Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Fourth Circuit Says Case Challenging NSA Upstream Surveillance Can Move Forward

The Fourth Circuit ruled yesterday that a case challenging the NSA's upstream surveillance program can move forward. The ruling reverses a district court ruling that dismissed the case for lack of standing, citing Clapper v. Amnesty International. The Fourth Circuit distinguished Clapper, however, and let the case move forward.

In short, the two key differences in Clapper: Wikimedia has more communications with a larger, more comprehensive reach than the plaintiffs in Clapper; and the plaintiffs here learned (and pleaded) more about the nature of the program.

In so ruling, the court followed the Third Circuit's approach in a similar case last year, Schuchardt v. President of the United States.

The case involved two challenges to the upstream surveillance program under Section 702 of the FISA Amendments Act of 2008. (This program authorizes the government, subject to certain controls, to collect and search electronic communications between an overseas target and a person in the US.) In the first challenge, the "Wikimedia challenge," Wikimedia argued that given its size and amount of international communications, and given the nature of the upstream surveillance program, the NSA necessarily collected at least some of its Internet communications. In the second challenge, the "dragnet challenge," plaintiffs argued that the nature of the NSA program alone likely meant that the NSA in fact collects all Internet communications. (The plaintiffs in this case had more information about the nature of the program than the plaintiffs in the earlier Clapper case, so could plead a stronger argument.)

The court ruled that "Wikimedia has plausibly alleged that its communications travel all the roads that a communication can take, and that the NSA seizes all of the communications along at least one of those roads." Moreover, "because Wikimedia has self-censored its speech and sometimes forgone electronic communications in response to Upstream surveillance, it also has standing to sue for a violation of the First Amendment." As to Clapper: "Unlike in Clapper, where the plaintiffs based their theories of standing on prospective or threatened injury and actions taken in response thereto, Wikimedia pleaded an actual and ongoing injury [actual, not speculative, collection of at least some of Wikimedia's communications], which renders Clapper's certainly-impending analysis inapposite here.

But at the same time, the court ruled that the plaintiffs lacked standing to assert the dragnet challenge. In short, the court said that the plaintiffs could not "plausibly establish that the NSA is intercepting 'substantially all' text-based communications entering and leaving the United States." (In contrast, Wikimedia only had to show that the NSA is conducting upstream surveillance on a single backbone link on the Internet connections to the United States, which it did.)

Judge Davis concurred with the result as to the Wikimedia challenge, but dissented as to the dragnet challenge: "However, because I would find that the non-Wikimedia Plaintiffs also have standing, I respectfully dissent in part."

May 24, 2017 in Cases and Case Materials, Courts and Judging, Jurisdiction of Federal Courts, News, Opinion Analysis, Standing | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, May 23, 2017

DOJ Tightens Sanctuary Cities EO and Moves to Reconsider Court's Injunction

AG Jeff Sessions issued a memo yesterday tightening President Trumps "sanctuary cities" executive order. The government then asked Judge Orrick to reconsider his earlier preliminary injunction halting the EO.

We posted on Judge Orrick's order here, with links to earlier posts.

Sessions's memo specifies that the government can only withhold certain DOJ and DHS grants (and not all federal grants) from sanctuary cities. Moreover, he wrote that DOJ will apply a certification requirement (putting the grant recipients on notice that they could lose funds if they "willfully refuse to comply with 8 U.S.C. 1373" (see below)) "to any existing grant administered by the Office of Justice Programs and the Office of Community Oriented Policing Services that expressly contains this certification condition and to future grants for which the Department is statutorily authorized to impose such a condition."

This portion of the memo is designed to satisfy the clear-notice requirement, the relatedness requirement, and no-pressure-into-compulsion requirement for conditioned federal spending.

Sessions's memo also defined "sanctuary jurisdiction" (for the first time) as "jurisdictions that 'willfully refuse to comply with section 1373.'" This portion of the memo is designed to exempt jurisdictions that do not "willfully refuse to comply with section 1373," including some that have sued the government.

At the same time, the government asked Judge Orrick to revise or lift his earlier preliminary injunction. The government's argument is that Sessions's memo takes care of all the likely legal problems that Judge Orrick identified (the conditions for federal spending, mentioned above) and leaves the plaintiffs with no standing.

May 23, 2017 in Cases and Case Materials, Executive Authority, Federalism, News, Tenth Amendment | Permalink | Comments (1)

Monday, May 22, 2017

SCOTUS Finds Racial Gerrymander in North Carolina Violates Equal Protection Clause

In its opinion in Cooper v. Harris, formerly McCrory v. Harris, the Court affirmed the findings of a three-judge District Court that North Carolina officials violated the Equal Protection Clause in the 2011 redistricting with regard to two districts: District 1 and District 12.

Recall that in Bethune-Hill v. Virginia State Board of Elections (argued the same day as Cooper v. Harris), the Court clarified the analysis for reviewing racial gerrymandering claims and remanded the matter back to the three judge District Court to determine 11 out of the 12 districts at issue. 

