Tuesday, November 24, 2015

ACLU Sues to Force Indiana to Take Syrian Refugees

The Indiana ACLU filed suit late yesterday in federal court seeking to force Indiana to take Syrian refugees. The lawsuit argues that Governor Mike Pence's action halting state aid to refugee resettlement efforts is preempted by federal law and violates equal protection and Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.

The case started when Indiana Governor Mike Pence said that his state would not accept Syrian refugees after the Paris attacks, and ordered state agencies not to provide assistance for resettlement efforts. Indiana then turned away a Syrian family (that was subsequently placed in Connecticut).

The ACLU sued on behalf of Exodus Refugee Immigration, Inc., a private non-profit that provides nuts-and-bolts assistance to refugee families in the state. Exodus claims it incurred costs in anticipation of the federal government accepting 10,000 Syrian refugees, some of whom would come to Indiana, but did not receive reimbursement from the state (as it usually would) after Governor Pence ordered state agencies to stop supporting Syrian refugee resettlement.

The complaint argues that the INA preempts Governor Pence's order. It recognizes that the INA requires the federal government to "take into account recommendations of the State," among other considerations and to the extent possible, but correctly says that "[t]he INA does not allow a State to veto placement of a refugee within the State . . . ." In short:

Defendants' suspension of the resettlement of Syrian refugees in Indiana is preempted by the Constitution and federal law for multiple reasons, including that it impinges on the exclusively federal authority to regulate immigration and to classify non-citizens; that federal law occupies the field of refugee admission and resettlement; and that it conflicts with the Immigration and Nationality Act and other federal statutes.

The plaintiffs also argue that Governor Pence's order violates equal protection and Title VI.

Indiana is one of 31 states that have "refused" to accept Syrian refugees after the Paris attacks. (The quotes are because states don't have this authority.) But this appears to be the first federal lawsuit against a governor's order to halt state support for resettlement.

November 24, 2015 in Cases and Case Materials, Equal Protection, Federalism, News, Preemption | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, November 23, 2015

Second Circuit Keeps Drone Memos Under Wraps

The Second Circuit ruled today that plaintiffs are not entitled to certain memos and documents from the Office of Legal Counsel outlining the legal justification for the government's targeted killing (drone) program.

The ruling means that the OLC documents will remain under wraps, and we won't now see (and may never see) the full paper trail for the program.

Recall that the New York Times, Charlie Savage, Scott Shane, and the ACLU sued to obtain OLC memos under FOIA. In the first round of the litigation, the Second Circuit ordered the release of a 2010 OLC memo, because government officials had revealed the contents in public statements and thus waived its right to invoke a FOIA exemption. (The officials' statements revealing the contents came before and soon after the document was released.)

In this second round of litigation, the court today said that the district judge properly withheld the documents, because they contained intelligence information. As to the plaintiffs' argument that the government disclosed the contents of one of these memos, a 2002 memo, the court said that the disclosure came too long after the document (8 years), and that the disclosure might have come up in a different context. The court explained:

However, the passage of a significant interval of time between a protected document and a Government official's subsequent statement discussing the same or a similar topic considered in the document inevitably raises a concern that the context in which the official spoke might be significantly different from the context in which the earlier document was prepared. Even if the content of legal reasoning set forth in one context is somewhat similar to such reasoning that is later explained publicly in another context, such similarity does not necessarily result in waiver. Moreover, ignoring both the differences in context and the passage of a significant interval of time would risk requiring Government officials to consider numerous arguably similar documents prepared long before and then measure their public words very carefully so as not to inadvertently precipitate a waiver of protection for those earlier documents.

The upshot is that we won't get these additional OLC documents and won't learn much or anything more than we already know about the legal justifications for the program.

November 23, 2015 in Cases and Case Materials, News, Opinion Analysis, War Powers | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

Students Lack Standing to Challenge SAT, ACT Sale of Personal Information for Profit

The Seventh Circuit ruled today that students who authorized the corporations who run the SAT and ACT standardized tests to provide their personal information to educational organizations lacked standing to challenge the corporations' sale of that information. The ruling means that the putative class action against the SAT and ACT is dismissed.

Along the way, the court also ruled that the Iqbal/Twombly heightened pleading standard ("plausibility") applies to facial challenges to standing under Rule 12(b)(6). This may raise the bar for plaintiffs in pleading and arguing standing. This portion of the ruling aligns with the approach in several other circuits; but it's in tension with the Ninth Circuit, which says that "Twombly and Iqbal are ill-suited to application in the constitutional standing context."

The case arose when ACT, Inc., and The College Board (which administers the SAT) sold personal information of students who signed up to take the tests. The students agreed that the corporations could share their personal information with educational groups (schools, scholarship funds, and the like), but they didn't know that the corporations were going to sell their personal information. (The price was small--$.33 per student per educational group--but would add up quickly for the defendants.) The plaintiffs argued that they were harmed by the sale because (1) they should have received some of the proceeds, (2) the sale diminished the value of their personal information, and (3) they paid a fee to take the ACT or SAT, which presumably would have been lower if they had not consented to the sale.

The Seventh Circuit flatly rejected these claims. The court ruled that under the Iqbal/Twombly standard, the plaintiffs' allegations didn't plausibly suggest that they'd been harmed. The court said that just because the defendants benefited doesn't mean that the plaintiffs were harmed for standing purposes: "Plaintiffs have claimed injury based solely on a gain to Defendants and without alleging a loss to themselves." (Although the court applied the Iqbal/Twombly standard, it looks like the plaintiffs would have failed even without it.)

The court rejected the plaintiffs' claim that their complaint gave rise to a reasonable inference that if they knew of the sale they would have conditioned their permission on receipt of a portion of the proceeds. The court said that the plaintiffs didn't provide factual support for the inference, so it didn't even need to get to whether the claim gives rise to a plausible claim of subject matter jurisdiction under Iqbal and Twombly.

In other words, it's not clear that the heightened Iqbal/Twombly standard mattered to the outcome at all. Still, the case says that the standard now applies to standing in the Seventh Circuit.


November 18, 2015 in Cases and Case Materials, Courts and Judging, News, Opinion Analysis, Separation of Powers | Permalink | Comments (0)

Saturday, November 7, 2015

Supremes Take Up Contraception Mandate Accommodation

The Supreme Court yesterday agreed to hear the cases testing whether the government's accommodation to the "contraception mandate" violates the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.

The move was expected. The Court will likely hear oral arguments in March 2016.

The cases involve HHS's requirement under the Affordable Care Act that employers' health insurance plans include certain kinds of contraception, and the government's accommodation to that requirement for religious non-profits. (Religions are already exempt.) The accommodation simply requires non-profit that objects to providing contraception on religious grounds to so notify the government (a letter will do, or the non-profit can use a government form). At that point, the government requires the insurer or third-party administrator to provide contraception, free of charge, directly to the non-profit's employees.

