Friday, August 31, 2012
Federal District Judge Issues Preliminary Injunction Against Ohio's Differential Early Voting Deadlines
In a 23 page opinion and order today, United States District Judge Peter Economus issued a preliminary injunction in Obama for America v. Husted, enjoining the enforcement of new Ohio legislation and specifically restoring in-person early voting on the three days preceding Election Day for all eligible voters.
Recall that Obama for America and other plaintiffs filed a complaint and motion for preliminary injunction in July, arguing that the Ohio scheme violated the Equal Protection Clause. The Complaint summed up the problem thusly:
Taken together, [Ohio] Amended Substitute House Bill Number 194 (“HB 194”), Amended Substitute House Bill Number 224 (“HB 224”) and Substitute Senate Bill Number 295 (“SB 295”), all enacted by the 129th Ohio General Assembly, impose different deadlines for in-person voting prior to Election Day (“early voting”) on similarly situated voters. Prior to the enactment of these laws, there was a single uniform deadline of the Monday before Election Day for in- person early voting. After the enactment of these laws, voters using the Uniformed and Overseas Citizens Absentee Voter Act (“UOCAVA”) may vote early in-person at a board of elections office up through the Monday before Election Day, while non-UOCAVA voters can vote early in-person at a board of elections office (or designated alternate site) only up until 6 p.m. on the Friday before Election Day.
Judge Economus' opinion expands on the facts, including the relevancy of weekends, as well as the legislative ambiguities, but recognizes the differential for UOCAVA and non-UOCAVA voters. In his analysis of the constitutional inquiry, he stresses that the right to vote is a fundamental right, and quotes from Bush v. Gore, 531 U.S. 98 (2000):
The right to vote is protected in more than the initial allocation of the franchise. Equal protection applies as well to the manner of its exercise. Having once granted the right to vote on equal terms, the State may not, by later arbitrary and disparate treatment, value one person’s vote over that of another. It must be remembered that the right of suffrage can be denied by a debasement or dilution of the weight of a citizen’s vote just as effectively as by wholly prohibiting the free exercise of the franchise.
(bolding in Obama for America v. Husted Opinion).
Judge Economus easily finds that there is a classification and a burdening of the right to vote, and indeed, Ohio did not vigorously assert otherwise. As to Ohio's argument that this is "justified to address the needs of Ohio elections boards as they prepare for Election Day" and that it the classification into two groups is justified "to serve the particular needs of the military and, albeit to a lesser extent, overseas voters," Judge Economus found the evidence did not support these justifications. The lack of evidence is attributable to the county boards of elections and their various responses. As to the "military voters," the Judge found that the prospect of sudden deployment could have constituted a supporting rationale for the state's scheme, except that "whether a service member— or overseas voter—can actually vote during those three days is up to each county elections board," with almost all counties not allowing voting on Sunday. The Judge finds Ohio's justification "completely eviscerated, county by county."
Given these weak justifications, Judge Economus easily finds that the burden on voting outweighs any state interests, again citing Bush v. Gore:
The issue presented is the State’s redefinition of in-person early voting and the resultant restriction of the right of Ohio voters to cast their votes in person through the Monday before Election Day. This Court stresses that where the State has authorized in-person early voting through the Monday before Election Day for all voters, “the State may not, by later arbitrary and disparate treatment, value one person’s vote over that of another.” Bush v. Gore, 531 U.S. 98, 104-05 (2000). Here, that is precisely what the State has done.
(bolding in Obama for America v. Husted Opinion).
The decision comports with well-established Equal Protection principles, including those articulated by the Court in Bush v. Gore, and although sure to be appealed, should withstand review.
A three-judge panel of the Eighth Circuit ruled yesterday in US v. Williams that a person's false conveyance of a bomb threat on an airplane is not protected speech. The ruling upholds two federal statutes criminalizing the false conveyance of bomb threats and affirms the defendant's conviction.
