic. Reitman tells us that for "a man living in the middle of a John le Carre' novel, Greenwald has a pretty good life." She then talks about his dogs (also mentioned in the article by Maas). It's the stuff of human interest stories. But Reitman also gives Greenwald's story of lawyering: first with a law firm and then in his own practice, "defending the First Amendment rights of neo-Nazis.":
It was one of Greenwald's prouder accomplishments as an attorney. "To me, it's a heroic attribute to be so committed to a principle that you apply it not when it's easy," he says, "not when it supports your position, not when it protects people you like, but when it defends and protects people that you hate."
Wednesday, December 11, 2013
The Australian Capital Territory (ACT) - - - akin to Washington, D.C. for those familiar with the United States - - - passed a "marriage equality act" allowing for same-sex marriages. Australia's High Court has declared the ACT's marriage act invalid in The Commonwealth of Australia v. The Australian Capital Territory,  HCA 55.
Here's the Court's "judgement summary":
Today the High Court decided unanimously that the Marriage Equality (Same Sex) Act 2013, enacted by the Legislative Assembly for the Australian Capital Territory, cannot operate concurrently with the federal Marriage Act 1961. The Court held that the federal Parliament has power under the Australian Constitution to legislate with respect to same sex marriage, and that under the Constitution and federal law as it now stands, whether same sex marriage should be provided for by law is a matter for the federal Parliament.
The Court held that "marriage" in s 51(xxi) of the Constitution refers to a consensual union formed between natural persons in accordance with legally prescribed requirements which is not only a union the law recognises as intended to endure and be terminable only in accordance with law but also a union to which the law accords a status affecting and defining mutual rights and obligations. "Marriage" in s 51(xxi) includes a marriage between persons of the same sex.
The Marriage Act does not now provide for the formation or recognition of marriage between same sex couples. The Marriage Act provides that a marriage can be solemnised in Australia only between a man and a woman and that a union solemnised in a foreign country between a same sex couple must not be recognised as a marriage in Australia. That Act is a comprehensive and exhaustive statement of the law of marriage.
The Court held that the object of the ACT Act is to provide for marriage equality for same sex couples and not for some form of legally recognised relationship which is relevantly different from the relationship of marriage which federal law provides for and recognises. Accordingly, the ACT Act cannot operate concurrently with the federal Act.
Because the ACT Act does not validly provide for the formation of same sex marriages, its provisions about the rights of parties to such marriages and the dissolution of such marriages cannot have separate operation and are also of no effect.
The Court held that the whole of the ACT Act is of no effect.
The Court's unanimous opinion is mostly concerned with whether the ACT marriage act and the federal marriage act are inconsistent. The constitutional issues lurk in the background: Australia's constitution gives the federal government power over marriage. As the opinion states:
Section 51(xxi) of the Constitution gives the federal Parliament power to make laws with respect to "marriage". Section 51(xxii) gives the Parliament legislative power with respect to "divorce and matrimonial causes; and in relation thereto, parental rights, and the custody and guardianship of infants". Both powers were included in the Constitution to avoid what the framers saw as a great defect in the United States Constitution. The object of the powers was to enable the federal Parliament to provide uniform laws governing marriage and divorce.
Once the inconsistency is determined - - - and there was an argument that the laws could be interpreted as not inconsistent, but this failed - - - then the federal law must prevail.
As the opinion states, "Under the Constitution and federal law as it now stands, whether same sex marriage should be provided for by law (as a majority of the Territory Legislative Assembly decided) is a matter for the federal Parliament."
In its long-awaited opinion in Koushal v. NAZ Foundation, the Supreme Court of India has reversed the 2009 decision of the Delhi High Court that §377 of the Indian Penal Code was unconstitutional under the India Constitution and upheld India's sodomy law as constitutional.
The Supreme Court decision noted that India's sodomy law was pre-constitutional - - - and derived from British rule - - - and also that the Court certainly had the power to declare the law unconstitutional as inconsistent with several provisions of the India Constitution, including
- Article 13 (Laws inconsistent with or in derogation of the fundamental rights)
- Article 14 (Equality before law)
- Article 15 (Prohibition of discrimination on grounds of religion, race, caste, sex or place of birth)
- Article 19 (Protection of certain rights regarding freedom of speech etc.)
- Article 21 (Protection of life and personal liberty)
Nevertheless, the Court stated that there is a presumption of constitutionality given the "importance of separation of powers and out of a sense of deference to the value of democracy that parliamentary acts embody."
The Court's 98 page opinion authored by Justice Singhvi (who is interestingly scheduled to retire tomorrow, the day after the opinion was rendered), and without a dissenting opinion, criticizes the Dehli Court's reliance on non-national sources:
In its anxiety to protect the so-called rights of LGBT persons and to declare that Section 377 IPC violates the right to privacy, autonomy and dignity, the High Court has extensively relied upon the judgments of other jurisdictions. Though these judgments shed considerable light on various aspects of this right and are informative in relation to the plight of sexual minorities, we feel that they cannot be applied blindfolded for deciding the constitutionality of the law enacted by the Indian legislature.
For United States scholars, such concern for nationalism certainly echoes the dissenting opinion in Lawrence v. Texas, in which the United States Supreme Court held unconstitutional a state law criminalizing sodomy. Yet in the India context, the fact that its constitutionalism is linked to British rule as well as the fact that the sodomy law is a product of colonialism (and is a law that the colonial power has since repudiated as former Australian High Court Judge Michael Kirby has analyzed as England's "least lovely" export) are distinguishing features.
Certainly, however, the problematizing of judicial review in the context of sexuality occurs in the United States cases as well as those from South Africa, an issue extensively discussed here.
And certainly, advocacy on behalf of "the so-called rights of LGBT persons" will be moving to India's Parliament.
[image of Supreme Court of India via]
The Senate confirmed Patricia Millett to the D.C. Circuit and Mel Watt to head the Federal Housing Finance Agency under its new, filibuster-free majority rule for confirmations (except Supreme Court confirmations). WaPo's Post Politics blog reports here. We posted earlier on Millett's nomination and on the Senate's move to do away with the filibuster for confirmations.