Some religious non-profits argue that the accommodation itself violates the RFRA, because their notification to the government triggers the provision of contraception. Seven circuits have rejected that claim; only the Eighth Circuit has accepted it. We posted most recently, on the Eighth Circuit's ruling, here.

The accommodation isn't a new idea. The Court itself identified it as a possible solution to objecting closely held for-profit corporations in Hobby Lobby. But the Court didn't say whether it would violate the RFRA--that issue simply wasn't before the Court.

The parties in the case will argue whether the accommodation creates a "substantial burden" on their religious freedoms and, if so, whether it is narrowly tailored to meet a compelling government interest.

The non-profits' arguments push the bounds of the RFRA. After all, if an accommodation can be a "substantial burden"--and one that operates in such a minimally intrusive way--it's hard to see what couldn't be a substantial burden on some religion. Moreover, to get to the non-profits' result, the courts have to accept their view of how the law works--that the accommodation triggers the provision of contraception (in contrast to the view that the law itself triggers the requirement that insurers provide contraception). The Eighth Circuit (and the Eighth Circuit alone) got there, but seemingly by deferring to the non-profits' view of their own religion, as I explained here. Under RFRA, the courts certain defer to a religion on its own tenets and beliefs, but it's hard to see why the courts should extend that deference to a religious belief about the way the law works.

November 7, 2015 in Cases and Case Materials, News, Opinion Analysis, Religion | Permalink | Comments (1)

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Sixth Circuit Says Clean Air Act Does Not Preempt State Common Law Claims

The Sixth Circuit ruled yesterday that the federal Clean Air Act does not preempt state common law claims.

The ruling was hardly a surprise, given the plain language of the CAA. Still, the case is a victory for those who seek to enforce clean air requirements through the higher standards of state common law. (The court emphasized several times that the CAA permits states to adopt more stringent standards than the federal standards.) The ruling also allows the plaintiffs' state common law case to move forward.

The case arose when neighbors of Diageo Americas Supply, Inc., a whiskey distiller, complained that ethanol vapors from the facility combined with condensation to propagate "whiskey fungus" on their property. The neighbors filed suit in federal court, alleging state common law caused of action. Diageo moved to dismiss, arguing that the CAA preempted these claims.

The Sixth Circuit rejected that argument. The court looked to the plain text of the Act, congressional purposes, and Supreme Court precedent--all of which pointed against preemption. But the case can be resolved on the text alone, in particular, the savings clause. As the court explained:

The states' rights savings clause of the Clean Air Act expressly preserves the state common law standards on which plaintiffs sue. The clause saves from preemption "the right of any State or political subdivision thereof to adopt or enforce (1) any standard or limitation respecting emissions of air pollutants or (2) any requirement respecting control or abatement of air pollution," except that the "State or political subdivision may not adopt or enforce any emission standard or limitation" that is "less stringent" than a standard or limitation under an applicable implementation plan or specified federal statute.

The court went on to say that state courts are part of the "state," and that common law requirements are "requirement[s] respecting control or abatement or air pollution."

In addition to looking at text, purpose, and precedent, the court added a federalism point:

When Congress acts to preempt state law--especially in areas of longstanding state concern--it treads on the states' customary prerogatives in ways that risk upsetting the traditional federal-state balance of authority. This is why there is a strong presumption against federal preemption of state law, one that operates with special force in cases "in which Congress has legislated . . . in a field which the States have traditionally occupied." Environmental regulation is a field that the states have traditionally occupied. Accordingly, even if the express language of the states' rights savings clause here did not preserve state common law claims, principles of federalism and respect for states' rights would likely do so in the absence of a clear expression of such preemption.

November 4, 2015 in Cases and Case Materials, Federalism, News, Preemption | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, November 2, 2015

Standing, Access Case Meets Sharply Divided Court

The Supreme Court heard oral arguments today in Spokeo v. Robins, the case testing whether Congress can confer standing on a plaintiff by statute, even when the plaintiff lacks a sufficient and independent harm for Article III standing purposes.

The case is important for what it will say about access to the courts, and, in particular, class actions. The justices at oral arguments seemed sharply divided along conventional ideological lines, with progressives favoring access and conservatives, including Justice Kennedy, going the other way. If so, the case will take its place among the line of cases coming out of the Roberts Court that limit access to the judiciary and favor (corporate and government) defendants.

(Check out the outstanding Vanderbilt roundtable on the case, with six different takes, available here.)

The case arose when Spokeo, the owner of a web-site that provides searchable reports containing personal information about individuals, reported false information about Thomas Robins. For example, Spokeo reported that Robins had a graduate degree (he doesn't), that he was employed in a professional or technical field, with "very strong" "economic health" and wealth in the "Top 10% (he's unemployed), and that he's in his 50s, married, with children (he's not in his 50s, not married, and no children).

Robins filed suit, claiming that Spokeo's representations violated the federal Fair Credit Reporting Act. He sought damages under the Act for a willful violation. Robins claimed that Spokeo's false report made it harder for him to find a job.

Justices Kagan and Scalia marked out the competing positions early in Spokeo's argument, and at times bypassed Spokeo's attorney (Andrew Pincus) entirely and simply argued with each other. At one point, Justice Scalia even intervened to answer a question for Pincus, and then told Pincus that it was the right answer. In short, Justice Kagan argued that Congress identified a concrete harm in the Act and provided a remedy for it; Justice Scalia argued that any harm was merely "procedural," because any harm was only Spokeo's violation of the Act's procedures (with no additional concrete harm). Here's a little of the exchange:

Justice Kagan: But did that procedural requirement--this is--this is exactly what Lujan says, "It's a procedural requirement the disregard of which could impair a concrete interest of the plaintiff."

And we distinguished that from procedural requirements in vacuo.

. . .

Justice Scalia: Excuse me. That--that would lead to the conclusion that anybody can sue . . . not just somebody who--whose information was wrong.

Pincus seemed to make an important concession in response to a question by Justice Kennedy, whether "Congress could have drafted a statute that would allow [Robins] to bring suit?" Pincus said yes, and proceeded to describe it--basically a statute that required a plaintiff to show a concrete harm that would be sufficient for Article III. If Justice Kennedy is in play, Pincus's softer position may assuage any concerns over an extreme position that Congress can never confer standing. The softer position also saves other statutes that have similar Congress-confered-standing provisions. (Justice Kennedy picked up this theme with Robins's attorney (William Consovoy) and noted that Consovoy's position of a Congress-created-harm (alone) seemed circular--but Consovoy didn't seem to give a satisfying answer.) At one point Pincus made another important concession: some plaintiffs might have standing under the FCRA, so long as they show an independent and sufficient harm.

On the other side, Chief Justice Roberts pressed Consovoy early on the limits of his argument--a point we're likely to see in the opinion:

Chief Justice Roberts: What about a law that says you get a--a--$10,000 statutory damages if a company publishes inaccurate information about you? . . . The company publishes your phone number, but it's wrong. That is inaccurate information about you, but you have no injury whatever. Can that person bring an action for that statutory damage?

