Friday, March 4, 2016
The Court issued an Order today in June Medical Services v. Gee involving Louisiana's abortion statute "The Unsafe Abortion Protection Act, HB 388. The district judge had found the Louisiana's statute's admitting privilege provision was unconstitutional and issued a preliminary injunction. The Fifth Circuit in a 15 page opinion granted the state's emergency motion to stay the district judge's preliminary injunction. Thus, the Court's Order essential reinstates the injunction against the Louisiana statute.
The Louisiana statute is similar to Texas's HB 2 at issue in Whole Woman's Health v. Hellerstdet (previously Cole), argued before the Court on Wednesday. In today's Order regarding the Louisiana statute, the Court referenced Whole Woman's Health:
Consistent with the Court’s action granting a stay in Whole Woman’s Health v. Cole, No. 14A1288 (June 29, 2015), the application to vacate the stay entered by the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit on February 24, 2016, presented to Justice Thomas and by him referred to the Court, is granted and the Fifth Circuit’s stay of the district court’s injunction is vacated.
Justice Thomas would deny the application.
In the Whole Woman's Health oral argument, Justice Alito mentioned the Louisiana litigation twice, both times in regarding to the evidence in the case about the precise number of abortions that were being performed. But on the constitutional issues, it does seem as if the decision in Whole Woman's Health will be determinative regarding the Louisiana statute's constitutionality.
Wednesday, March 2, 2016
The Tenth Circuit ruled today in Coalition for Secular Government v. Williams that burdensome state disclosure requirements as applied to a small-scale issue-advocacy nonprofit violate the First Amendment. The ruling means that Colorado's disclosure requirements cannot apply against the Coalition for Secular Government's small-scale advocacy against a statewide "personhood" ballot initiative in the 2014 general election.
The Coalition for Secular Government is a small outfit (one person) that devotes itself to printing and distributing material against a proposed "personhood" amendment in Colorado each time it comes up for a vote--the last in 2014. Because the Coalition collects donations to support its operations, the state constitution and implementing laws and regulations require the Coalition to register as an "issue committee" and to disclose information about contributors. These turn out to be quite a hassle, especially for a small group, so the Coalition sued, arguing that they violate the First Amendment.
The Tenth Circuit agreed. The court applied "exacting scrutiny" and concluded that "the minimal informational interest [in disclosure] cannot justify the associated substantial burdens [of compliance]." The court noted that the small-scale nature of the Coalition had an impact on both sides of the balance. As to the informational interest, "the strength of the public's interest in issue-committee disclosure depends, in part, on how much money the issue committee has raised or spent," and the informational interest in the Coalition's spending (about $3,500) was nothing like the informational interest in a group that spent, say, $10 million. As to the burden, the court noted that a small-scale organization like the Coalition faces greater challenges in compliance than a large-scale outfit.
At the same time, the court declined to say whether the state constitutional threshold for issue-committee reporting (a mere $200) constituted a facial violation of the First Amendment. As a result, that threshold is still on the books.
The Court heard oral arguments today in Whole Woman's Health v. Hellerstdet (previously Cole), the case being touted as the most important abortion rights case in many years. Recall that the Court granted certiorari to the Fifth Circuit's decision essentially upholding the bulk of the controversial HB2 statute passed in 2013 (despite the famous filibuster by Wendy Davis). A divided Supreme Court previously vacated the Fifth Circuit stay of the district judge's injunction against portions of the law, thus reinstating the district judge's injunction at least in part.
The Fifth Circuit's most recent opinion, reversing the district judge, held that HB2's admitting privileges requirement and ambulatory surgical center (ASC) requirements, did not impose an "undue burden" on women and were thus constitutional under the Fourteenth Amendment's Due Process Clause. Importantly, this is the decision that would stand should the Court split 4-4. The most likely scenario of such a split would be Chief Justice Roberts, and Justices Alito, Thomas, and Kennedy on one side and Justices Ginsburg, Breyer, Kagan, and Sotomayor on the other. The most likely scenario of a reversal of the Fifth Circuit and a finding that HB2's provisions are unconstitutional is generally considered to be Justice Kennedy joining the Justice Ginsburg group. Not surprisingly then, Justice Kennedy will be the focus of most any analysis of today's argument.
And indeed, Justice Kennedy took an active role in today's argument in which each of the advocates was accorded extra time in part because of the procedural issues involved regarding the challenge to HB2 as applied and what contentions may have been precluded by the previous facial challenge. While this issue did occupy the beginning of Stephanie Toti's argument on behalf of Whole Woman's Health, and questions regarding remand were raised - - - including by Justice Kennedy - - - it is unclear whether there is sufficient enthusiasm for deciding the case on procedural issues.