Justice Elana Kagan, writing for majority in Cooper v. Harris, provides the analytic structure for assessing challenges to racial gerrymandering under the Equal Protection Clause:

  • First, the plaintiff must prove that “race was the predominant factor motivating the legislature’s decision to place a significant number of voters within or without a particular district,” quoting Miller v. Johnson (1995).  This means that the legislature "subordinated other factors," including geographic ones, partisan advantage, and "what have you" to racial considerations.
  • Second, if racial considerations predominated over others, the design of the district must withstand strict scrutiny, requiring a compelling governmental interest achieved by narrowly tailored means. 
    • A recognized compelling governmental interest is compliance with the Voting Rights Act (VRA) is a compelling governmental interest. "This Court has long assumed that one compelling interest is complying with operative provisions of the Voting Rights Act of 1965."
    • To satisfy the narrow-tailoring requirement, the state must show that it had “a strong basis in evidence” for concluding that the VRA required its action. "Or said otherwise, the State must establish that it had “good reasons” to think that it would transgress the Act if it did not draw race-based district lines," a standard which "gives States “breathing room” to adopt reasonable compliance measures that may prove, in perfect hindsight, not to have been needed."

The Court unanimously agrees that District 1 fails this standard.  The racial intent in redistricting was clear.  As to the means chosen, the Court rejected North Carolina's argument that it redesigned the district to comply with the VRA because in fact District 1 had historically been a "cross-over" district in which "members of the majority help a large enough minority to elect a candidate of its choice.  In other words, there was no 'White Bloc' operating in District 1.  The Court rejected North Carolina's argument that this could occur in the future, especially since the entire state was being redrawn.  The Court notes that the officials seemed to believe - - - incorrectly - - - that they were required to draw a majority Black district, despite any evidence of "cross-over."

Appendix 1

image: Appendix 1 to Court's opinion;
note District 1 in yellow and District 12 in orange.

 The Court divided on the constitutionality of District 12, however.  The only issue was whether or not the redistricting was racial; North Carolina did not argue it could satisfy strict scrutiny if race predominated.  Writing for the Court, Justice Kagan, joined by Justices Thomas, Ginsburg, Breyer, and Sotomayor, affirmed the findings of the three judge district court that District 12 was redrawn with reference to race.  North Carolina contended that the officials redrew the district only with reference to political affiliation (which would not violate the Equal Protection Clause), arguing that the goal was to "pack" District 12 with Democrats (and thereby render other districts more Republican).  Justice Kagan noted that the determination of whether an act was racially-motivated or politically-motivated involved a "sensitive inquiry" and that racial identification is "highly correlated" with political affiliation. But for the majority, the District Court's finding of racial predominance must be affirmed:

The evidence offered at trial, including live witness testimony subject to credibility determinations, adequately supports the conclusion that race, not politics, accounted for the district’s reconfiguration. And no error of law infected that judgment: Contrary to North Carolina’s view,the District Court had no call to dismiss this challenge just because the plaintiffs did not proffer an alternative design for District 12 as circumstantial evidence of the legislature’s intent.

Writing the dissenting opinion, Justice Alito, joined by Chief Justice Roberts and Justice Kennedy (who authored Bethune-Hill), vigorously contested the finding of racial intent.  Alito faults the majority as well as the District Court as being obtuse:  "The majority’s analysis is like Hamlet without the prince."  This bit of snark in the body of the dissent, earns a rebuke from the majority in a footnote to its statement that this district is back before the Court for the sixth time, criticizing the dissent for simply adopting North Carolina's version: "Imagine (to update the dissent’s theatrical reference) Inherit the Wind retold solely from the perspective of William Jennings Bryan, with nary a thought given to the competing viewpoint of Clarence Darrow."  In a counter footnote, Alito defends the opinion from merely accepting North Carolina's explanation. 

The alternative map argument is also a point of contention.  For the majority, it is one way of demonstrating that the redistricting officials acting on the basis of race:

If you were really sorting by political behavior instead of skin color (so the argument goes) you would have done—or, at least, could just as well have done—this.  Such would-have, could-have, and (to round out the set) should-have arguments are a familiar means of undermining a claim that an action was based on a permissible,rather than a prohibited, ground.

But, the majority emphasizes, such strategies are "hardly the only way."  For the dissent, a passage from Easley v. Cromartie, (2001) (Cromartie II), involving essentially the same district, is determinative: plaintiffs must show that the officials could have achieved their political goals in a manner with more racial balance.

Interestingly, in his brief concurring opinion, Justice Thomas references Cromartie II, in which he dissented.  Thomas contends that Cromartie II misapplied the "deferential standard for reviewing factual findings," an error which the present decision "does not repeat."

May 22, 2017 in Cases and Case Materials, Courts and Judging, Elections and Voting, Equal Protection, Fourteenth Amendment, Opinion Analysis, Race, Reconstruction Era Amendments, Supreme Court (US) | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

D.C. Circuit Tosses Backpage.com's Challenge of Senate Subpoena

The D.C. Circuit ruled yesterday that Backpage.com's challenge to a subpoena issued by the Senate Permanent Subcommittee on Investigations was moot. The court dismissed Backpage.com's case and vacated earlier district court rulings.