Consovoy didn't have a response, or, rather, his response only opened new cans of worms. (Justice Breyer intervened and offered an interpretation of the statutory language that gives a cause of action to "any consumer who has obtained--who suffers from false information.") Chief Justice Roberts and Consovoy had a similar exchange later in the argument, too. Consovoy maintained that the FCRA was different than the Chief's hypotheticals, because the FCRA authorizes damages only for someone who was injured. He didn't seem to persuade the Chief on this point, though, despite Justice Breyer's help.

Justice Alito pointed to the record and argued that it didn't support a concrete harm. Indeed, he pointed out that nobody in the record (other than Robins himself) searched for him on Spokeo--a "quintessential speculative harm"--probably another point we'll see in the final opinion.

Chief Justice Roberts asked a different question--and a far more loaded one (politically, and constitutionally)--to the government, amicus for Robins:

Chief Justice Roberts: [L]et's kind of say your--your--Congress thinks that the president is not doing enough to stop illegal immigration, so it passes a law that says, anyone in a border State--so it's particularized--who is unemployed may bring an action against an illegal immigrant who has a job. And they get damages, maybe they get an injunction.

. . .

And I would have thought that the--the president would be concerned about Congress being able to create its own enforcement mechanism. I thought that you would be concerned that that would interfere with the executive prerogative.

The government tried to distinguish the hypo, but, again, counsel probably didn't persuade the conservatives.

November 2, 2015 in Cases and Case Materials, Congressional Authority, Courts and Judging, Executive Authority, Jurisdiction of Federal Courts, News, Opinion Analysis, Separation of Powers, Standing | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, October 30, 2015

D.C. Circuit Finds Competitor Standing in Case Against IRS

The D.C. Circuit ruled today that an association of CPAs and their firms had "competitor standing" to challenge an IRS program that allows previously uncredentialed tax return preparers who meet certain prerequisites to have their names listed in the IRS's online "Directory of Federal Tax Return Preparers."

The ruling is a victory for the association and allows the case to go forward on the merits.

The ruling is also a victory for anyone who wants to get into federal court to challenge an action that may give their competitors an edge, even if the link between the action and the edge is based only on "basic economic logic."

The IRS program allows previously uncredentialed tax return preparers--so-called "unenrolled preparers"--to get listed if they take a class and meet other requirements. The program is a boon to preparers who take advantage of it, because they'll get listed with the IRS and, as a result, get more tax preparation business. It'll also likely deal a blow to CPAs and other already-credentialed preparers, because they'll now have to compete toe-to-toe with lower-cost unenrolled preparers.

The association challenged the program for violating notice-and-comment rulemaking requirements. The district court dismissed the case for lack of standing. The association appealed and argued, among other things, competitor standing.

The D.C. Circuit agreed with the association. It wrote that association members "will face intensified competition as a result of the challenged government action. Specifically, participating unenrolled preparers will gain a credential and a listing in the government directory." The court accepted the association's claim that this "will 'dilute[] the value of a CPA's credential in the market for tax-return-preparer services' and permit unenrolled preparers to more effectively compete with and take business away from presumably higher-priced CPAs."

You might wonder why the link between the IRS program and the CPAs' harm isn't too speculative (under, say, Clapper v. Amnesty International). After all, the IRS program is voluntary, not compulsory, so it's not obvious that any unenrolled preparer will even participate; moreover, it's not obvious that IRS listing will benefit a participant; and moreover it's not obvious that listing will benefit a participant to the detriment of CPAs. The court had an answer to all this: "basic economic logic." The court explained:

To begin with, the link between the government-backed credentials offered to unenrolled preparers and the reputational benefit they will enjoy is hardly speculative. Indeed, the reputational benefit is the very point of the IRS Program. . . . Moreover . . . the IRS Program at issue here is both voluntary and clearly intended to offer competitive benefits to those unenrolled preparers who participate in the Program. "Basic economic logic" suggests that unenrolld preparers will choose to participate only if they believe the resulting reputational benefit will produce a substantial enough competitive advantage to outweigh their compliance costs.

The court declined to consider the IRS argument that the association's complaint wasn't within the "zone of interests protected or regulated by the statutory provision" it invokes, because the IRS didn't raise it at the district court.

October 30, 2015 in Cases and Case Materials, Courts and Judging, Jurisdiction of Federal Courts, News, Standing | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, October 29, 2015

En Banc Sixth Circuit Rejects "Heckler's Veto" in "Bible Believers" Protest at Arab-American Festival

The en banc Sixth Circuit's opinion in Bible Believers v. Wayne County clearly rejected the existence of a "heckler's veto" to inflammatory but protected speech under the First Amendment's speech clause, as well as finding the speech protected under the Free Exercise Clause and the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment.  The en banc court also found that the government was liable and that there was no qualified immunity.

Recall that last year a panel of the Sixth Circuit rejected the constitutional challenges of the Bible Believers group, affirming the district judge's grant of summary judgment for the government.

The underlying controversy arose when a group known as the "Bible Believers," Evangelical Christians, came to the Arab International festival on the streets of Dearborn, Michigan - - - as they had done the year before - - - to "preach."  Their speech included "strongly worded" slogans on signs, t-shirts, and banners (e.g., "Islam Is A Religion of Blood and Murder"),  a "severed pig's head

Repin, Demontsration 1905, via

on a stick" (intended to protect the Bible Believers by repelling observers who feared it), statements through a megaphone castigating the following of a "pedophile prophet" and warning of "God's impending judgment."  A crowd gathered, seemingly mostly of children and adolescents, who yelled back and threw items at the preachers.  A law enforcement asked the Bible Believers to leave, and - when pressed - saying they would be cited for disorderly conduct. They were eventually escorted out.

The Sixth Circuit's extensive en banc opinion, authored by Judge Eric Clay - - - and in which 8 (including Clay) of the 15 Sixth Circuit judges joined - - - resolutely "confirms" the free speech protections that should be accorded to a speaker even when "angry, hostile, or violent crowds" seek to silence that speaker. 

The opinion first finds that the Bible Believers' speech was protected, rejecting exception of incitement (to riot) and fighting words.  The "fighting words" discussion is regrettably short - - - a single paragraph - - - and summarily advances the "objective standard" requiring the insult to be likely to provoke the "average person" (emphasis in original) and moreover to be directed at an "individual."  In the context of the facts here, these principles deserved further exploration.