Instead, as Solicitor General Donald Verrilli, arguing in support of Whole Woman's Health, phrased it, the question before the Court is whether the right to abortion "is going to retain real substance" and "whether the balance struck in Casey still holds." Justice Kennedy was in the majority in the 1992 decision in Planned Parenthood of Southeastern Pennsylvania v. Casey authored by Justice O'Connor and which upheld the essential core of Roe v. Wade. Scott Keller, the Attorney General of Texas, not only accepted Casey in his argument but argued that it was the petitioners - - - Whole Women's Health - - - that were "trying to upset the balance that was struck in Casey."
The "balance" of Casey could be said to reside in the "undue burden" standard that the Court articulated, but today's argument displayed some of the ambiguities with that standard. On one view, which seemed to be the one Chief Justice Roberts was articulating, the statute has to pass "rational basis" and then it is measured again as to whether there is an undue burden. On the other view, the "undue burden" is measured with regard not only to the exercise of the right to an abortion but measured against the level of the state interests. Justice Breyer articulated this understanding, but importantly, in a colloquy with the Texas Attorney General after a question by Justice Alito, Justice Kennedy also seemed to adhere to this view:
JUSTICE ALITO: Would it not be the case that - - - would it not be the case - - - that a State could increase the the standard of care as high as it wants so long as there's not an an undue burden on the women seeking abortion? So, you know, if they could if they could increase the standard of care up to the very highest anywhere in the country and it wouldn't be a burden on the women, well, that would be a benefit to them. Would there be anything unconstitutional about that?
MR. KELLER: No. Provided that women do are able to make the ultimate decision to elect the procedure.
JUSTICE KENNEDY: But doesn't that show that the undue burden test is weighed against what the State's interest is?
MR. KELLER: Justice Kennedy - - -
JUSTICE KENNEDY: I mean, are they are these two completely discrete analytical categories, undue burden, and we don't look at the State’s interest?
On the question of the state's interest, Texas Attorney General Keller had a difficult time responding to the questions from Justices Ginsburg, Breyer, Sotomayor, and Kagan. Comparisons to dental procedures and colonoscopies prevailed, and on the issue of nonsurgical abortions requiring the taking of two pills which Texas law required be done at an ambulatory surgical facility, some Justices pressed especially hard. The "abortion is different" argument of Texas Attorney General Keller seemed especially unconvincing here.
The actual effect of the HB2's admitting privileges requirement and ambulatory surgical center (ASC) requirements on the closing of clinics was raised at numerous times, with Justice Kennedy interestingly interjecting the precise percentage - - - 20% - - - of the capacity of licensed facilities after the passage of HB2. Justice Ginsburg found it "odd" that Attorney General Keller pointed to the ability of women to go across state lines to New Mexico - - - which does not have similar restrictions - - - to support his contention that women were not substantially burdened.
The oral argument did little to upset the pre-argument predictions. Justice Alito was most hostile to the petitioners, and although Justice Thomas asked no questions today unlike Monday, his views on abortion do not seem in flux. Justices Ginsburg, Breyer, Kagan, and Sotomayor did not seem to find the arguments on behalf of Texas credible. While the Chief Justice has known to be surprising and could possibly craft a narrow opinion, Justice Kennedy is occupying the center. It does seem, however, as if that center tilts slightly back toward Casey and away from HB2.
In her extensive opinion in Wandering Dago, Inc. v. Desito, United States District Judge for the Northern District of New York Judge Mae D'Agostino granted summary judgment for the government against the First Amendment and Equal Protection claims of "Wandering Dago" resulting from the denial of a permit to operate a food truck at the Empire State Plaza in Albany (pictured below), a facility owned by the state of New York and operated by the state Office of General Services (OGS) under Commissioner RoAnn Desito.
In the summers of 2013 and 2014, OGS administered "The Empire State Plaza Summer Outdoor Lunch Program," permitting vendors to operate food trucks for limited hours on the plaza, intended to provide "lunch options to the approximately 11,000 State employees who work at Empire State Plaza, as well as for visitors to the Capitol, State Museum, performing arts center" - - - known as The Egg - - - and various monuments and memorials in New York's capital city. As the list of applicants was being processed, the name "Wandering Dago" attracted attention of OGS employees, one who "recognized the term 'dago' as 'a highly offensive term for Italians,'" and after conducting a "computer search" to determine whether this was true, his conclusion was not only "confirmed" but it was "revealed" that the term has been "used to refer to people of Spanish and Portuguese descent, as well as Italians." OGS denied the application "on the grounds that its name contains an offensive ethnic slur and does not fit with OGS' policy of providing family-friendly policy." Wandering Dago's application the next year was similarly rejected.