Defendant Williams was convicted under two federal statutes. The first, 18 U.S.C. Sec. 35(b), says,
Whoever willfully and maliciously, or with reckless disregard for the safety of human life, imparts or conveys or causes to be imparted or conveyed false information, knowing the information to be false, concerning an attempt or alleged attempt being made or to be made, to do any act which would be a crime prohibited by this chapter or chapter 97 or chapter 111 of this title--shall be fined under this title, or imprisoned not more than five years, or both.
The other, 18 U.S.C. Sec. 844(e), says,
Whoever, through the use of the mail, telephone, telegraph, or other instrument of interstate or foreign commerce, or in or affecting interstate or foreign commerce, willfully makes any threat, or maliciously conveys false information knowing the same to be false, concerning an attempt or alleged attempt being made, or to be made, to kill, injure, or intimidate any individual or unlawfully to damage or destroy any building, vehicle or other real or personal property by means of fire or an explosive shall be imprisoned for not more than 10 years or fined under this title, or both.
Williams argued that the statutes were invalid content-based restrictions on speech, not falling within one of the categorical exceptions, and were overbroad.
The court disagreed. The court ruled that the statutes were "true threats," a categorical exception to the general ban on content-based restrictions on speech. The court rejected Williams's claim that he had no subjective intent to threaten when he made the statement--and that therefore the statement couldn't have been a true threat--saying that its 2011 case U.S. v. Mabie held that true threats did not need such a subject intent; instead, under Mabie, the court uses an objective test for determining whether a communication is a true threat, considering the entire context of the statement.
The court also rejected Williams's argument that the statutes were overbroad. The court said that the narrowing elements of the statutes--the requisite mental states, "willfully," "maliciously"--"narrow the field as far as those who may potentially fall within their reach." Op. at 7.
The court recognized that "[t]here is no general exception to the First Amendment for false statements," citing the Supreme Court's recent ruling in United States v. Alvarez. But here, according to the court, the statutes fall within a categorical exception to the regular content-based rules, they pose no threat of criminalizing speech broader statements, they do not chill otherwise valuable speech, and they only criminalize speech that is likely to cause harm.
Attorney General Eric Holder announced yesterday that the Justice Department will not pursue criminal charges in the two cases--the only two, and the last two--that it investigated involving torture of detainees in U.S. custody. The announcement means that no U.S. official, employee, or service member will face criminal charges for torture.
This announcement, along with the courts' now widely adopted view that civil suits for torture are barred by either the state secrets privilege or by "special factors" counseling against such suits (under Bivens), means that no U.S. official, employee, or service member is likely to face any judicial accountability for torture.
Recall that the Justice Department in 2009 tasked Assistant U.S. Attorney John Durham of the District of Connecticut with an expanded investigation into whether federal laws were violated in connection with the interrogations of specific detainees at overseas locations. But AG Holder said that the Department wouldn't prosecute anyone who acted in good faith and within the scope of legal guidance by the OLC. In June 2011, Durham recommended opening full criminal investigations into only two cases. The announcement today means that those investigations are now closed--without prosecutions.
Thursday, August 30, 2012
Judge Robert L. Hinkle (N.D. Fla.) permanently enjoined Florida officials from enforcing certain state third party voter registration laws after the state issued new emergency regulations to comply with Judge Hinkle's earlier preliminary injunction. The ruling ends the legal challenge to the laws and their enforcement in favor of the plaintiffs; it also means that Florida's new (and less harsh, more forgiving) emergency regulations will now govern third party voter registration efforts--for the 40 days until the October 9 deadline in Florida for voter registration for the general election. (Thanks to the Brennan Center for links to the docs. The Brennan Center case page is here.)
The case, League of Women Voters of Florida v. Detzner, involved the plaintiffs' constitutional and statutory challenges to Florida's excessively restrictive third party voter registration laws enacted in 2011. Those laws erected major barriers to third party voter registration efforts, stymieing those efforts in this 2012 battleground state.