After a brief discussion of the public forum, the en banc opinion then discussed at length the "heckler's veto" doctrine and concluded it was not a viable doctrine.  Applying that conclusion, the opinion discussed law enforcement performance, citing the video record (which the court did at several points in the opinion): there was "next to no attempt made by the officers to protect the Bible Believers or prevent the lawless actions of the audience" and  it was not sufficient an effort "to maintain peace among a group of rowdy youths" - - - i.e., the crowd at the festival - - - if it consists of  a"few verbal warnings and a single arrest.  The court advised:

We do not presume to dictate to law enforcement precisely how it should maintain the public order. But in this case, there were a number of easily identifiable measures that could have been taken short of removing the speaker: e.g., increasing police presence in the immediate vicinity, as was requested; erecting a barricade for free speech, as was requested; arresting or threatening to arrest more of the law breakers, as was also requested; or allowing the Bible Believers to speak from the already constructed barricade to which they were eventually secluded prior to being ejected from the Festival. If none of these measures were feasible or had been deemed unlikely to prevail, the WCSO [Wayne County Sheriff's Office] officers could have called for backup—as they appear to have done when they decided to eject the Bible Believers from the Festival—prior to finding that it was necessary to infringe on the group’s First Amendment rights. We simply cannot accept Defendants’ position that they were compelled to abridge constitutional rights for the sake of public safety, when at the same time the lawless adolescents who caused the risk with their assaultive behavior were left unmolested.

In a very brief analysis, the court held that the free exercise claim "succeeds on the same basis as the free speech claim."  As for the Equal Protection Clause claim, the court's discussion is similarly summary, but its analysis seems much too conclusory:

The Festival included a number of other religious organizations that came to share their faith by spreading a particular message. There are several distinctions between the Bible Believers and these other groups. Mainly, the Bible Believers chose, as was their right, not to register for an assigned table under the information tent. Instead, they paraded through the Festival and proselytized, as was also their right, while carrying signs and a severed pig’s head. Although these actions set them apart from the other speakers and religious organizations at the Festival, they do not do so in any relevant respect. Any speaker could have walked the Festival grounds with or without signs if they chose to do so. The Bible Believers, like the other religious organizations at the Festival, sought to spread their faith and religious message. Although they declined to utilize the tent set aside for outside groups, their conduct was at all times peaceful while they passionately advocated for their cause, much like any other religious group. Wayne County did not threaten the Bible Believers based on their decision to march with signs and banners, but based on the content of the messages displayed on the signs and banners. The county’s disparate treatment of the Bible Believers was based explicitly on the fact that the Bible Believers’ speech was found to be objectionable by a number of people attending the Festival. Wayne County therefore violated the Bible Believers’ right to equal protection by treating them in a manner different from other speakers, whose messages were not objectionable to Festival-goers, by burdening their First Amendment rights.

The en banc court also held that the officers were not entitled to qualified immunity and that municipal liability was established.  On these issues, there were vigorous dissents.  And indeed, the en banc majority seems on tenuous ground, especially given its earlier discussion of Sixth Circuit precedent in Glasson v. City of Louisville decided in 1975:

In this Circuit, a modicum of confusion is understandable with respect to the prohibition against the heckler’s veto due to Glasson’s discussion of a good-faith affirmative defense.  . . . . Therefore, to the extent that Glasson’s good-faith defense may be interpreted as altering the substantive duties of a police officer not to effectuate a heckler’s veto, it is overruled.

Yet in the discussion of qualified immunity, the en banc court reasoned:

To the extent that Glasson’s discussion of a good-faith defense confused the issue of whether a heckler’s veto constitutes a constitutional violation, the facts and analysis in Glasson nonetheless alerted Defendants that removing a peaceful speaker, when the police have made no serious attempt to quell the lawless agitators, could subject them to liability.

That both the district judge and a previous panel of the Sixth Circuit had found that law enforcement's actions were constitutional, this seems a harsh conclusion - - - and is inconsistent with recent qualified immunity in First Amendment cases.  (For example, recall the unanimous Supreme Court 2014 opinion in Lane v. Franks, not cited in the Sixth Circuit opinions).

On the whole, the Sixth Circuit opinion validates the First Amendment right of provocative, offensive, and "challenging speech" - - - including symbolic speech such as marching with a pig's head on a stick - - - and requires law enforcement to protect such speech against (physically) hostile reactions by directing their efforts against those who are hostile rather than the speakers.   As Judge John Rogers, dissenting, suggested, one way to view the underlying controversy was that the "Bible Believers were hecklers seeking to disrupt the cultural fair" being held by the Arab-American community as an expressive enterprise.  The en banc majority clearly rejected that view - - - and held that the government should be liable for damages.

October 29, 2015 in Cases and Case Materials, Courts and Judging, Equal Protection, First Amendment, Free Exercise Clause, Opinion Analysis, Race, Religion, Speech | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Pacific Legal Foundation Asks Supremes to Review Origination Clause Challenge to Obamacare

The Pacific Legal Foundation filed a  cert. petition yesterday, asking the Supreme Court to review a D.C. Circuit ruling that the individual mandate in Obamacare didn't violate the Origination Clause. We posted on the D.C. Circuit ruling here.

The Origination Clause, Article I, Section 7, Cl. 1, says that "All Bills for raising Revenue shall originate in the House of Representatives; but the Senate may propose or concur with Amendments as on other Bills." Because the Court upheld the individual mandate under Congress's taxing power, the logic goes, the ACA was a "bill for raising revenue." And while a bill that ultimately became Obamacare originated in the House, the Senate gutted that bill and replaced it with the ACA. The Pacific Legal Foundation argues that this violated the Origination Clause.

The D.C. Circuit flatly rejected the argument. It said, in short, that the individual mandate wasn't a "bill for raising revenue" for Origination Clause purposes, even if Congress enacted it under its taxing authority.

Here are the QPs in the cert. petition:

1.    Is the tax on going without health insurance a "Bill[] for raising Revenue" to which the Origination Clause applies?

2.    Was the Senate's gut-and-replace procedure a constitutionally valid "amend[ment]" pursuant to the Origination Clause?


October 28, 2015 in Cases and Case Materials, Congressional Authority, News, Taxing Clause | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, October 27, 2015

Court Rejects Government Tactics to Delay Release of G-Mo Force-Feeding Videos

Judge Gladys Kessler (D.D.C.) denied the government's motion to reconsider her earlier ruling ordering the government to release videos of force-feedings at Guantanamo Bay.

The ruling is a victory for those seeking release. It keeps Judge Kessler's original ruling ordering the release on track, although we might expect more government foot-dragging.

This most recent ruling in the case comes after the D.C. Circuit remanded so that the district court could consider supplemental government declarations in support of its earlier motion to stay. Consider them she did, and concluded that they said, well, nothing--or at least nothing game-changing. (That's at best. At worst, they were "flat out unbelievable," as in one government declaration that said that if the videos are released, force-fed Detainee Dhiab's privacy would be invaded. So after all this, that's what the government is concerned about--Dhiab's privacy.)