Tuesday, December 10, 2013
In its opinion in In the Matter of James Holmes v. Jana Winter, the New York Court of Appeals (NY's highest court) today concluded that it would violate New York's public policy to issue a subpoena directing a New York reporter (Jana Winter) to appear at a judicial proceeding in Colorado in which there is a substantial likelihood that she will be directed to disclose the names of confidential sources or be held in contempt of court.
The underlying facts involve the prosecution of Holmes for the Aurora, Colorado "Batman" movie shooting in which 12 people died and 70 people were wounded. During the investigation, law enforcement took possession of a notebook that Holmes had mailed to a University of Colorado psychiatrist. The court issued a general order limiting pretrial publicity, including law enforcement, as well as a specific order relating to the notebook (as a privileged communication). However, Jana Winter, a reporter employed by Fox News, published an online article entitled "Exclusive: Movie Massacre Suspect Sent Chilling Notebook to Psychiatrist Before Attack." She describes the notebook and states she learned about it from "two unidentified law enforcement sources." Holmes sought sanctions against law enforcement officers and in a court hearing, the 14 officers who had knew about the notebook each testified they did not leak the information and did not know who had. Holmes thereafter sought to subpoena Winter.
Winter argued that the identity of her sources was absolutely privileged under New York's Shield Law, NY Civil Rights §79-h[d], adopted in 1970. The court agreed, noting that
New York has a long tradition with roots dating back to the colonial era, of providing the utmost protection of freedom of the press. Our recognition of the importance of safeguarding those who provide information as part of the newsgathering function can be traced to the case of "John Peter Zenger who . . . was prosecuted for publishing articles critical of the New York colonial Governor after he refused to disclose his source.
Moreover, "Article I, § 8 of the New York Constitution -- our guarantee of free speech and a free press -- was adopted in 1831, before the First Amendment was rendered applicable to the states" and the "drafters chose not to model our provision after the First Amendment, deciding instead to adopt more expansive language"
Every citizen may freely speak, write and publish his or her sentiments on all subjects . . . and no law shall be passed to restrain or abridge the liberty of speech or of the press
As for the Shield Law itself, it expresses the notion that protection of a reporter's sources is "essential to maintenance of our free and democratic society," an idea supported by "several luminaries" of the profession, including "Walter Cronkite, Eric Severied, and Mike Wallace."
New York public policy as embodied in the Constitution and our current statutory scheme provides a mantle of protection for those who gather and report the news -- and their confidential sources -- that has been recognized as the strongest in the nation. And safeguarding the anonymity of those who provide information in confidence is perhaps the core principle of New York's journalistic privilege, as is evident from our colonial tradition, the constitutional text and the legislative history of the Shield Law.
The court also noted that this strong public policy has "played a significant role in this State becoming the media capital of the country if not the world."
The court clarified its holding near the end of the opinion:
And lest there be any confusion, we reiterate that the issue we confront is whether a New York court should issue a subpoena compelling a New York journalist to appear as a witness in another state to give testimony when such a result is inconsistent with the core protection of our Shield Law. Thus, the narrow exception we recognize today, which permits a New York court to consider and apply New York's journalist's privilege in relation to issuance of its own process -- a subpoena -- in a narrow subset of cases, is not tantamount to giving a New York law extraterritorial effect.
The opinion seeks to be somewhat narrow, and it is by a narrow majority, 4-3. Yet it is a resounding articulation of a reporter's right to maintain the anonymity and confidential of sources under state law without reference to the First Amendment.
[image: Juan Gris, Still Life With Newspaper, 1916, via]
The struggles that follow the victory of formal equality and universal franchise may not be as filled with drama and moral clarity as those that came before, but they are no less important.
A full transcript of Obama's speech is in the Washington Post here.
Video (and transcript) from BBC here.
Nelson Mandela's autobiography Long Walk to Freedom remains the best read about Mandela.
And worth (re)reading on this anniversary of Mandela's signing the South Africa Constitution in 1996, volumes such as The Post-apartheid Constitutions : Perspectives on South Africa's basic law by Penelope Andrews and Stephen Ellman and Constitutional Rights in Two Worlds by Mark Kende.
Monday, December 9, 2013
Michael Avery and Danielle McLaughlin, authors of The Federalist Society: How Conservatives Took the Law Back from Liberals, write over at the ACS Blog that the Democrats' recent move to invoke the nuclear option now gives them a chance to respond to a decades-long movement by conservatives and the Federalist Society to fill the federal bench with conservative judges.
In our book, we analyze how these judges and others have responded to the arguments of Federalist Society members to move the law to the right in a variety of substantive areas. . . .
We hope the recent Senate Rules change will become an important step in restoring balance to the federal bench. We acknowledge that this rule change might eventually come back to haunt Senate Democrats. Either way, it was past time for the president and the Democrats in the Senate to realize that they have to play hardball with respect to judicial appointments.
Saturday, December 7, 2013
In Craig and Mullins v. Masterpiece Cakeshop, Inc., the subject is not the ACA ("Obamacare") as in the cases recently granted certiorari by the United States Supreme Court, or even a UK hotel or wedding photographs, both of which we discussed here, but a cake. But all these cases raise a similar question: can a secular for-profit corporation, or its owners, be exempted from a law by reason of a religious belief?
The 14 page opinion of the Administrative Law Judge (ALJ) in Masterpiece Cakeshop firmly rejects the arguments of the Cakeshop, reasoning that to accept its position would be to "allow a business that served all races to nonetheless refuse to serve an interracial couple because of the business owner’s bias against interracial marriage." The ALJ was not persuaded by the fact that Colorado, where the cakeshop is located, does not recognize same-sex weddings, because the cakeshop owner admitted he would feel similarly if it were a same-sex commitment ceremony or civil union, neither of which is forbidden by state law. Indeed, nothing compels the cakeshop or its owner "to recognize the legality of a same-sex wedding or to endorse such weddings," only, like "other actors in the marketplace serve same-sex couples in exactly the same way they would serve heterosexual ones."
The ALJ rejected the contention that "preparing a wedding cake is necessarily a medium of expression amounting to protected 'speech,' " or that compelling the treatment of "same-sex and heterosexual couples equally is the equivalent of forcing" adherence to “an ideological point of view.” The ALJ continued that while there "is no doubt that decorating a wedding cake involves considerable skill and artistry," the "finished product does not necessarily qualify as 'speech.'"