The First Amendment claims were primary; the Equal Protection Clause claims having been previously dismissed and warranting little more analysis when re-plead. On the First Amendment, Judge D'Agostino identified the problem common to so much free speech litigation: this case does not fit neatly into any particular First Amendment "framework." Thus, Judge D'Agostino engaged in several strands of analysis, most prominently being "forum" analysis, but also government speech, employee (contractor) speech, and commercial speech.
As to forum doctrine, Judge D'Agostino rehearses the well-know different types of forum, ultimately deciding that the forum is a "nonpublic forum." Key to this conclusion, as is so often true, is the definition of the forum. For Judge D'Agostino, the forum is not Empire State Plaza, but the lunch program - - - "which happens to take place within the grounds that comprise the Empire State Plaza." That OGS required permits and controlled the "forum" contributes to this view.
Yet even under a nonpublic forum, the government must be "reasonable" and content/viewpoint neutral. As to the reasonableness, Judge D'Agostino discounted the fact that the policy was not written or even previously articulated. Somewhat confusingly, the judge decided that the owners of Dago did not intend to express anything particular by the name, and therefore there could be no viewpoint/content discrimination and similarly found that there was no problem with unbridled discretion. The judge rejected the applicability of In Re Simon Shiao Tam, in which the en banc Federal Circuit held that the disparagement provision in Section 2(a) of the Lanham Act, 15 U.S.C. § 1052(a), barring the the Patent and Trademark Office from registering scandalous, immoral, or disparaging marks, is unconstitutional because it violates the First Amendment because it did not involve a forum, but an application of strict scrutiny. Judge D'Agostino also distinguished cases in which the proprietor was denied the entire opportunity to sell the goods rather than simply not allowed to participate in a particular program.
The particular program aspect supports the judge's conclusion that "government speech" was at issue, relying on Walker v. Texas Sons of Confederate Veterans in which the Court found that Texas's program of specialty license plates was government speech.
While Judge D'Agostino's opinion is well-structured and comprehensive, the analysis regarding content/viewpoint discrimination, no matter the forum type, will most likely be fertile ground for appeal. On government speech, the case may provide the Second Circuit with an opportunity to clarify the limits of Walker.
Tuesday, March 1, 2016
The D.C. Circuit ruled today in Independence Institute v. FEC that a nonprofit organization's First Amendment challenge to federal electioneering disclosure requirements must go to a three-judge court (and not be dismissed). The ruling keeps alive the nonprofit's challenge to disclosure requirements for its "electioneering communication" under the Bipartisan Campaign Finance Reform Act--even if its constitutional arguments seem, well, weak.
Independence Institute, a 501(c)(3), sought to run a radio ad in favor of a federal statute that would reform federal sentencing, and to encourage citizens to express their support for the law to Colorado's Senator Mark Udall. But Udall was running for re-election at the time, so the radio spot would qualify as an electioneering communication under BCRA. That would trigger disclosure requirements, forcing Independence Institute to disclose its donors to the FEC.
Independence Institute complained, arguing that forced disclosure violated the First Amendment, and sought review by a three-judge court. The district judge denied the request, concluding that the plaintiff's claims were foreclosed by McConnell v. FEC and Citizens United, both of which upheld disclosure requirements against a facial challenge and against one particular as-applied challenge.
A divided panel of the D.C. Circuit reversed. The court said that Independence Institute's arguments passed the low standard the Court recently set in Shapiro v. McManus--denying a three-judge court only when a claim is "essentially fictitious, wholly insubstantial, obviously frivolous, and obviously without merit." In particular, Independence Institute argued that its as-applied claim against the disclosure requirement was different than the as-applied claim that the Court rejected in Citizens United, because Citizens United was a 501(c)(4) organization (not a (c)(3), like Independence), and that Citizens United therefore had a lesser interest in privacy, and that the government had a greater interest in publicly identifying Citizens United's donors. (Independence also argued that the First Amendment bars compelled disclosure unless the electioneering communication is unambiguously campaign-related (not an issue ad, as here). The court didn't address this.)
That seems pretty weak, but not "essentially fictitious, wholly insubstantial, obviously frivolous, and obviously without merit," according to the court.
Judge Wilkins dissented, arguing that the issue's been settled by the Court.
The ruling sends the case to a three-judge court for further proceedings. While this isn't a ruling on the merits--and seems like a poor test case to challenge disclosure requirements--the ruling nevertheless keeps the case alive.