As to the public's right to gain access to the images, Judge Kessler noted that the D.C. Circuit has "neither recognized nor rejected that the First Amendment affords the public a right of access to civil proceedings," and that the government "interprets the D.C. Circuit's silence as a denial of that right." But she went on to note that five other circuits have concluded that there is such a right, and that "Judge Hogan concluded, and this Court agrees, that there has been a long history in our country of public access to civil proceedings."


October 27, 2015 in Cases and Case Materials, News | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, October 26, 2015

D.C. Circuit Denies Bivens Remedy for Overseas Violations in Criminal Terrorism Investigation

The D.C. Circuit on Friday ruled in a fractured opinion that a U.S. citizen secretly detained, transferred involuntarily between countries, and threatened with torture by FBI agents did not have a claim for violation of the Fourth Amendment in federal courts. That's because "special factors" counseled against such a remedy under Bivens v. Six Unknown Agents.

The ruling means that Plaintiff Meshal's case is dismissed, and leaves him without a remedy. It also makes it yet even more difficult for plaintiffs like Meshal to get their cases heard in federal court. 

The FBI originally detained and held Meshal because of his alleged connections to al Qaeda; it later released him without charges.

The court wrote that Meshal's claim involved a "new context" for Bivens--a strike against him right out of the gate:

Not only does Meshal's claim involve new circumstances--a criminal terrorism investigation conducted abroad--it also involves different legal components--the extraterritorial application of constitutional protections. Such a different context requires us to think anew. To our knowledge, no court has previously extended Bivens to cases involving either the extraterritorial application of constitutional protections or in the national security domain, let alone a case implicating both--another signal that this context is a novel one.

Because the case arose in a "new context," the court looked to special factors counseling against a Bivens remedy. And it found two, which, taken together, left Meshal without a Bivens cause of action: (1) the case involves "the military, national security, or intelligence," and (2) the conduct occurred outside the borders of the United States. The court also said that a host of "practical factors" counseled against a Bivens remedy, including requiring the court to second guest executive officials operating in foreign justice systems, unknown diplomatic consequences of the suit, and forcing the courts to answer hard questions about the extraterritorial application of the Constitution outside of peacetime.

Judge Kavanaugh wrote separately to especially emphasize the military, counter-terrorism, and foreign context of the suit--the "new context" that triggered the special factors analysis and weighted so heavily against a Bivens claim.

Judge Pillard wrote a lengthy and scathing dissent, dissecting the court's analysis point-by-point. Judge Pillard was particularly concerned about the blind judicial deference to the government's mere invocation, without reasonable explanation, of foreign policy and national security as special factors counseling against a Bivens remedy. She summed up the strange and deeply disturbing result:

Had Meshal suffered these injuries in the United States, there is no dispute that he could have sought redress under Bivens. If Meshal's tormentors had been foreign officials, he could have sought a remedy under the Torture Victim Protection Act. Yet the majority holds that because of unspecified national security and foreign policy concerns, a United States citizen who was arbitrarily detained, tortured, and threatened with disappearance by United States law enforcement agents in Africa must be denied any remedy whatsoever.

October 26, 2015 in Cases and Case Materials, Courts and Judging, Fourth Amendment, Jurisdiction of Federal Courts, News, Opinion Analysis, Separation of Powers | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Judge Allows Challenge to D.C. School Funding to Move Forward

Judge Tanya Chutkan (D.D.C.) last week denied the District of Columbia's motion to dismiss key parts of a claim by D.C. charter schools that the D.C. government under-funded them in comparison to District public schools. The lengthy ruling is laden with analysis on the constitutional relationship between Congress and the District, much of it indeterminate, reminding us just how complicated this relationship can be.

The plaintiff charter schools brought the case, arguing that the D.C. government funneled extra money to D.C. public schools, but not charter schools, in violation of the District Clause and Home Rule Act, the Supremacy Clause, and the School Reform Act. In particular, the plaintiffs argued that the D.C. government violated the Home Rule Act by altering a a congressional act (the School Reform Act) without specific congressional authorization. The District countered that it has authority under the Home Rule Act to amend or repeal the School Reform Act, because the School Reform Act applies only to the District.

Judge Chutkan ruled that neither the case law nor the Home Rule Act tells when Congress acts in tandem with the D.C. City Council (so that the Council could alter a congressional act), or when Congress has the final word--at least in the abstract. So she turned to the text and history of the School Reform Act to answer the question here. But Judge Chutkan said that the School Reform Act was similarly indeterminate. She wrote that the Act's apparent mandatory language on equal school funding for charters and public schools wasn't dispositive, because "if the District can (and has) repealed Acts of Congress that used the term 'shall,' then that term alone cannot necessarily delineate Congress' intent with respect to the Council's authority.'" Moreover, Judge Chutkan said that the legislative history of the School Reform Act didn't answer the question. The upshot: "As it stands, the uniform funding formula is on the books, and it is not clear whether it has been violated, whether it has been amended or repealed by Council enactments (through Congressional acquiescence or otherwise), or whether the challenged actions do not implicate or conflict with the funding formula at all." She thus denied the District's motion to dismiss the District Clause, Home Rule Act, and School Reform Act claims. The ruling means that these claims can move forward.

In contrast, Judge Chutkan did dismiss the plaintiffs' Supremacy Clause claim. That's because the Supremacy Clause doesn't apply to congressional acts over D.C.; the District Clause does. The analysis is the same, Judge Chutkan wrote, but the Supremacy Clause doesn't do the work.

October 6, 2015 in Cases and Case Materials, Congressional Authority, Federalism, News, Opinion Analysis, Supremacy Clause | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, September 28, 2015

D.C. Circuit to Rehear Judgment Vacating Military Commission Conviction

The D.C. Circuit announced that it would rehear en banc a panel's earlier judgment vacating the military commission conviction of Ali Hamza Ahmad Suliman al Bahlul, an alien enemy combatant who one time bragged about his role in the 9/11 attacked.

A panel this past June vacated al Bahlul's conviction for inchoate conspiracy. The panel said that the conviction violated Article III because it was based on "the purely domestic crime" of inchoate conspiracy, which is not an offense under the international law of war.

The panel's summer ruling was a victory for al Bahlul and a blow to the government in conducting military commission trials. But the court's latest ruling gives it a second bite at this apple. The ruling vacates the panel's summer judgment and sets oral argument before the entire court for December 1, 2015.

September 28, 2015 in Cases and Case Materials, Congressional Authority, Courts and Judging, Executive Authority, News, Opinion Analysis, Separation of Powers, War Powers | Permalink | Comments (0)

Ninth Circuit Rejects Franchisers' Constitutional Challenges to Seattle's $15 Minimum Wage

Affirming the district judge's denial of a preliminary injunction, the Ninth Circuit's opinion in International Franchise Ass'n v. City of Seattle rejected all of the constitutional challenges to a Seattle provision that deemed franchises included in the definition of "large employers" and thus subject to the new $15 minimum wage.  Recall that the complaint challenged  the provision under the (dormant) commerce clause, equal protection clauses of the Fourteenth Amendment, the First Amendment, preemption under the Lanham Act (trademarks), and state constitutional provisions.