The case arose when the Subcommittee sought to enforce its subpoena for Backpage.com documents to aid its investigation into the web-site's facilitation of sex trafficking. While the case worked its way between the district court and the D.C. Circuit, Backpage.com voluntarily provided the Subcommittee with a good many of the documents the Subcommittee sought (but withheld some other documents under claims of privilege). Before the D.C. Circuit could rule on Backpage.com's challenge to the subpoena, the Subcommittee wrapped up its investigation based on the released documents and issued its final report. The Subcommittee then moved to dismiss the case as moot.

In its ruling yesterday, the D.C. Circuit agreed with the Subcommittee. The court rejected Backpage.com's argument that the district court might still order some relief (for example, an order that the Subcommittee destroy or return the documents still in its possession), thus keeping the case alive, because "the separation of powers, including the Speech or Debate Clause," bars a court from ordering a congressional committee to release documents used in a lawful investigation. In particular, the court wrote that under circuit law "the Clause affords Congress a 'privilege to use materials in its possession without judicial interference,' even where unlawful acts facilitated their acquisition." (Unlawful acts did not facilitate their acquisition here; instead, Backpage.com provided them.) In short, once documents come into the hands of a committee, "the subsequent use of the documents by the committee staff in the course of official business is privileged legislative activity."

The court rejected Backpage.com's argument that the Subcommittee waived its privilege by voluntarily subjecting itself to the court's jurisdiction (when it filed to enforce the subpoena): "[w]hen Congress petitions the court in a subpoena enforcement action, Congress does not waive its immunity from court interference with its exercise of its constitutional powers."

The court also rejected Backpage.com's argument that the case was capable of repetition but evading review. The court said a repeat was simply too speculative.

The ruling doesn't leave future subjects of congressional subpoenas without a remedy. According to the court, such subjects should refuse to comply during the legal proceedings so that the courts can hear their objections on the merits.

In other words, Backpage.com's mistake was voluntarily releasing the documents in the first place.

The separation-of-powers part of the ruling stands in contrast to the Court's holding in Church of Scientology of California v. United States, a case that the D.C. Circuit distinguished. In Church of Scientology, the IRS filed a petition to enforce a summons against a state-court clerk for tape recordings related to the Church in district court, and the Church intervened to oppose. While the case was on appeal, the clerk released the tapes to the IRS, at while point the appellate court dismissed the case as moot. The Supreme Court reversed, however, explaining that the case remained alive because the district court could still issue relief to the Church--a "destroy or return" order.

The D.C. Circuit said that Church of Scientology was different, however, because "the separation of powers, including the Speech or Debate Clause," bars a court from ordering that same kind of relief against Congress.

May 17, 2017 in Cases and Case Materials, Congressional Authority, Courts and Judging, Mootness, News, Opinion Analysis, Separation of Powers | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, May 16, 2017

State Divorce Division of Military Disability Pay Preempted

The Supreme Court ruled yesterday that the federal scheme covering service-member retirement and disability pay preempts a state court divorce decree that granted the former spouse of a retired service-member a portion of his disability benefits.

The ruling in Howell v. Howell settles a split in the state courts.

The case involves the way that federal law provides for veterans' retirement and disability pay, and the way that state courts can divide that pay in a divorce. Under federal law, a qualified veteran receives taxable retirement pay. A qualified veteran can also receive nontaxable disability pay. But if a veteran opts to receive disability pay, the disability pay off-sets his or her retirement pay dollar for dollar, so that the total amount of pay remains the same. Still, most veterans who qualify for disability pay opt for disability pay, because it's not taxed.

Under the federal Uniformed Services Former Spouses' Protection Act of 1982, a state may treat a veteran's retirement pay as divisible property in a divorce. But the Act explicitly excludes disability pay from divisible retirement pay. The Supreme Court ruled in Mansell v. Mansell that a state court cannot divide disability pay in a divorce when the veteran received both retirement pay and disability pay before the divorce. (The Court held that the Act preempted a state court ruling to the contrary.) Howell tested whether the Act compelled this same result when a veteran opted for disability pay well after the divorce. (The difference matters, because the spouse in Howell would take a cut in total payments if the same rule applied when the veteran spouse opted for disability pay after the divorce.)

The unanimous Court (Justice Gorsuch recused) held that the same rule applied, whether the veteran spouse opted for disability pay before the divorce or after. The Court said that Mansell dictated the result, and that the different timing didn't matter: "the temporal difference highlights only that John's military retirement pay at the time it came to Sandra was subject to later reduction (should John exercise a waiver to receive disability benefits to which he is entitled)."