As to the free exercise claim, the ALJ noted that the regulation at issue distinctly regulated conduct rather than belief. The ALJ rejected the contention that it merited strict scrutiny, noting that the anti-discrimination statute was a neutral law of general applicability and thus should be evaluated under a rational basis test. The ALJ also rejected the argument "because the public accommodation law not only restricts their free exercise of religion, but also restricts their freedom of speech and amounts to an unconstitutional “taking” of their property without just compensation in violation of the Fifth and Fourteenth Amendments" a hybrid right meriting strict scrutiny was involved. For the ALJ, the "mere incantation" of other constitutional rights does not a hybrid claim create.
The remedy was a cease and desist order rather than damages.
[image: one of the cakes advertised on the Masterpiece Cakeshop website]
Thursday, December 5, 2013
Seventh Circuit Rejects First Amendment Claim of Guidance Counselor's Termination for Writing Sexually Explicit Book
In its opinion in Craig v. Rich Township High School District 227, the Seventh Circuit upheld the ability to terminate a high school guidance counselor for writing and self-publishing a book entitled It's Her Fault.
The book is one of relationship advice for women, based on Carig's experience of counseling and his determination that women's emotionality disadvantages them in their quest to have a relationship with a man. But as the Seventh Circuit panel noted, Craig's book uses "sexually explicit terminology throughout" and includes advice to women on "the wonderful world of submissiveness," as well as delving into "a comparative analysis of the female genitalia of various races." Craig's book referenced his employment as a guidance counselor at the school, citing his interactions with women when “coach[ing] girls basketball, work[ing] in an office where I am the only male counselor, and [being] responsible for roughly 425 high school students a year, about half of whom are females.”
Craig's First Amendment challenge to his termination was dismissed by the federal district judge in Illinois because it failed to address a matter of public concern as required by Pickering v. Board of Education (1968). The Seventh Circuit disagreed, concluding
Viewed as a whole, “It’s Her Fault” addresses adult relationship dynamics, a subject that interests a significant segment of the public. The proliferation of advice columns dealing with precisely this topic is a testament to its newsworthiness.
Nevertheless, the Seventh Circuit panel affirmed the district judge's dismissal, finding that the public employer's interest in promoting efficient and effective public service outweighed the interests of the public employee speaking on a matter of public concern. Craig argued that his speech occurred outside his employment and was unrelated to it, but the Seventh Circuit concluded that Craig took deliberate steps to link his book to his employment. As to the effect on the employer's interests, the panel looked at the classic First Amendment employee cases of Rankin and Connick, as well as Seventh Circuit precedent. The court reasoned:
Defendants reasonably expected that some students would be apprehensive about asking Craig for help given his views on women. For example, Craig asserts that women do not succeed in relationships because of their tendency to “act based on emotion alone instead of emotion plus intellect.” Is it unreasonable to think a female Rich Cen‐ tral student who learned that Craig believed women are not inclined to rational thought may decide against visiting his office for career or other advice? We think not. Nor would it be unreasonable to believe a high school girl would keep her relationship problems to herself knowing that Craig stressed in his book the importance of a woman’s sexual “submissiveness” to her male partner. These portions of “It’s Her Fault” addressed subjects inextricably related to issues for which a female high school student may seek the advice of her guidance counselor. Defendants reasonably concluded that some of these students, knowing Craig’s views on these topics, would decline to ask for his help.
It concluded that the school's interests in "protecting the integrity of counseling services at Rich Central dwarfed Craig’s interest in publishing" his book, “It’s Her Fault.” It stated that although "Craig’s book touched on a matter of public concern, his view of relationships is not the sort of topic of expression that Defendants would require a compelling reason to restrict."
Wednesday, December 4, 2013
Oral Arguments in United States v. Apel: The Military Facility Protest Case as Raising First Amendment Issues
The Court heard oral arguments today in United States v. Apel, an application and First Amendment challenge to 18 U.S.C. § 1382 regarding trespassing on a military base, in light of a pre-existing order barring Apel from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. There is a dispute whether the property in question is actually part of the military base and the Ninth Circuit reversed the conviction against Apel, as we discussed in our preview here.
Assistant Solicitor General Benjamin Horwich began by arguing that the statute clearly makes it a crime for a person to "reenter a military base after having been ordered not to do so by the commanding officer" and that the Ninth Circuit erred by adding a requirement that the defendant "must be found in a place that, as a matter of real property law, is within the exclusive possession of the United States." Justice Ginsburg quickly noted that the Air Force manual and a JAG opinion had added those criteria, but Horwich argued those sources were advisory rather than binding. The entirety of Horwich's initial argument was directed towards the characteristics of the properties in question, including a discussion of easements.
Indeed, only with Erwin Chemerinsky's argument on behalf of Apel is the subject of the First Amendment broached. Chemerinsky begins his argument making the constitutional link:
This is a case about the right to peacefully protest on a fully open public road, in a designated protest zone. For decades, every lower Federal court, and, for that matter, the United States itself, interpreted 18 United States Code Section 1382 to apply only if there's exclusive Federal possession. Any other interpretation would raise grave First Amendment issues.
While the specter of unconstitutionality to direct statutory interpretation is not rare - - - think of the use of equal protection in the oral argument in last term's Baby Veronica case for example - - - Chemerinsky struggled to direct some Justices attention to the First Amendment. When Chemerinksy echoed Justice Ginsburg's previous mention of Flower v. United States (1972), Justice Kennedy injected that Flower was a First Amendment case and then repeated this observation, telling counsel to concentrate on the statutory argument. Soon thereafter, Justice Kennedy admonished Chemerinsky ,"You're back on the First Amendment case." And then:
JUSTICE SCALIA: You keep sliding into the First Amendment issue, which is not the issue on which we granted certiorari. We're only interested in whether the statute applies.
MR. CHEMERINSKY: But, Your Honor, in interpreting the statute, it must be done so as to avoid constitutional doubts. That's why the First Amendment comes up. Also, of course, as this Court repeatedly has held, Respondent can raise any issue that was raised below to defend the judgment, which is also why the First Amendment is here.