Judge Hinkle issued a preliminary injunction back in May, writing that there was no substantial state interest in certain of the law's requirements, including these:
- that registration organizations turn in voter-registration applications within 48 hours after completion;
- that registration organizations must file the names of every officer and employee and volunteer who is a "registration agent," including those who merely solicit applications;
- that each registration agent file a sworn statement that he or she will obey registration laws, on a form that incorrectly suggests that a registration agent commits a felony and could be imprisoned for five years for sending in a voter-registration application that includes false information;
- that registration organizations must account for all registration forms and file certain onerous reports.
In response, the state issued new emergency regulations for third party voter registration organizations. After the plaintiffs agreed that the new regs were consistent with Judge Hinkle's injunction, the parties filed a joint motion for a permanent injunction against enforcement of the old laws. Judge Hinkle granted that injunction yesterday.
(Judge Hinkle styled his ruling as "indicative," because the state's appeal of his preliminary injunction is still pending at the Eleventh Circuit. That appeal will die, leaving in place the permanent injunction against enforcement of the old laws and the state's new emergency regs.)
In State of Texas v. Holder, a well-reasoned opinion today from a three judge court denied Texas' motion for declaratory judgment that its new voter identification law, SB 14, satisfied section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, 42 U.S.C. §§ 1973 et seq. Although the court ordered the parties to provide a proposed schedule to the court on the constitutional issue, the Voting Rights Act (VRA) issue was intertwined with constitutional ones, as is so often the case in VRA cases.
For example, the parties disagreed about the import of Crawford v. Marion County, (2008), in which the Court upheld Indiana's voter ID law against a facial equal protection challenge. Texas contended that Crawford controlled, while the United States argued Crawford was "largely irrelevant." For the three-judge court, "the correct answer lies somewhere between these two positions." Contrary to Texas’s argument, in Crawford itself, the Court noted that it was “consider[ing] only the statute’s broad application to all Indiana voters," and the Texas' SB14 poses different questions - - - "does SB 14 have discriminatory purpose or retrogressive effect?" - - - and requires focus "on the limited subset of voters who are racial and language minorities." And, perhaps most importantly, unlike Indiana in Crawford involving a constitutional challenge, Texas bears the burden of proof under the VRA. Contrary to the position taken by the United States, however, Crawford informs the analysis of SB 14 in two important ways: purpose and effect.
Much of the 56 page opinion discussed the evidence, with the court including this summary:
We pause to summarize the evidentiary findings we have made so far. Contrary to Texas’s contentions, nothing in existing social science literature speaks conclusively to the effect of photo ID requirements on voter turnout. Moreover, scant lessons, if any, can be drawn from Indiana and Georgia, largely because SB 14 is more restrictive than the photo ID laws adopted by either of those states. Finally, no party has submitted reliable evidence as to the number of Texas voters who lack photo ID, much less the rate of ID possession among different racial groups. Given this, we could end our inquiry here. Texas bears the burden of proving that nothing in SB 14 “would lead to a retrogression in the position of racial minorities with respect to their effective exercise of the electoral franchise" [citation omitted]. Because all of Texas’s evidence on retrogression is some combination of invalid, irrelevant, and unreliable, we have little trouble concluding that Texas has failed to carry its burden.
But the court went further, stating that the "record evidence suggests that SB 14, if implemented, would in fact have a retrogressive effect on Hispanic and African American voters."
This conclusion flows from three basic facts: (1) a substantial subgroup of Texas voters, many of whom are African American or Hispanic, lack photo ID; (2) the burdens associated with obtaining ID will weigh most heavily on the poor; and (3) racial minorities in Texas are disproportionately likely to live in poverty. Accordingly, SB 14 will likely “lead to a retrogression in the position of racial minorities with respect to their effective exercise of the electoral franchise.”
The three judge court carefully considered Texas and distinguished SB14, as well as other laws and conditions, from other states. One distinguishing feature was Texas' size. The court's opinion attempts to strike a note of humor when discussing the requirement that would-be voters lacking photo identification would have to apply for a "election identification certificate" (EIC) at a Texas Department of Public Safety (DPS) office, and "almost one-third of Texas’s counties (81 of 254) lack" such an office:
This means that many would-be voters who need to obtain an EIC—individuals who by definition have no valid driver’s license—will have to find some way to travel long distances to obtain one. This is hardly an insignificant concern, especially given that “everything is bigger in Texas.” See, e.g., Rick Perry, Amid a Dim National Economy Texas Remains in the Spotlight, October 31, 2008, available at http://www.tradeandindustrydev.com/region/texas/amid-a-dim-national- economy-texas-remains-spotlight-554 (last visited August 28, 2012).