The Court also rejected the theory that the state court could "reimburse" or "indemnify" the spouse, rather than outright dividing the disability pay: "The difference is semantic and nothing more. . . . Regardless of their form, such reimbursement and indemnification orders displace the federal rule and stand as an obstacle to the accomplishment and execution of the purposes and objectives of Congress." (Justice Thomas concurred but wrote separately to disagree with this latter portion of the ruling--on "purposes and objectives" pre-emption. "As I have previously explained, '[t]hat framework is an illegitimate basis for finding the pre-emption of state law.'")

The Court recognized the "hardship" that this result may "work on divorcing spouses," and noted that state courts might take this into account when it calculates the need for spousal support.

May 16, 2017 in Cases and Case Materials, Federalism, News, Opinion Analysis, Preemption | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, May 4, 2017

Is There Even Enough in Trump's Religion-Protection EO to Sue Over?

President Trump issued his long-awaited and much promoted executive order on protecting religious liberties today. Most say that when the rubber hits the road, the EO does, well, nothing at all, except maybe telegraph the President's feelings about the importance of protecting religious liberties. Even the ACLU, earlier geared up to sue, backed down when they read the actual language.

So: Is the ACLU right? Is there even enough in Trump's EO to sue over?

Probably not. Consider it, section by section:

Section 1 states that "[i]t shall be the policy of the executive branch to vigorously enforce Federal law's robust protections for religious freedom" and that "[t]he executive branch will honor and enforce those protections." At most this language states the administration's enforcement priorities for law that already exists.

Section 2 takes aim at the Johnson Amendment--that portion of IRC 501(c)(3) that bans nonprofits from directly or indirectly engaging in electioneering on behalf of, or in opposition to, any candidate for elective public office. (Nonprofits can engage in ordinary political speech; they do it all time. They just can't endorse candidates.) But the language of Section 2 does no such thing. It says, "the Secretary of the Treasury shall ensure, to the extent permitted by law, that the Department of the Treasury does not take any adverse action against any individual, house of worship, or other religious organization on the basis that such individual or organization speaks or has spoken about moral or political issues from a religious perspective, where speech of similar character has, consistent with law, not ordinarily been treated as participation or intervention in a political campaign on behalf of (or in opposition to) a candidate for public office by the Department of the Treasury." (Emphasis added.) In other words, the plain terms of Section 2 don't take down the Johnson Amendment (even if they could); instead, they comply with it.

Section 3 directs the relevant secretaries to "consider issuing amended regulations" to overturn the contraception mandate regs. Folks may agree or disagree over the wisdom of the contraception mandate, but there's nothing objectionable with a president asking an agency to "consider issuing amended regulations." And even if there were, the "consider" means that anyone challenging this portion of the EO could face an uphill battle to show standing.

The balance of the EO is just dressing.

In other words, the EO really doesn't do anything that one might sue over--at least yet. Even Section 2--the portion perhaps most likely to be challenged on Establishment Clause, Equal Protection, free speech, and "take care" grounds (and in fact challenged on exactly those grounds in a suit filed by the Freedom From Religion Foundation)--actually says that the administration will comply with the Johnson Amendment.

The Freedom From Religion Foundation wisely quotes President Trump throughout its complaint, arguing that the EO must be interpreted in light of his public statements (and thus drawing on this same (successful) strategy in other cases challenging the travel ban and the sanctuary cities EO).

But unlike those other EOs, the plain text of this one seems to do nothing--at least not yet.

May 4, 2017 in Cases and Case Materials, Establishment Clause, Executive Authority, News, Religion | Permalink | Comments (1)

Wednesday, May 3, 2017

Sixth Circuit Says Damages Suit Against Kim Davis Can Move Forward

The Sixth Circuit ruled yesterday that a damages claim against Rowan County Clerk Kim Davis for denying a marriage license to a same-sex couple can move forward. The ruling reverses a lower court ruling that dismissed the case as moot and sends the case back for further proceedings.

This was one of three cases challenging Davis's refusal to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples in the wake of Obergefell. The other two sought declaratory and injunctive relief; this one sought monetary damages.

After Kentucky passed a law that permitted county clerks to issue licenses without their names--an accommodation to Davis's religious objection--same-sex couples, including the plaintiffs here, received their marriage licenses. Courts then dismissed the two cases seeking declaratory and injunctive relief as moot (because the plaintiffs received their licenses), and the lower court dismissed this case as moot, too.

The Sixth Circuit reversed. The court held that the plaintiffs' claim for monetary damages continued to be a live dispute, despite Kentucky's accommodation law, because it sought relief for past harms to the plaintiffs that weren't remedied by their eventual receipt of a license. The court noted that a claim for monetary damages for past harms can live on, even if other portions of a suit for declaratory and injunctive relief (or other, related suits for those forms of relief) become moot.

Judge Siler concurred, but added that Davis might argue on remand that she was protected by the Kentucky Religious Freedom Restoration Act. In particular, Judge Siler argued that the district court "should have the first opportunity upon remand to decide whether that or any other provision of the law would protect Davis as a qualified-immunity or absolute-immunity defense under the circumstances."