But Your Honor -
JUSTICE SCALIA: You can raise it, but we don't have to listen to it.
Arguments continued about easements, functional possession, and exclusive possession, and a question from Justice Breyer including the fact that he had "looked at the Google maps."
But then a similar colloquy about the relevance of the First Amendment occurred:
MR. CHEMERINSKY: And this goes to Justice Kennedy's question earlier if we are talking about an easement. An easement that is created for a public road inherently has free speech rights attached to it. In fact, many lower court cases have always said an easement for a public road includes the right to use it for speech purposes. That is very different than an easement that exists for purposes of a utility.
JUSTICE SCALIA: It seems to me a First Amendment argument and not an argument that goes to the scope of Section 1382.
MR. CHEMERINSKY: No, Your Honor, because you need to interpret the statute to avoid the constitutional issues. If you interpret the statute to allow excluding speech on this public road easement in the designated protest zone, then interpreting the statute that way would raise grave First Amendment issues.
JUSTICE SCALIA: So you are saying we should read the statute to say it only applies when it doesn't violate the First Amendment. Of course we'd read it that way.
MR. CHEMERINSKY: Of course, you should read it that way.
JUSTICE SCALIA: But not because it has anything to do with the scope of authority of the government. It's what the government can do. I -- I don't know how to read that, that text, in such a way that it will avoid all First Amendment problems. There is no way to do that.
MR. CHEMERINSKY: I disagree, Your Honor. I think that the reason that every lower court and the United States government itself have read "military installation" as exclusive possession is that otherwise it would raise First Amendment problems.
It was on Horwich's rebuttal that the fact that there is a designated protest area, from which Apel's ban is at issue, became clarified. Justice Kagan asked Horwich to explain the "history of this First Amendment area," to which he replied that it was pursuant to litigation settlement, although he was unable to answer Kagan's follow up question about the type of litigation.
On the whole, it's doubtful that the Court will render an opinion in Apel destined for First Amendment treatises or casebooks. On the other hand, any opinion will surely be written in the shadow of First Amendment doctrine and theory.
In its opinion in Minority Television Project v. FCC, the en banc Ninth Circuit upheld the constitutionality of 47 U.S.C. § 399b which prohibits public radio and television stations from transmitting paid advertisements for for-profit entities, issues of public importance or interest, and political candidates.
Writing for the majority, Judge McKeown began by mentioning the showcase programming of public television: "Masterpiece Theater, PBS NewsHour, children’s programs such as Sesame Street and Curious George." In recognition of the "follow the money" reality, Congress recognized that advertising would "change the character of public broadcast programming and undermine the intended distinction between commercial and noncommercial broadcasting." The First Amendment challenge by Minority Television Project, a public television broadcaster, was mounted after it was fined by the FCC for violating the ban on advertising through its "underwriting announcements." While the district judge upheld the statute, a divided Ninth Circuit panel upheld only the ban on for-profit advertising, while two judges issued separate opinions striking down the statute’s ban on issue and political advertising
The en banc majority upheld the constitutionality of the entirety of the bans, applying intermediate First Amendment scrutiny from FCC v. League of Women Voters, 468 U.S. 364 (1984) that nevertheless requires that the restrictions be "narrowly tailored" to further a substantial government interest, as well as a consideration of the sufficiency of less restrictive means, but do fall short of the strict scrutiny standard advanced by Minority Television Project. Applying intermediate scrutiny, the en banc majority held that legislative record was "ample" to support the statute and that the "case 'does not present a close call' requiring us to elaborate on what evidentiary burden Congress bears in enacting a law that implicates First Amendment rights." The majority stated that "substantial evidence before Congress supported the conclusion that the advertising prohibited by § 399b posed a threat to the noncommercial, educational nature of NCE [noncommercial educational] programming and that the additional evidence bears out Congress’s predictive judgment in enacting § 399b." For the majority, "Poking holes in the congressional evidence is hardly a substitute for the scrutiny required of this court."
The most contentious disagreement involved the ban on political and issue advertising. The majority held that Congressional findings regarding commercial advertising included political and issue advertising:
Congress determined that the “insulation of program control and content from the influence of special interests—be they commercial, political or religious”—was necessary. See H.R. Rep. No. 97-82, at 16 (1981). The government’s evidence regarding the enormous sums spent on political advertising confirms Congress’s prediction that, like advertising by for- profit entities, political advertising dollars have the power to distort programming decisions. In 2008 alone, political advertisers spent $2.2 billion. As the campaign season gets longer and longer, commercial television viewers are bombarded with political and issue advertising. Prohibiting only goods and services advertising and allowing issue and political advertising would have shifted incentives and left a gaping hole in § 399b’s protections.
While recognizing that political speech has a preferred place in First Amendment hierarchies of speech, the majority nevertheless found that the Congressional consideration of "commercialization" extended to this type of speech, as well as crediting Congressional consideration of an "experiment" to allow some time, place, and manner restrictions and the Congressional rejection of that option.
Judge Callahan wrote a very brief concurring and dissenting opinion, rejecting the constitutionality of the ban on the political and issues advertising.
Chief Judge Kozinski, joined by Judge Noonan, wrote a lengthy dissenting opinion, arguing that all of the advertising bans should be held unconstitutional. This opinion interestingly begins with what one might call its own sort of advertisement for American exceptionalism and the firstness of the First Amendment:
The United States stands alone in our commitment to freedom of speech. No other nation—not even freedom-loving countries like Canada, England, Australia, New Zealand and Israel—has protections of free speech and free press like those enshrined in the First Amendment. These aren’t dead words on paper written two centuries ago; they live. In many ways, the First Amendment is America. We would be a very different nation but for the constant buffeting of our public and private institutions by a maelstrom of words and ideas, “uninhibited, robust, and wide-open.”
The dissent criticizes the majority's defence to Congress, including discussion from the FCC regarding the experiment, although the majority's opinion, in footnote 10, stated it was "surprised by the dissent’s effort to undermine the Commission’s recommendation with selective excerpts from the Commission’s report." The dissent also criticized the intermediate standard of review as being problematical and unpredictable as to outcome.
Should Minority Television Project seek certiorari, one might wonder whether Justice Sotomayor's appearance on Sesame Street will matter.