The opinion then resorts to another interesting citation:
Even the most committed citizen, we think, would agree that a 200 to 250 mile round trip— especially for would-be voters having no driver’s license—constitutes a “substantial burden” on the right to vote. Our own Federal Rules of Civil Procedure support this conclusion, specifying that witnesses are unavailable to testify if they must travel more than 100 miles to do so. See Fed. R. Civ. P. 45(c)(3).
The court found tremendous deficiencies in the United States' evidence and arguments, but Texas' deficiencies were ultimately much more serious, even without the burden of proof. The court found it worth detailing some of these problems:
during closing arguments, Texas’s counsel complained that they had been shouldered with an “impossible burden” in this litigation. This may well be correct, but Texas’s lawyers have only their client to blame. The State of Texas enacted a voter ID law that—at least to our knowledge—is the most stringent in the country. That law will almost certainly have retrogressive effect: it imposes strict, unforgiving burdens on the poor, and racial minorities in Texas are disproportionately likely to live in poverty. And crucially, the Texas legislature defeated several amendments that could have made this a far closer case.
Ignoring warnings that SB 14, as written, would disenfranchise minorities and the poor, the legislature tabled or defeated amendments that would have:
- waived all fees for indigent persons who needed the underlying documents to obtain an EIC,
- reimbursed impoverished Texans for EIC-related travel costs,
- expanded the range of identifications acceptable under SB 14 by allowing voters to present student or Medicare ID cards at the polls,
- required DPS offices to remain open in the evening and on weekends,
- and allowed indigent persons to cast provisional ballots without photo ID.
Put another way, if counsel faced an “impossible burden,” it was because of the law Texas enacted—nothing more, nothing less.
Wednesday, August 29, 2012
In a relatively brief opinion today, Judge Joseph Goodwin issued a preliminary injunction in the controversial sex-segregated Middle School program in West Virginia. Recall that the school mandated a practice of sex-segregated classrooms based on teacher-training that posits the differences between children based upon sex. Girls do not like stress; boys do. Girls like warmer rooms; boys cooler. Girls like to be face-to-face; boys learn better in rows. Girls learn better when their movement is minimized and their rooms are darker; boys "need" to move and have light.
The judge's opinion rests on the Title IX claim: "The court again emphasizes that its decision today rests on the requirement of the Department of Education regulations that single-sex programs be “completely voluntary.” 34 C.F.R. § 106.34(b)(1)(iii)."
Indeed, the judge held that sex-segregated education could be constitutional, citing United States v. Virginia (VMI) if the "school meets the heightened scrutiny standard." Thus, the judge was not willing to "go so far" as to enjoin any sex-segregated education.
Nevertheless, the judge did explicitly note
that the science behind single-sex education appears to be, at best, inconclusive, and certain gender-based teaching techniques based on stereotypes and lacking any scientific basis may very well be harmful to students. Even Professor Salomone, the expert witness called by the defense, agreed with the ACLU on the issue of brain research—that it’s based on the rationale of pseudoscience—and suggested that many schools were “led astray” by the teachings of Dr. Leonard Sax. Professor Salomone served as an expert witness for the defense not because she agreed with the gender-based teaching techniques, but because she felt that the individual teachers at VDMS were, in fact, not teaching students based on gender stereotype, despite the training given by Dr. Sax and David Chadwell.
Given the testimony of the school's own expert, it seems this constitutional controversy will be best resolved by settlement.
[image: Jeunes Filles regardant un album by Pierre August Renoir via]
Ninth Circuit Grants Petition for Writ of Habeas Corpus of Death Row Inmate on Equal Protection and Due Process Grounds
In a divided opinion in Ayala v. Wong, the Ninth Circuit today granted a petition for a writ of habeas corpus based on equal protection and due process grounds.