May 3, 2017 in Cases and Case Materials, Jurisdiction of Federal Courts, Mootness, News, Opinion Analysis | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Court Temporarily Halts Trump's Sanctuary Cities Order

Judge William H. Orrick (N.D. Cal.) issued a nationwide temporary injunction halting President Trump's executive order that sought to clamp down on sanctuary cities.

The ruling was a broadside against the EO, handing the plaintiffs, Santa Clara County and San Francisco, a decisive preliminary victory on nearly all the points they raised. But at the same time, the ruling is preliminary, and holds only that the plaintiffs are likely to succeed on the merits of their various claims. It's also certain to be appealed.

The ruling comes closely on the heels of the Justice Department's move last week to begin enforcement of the EO by informing certain "sanctuary cities" that they could lose DOJ Justice Assistance Grants if they failed to provide "documentation and an opinion from legal counsel" that they were in compliance with Section 1373.

But the lawsuit challenged the EO on its face, and not just as applied to DOJ JAG grants. And that turned out to be critical in Judge Orrick's decision. In particular, Judge Orrick held that the plain language of the EO threatened all "federal grants" to sanctuary cities, notwithstanding the administration's attempts to narrow that language. (Judge Orrick flatly rejected attempts to limit the EO, taking judicial notice of a variety of public statements of President Trump and administration officials about the breadth of the program.) Because the EO put all "federal grants" on the chopping block, Judge Orrick said that it swept way too far. (Judge Orrick wrote that nothing in the injunction prohibited the administration from enforcing lawful conditions on federal grants, or enforcing Section 1373, or designating jurisdictions as "sanctuary jurisdictions.")

Judge Orrick ruled that the plaintiffs were likely to succeed on the merits of their separation-of-powers claim, because "Section 9 [of the Order, which conditions federal grants on compliance with Section 1373] purports to give the Attorney General and the Secretary the power to place a new condition on federal funds (compliance with Section 1373) not provided for by Congress." This was particularly troubling, because Congress has several times declined to put like conditions on other federal immigration laws.

Judge Orrick also ruled that the plaintiffs were likely to succeed on the merits of their Spending Clause claim, because (1) the conditions in the EO were not unambiguous (because it didn't exist when the states signed up for many of their federal grants, and because so much of the language is vague), (2) there's not a sufficient nexus between the federal funds at issue (from any federal grant) and compliance with Section 1373, and (3) the EO is coercive (because it could deny to local governments all their federal grants).

Judge Orrick also ruled that the plaintiffs were likely to succeed on their Tenth Amendment challenge (because the EO would compel state and local governments "to enforce a federal regulatory program through coercion" and require state and local jurisdictions to honor civil detainer requests), their void-for-vagueness challenge (because so much of the EO is, well, vague), and their Due Process claim (because the EO contains no process before the feds could withhold already-issued federal grants).

In short, Judge Orrick ruled for the plaintiffs on all their claims. Just one went the other way: Judge Orrick declined to issue an injunction against President Trump himself.

Despite the lofty separation-of-powers and federalism issues that were (and are) at the core of the case, a good chunk of the ruling dealt with justiciability. Judge Orrick ruled that the plaintiffs had standing (because they suffered current budget uncertainty or a required change in policies to comply with the EO) and that the claims were ripe (because of the threatened injury, under MedImmune, Inc. v. Genentech).

April 25, 2017 in Cases and Case Materials, Executive Authority, News, Opinion Analysis, Ripeness, Separation of Powers, Standing | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, April 21, 2017

DOJ Moves to Clamp Down on Sanctuary Cities

The Department of Justice sent nine letters today reminding "sanctuary" jurisdictions that "as a condition for receiving certain financial year 2016 funding from the Department of Justice, each of these jurisdictions agreed to provide documentation and an opinion from legal counsel validating that they are in compliance with Section 1373." Here's DOJ's press release.

The move is the administration's latest effort to clamp down on sanctuary cities. We posted on President Trump's original EO here.

Section 1373 says that "a Federal, State, or local government entity or official may not prohibit, or in any way restrict, any government entity or official from sending to, or receiving from, the Immigration and Naturalization Service information regarding the citizenship or immigration status, lawful or unlawful, of any individual."

The DOJ letters to sanctuary cities say that the FY 2016 Edward Byrne Memorial Justice Assistance Grant Program conditions federal funds on compliance with this provision. That Program provides funds for law enforcement and related purposes. It amounts to a relatively modest sum of federal support for the targeted jurisdictions and probably runs well short of all federal spending in these jurisdictions. (President Trump's EO, in contrast, targets all "Federal grants, except as deemed necessary for law enforcement purposes by the Attorney General or the Secretary.")

These features may make it more difficult for targeted jurisdictions to challenge DOJ's latest move and any subsequent move to withhold federal funds as applied to JAG Program grants. (If the JAG Program makes this condition specific, and if immigration enforcement is sufficiently related to the purposes of the JAG grant for any given targeted jurisdiction, and if the amount of money involved does not turn pressure into compulsion, then a move to withhold JAG funds from jurisdictions that don't comply may withstand judicial scrutiny.)