The Ninth Circuit earlier this week upheld a congressional ban on paid advertisements for for-profits, issues of public importance or interest, and political candidates. The 9-2 (or 8-1-1) ruling in Minority Television Project, Inc. v. FEC said that the ban, at 47 U.S.C. Sec. 399b, did not violate the First Amendment.
The ruling is most notable for Chief Judge Kozinski's call for the Supreme Court to reconsider its approach to the First Amendment for broadcast media. If Chief Judge Kozinski is reading the tea leaves right, this case may just be the vehicle for the Court to change course on its traditional lower-level review (and therefore greater tolerance) for speech restrictions on broadcast media.
The majority applied the traditional intermediate scrutiny test set out in League of Women Voters and ruled that 399b comfortably satisfied it:
We conclude that substantial evidence before Congress supported the conclusion that the advertising prohibited by Section 399b posed a threat to the noncommercial, educational nature of NCE programming and that the additional evidence bears out Congress's predictive judgment in enacting Section 399b.
Op. at 16. As to fitness:
In contrast [to the statute overturned in League of Women Voters], Section 399b's restrictions are narrowly tailored to the harms Congress sought to prevent. Having documented the link between advertising and programming, Congress reaffirmed the long-standing ban on advertising on NCE stations, but in a more targeted manner. In place of the prior absolute ban on promotional content, which swept within its reach a wide range of speech that did not pose a significant risk to public programming, Congress enacted targeted restrictions that leave untouched speech that does not undermine the goals of the statute. The restrictions leave broadcasters free to air enhanced underwriting, which both the FCC and Congress determined did not pose the same risk to programming as advertisements. Broadcasters may air any promotional content for which consideration was not receieved. Finally, the statute permits non-profit advertisements. As to this latter category, the government offered evidence that non-profit advertisements, which are few in number and perceived by the public as consistent with the mission of public broadcasting, do not pose the same threat as other forms of advertising.
Op. at 26-27.
The court declined the plaintiff-petitioner's invitation to apply strict scrutiny under Citizens United. The court said that "Citizens United was not about broadcast regulation; it was about the validity of a statute banning political speech by corporations." Citizens United did not "overrule decades of precedent sub silentio--especially given that the Court there expressly overruled two other cases with no mention of League of Women Voters or an intent to change the level of scrutiny for broadcasting." Op. at 13.
Judge Callahan concurred as to the prohibition against paid advertisements by for-profits, but dissented (for the same reasons as Chief Judge Kozinski) as to the prohibition on ads on issues of public importance and for political candidates.
Chief Judge Kozinski dissented (joined by Judge Noonan) with a full frontal assault on the intermediate scrutiny standard for speech restrictions in broadcast media. He wrote that the rationale for that standard "no longer carries any force." He said that intermediate scrutiny was too squishy and was undermined for broadcast media by "intervening developments" in the media. He pointed to an earlier Ninth Circuit ruling in which the court defied Supreme Court precedent based on changed circumstances, but was nevertheless affirmed by the Supreme Court. "So I guess the lesson is, we must not get ahead of the Supreme Court--unless we're right."
He obviously thinks he's right in predicting the downfall of intermediate scrutiny here.
Gerard Magliocca (Indiana) appeared recently on Your Weekly Constitutional, a pod-cast and radio show affiliated with James Madison's Montpelier, to discuss his new book American Founding Son: John Bingham and the Invention of the Fourteenth Amendment. Magliocca talks about John Bingham and the creation of the Fourteenth Amendment in this terrific hour-long segment with YWC host Stewart Harris.
Tuesday, December 3, 2013
Opponents of the Affordable Care Act, or Obamacare, have set off a new wave of challenges to the Act, according to today's NYT. Among these: the religious challenges to the contraception mandate; cases challenging President Obama's extension of the employer mandate deadline; and challenges to the IRS rule providing a subsidy to purchasers of health insurance on the federal exchange.
As to that last one: plaintiffs in a spate of cases argue that Section 1401(a) of the ACA provides that purchasers of health insurance on a state exchange, but not the federal exchange, get a federal subsidy; yet the IRS issued a rule that extends the federal subsidy (in the form of a tax credit) to purchasers on the federal exchange. This, they say, violates the Administrative Procedures Act and the Tenth Amendment.
Why the Tenth Amendment? Opponents say that under the ACA an employer who declines to extend coverage has to pay a penalty if and when the federal government gives the employer's employees a subsidy for purchasing health insurance on a state exchange. Opponents say that the IRS rule extends this federal subsidy, and also the employer penalty, when the employer's employees purchase health insurance on the federal exchange. According to opponents, that undermines the state's policy decision not to open a state exchange in the first place. Or, as Indiana put it in paragraph 10 of its complaint in State of Indiana v. IRS:
[The IRS rule] contravenes the text of the ACA, thwarts Indiana's ability to execute State policy sparing employers from Employer Mandate penalties, induces Plaintiffs to reduce the hours of certain employees, including part-time and intermittent employees, to avoid having to provide all such employees with minimum essential coverage, and requires Plaintiffs to file onerous reports with the IRS detailing insurance coverage decisions. It thereby violates both the Administrative Procedure Act and the Tenth Amendment, and the Court should permanently enjoin Defendants from putting it into effect.
Later, in paragraph 17, it says:
In light of the IRS Rule, the State will be forced to reduce the hours of several part-time or intermittent employees in order to avoid the "assessable payment" or employer penalty of the ACA.
According to the Notice of Final Rulemaking, the IRS considered and rejected claims that the ACA itself limits subsidies to purchasers on state exchanges when it took comments on the proposed rule. The IRS said:
The statutory language of section 36B and other provisions of the Affordable Care Act support the interpretation that credits are available to taxpayers who obtain coverage through a State Exchange, regional Exchange, subsidiary Exchange, and the Federally-facilitated Exchange. Moreover, the relevant legislative history does not demonstrate that Congress intended to limit the premium tax credit to State Exchanges.
The Supreme Court heard arguments today in Northwest, Inc. v. Ginsberg, the case testing whether the Airline Deregulation Act preempts a state-law claim for breach of implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing arising out of an airline's termination of a customer's membership in its frequent flyer program. Our argument preview is here.