As the opinion describes, during the
selection of the jury that convicted Ayala and sentenced him to death, the prosecution used its peremptory challenges to strike all of the black and Hispanic jurors available for challenge. The trial judge concluded that Ayala had established a prima facie case of racial discrimination under Batson v. Kentucky, 476 U.S. 79 (1986), but permitted the prosecution to give its justifications for the challenges of these jurors in an in camera hearing from which Ayala and his counsel were excluded. The trial judge then accepted the prosecution’s justifications for its strikes without disclosing them to the defense or permitting it to respond.
The failure to disclose the prosecution's rationales and allow defense counsel to demonstrate they were pretextual violates the process the Court mandated in Batson. In Alaya's case, this was compounded by what the opinion labels "the state’s later loss of a large portion of the record." This portion included juror information and the court concluded that because "the state’s loss of the questionnaires deprived Ayala of the ability to meaningfully appeal the denial of his Batson claim, he was deprived of due process."
In a dissenting opinion as lengthy as the majority, Judge Consuelo M. Callahan accuses the majority of not honoring the procedural obstacles to Alaya's claim, of making unwarranted suppositions, and of opening the floodgates. She writes:
In essence, the majority holds that because the record does not affirmatively negate the existence of a possible racial bias, the existence of such a bias may be assumed. Under this approach all Batson challenges in federal habeas petitions must be granted because no one can disprove a negative.
Yet the converse would also be true, of course. If Alaya's petition were not granted, it would allow judges to deny all litigants, including criminal defendants, the ability to refute the proffered race-neutral explanation, and to absolutely insulate a Batson claim from appellate review.
[image: The Jury by John Morgan, 1861, via]
Tuesday, August 28, 2012
The Ninth Circuit denied rehearing en banc and issued an amended opinion in United States v. Perelman today. The Ninth Circuit essentially reaffirmed its holding eleven months ago upholding the constitutionality of subsection(a) of the "Stolen Valor Act" applied to Perelman when he wore the Purple Heart, which he had actually been awarded by the US Air Force, but under a fraudulent claim. (Apparently Mr. Perelman shot himself in the thigh, but claimed it was a shrapnel injury from his service in Viet Nam 20 years earlier; he also collected disability benefits from the military).
As might be predictable, the amended opinion in Perelman applies the United States Supreme Court's June decision in United States v. Alvarez, rather than the Ninth Circuit opinion that the Court affirmed. In both the Ninth Circuit and United States Supreme Court opinion, subsection (b) of The Stolen Valor Act, 18 USC §704 was declared unconstitutional. But subsection (a) of the Stolen Valor Act was at issue in Perelman. The difference between the two subsections is twofold:
Subsection (b) criminalizes an act (the wearing of the medal) rather than "pure speech" and is thus subject to the lower standard afforded expressive conduct;
Subsection (b) contains a scienter requirement, not only in the wearing of the medal, but in an "intent to deceive."
Thus, Alvarez leaves untouched criminal sanctions for obtaining a military medal by fraudulent means. And as Congress attempts to amend subsection (b) to be more aligned with the constitutional subsection (a), it does make one wonder why Congress chose to enact the questionably constitutional subsection (b) as part of the Stolen Valor Act.
In the latest chapter of the Texas redistricting saga, a three-judge panel of the D.C. District ruled in Texas v. United States that Texas's redistricting maps failed to merit preclearance under Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act.
The ruling means that the Texas legislature's original redistricting maps fail. But the ruling doesn't touch the interim maps most recently drawn by the Western District of Texas in the companion Section 2 suit. Those maps have not been challenged.
The ruling also doesn't say anything about the constitutionality of Section 5. That's the topic of a cert. petition now before the Supreme Court.