But because President Trump's EO remains on the books with its full breadth, jurisdictions can still lodge facial challenges against the administration to block the full force of the EO. And the pending cases challenging the EO on its face are likely to move forward, despite this latest DOJ move.

April 21, 2017 in Cases and Case Materials, Federalism, News | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, April 20, 2017

Fifth Circuit Tosses State Prosecution of Federal Officer

The Fifth Circuit today threw out a criminal case brought by Texas against a federal FBI deputy, citing Supremacy Clause immunity. The ruling means that the state's case against the officer ends, although the court noted that federal authorities could still bring a federal case.

The case arose when Charles Kleinert, specially deputized by the FBI to investigate bank robberies, accidentally shot a person during an investigation. The victim showed up to a bank that was closed after an actual robbery. When Kleinert, who was in the bank, came out, the victim gave Kleinert a false name and allegedly exhibited other suspicious behavior. When Kleinert called him on the false name, the victim fled. Kleinert followed and eventually nabbed the victim. In the course of a struggled, Kleinert's weapon discharged and struck and killed the victim.

A Travis County grand jury indicted Kleinert for manslaughter. Kleinert removed the case to federal court (under the "federal officer removal" statute) and moved to dismiss, arguing that he was immune from state prosecution under Supremacy Clause immunity. The district court agreed and dismissed the case; the Fifth Circuit affirmed.

Supremacy Clause immunity prohibits a state from punishing (1) a federal officer (2) authorized by federal law to perform an act (3) who, in performing the act, did no more than what the officer subjectively believed was necessary and proper and (4) that belief was objectively reasonable under the circumstances.

The Fifth Circuit held that Kleinert was authorized by federal law to pursue and arrest the victim, because, under the circumstances, he had probable cause that criminal activity was afoot. The court held that he had a subjective belief that his action was necessary and proper, because, under the circumstances, he acted consistently with his training, without any animus toward the victim. And the court said that Kleinert's belief was objectively reasonable, because his acts were consistent with what others would have done. (The state conceded that Kleinert was a federal officer.)

The ruling ends the state prosecution. But the court specifically noted that Kleinert might still be subject to federal prosecution.

April 20, 2017 in Cases and Case Materials, Federalism, News, Opinion Analysis | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

CREW Files Amended Emoluments Complaint

The Center for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington sought to tighten standing by adding plaintiffs to its complaint against President Trump for violations of the Emoluments Clause. We previously posted on the case here.

CREW's standing to sue was sure to be an early issue, even a roadblock, in the case. So the organization added plaintiffs ROC United, a nonprofit corporation with restaurant members and a restaurant owner in its own right, and an individual who books events for Washington hotels. Both new plaintiffs argue that President Trump, by doing and gaining business at his own hotels and restaurants in violation of the Emoluments Clause, is harming their bottom line by taking away business.

The move is designed the tighten standing. In order to sue in federal court, a plaintiff has to show that they suffered an actual or imminent concrete and particularized injury, that the defendant's alleged actions caused the injury, and that their requested relief would redress their injury. The amended complaint almost surely satisfies these requirements, but we're still likely to see a motion to dismiss for lack of standing.

April 19, 2017 in Cases and Case Materials, Courts and Judging, Jurisdiction of Federal Courts, News, Standing | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, April 14, 2017

Court Gives No First Amendment Protection to Competition Art at U.S. Capitol

Judge John D. Bates (D.D.C.) ruled today that a student whose painting was displayed at the U.S. Capitol after winning an congressional art competition enjoyed no First Amendment right against the Architect of the Capitol when the Architect took the painting down based on its viewpoint.

Judge Bates said that the painting amounted to government speech, and that it was therefore not protected by the First Amendment.

The ruling is just the latest chapter in a dispute over the painting between a group of Republican lawmakers and law enforcement advocates, and the Congressional Black Caucus.

The case arose when high school student David Pulphus's painting was selected to represent Missouri's First Congressional District in the 2016 Congressional Art Competition. As a result, Pulphus's painting hung, along with other selected works, in the Cannon Tunnel in the U.S. Capitol complex. But this didn't sit well with some members of Congress, who saw the painting as anti-police. They took it upon themselves to remove the painting and deliver it to the office of Congressman William Clay, who represents the First District. After each removal, Clay, whose district includes Ferguson, then took it upon himself to return the painting to its place in the Cannon Tunnel.

Ap_17005711418239_custom-16906e47e7be0637ef09892caf2f2c10890ce26d-s800-c85
Zach Gibson, AP

Eventually the Architect removed the painting, but did not explain exactly why. Clay and Pulphus then sued, arguing that the removal constituted viewpoint discrimination in a designated public forum and therefore violated free speech.

Judge Bates disagreed. Applying three factors from Walker v. Sons of Confederate Veterans and Pleasant Grove City v. Summum, Judge Bates said (1) that the "traditional use of the medium" was "inconclusive," but (2) that "[t]he government, then, is understood by the public as speaking through that exercise of choosing which works are displayed in the art competition," and (3) that the Architect "retains editorial control over the art submitted in the competition." He concluded that Pulphus's piece therefore amounted to government speech (and not private speech in a limited public forum), and therefore enjoyed no First Amendment protection.