Given that the Court has ruled in Wolens that the ADA does not preempt an ordinary breach-of-contract claim, arguments today turned on whether the claim for breach of implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing is simply an incorporated contract requirement or a rule of contract interpretation (so that it's actually part of the contract, and thus not preempted), or whether it's an additional state-imposed obligation on top of the plain terms of the contract (and thus preempted). This question is informed by the deregulatory purpose of the ADA. Justice Breyer framed the issue this way:
I absolutely agree wtih you that--that a free market in price is at the heart of the Deregulation Act. Given.
I also think frequent flyer programs are simply price discounts. Given.
I also think that if you don't have contracts, you can't have free markets. Given.
But I also think the State cannot, under the guise of contract law, regulate the prices of airlines. If you allow that, you're going to have worse than we ever had. It'll be 50 different systems, all right?
Justice Kagan framed it this way, suggesting a solution that would preserve the implied covenant claim:
I guess what I'm suggesting is that the implied covenant here, it's just an interpretive tool. It says that there are certain kinds of provisions that are written very broadly or very vaguely, and an implied covenant comes in to help us interpret those kinds of provisions. And viewed in that way, it's just a contractual device that in light of Wolens ought to be permitted.
Justice Sotomayor said it this way, and proposed a standard for distinguishing between ordinary breach-of-contract claims and implied covenant claims:
My simpler standard comes from quoting Hennepin: "Does the implied covenant claim extend to actions beyond the scope of the underlying contract, or can it override the express terms of the agreement? If the answer is no, it's not preempted."
The question is complicated by the fact that the frequent flyer program in this case gave Northwest the "sole discretion" to terminate. So: Is an implied covenant part of that contract, or is it an additional state-law requirement? And what's the standard for sorting that out?
As an initial matter, any standard may not answer the preemption question categorically. That's because different states interpret their implied covenant laws differently. This gave the Court another problem: Does it have to sort out the particular state law on implied covenants in order to determine whether a claim in a particular state is preempted? And might the answer change depending on the state, leading to inconsistent results and undermining the deregulatory purpose of the ADA? Justice Scalia put this point on it:
Wow, somebody's really been given a raw deal. You know, that's still going to be possible even if we rule for [Ginsberg] here. It depends on what State he's from, right?
Complicating things yet more, the answer may turn on the implied covenant's waivability. Justice Kagan made this point:
But if it can't be waived, it sure seems as though it is operating independently of the parties' reasonable expectations.
It may also turn on the fact that frequent flyer programs work for airline miles, but also for other goods and services--and thus state regulation of them may not amount to a regulation of airline price, in violation of the ADA. Justice Alito put it this way:
I don't want to take up your rebuttal time, but if the facts were that under a particular program 90 percent of the miles were earned by purchasing things other than flying and 90 percent of the miles were spent on things other than flying, wouldn't that be very different?
This could give the Court a way out of the problem, by ruling that state implied-covenant claims based on frequent flyer programs aren't preempted because they don't regulate the price of airline tickets. This seems unlikely, though: even if frequent flyer programs work for other goods and services, they still also work for airline tickets.
Finally, there's the presumption against preemption--and whether it has any bearing on this case. Chief Justice Roberts seemed to think so:
I do agree, it seems pretty inconsistent with the normal presumption against preemption that we apply out of respect for the State legal regimes to say we're going to adopt a broad prophylactic rule.
But Justice Scalia thought not:
But the whole purpose of the ADA was to preempt State laws. I mean, I can understand applying that presumption to other statutes which say nothing about preemption. The whole purpose of the ADA was to deregulate airlines, was to say there was going to be no Federal regulation. Let the free market handle it and there will be no State regulation.
On the one hand, a narrow ruling in this case--one that address Ginsberg's particular claim, under Minnesota law, recognizing that this particular program gave the airline "sole discretion" to terminate--seems both likely and appropriate, especially given the particularities of this case. But on the other hand, as at least some on the Court suggested, an overly narrow ruling, without a broader standard, leaves open the possibility (or even probability) that this very same issue, or one like it, could give the lower courts a headache in the 49 other states (where implied covenant claims might work differently).
If Ginsberg loses, and his claim is preempted, the U.S. Department of Transportation can still investigate Northwest's frequent flyer program. But that remedy doesn't do anything for Ginsberg.
Ever since the Supreme Court upheld the Affordable Care Act's individual mandate in NFIB, we've been treated to a new and surprising argument by constitutional conservatives. That argument is in favor of judicial activism. Yes, that's right: after years of railing against activist judges, conservatives now claim that the federal courts aren't activist enough, in particular, in checking out-of-control exercises of legislative power.
In a series of new books this fall, and reviews in the WSJ here and here (h/t Jon Gutek), constitutional conservatives argue that government regulation has gone wild, and that the courts have not properly checked this growth. Exhibit A: the Supreme Court's ruling upholding the individual mandate in NFIB.
For example, Randy Barnett, reviewing Clark M. Neily III's Terms of Engagement, argues that Chief Justice Roberts rewrote the individual mandate as a tax, using a "saving construction" as an exercise in judicial restraint in order to uphold a law validly enacted by the legislature. George Melloan, reviewing Josh Blackman's Unprecedented and Ken Cuccinelli's The Last Line of Defense, similarly argued that Chief Justice Roberts saved the mandate by "call[ing] the act's penalty for noncompliance . . . a 'tax' and waved the ACA through."
But this turns history on its head. The government always defended the individual mandate under both its Commerce Clause authority and its taxing power. It argued the tax point explicitly to the Supreme Court, starting at page 52 of its brief. It's hardly novel, then, let alone a rewrite of the Act, that the Court upheld the individual mandate under the taxing power. Indeed, it's exactly what the government argued. This may not be how constitutional conservatives read the Act's mandate, but it's how all three branches of government did. The Court's ruling on the taxing power wasn't a reach to defer to the legislature. Indeed, it wasn't a reach at all.