Recall that the case arose when Texas sought preclearance for its redrawn State House, State Senate, and Congressional districts from the three-judge panel in the D.C. District (and not the DOJ). (Texas redrew its districts to account for its ballooning population and to meet the one-person-one-vote standard. But Texas, as a covered jurisdiction under Section 4 of the VRA, had to receive preclearance under Section 5 before it could finalize and implement the new maps.) Soon after Texas filed its Section 5 preclearance case, opponents of the maps filed a claim under Section 2 of the VRA in the Western District of Texas. While the Section 5 case was pending in the D.C. District, the Western District drew its own maps that, it said, complied with the VRA so that Texas could move ahead with its scheduled primary elections.
Meanwhile, the Section 5 case in the D.C. District moved forward, and that court ruled today that the state's original maps--the ones for which it originally sought preclearance--did not merit preclearance. As a result, the only maps out there seem to be the Western District's redrawn maps.
Today's case says nothing about the constitutionality of Section 5. The D.C. Circuit recently ruled on that question, and said that Section 5 is constitutional. The cert. petition in that case, Shelby County v. Holder (and a related, companion case), is now before the Supreme Court.
The Texas redistricting case is something of a side-show, now that the more central issue in Shelby County is on cert.--with the Supreme Court almost surely to grant review. But even if the Court overturns Section 5, as seems likely, any maps still have to pass muster under Section 2--the original cause of action in the Western District case. Shelby County doesn't challenge Section 2.
August 28, 2012 in Cases and Case Materials, Congressional Authority, Elections and Voting, Fifteenth Amendment, Fourteenth Amendment, News, Opinion Analysis, Reconstruction Era Amendments | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack (0)
A federal district judge has enjoined specific provisions of Ohio’s election code that disqualify provisional ballots cast in the wrong precinct or cast with deficiencies in the ballot envelope form, when the ballot’s deficiency is the result of an error by the poll worker. In the 61 page opinion in the consolidated case, SEIU v. Husted, Judge Algenon Marbley first describes the "turbulent saga of Ohio’s provisional voting regime." The bulk of the opinion is a carefully reasoned application of equal protection principles to the various provisions as part of the likelihood of success on the merits prong for granting a preliminary injunction.
Marbley's opinion considers four equal protection challenges: the Wrong-Precinct Ballot Prohibition; Ballot Envelope Deficiencies; Disparate Impact of Poll-Worker Error by County; and Unequal Treatment of Provisional Voters. The most extensive analysis focuses on the wrong precinct issue, especially given the part that poll workers play in the process resulting in errors.
The Judge does cite Bush v. Gore several times, including quoting the statement that "[h]aving once granted the right to vote on equal terms, the State may not, by later arbitrary and disparate treatment, value one person’s vote over that of another.” Bush, 531 U.S. at 104-05. As expected, the Sixth Circuit case of Hunter v. Hamilton Cnty. Bd. of Elections, 635 F.3d 219 (6th Cir. 2011) (“Hunter I”) is also prominent, not only for its adoption of Bush v. Gore language but because many of the same issues are involved. The opinion is sure to be quickly appealed to the Sixth Circuit, even as a complaint challenging Ohio's early voting regime on the basis of equal protection is also being litigated.
[image: 1850 map of Ohio via]
Monday, August 27, 2012
Judge Ellen Segal Huvelle (D.D.C.) dismissed Wheaton College's case against Secretary Sebelius over federal regs under the ACA that require covered employers to provide women with certain forms of preventive care, including all FDA-approved forms of contraception, without cost sharing.
The case is the second in as many months dismissed for lack of standing and ripeness in the D.C. District. We posted on the earlier case, Belmont Abbey College v. Sebelius, here. This case, by a different judge, now makes it even less likely that any of these suits will succeed.
(There are two other district court rulings. In one, State of Nebraska ex rel. Bruning v. Sebelius, Judge Warren Urbom (D. Ne.) dismissed claims by religious organizations, individuals, and the state itself for lack of standing--the same ruling as in Belmont Abbey and Wheaton College, but also including individual and state plaintiffs. In another, Newland v. Sebelius, Judge John Kane (D. Co.) granted a preliminary injunction to a private corporation, not a religious organization covered under the safe harbor. Newland is different than the other cases, because it was brought by a private corporation with no protection under the safe harbor.)