Photo by Steve Rhodes via

The unanimous Ninth Circuit panel's opinion found that there was not a likelihood of success on any of the constitutional claims, devoting most of its analysis to dormant commerce clause doctrine.  The panel first rejected the argument that the franchise regulation expressly discriminated against franchises as interstate commerce and was thus not "facially neutral." The panel also rejected the argument that the Seattle provision had a discriminatory purpose, noting that while there was some evidence that some persons involved in considering the issue were critical of franchise employment practices, even the strongest evidence of this (in an email), did not show that even this person "intended to burden out-of-state firms or interfere with the wheels of interstate commerce," and "[m]ore importantly, they also do not show that City officials wished to discriminate against out-of- state entities, bolster in-state firms, or burden interstate commerce."  Lastly, the panel rejected the argument that the Seattle provision discriminatory effects, agreeing with the district judge that the United States Supreme Court's decisions on dormant commerce clause can be "difficult to reconcile" and noting:

 We lack Supreme Court authority assessing whether a regulation affecting franchises ipso facto has the effect of discriminating against interstate commerce. Nor has the Supreme Court addressed whether franchises are instrumentalities of interstate commerce that cannot be subjected to disparate regulatory burdens. While regulations that expressly classify based on business structure or impose disparate burdens on franchises present interesting questions, our review is limited to considering whether the district court applied improper legal principles or clearly erred in reviewing the record.

 The footnote to this paragraph includes an extensive citation to lower courts that have considered the issue of whether measures that affect national chains violate the dormant Commerce Clause.  The Ninth Circuit panel concluded:

[T]he evidence that the ordinance will burden interstate commerce is not substantial. It does not show that interstate firms will be excluded from the market, earn less revenue or profit, lose customers, or close or reduce stores. Nor does it show that new franchisees will not enter the market or that franchisors will suffer adverse effects.

The Ninth Circuit panel dispatched the Equal Protection Clause claim much more expeditiously.  The Ninth Circuit applied the lowest form of rational basis scrutiny  - - - citing F.C.C. v. Beach Commc’ns, Inc. (1993) sometimes called "anything goes" rational basis - - - and finding there was a legitimate purpose (without animus) and the law was reasonably related to that purpose.

The court's discussion of the First Amendment claim was similarly brief, not surprising given that the court found the Speech Clause's threshold requirement of "speech"  was absent: "Seattle’s minimum wage ordinance is plainly an economic regulation that does not target speech or expressive conduct."

Additionally, the court agreed with the district judge that there was no preemption under the Lanham Act and no violation of the Washington State Constitution.

The Ninth Circuit panel did disagree with the district judge regarding some minor aspects of the non-likelihood to prevail on the merits preliminary injunction factors.  But on the whole, the opinion is a strong rebuke to the constitutional challenges to the Seattle laws.

Given the stakes (and the attorneys for the franchisers) a petition for certiorari is a distinct possibility.  Meanwhile, as we suggested when the case was filed, for ConLawProfs looking for a good exam review or exam problem, International Franchise Ass'n v. Seattle has much potential.

September 28, 2015 in Cases and Case Materials, Current Affairs, Dormant Commerce Clause, Equal Protection, First Amendment, Food and Drink, Fourteenth Amendment, Opinion Analysis, Speech, State Constitutional Law, Supreme Court (US), Teaching Tips | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Deputy Sheriff Gets No First Amendment Protection from Political Reprisal

The Eleventh Circuit ruled that a deputy sheriff does not enjoy First Amendment protection from retaliation in employment for her political beliefs. That's true, the court held, even when local law bans political retaliation against certain covered employees, including the deputy sheriff. The court also rejected the deputy sheriff's Equal Protection claim for gender discrimination.

The case arose when John Darr beat incumbent Sheriff Johnson in the sheriff race in Columbus, Georgia. Darr substantially reorganized the staff, including taking away significant responsibilities from Deputy Sheriff Terri Ezell. According to the court, Ezell "has a long and path-breaking record of law enforcement service for [the Columbus Consolidated Government]." She also supported Johnson (against Darr) in the sheriff race.

Ezell brought a First Amendment claim against Darr and the CCG for retaliating against her based on her political affiliation. Recognizing that circuit law said that a deputy sheriff enjoyed no First Amendment rights against political retaliation (because "the nature of the sheriff-deputy relationship is such that a sheriff must be able to require absolute loyalty from his deputies for his office to be effective"), Ezell argued that local law classified her position within the CCG civil service and prohibits employment decisions based on political patronage. In other words, she said that the CCG civil service system changed the nature of her position for First Amendment purposes in a way that gave her protection against political retaliation, notwithstanding circuit law.

The court rejected this argument. The court said that the touchstone of First Amendment protection for retaliation is the relationship between the deputy sheriff and the sheriff--a question of law--and that this isn't changed by the CCG civil service system. The court said that nothing in the local law could change the fundamental relationship between the offices for First Amendment purposes. This meant that Ezell was subject to circuit law, and that she enjoyed no First Amendment protection.

The court also rejected Ezell's Equal Protection claim based on gender discrimination. The court held that there was no factual dispute that Darr shifted Ezell's responsibilities in order to address problems in the local jail (which Ezell previously supervised)--a non-discriminatory explanation--and that Ezell couldn't show that this was a pretext.

September 23, 2015 in Cases and Case Materials, Equal Protection, First Amendment, News, Opinion Analysis | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

No Constitutional Claim for Former Embed Journalist

Steven D. Schwinn, John Marshall Law School

The D.C. Circuit this week dismissed a case of a former embed journalist against Defense Department officials for terminating his embed status in violation of the First Amendment and the Administrative Procedure Act.

The ruling may reveal a rift on the court over the sweep of sovereign immunity in a constitutional case for non-monetary, specific relief against government actors in their official capacity--that is, over the meaning or sweep of Clark v. Library of Congress (D.C. Cir.). The issue is critically important for access to justice.

The case arose when NATO officials terminated Wayne Anderson's embed status after he posted pictures that violated the Ground Rules for embeds. Anderson sued the Secretary of Defense and DoD officials in their individual and official capacities, seeking reversal of the memo terminating his embed status and declaratory relief (but no monetary damages).

Anderson appealed the lower court's dismissal, but only as to the defendants in their official capacities. He alleged a claim for retaliation under the First Amendment and a violation of the Administrative Procedure Act. (Anderson's precise arguments were a little muddied, and maybe included a procedural due process claim, too.)

The D.C. Circuit ruled that the government enjoyed sovereign immunity against a suit against the defendants in their official capacities, and did not waive it through the APA. (The APA might have provided a statutory waiver of immunity, except that it exempts "military authority exercised in the field in time of war.")