Barnett's argument that the courts aren't activist enough also ignores the startling activism of the Roberts Court. Remember, the Court rejected the individual mandate under the Commerce Clause, even as it upheld it under the taxing power. The Court also limited the Medicaid expansion component of the ACA. We could go on and on with examples of how this Court overturned state and federal legislative acts, but this one is undoubtedly the biggest: the Court last summer rejected the coverage formula for preclearance under the Voting Rights Act--a provision enacted by a breathtaking bipartisan majority in Congress and signed by a Republican president (no big government types, these). Given the history, it's hard to argue that this wasn't a supremely activist ruling. This Court has demonstrated its appetite for activism. But it's apparently not activist enough.
Barnett goes on to argue that judicial activism in the name of legislative restraint is necessary because voters don't know enough to hold their elected representatives accountable:
In practice, the claim that laws and administrative regulations reflect the will of the public is often a fiction. In the economic sphere, regulations are more commonly the product of pressure from politically connected and well-established companies at the expense of upstart entrepreneurs. Because voters know little about these laws and their impact, they can't hold their representatives accountable for enacting them, and the few affected individuals can hardly influence a general election.
This seems a remarkable claim, given the political backlash to the ACA, or Obamacare, and, as Melloan notes, the political blows that Obamacare supporters suffered in the 2008 mid-terms and beyond. Voters apparently knew how to hold Obamacare supporters accountable. But the claim is also ironic: the very problem that Barnett describes only gets worse with more money in politics--a result that the activist Supreme Court ensured when it overturned congressional regulation of corporate campaign expenditures in Citizens United.
These constitutional conservative talking points fall apart on their own terms. And that's not even getting to the merits.
The Supreme Court hears oral arguments today in Northwest, Inc. v. Ginsberg, the case testing wether the federal Airline Deregulation Act preempts a state-law claim for breach of implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing arising out of an airline's termination of a customer's membership in its frequent flyer program. Here's my preview of the oral argument from the ABA Preview of United States Supreme Court cases, with permission:
S. Binyomin Ginsberg was an active member of WorldPerks, the Northwest Airline’s frequent flyer program, since 1999. Ginsberg, an expert in education and administration, travelled frequently on Northwest to give lectures, conduct seminars and workshops, and advise other educators and administrators. In 2005, Ginsberg earned Platinum Elite Status in the WorkPerks program, the highest level of benefits available.
But in June 2008, Northwest revoked Ginsberg’s WorldPerks membership. A Northwest representative explained by phone that Northwest was revoking his membership because he had abused the program by complaining too many times and strategically booking himself on full flights in order to get bumped. A Northwest Customer Care Coordinator later sent Ginsberg an e-mail citing Paragraph 7 of the WorldPerks General Terms and Conditions and saying that “[a]buse of the WorldPerks program . . . may result in cancellation of the member’s account and future disqualification from program participation, forfeiture of all mileage accrued and cancellation of previously issued but unused awards.” The e-mail also said that Northwest may determine “in its sole judgment” whether a passenger has abused the program. The e-mail did not give any specific information about how Ginsberg had abused the program.
Ginsberg filed suit on January 8, 2009, asserting four causes of action: (1) breach of contract; (2) breach of the implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing; (3) negligent misrepresentation; and (4) intentional misrepresentation. The district court dismissed the case, ruling that Ginsberg failed to show sufficient facts to support his breach-of-contract claim, and that the federal Airline Deregulation Act preempted Ginsberg’s other three claims.
Ginsberg appealed, but only as to his claim for breach of the implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing. The United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit reversed, and this appeal followed.
Congress enacted the Airline Deregulation Act (ADA) in 1978, concluding that “maximum reliance on competitive market forces” would best further “efficiency, innovation, and low prices” as well as “variety [and] quality . . . of air transportation services.” As part of the Act, and in order to ensure that states would not frustrate deregulation by enacting their own regulations, Congress included a preemption provision barring any state from “enact[ing] or enforce[ing] a law, regulation, or other provision having the force and effect of law related to a price, route, or service of an air carrier.” At the same time, Congress retained the Act’s already-existing “savings clause,” which preserved common law and statutory remedies.
The Supreme Court addressed the ADA’s preemption clause in two important cases. In the first case, Morales v. Trans World Airlines, Inc., 504 U.S. 374 (1992), the Court ruled that the ADA preempted state regulation of airlines’ fare advertisements. The Court held that the preemption clause’s phrase “related to” was quite broad, and that the ADA sought to preempt any state enforcement actions “having a connection with or reference to airline ‘rates, routes, or services’ . . . .” The Court had little trouble concluding that state regulation of airlines’ fare advertisements fell comfortably within that definition.
In the second case, American Airlines, Inc. v. Wolens, 513 U.S. 219 (1995), a case very similar to Ginsberg’s, the Court ruled that the ADA preempted state enforcement suits against an airline arising under state-imposed obligations (as in a state law regulating an airline), but not under an airline’s breach of its own, self-imposed obligations (as in the airline’s own contract with its customers). According to the Court, “[a] remedy confined to a contract’s terms simply holds parties to their agreement,” and does not impose additional obligations related to a price, route, or service. Wolens sued American Airlines for making retroactive changes to the terms and conditions of its frequent flyer program. The Court held that the ADA preempted Wolens’s claim under the state Consumer Fraud Act, but that it did not preempt Wolens’s claim for routine breach of contract.
Considering the broad reading of the preemption clause in Morales, the parties here argue whether Ginsberg’s claim for breach of the implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing looks like more a state-imposed obligation or whether it looks more like an airline-imposed obligation under Wolens.
Northwest argues first that the plain language of the ADA preempts Ginsberg’s claim. It says that Ginsberg’s suit, which seeks reinstatement of program membership and renewed access to the reduced prices and enhanced services that come with it, is plainly “related to” Northwest’s prices, routes, and services, especially given the Court’s broad approach to the ADA’s preemption provision. Moreover, Northwest contends that Ginsberg’s claim seeks to enlarge the program’s General Terms and Conditions, a voluntary agreement between the parties, by invoking state law that is external to the agreement. In other words, Northwest says that Ginsberg’s implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing claim is no ordinary breach-of-contract claim, designed simply to enforce the terms of the agreement between the parties. Instead, it says that Ginsberg’s claim goes above-and-beyond simple enforcement of the agreement and, if allowed, would enforce state policies outside the four corners of the agreement, external to the contract. Northwest argues that this violates the Court’s rule in Wolens.