The most recent case, Wheaton College v. Sebelius, involved the same and very similar issues as those in Belmont Abbey--that is, whether the government's "safe harbor" and commitment to reconsider its regs left the plaintiff without standing and the case without ripeness. Like Judge Boasberg in Belmont Abbey, Judge Huvelle said yes on both counts.
Judge Huvelle rejected Wheaton College's argument that it might be subject to litigation as too speculative. She also rejected Wheaton College's argument that it might be subject to a new government position at any time--just as the D.C. Circuit ruled in Chamber of Commerce v. FEC that the Chamber of Commerce might have been subject to an FEC enforcement proceeding at any time, even with an FEC evenly split between Democrats and Republicans. Judge Huvelle wrote that Chamber of Commerce was different, because here the government's commitment not to act against employers that qualify for the safe harbor (including Wheaton College) "was the product of sustained agency and public deliberation, and it represents a final decision, that has been reiterated twice." Op. at 11.
August 27, 2012 in Cases and Case Materials, Congressional Authority, Courts and Judging, First Amendment, Free Exercise Clause, Jurisdiction of Federal Courts, News, Opinion Analysis, Recent Cases, Ripeness, Standing | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)
The Alabama Supreme Court ruled in Ex Parte Bentley that the state constitution prohibited a common benefit litigant--one who successfully challenged the constitutionality of a permanent legislative committee--from collecting attorneys' fees and costs.
The case is the latest chapter in the McInnish litigation, involving a permanent state legislative committee designed to dole out community service grants. McInnish sued in the earlier case, arguing that the committee violated state constitutional separation of powers. McInnish claimed that the legislative committee, which received funds from a regular legislative appropriation, encroached on executive powers by deciding on particular grants to award and then awarding them.
The Alabama Supreme Court agreed. In McInnish v. Riley the court ruled that the legislative committee engaged in a quintessentially executive power by paying out the grants. It cited the state constitutional separation-of-powers provision, Section 43:
In the government of this state, except in the instances in this Constitution hereinafter expressly directed or permitted, the legislative department shall never exercise the executive and judicial powers, or either of them; the executive shall never exercise the legislative and judicial powers, or either of them; the judicial shall never exercise the legislative and executive powers, or either of them; to the end that it may be a government of laws and not of men.
In Ex Parte Bentley, the court ruled that McInnish couldn't collect attorneys' fees and costs under the common benefit doctrine, based on the state sovereign immunity provision, Section 14:
That the State of Alabama shall never be made a defendant in any court of law or equity.
According to the court, this section bars any action if it seeks to recover damages or funds from the state treasury--even when a litigant sues for the common benefit.
The Eleventh Circuit ruled in Zinni v. ER Solutions, Inc. that the defendants' settlement offer for the full amount available under federal law, but not including an offer of a judgment, did not moot the plaintiffs' Fair Debt Collection Practices Act case.
The plaintiffs sued defendants in federal court for harassing debt collection calls in violation of the FDCPA and sought monetary damages and a judgment against the defendants. The defendants offered $1,001 to each plaintiff--one dollar more than the maximum damage award under the FDCPA--plus unspecified attorneys' fees and costs. But they didn't offer a judgment against them.
The Eleventh Circuit ruled that the offer didn't moot the plaintiffs' case. The court said that the defendants' offer wasn't the full relief requested by the plaintiffs (because the plaintiffs also asked for a judgment), and that a settlement for monetary damages without a judgment could simply lead to more litigation--for state law breach-of-contract--while at the same time divesting the federal court of jurisdiction over the claim. In other words: If the court dismissed the case as moot, the plaintiffs had only the defendants' promise to pay, and no means of enforcement in the federal courts. (With no judgment, the federal court where the plaintiffs brought the case would lack jurisdiction to enforcement a settlement. The plaintiffs could only enforce it in state court, on a breach-of-contract claim.)
The court distinguished two Seventh Circuit cases that held that an offer of full settlement did moot the claims, because the offer in those cases included a court-enforceable judgment.
The ruling allows the case to move forward, presumably on the issue of the judgment alone (assuming that the plaintiffs accept the offer of monetary damages).