The court went on to say that Anderson's claim was also moot. That's because the Afghanistan mission was drawn down, and NATO (not a party to the suit) led the embed program. In other words, the court said that it couldn't grant any relief to Anderson. But the court noted that Anderson could re-apply for the current embed program.

Judge Srinivasan concurred and dissented. He argued that the government did not enjoy sovereign immunity, citing Clark v. Library of Congress (D.C. Cir.). In that case, the court declined to apply sovereign immunity to shield the government from suit for non-monetary, specific relief for officials' unconstitutional behavior. The Clark court wrote, "Clark's claims for non-monetary, specific relief are not barred by sovereign immunity. It is well-established that sovereign immunity does not bar suits for specific relief against government officials where the challenged actions of the officials are alleged to be unconstitutional or beyond statutory authority."

Judge Srinivasan also argued that the case was not moot, given that the "government has not shown that the transition to a NATO-led mission has made it impossible for the court to provide any relief bearing on a United States journalist's ability to embed."

September 22, 2015 in Cases and Case Materials, Courts and Judging, First Amendment, Jurisdiction of Federal Courts, News, Opinion Analysis | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, September 21, 2015

D.C. Circuit Upholds Part, and Strikes Part, of Long Gun Registration Law

A divided panel of the D.C. Circuit today upheld portions of the D.C. long-gun registration law, even as the court struck other portions. The mixed ruling has a little for both sides in the debate over gun rights.

This case follows previous rulings in which the court upheld handgun registration requirements and a ban on assault weapons and magazines with a capacity in excess of 10 rounds.

The court applied its familiar two-part framework, asking first whether a provision impinges on a right protected by the Second Amendment, and, if so, second whether the provision satisfies intermediate scrutiny. Here are the results:

Basic Registration: Upheld. The court said that a basic registration requirement for long-guns did not impinge on Second Amendment rights, and therefore didn't even trigger intermediate scrutiny. The court followed its own ruling on registration of handguns, saying that the only difference between the two is the "historical pedigree" of registration requirements for handguns (which registration for long-guns lacks).

The court held that all other requirements, below, did infringe on Second Amendment rights, and therefore applied intermediate scrutiny (with different results):

In-Person Registration, Fingerprinting, and Photographing: Upheld. The court held that an in-person registration requirement, a fingerprinting requirement, and a photograph requirement for an application for a long-gun license were all sufficiently tailored to meet D.C.'s interest in public safety. The court said that these requirements would "help to deter and detect fraud and thereby prevent disqualified individuals from registering firearms" and (as to the photograph requirement) "facilitat[e] identification of the owner of a registered firearm during any subsequent encounter with the police." "The additional requirement that registrants appear in person to be photographed and fingerprinted is but a corollary necessary to implement those requirements."

Bringing the Firearm to Registration: Struck. The court said that the requirement that an applicant bring the firearm to registration was not tailored to promote public safety. "On the contrary, common sense suggests that bringing firearms to the MPD would more likely be a threat to public safety . . . ."

Re-registration Every 3 Years: Struck. The court held that D.C.'s requirement to re-register every three years was not sufficiently tailored to promote public safety, because officials can already conduct background checks on permit holders (without re-registration), the regular registration process should take care of firearms transfers, and D.C. law already requires owners to report lost weapons (obviating the need to use the re-registration process to locate lost or stolen weapons).

Registration Fees: Upheld. The court upheld reasonable registration fees, $13 per firearm and $35 for fingerprinting.

Education Requirements: Upheld and Struck. The court upheld training requirements going to the safe use of firearms, but it struck a testing requirement on D.C. gun laws as not sufficiently tailored to promote public safety.

One Pistol Per Month Rule: Struck. The court struck this limit, because D.C.'s evidence failed to show that it would promote public safety. Moreover, "taken to its logical conclusion, that reasoning [limiting registrations in order to limit firearms present in the home, in order to promote public safety] would justify a total ban on firearms kept in the home."

Judge LeCraft Henderson wrote separate and would have upheld all the requirements under intermediate scrutiny.


September 21, 2015 in Cases and Case Materials, Fundamental Rights, News, Opinion Analysis, Second Amendment | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, September 18, 2015

Eighth Circuit First to Strike Accommodation of Contraception Mandate

The Eighth Circuit yesterday became the first federal circuit court to rule that the government's accommodation of the contraception mandate in the Affordable Care Act likely violated the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.

The ruling upholds a lower court's preliminary injunction against the contraception mandate as applied to objecting religious non-profits.

The ruling is notable not only because it's the first federal appellate court (of eight) to so hold, but also because it seems to grant deference to the plaintiffs' beliefs about how their religion works, but also their religious beliefs about how the law works. That could have far reaching impacts for other cases under RFRA, at least in the Eighth Circuit.

The court said that the government's accommodation--that an objecting religious non-profit complete a Form 700, or certify to the government that it has a religious objection to certain contraception--itself was a substantial burden on the non-profits' religious beliefs. According to the court, that's because the accommodation "triggers" the provision of contraception to employees by the non-profits' insurers or third-party administrators.

This contradicts the holdings in other circuits, which have said that it's not the accommodation that "triggers" contraception, but the law itself.

But the Eighth Circuit rejected that approach, based on the deference that it says it owes to the non-profits' interpretation of their own religious beliefs:

Instead, we must accept a religious objector's description of his religious beliefs, regardless of whether we consider those beliefs "acceptable, logical, consistent, or comprehensible." In other words, a religious objector is entitled to "dr[a]w a line" regarding the conduct that his religion deems permissible, and once that line is drawn, "it is not for [a court] to say that the line . . . was . . . unreasonable."

The Eighth Circuit extended the deference traditionally granted to a plaintiff over his or her religious beliefs to the plaintiffs' interpretation of law. In other words, the court didn't look to the way the ACA actually worked (in requiring insurers and TPAs to provide contraception when an employer files the accommodation), as the other circuits did; instead, it simply accepted the plaintiffs' interpretation of the law--based on its deference to the plaintiffs' sincerely held religious belief--that their certification "triggered" contraception. The court explained:

As Hobby Lobby instructs, however, we must accept CNS and HCC's assertion that self-certification under the accommodation process--using either Form 700 or HHS Notice--would violate their sincerely held religious beliefs.

The court went on to say that the accommodation didn't meet strict scrutiny (under RFRA), because there were other ways for the government to achieve its objective of providing contraception: the government could provide contraception directly, itself; or it could use a simple notice requirement consistent with the Supreme Court's requirement in Wheaton College. (The court said that the government's notice requirement was broader, and more burdensome, than what the Supreme Court approved in Wheaton College.)

September 18, 2015 in Cases and Case Materials, News, Opinion Analysis, Religion | Permalink | Comments (1)

Second Circuit Says No Waiver of General Immunity when State Removes

The Second Circuit this week ruled that a state does not waive its general state sovereign immunity (as opposed to its Eleventh Amendment sovereign immunity) when it removes a case to federal court.