Next, Northwest argues that preemption of Ginsberg’s claim is consistent with the policies underlying the ADA. Northwest contends that Ginsberg’s implied covenant claim is amorphous and subject to different interpretations, and, if enforced here and elsewhere, would lead to a patchwork of state regulations over agreements like this. (In contrast, Northwest says that simple breach-of-contract claims are uniform enough across jurisdictions to avoid a patchwork result.) Moreover, Northwest argues that Ginsberg’s claim, if recognized, would create a risk of state interference with competition and commercial activity in the airline industry by substituting state law for market forces. Northwest claims that the patchwork result and state interference are both inconsistent with the goals of the ADA, to further “efficiency, innovation, and low prices” in the airline industry through “maximum reliance on competitive market forces.” (Northwest also notes that the U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT) has authority to investigate unfair practices in frequent flyer programs, so that Ginsberg and others like him may seek federal administrative relief.)
The federal government weighed in to support Northwest. Like Northwest, the government argues that the ADA preempts Ginsberg’s claim, because Ginsberg’s claim is external to his contract with Northwest. The government contends that because the district court rejected Ginsberg’s breach-of-written-contract claim on the basis that it gave Northwest complete discretion to determine Ginsberg’s status in the program, and because Ginsberg did not appeal that portion of the ruling, Ginsberg’s implied-covenant claim necessarily seeks to impose an additional, non-contractual obligation on Northwest. The government says that under Wolens this claim is preempted. But unlike Northwest the government does not argue for a categorical rule that all implied-covenant claims are preempted by the ADA, because, it says, some implied-covenant claims may require only adjudication of routine breach-of-contract claims, consistent with Wolens. The government says that only those implied-covenant claims that seek to enforce policies outside the contract, like Ginsberg’s, are preempted.
Ginsberg argues first that his implied covenant of good faith claim is not preempted under Wolens. Ginsberg says that his claim does not look outside the contract; instead, it stays within the contract. According to Ginsberg, that’s because a contract includes both express and implied terms, and his claim simply seeks to put an implied-obligation-of-good-faith gloss on the contract language that gives Northwest “sole judgment” to determine whether he abused the program. Ginsberg claims that this gloss is no extra-contractual obligation; rather, it is part-and-parcel of the contract itself. He says that courts read in an implied covenant of good faith to a contract in order to protect the contract’s express terms, and not to add an additional or external obligation or policy. Moreover, Ginsburg contends that his decision not to appeal the dismissal of his claim for a breach of the written contract does not transform his implied covenant of good faith claim into one based on extra-contractual policies, as argued by the federal government. Again, he says that the contract includes both express and implied terms, and his implied claim simply seeks to enforce the contract itself. Ginsberg says that holding Northwest to implied terms furthers the aims of the ADA, because enforcement in good faith increases the stability of contracts and reduces the costs of entering into them. Ginsberg claims that DOT enforcement does not replace the role of the courts in resolving contract disputes, whether they involve express or implied terms of a contract.
Ginsberg argues next that his claim is not preempted because it does not seek to “enact or enforce a law, regulation, or other provision.” Ginsberg says that the Court unanimously held that a statutory provision in the Federal Boat Safety Act that preempts enforcement of “a law or regulation” does not preempt common-law claims. For the same reasons that that provision did not preempt, Ginsberg contends that the ADA should not preempt. He also says that the word “provision” does not extend to common-law duties. As a result, Ginsberg contends that the ADA’s preemption clause does not apply, even aside from his Wolens argument.
Finally, Ginsberg argues that his claim is not preempted because it does not relate to airline prices, routes, or services. He says that his claim, unlike the claim in Wolens, does not challenge access to flights and upgrades or the number of miles needed to obtain a ticket. Instead, Ginsberg argues that his claim goes only to the termination of his WorldPerks membership. He says that this claim does not reference, does not seek to regulate, and will not affect the price, route, or service of air transportation. (Ginsberg argues that the WorldPerks program is not a “service” within the meaning of the ADA.) Ginsberg underscores this point by noting that frequent flyer miles can be earned and spent on many things other than air transportation, and that consumers can participate in a frequent flyer program without buying a single airline ticket. Finally, Ginsberg says that the DOT advises consumers to “consider legal action through the appropriate civil court” if they are unhappy with the way a frequent flyer program is administered. He says that is exactly what he did here.
On one level, this case simply addresses a claim that falls between the cracks of the sharp distinction between contract-based claims and extra-contractual claims that the Court drew in Wolens. By this reckoning, the case is only another opportunity for the Court to round out its analysis of ADA preemption and to give guidance to lower courts and litigants for the next round of claims against the airlines. The case is significant, but only insofar as it deals with ADA preemption of a particular kind of claim. The parties do not argue that the Court should overturn Wolens, and they do not argue that the ADA does not preempt an ordinary breach-of-contract claim. Thus, whatever the Court likely rules in this case, Ginsberg and plaintiffs like him will continue to be able to assert an ordinary breach-of-contract claim against an airline, even if they cannot assert more. (The fact that Ginsberg appealed his implied covenant claim, but not his breach-of-contract claim, says that the implied covenant claim sweeps more broadly, and could be easier to prove, than the breach-of-contract claim. If so, a ruling favoring preemption could mean that plaintiffs would lose a broader class of claims (implied covenant claims), even if they would retain a basic breach-of-contract claim.)
On another level, the case, like many preemption cases, pits significant considerations of federal-state relations against an individual plaintiff’s ability to seek redress for injuries under state law against a corporation. In this way, the case is significant for how it balances federalism against state law remedies against corporations. To put a finer point on it, this case, like some other recent federalism cases, is likely to be seen in pro-corporation or pro-plaintiff terms, depending on the outcome.
These cases involving federalism and individual state-law remedies sometimes come down with surprising alliances among the justices. In Wolens, for example, Justice Ginsberg wrote the Court’s opinion; it was joined by Chief Justice Rehnquist and Justices Kennedy, Souter, and Breyer. But the composition of the Court has changed in critical ways since Wolens, making predictions here even more difficult than usual. Look to Chief Justice Roberts and Justice Kennedy as the likely pivotal votes.