Judge Bates also rejected the plaintiffs' vagueness challenge, writing that "[w]hen the government speaks, it is free to promulgate vague guidelines and apply them arbitrarily."

April 14, 2017 in Cases and Case Materials, First Amendment, News, Speech | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, April 5, 2017

Third Circuit Rules for Officials in Retaliatory Speech and Petition Case

The Third Circuit granted qualified immunity to local government officers against plaintiffs' First Amendment claims that the officers retaliated against them for exercising their speech and petition rights and directly violated their right to petition the government.

The ruling most likely ends this case.

The case arose when the Mirabellas, husband and wife who happen to be attorneys, got into a dispute with their neighbors over the neighbor's use of protected wetlands. The Mirabellas sought local government assistance in the dispute, but government officials sided with the neighbors. The Mirabellas then threatened to sue the neighbors and join the local government. So local government officials wrote to the Mirabellas that they were barred from communicating with the government or government officials (except the township attorney), and that government counsel should seek sanctions against the Mirabellas if they sued.

The Mirabellas did sue--but on First Amendment grounds, and not the underlying land-use dispute. They alleged that government officials retaliated against them for communicating with the government and directly violated their right to petition the government.

The Third Circuit ruled that the officials enjoyed qualified immunity and dismissed both claims. The court ruled that the officials did, in fact, retaliate against the Mirabellas for exercising their free speech and petition rights (based on the no-contact communication, but not on the communication threatening sanctions), but that the law wasn't clearly established at the time. In particular, the court said that "the right to be free from a retaliatory restriction on communication with one's government, when the plaintiff has threatened or engaged in litigation against the government" wasn't clearly established at the time.

The court similarly ruled that the officials violated the plaintiffs' right to petition the government, but that that right wasn't clearly established, either. The court said that "the right to be free from a restriction on communicating with one's government, when the plaintiff has threatened or engaged in litigation against the government" wasn't clearly established.

In defining the rights in this very specific way for purposes of the clearly-established prong of the qualified immunity test, the court said that Ashcroft v. al-Kidd prohibited it from "defin[ing] clearly established law at a high level of generality."

The court said that it wanted to address both prongs of the qualified immunity test--actual constitutional violation and clearly established--in order to provide some guidance on the actual contours of the rights at issue. (The court could have ruled the same way by addressing the clearly-established prong only, and punting on the actual constitutional violation prong.)

April 5, 2017 in Cases and Case Materials, First Amendment, News, Speech | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, March 31, 2017

D.C. Circuit Rejects Media Claim to Guantanamo Force-Feeding Tapes

The D.C. Circuit ruled today in the long-running Dhiab case that media intervenors had no First Amendment right to access redacted and videotapes classified as "secret" of force-feedings at Guantanamo Bay. The ruling overturns the district court order releasing the tapes after government redaction and ensures that the tapes won't be released (at least unless the full D.C. Circuit or Supreme Court reverses). We last posted on the case here.

The court rejected the internors' First Amendment claim under Press-Enterprise Co. v. Superior Court. The court distinguished that case, holding that it dealt with sealed testimony and exhibits in a murder case (not classified national security information, as here) and that it was a criminal prosecution (and not a habeas corpus case, as here). As to the former difference, the court noted that national security information is traditionally well protected, citing the State Secrets Privilege from Reynolds and Totten, the closed hearings in Guantanamo habeas cases, and the classified-material exception in FOIA. As to the latter difference, the court reviewed the history and concluded that "[i]n habeas corpus cases, there is no tradition of public access comparable to that recounted in Press-Enterprise II with respect to criminal trials."

The court went on to say that even if the intervenors had a First Amendment right of access to the tapes, the government's interests in protecting national security justified withholding them. In particular, the court said that the government provided sufficient evidence that the tapes could threaten security at Guantanamo Bay, incite violence against American troops abroad, and serve as propaganda to recruit fighters.

March 31, 2017 in Cases and Case Materials, First Amendment, News, Speech | Permalink | Comments (0)

Seattle Sues Over Sanctuary Cities EO

Seattle sued the Trump Administration this week over President Trump's "sanctuary cities" executive order. Seattle's move follows San Francisco's earlier suit and AG Sessions's speech this week on how he intends to enforce the EO.

We posted earlier on the EO here, on San Francisco's suit here, and on Section 1373's constitutionality here.

Like San Francisco, Seattle alleges that it's already complying with Section 1373 (because that section doesn't "impose an affirmative obligation to collect the citizenship and immigration data of its residents, or to provide such data to federal officials"), and that Section 1373 is unconstitutional if it requires anything more.

As to the constitutionality of Section 1373, Seattle contends that it violates the anti-commandeering principle in violation of Printz, that it turns pressure into compulsion in violation of NFIB, and that it contains only vague conditions on federal spending, unrelated to the underlying federal program.