The ruling is a win for the states and adds to the apparent weight of authority in the circuits. Still, the Second Circuit noted that "there has . . . been some confusion in the Circuit Courts" on the question, inviting the Supreme Court to clarify.

The case started with state employees' Fair Labor Standards Act case against Vermont in state court. Vermont removed the case to federal court, declined to assert any form of sovereign immunity, and even at one point represented that it wouldn't assert Eleventh Amendment immunity (as a result of its removal to federal court). Then it asserted general common law state sovereign immunity and moved to dismiss.

The Second Circuit dismissed the case. The court said that while Vermont waived its Eleventh Amendment immunity by virtue of its removal to federal court (under Lapides v. Board of Regents), it did not waive its general state sovereign immunity by virtue of removal. The court noted that the state in Lapides had already waived its general state sovereign immunity, so did not support the plaintiffs' position that Vermont waived immunity (because Vermont had not previously waived its general state sovereign immunity). The court also said that the circuits that have considered the question have ruled that a state does not waive its general state sovereign immunity by virtue of removal (even if it waives Eleventh Amendment immunity by virtue of removal)--even while noting that there's some confusion in the circuits on how to apply Lapides.

The court said that both logic also supported its result:

A state defendant sued in state court, when entitled to remove the suit to federal court, may well wish to do so in the belief that its entitlement to have the suit dismissed by reason of the state's sovereign immunity, an entitlement largely elaborated by federal courts, will be better protected by the federal courts than by courts of the state.

The court also rejected the plaintiffs' arguments that Vermont's foot-dragging on asserting immunity amounted to a waiver and that Vermont expressly waived immunity.

September 18, 2015 in Cases and Case Materials, Courts and Judging, Eleventh Amendment, Federalism, Jurisdiction of Federal Courts, News, Opinion Analysis | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, September 11, 2015

Federal District Judge Finds Town Ordinance Prohibiting Day Labor Solicitation Unconstitutional

In his opinion in Centro de La Comunidad Hispana de Locust Valley v. Town of Oyster Bay, United States District Judge Dennis Hurley held the town's ordinance prohibiting day labor solicitation unconstitutional under the First Amendment. 

The ordinance, Chapter 205-32 of the Code of the Town of Oyster Bay, sought to prohibit "any person standing within or adjacent to any public right-of-way within the Town of Oyster Bay to stop or attempt to stop any motor vehicle utilizing said public right-of-way for the purpose of soliciting employment of any kind from the occupants of said motor vehicle," and to similarly prohibit "the operator of any motor vehicle utilizing a public right-of-way within the Town of Oyster Bay to stop or stand within or adjacent to said public right-of-way or any area designated as either a traffic lane or a no-standing or no-stopping zone for the purpose of soliciting employment or accepting a solicitation of employment from a pedestrian."

Masonry circa 1425 via

After first discussing preliminary matters including standing, Judge Hurley's description of the parties' arguments offers a good illustration of the types of doctrinal choices available under the First Amendment:

Plaintiffs maintain that the Ordinance must be stricken as violative of the First Amendment. First, it is a content-based enactment, presumptively unconstitutional and not justified as narrowly tailored to serve a compelling state interest. Second, if viewed as a “time, place or manner restriction” and not content- based, it is not narrowly tailored to serve “legitimate, content-neutral interest.” Third, even if viewed as restricting purely commercial speech, it is not narrowly tailored.

Defendants offer several arguments in response. First, the Ordinance does not affect expressive speech; rather, it regulates conduct. Second, day labor solicitation is commercial speech. As such, it is entitled to no protection because it relates to illegal activity; alternatively, the ordinance is a constitutional restriction of commercial speech. Finally, to the extent it is viewed as a time, place or manner restriction, it is narrowly tailored.

 Judge Hurley decided that the ordinance was a content-based regulation of commercial speech.  He thus applied the well-established four prong Central Hudson test, Central Hudson Gas & Elec. Corp. v. Public Service Comm’n of New York (1980), as "adjusted" by Sorrell v. IMS Health Inc. (2011).

In deciding that the ordinance was content-based, Judge Hurley quoted the Court's recent decision in Reed v. Town of Gilbert (2015), including the passage that regarding the "commonsense" meaning of the phrase.  Here, Judge Hurley noted, to enforce the ordinance the Town authorities would have to "examine the content of the message conveyed."

Not surprisingly then, Judge Hurley found that the ordinance failed the fourth prong of Central Hudson - - - “whether the regulation is more extensive that necessary to serve the governmental interest” - - - given that the content-based restriction should be "narrowly tailored" and that there were "less speech-restrictive alternatives available."  He wrote:

Because of its breath, the ordinance prohibits speech and conduct of an expressive nature that does not pose a threat to safety on the Town’s streets and sidewalks. It reaches a lone person standing on the sidewalk, away from the curb, who attempts to make known to the occupants of vehicles his availability for work even if it does not result in a car stopping in traffic or double parking. It reaches children selling lemonade at the end of a neighbor’s driveway (which is, after all, “adjacent to” a public right of way), the veteran holding a sign on a sidewalk stating “will work for food,” and students standing on the side of a road advertising a school carwash. Even a person standing on the sidewalk holding a sign “looking for work - park at the curb if you are interested in hiring me” would violate the ordinance as it contains no specific intent element and no requirement that the “attempt to stop” result in traffic congestion, the obstruction of other Vehicles, or double parking. The Ordinance applies to all streets and roadways in the Town regardless of traffic flow and in the absence of any evidence that the traffic issues the Town relies on to support its interest exist elsewhere in the Town.

In support of this final observation, Judge Hurley quotes the Court's buffer-zone decision in McCullen v. Coakley (2014).

Interestingly, although Judge Hurley did not reach the Equal Protection challenge because he found the Ordinance unconstitutional under the the First Amendment, he provides a glimmer of the Equal Protection difficulty in the Town's position:

Nor is it any comfort that the Town’s safety officers will use their discretion, or be “trained” on how to determine whether a person is soliciting employment or attempting to stop a vehicle to solicit employment. Such discretion may surely invite discriminatory enforcement. . . . . Will safety officers be instructed and/or use their discretion to ignore the students advertising a school car wash and the child selling lemonade on the sidewalk and to ticket the group of Latino men standing on a corner near a home improvement store?

Moreover, he concludes that other ordinances are more than adequate to address the specific problem of traffic safety.

Judge Hurley's conclusion that the Oyster Bay day labor solicitation violates the First Amendment is similar to the Ninth Circuit's 2013 decision in Valle Del Sol Inc. v. Whiting that the Arizona day labor solicitation provision in SB1070 was unconstitutional.  Should the Town appeal, the Second Circuit would most likely find Valle Del Sol persuasive, especially since the Court's subsequent opinions provide even more support.

September 11, 2015 in Cases and Case Materials, Equal Protection, First Amendment, Opinion Analysis, Speech, Standing | Permalink | Comments (0)