Seattle's suit assumes that the EO threatens all federal funding for failure to comply with Section 1373--an assumption that seems supported by the plain language of the EO. AG Sessions's speech this week did very little (if anything) to qualify that assumption and to clarify the EO's reach.

March 31, 2017 in Cases and Case Materials, Federalism, News, Tenth Amendment | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Tenth Circuit Upholds Prairie-Dog Protection Under Endangered Species Act Against Commerce Clause Challenge

The Tenth Circuit today rebuffed a challenge to the Endangered Species Act and ruled that Congress had authority to enact the Act under the Commerce Clause. The ruling in PETPO v. FWS upholds the Fish and Wildlife Service's regulation protecting Utah prairie dogs.

The ruling deals a(nother) blow to challengers of ESA regs that protect purely intra-state species and reaffirms federal authority to protect those species under the Commerce Clause. (Because the court held that the prairie-dog reg was authorized under the Commerce Clause, it did not separately address whether it's authorized under the Necessary and Proper Clause.)

We might keep an eye on this case and any others like it. If Judge Gorsuch is confirmed, he could tilt the balance on the Court against ESA regs--and in favor of yet more restrictions on congressional authority under the Commerce Clause. (Remember that Justice Scalia concurred in Gonzales v. Raich, the basis for the Tenth Circuit's ruling. Judge Gorsuch might not agree, or might see this case through the Lopez- and Morrison-lenses of the plaintiffs. Judge Gorsuch was not on the Tenth Circuit panel in this case.)

The court applied the test from Gonzales v. Raich, which upheld the federal prohibition on home-grown marijuana for medical use because it was part of a larger regulatory scheme (the federal Controlled Substances Act), which itself was authorized under the Commerce Clause. At the same time, the court specifically rejected PETPO's argument that it should consider the prairie-dog regulation only in isolation (like the Gun-Free School Zones Act in U.S. v. Lopez or the individual cause of action in United States v. Morrison)--not as part of the larger ESA scheme. By analyzing the reg under Raich (and not under the provision-specific approach in Lopez and Morrison), the court aligned with other circuits that have ruled on the question.

The court summarized its test:

In short, the Commerce Clause authorizes regulation of noncommercial, purely intrastate activity that is an essential part of a broader regulatory scheme that, as a whole, substantially affects interstate commerce (i.e., has a substantial relation to interstate commerce). Therefore, to uphold the challenged regulation here, we need only conclude that Congress had a rational basis to believe that such a regulation constituted an essential part of a comprehensive regulatory scheme that, in the aggregate, substantially affects interstate commerce.

The court rejected PETPO's contention that it shouldn't apply Raich, because PETPO lodged a facial challenge to the specific prairie-dog provision under Lopez and Morrison, and not "an application to a particular subset of activity, as in Raich." The court said,

the real crux of PETPO's challenge is not a challenge to any particular FWS regulation but to Congress's power to authorize regulation of the Utah prairie dog. Although PETPO is, in a sense, correct that the prohibition on take of the Utah prarie dog is "a particular challenged provision," this prohibition finds its place within the broader regulatory scheme of the ESA's protections of endangered and threatened species. More specifically, the prohibition at issue is an instance of Congress's broad authorization to use regulations to extend the take protections that endangered species enjoy to those listed as threatened.

The court said that "the Court in both Lopez and Raich looked past the larger enactment and characterized the Gun-Free School Zones Act as an independent statute."

The court also rejected PETPO's argument that the ESA "is a comprehensive scheme to provide for environmental conservation, not [to] regulate a market." The court said that this was based on too cramped a reading of Raich, which, the court said, doesn't require a "comprehensive economic scheme." Instead, Raich only required a "comprehensive regulatory scheme" that has a "substantial relation to commerce." The court said that the ESA prohibitions easily meet this standard, based on their plain economic effects (some of which PETPO itself raised as the harms that formed the basis of its suit).

The court went on to hold that Congress had a rational basis for thinking that the prairie-dog-protection reg constituted an essential part of the ESA, a comprehensive regulatory scheme, that, "in the aggregate, substantially affects interstate commerce."

 

March 29, 2017 in Cases and Case Materials, Commerce Clause, Congressional Authority, News | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, March 23, 2017

Fifth Circuit Says Medical Reimbursement Preemption Claim Can Move Forward

The Fifth Circuit ruled this week that a medical air-evacuation company has standing and that it sufficiently alleged that state defendants had "some connection" to the enforcement of state law against it to allow the company's preemption suit, including a request for injunctive relief, to move forward. The ruling remands the case to the district court for proceedings on the merits.

The case involves Texas's workers'-compensation scheme, which caps reimbursement to Air Evac's medi-vac air ambulances from an insurance company. Under the Texas Workers' Compensation Act, the Texas Workers' Compensation Commission sets reimbursements rates for insurers to pay health-care providers directly. The Act also prohibits health-care providers from billing a patient for any amount in excess of the set rate. The upshot is that "the initial bill goes to the insurer rather than the patient," at a set rate, here 125% of the Medicare rate for the same service.

Air Evac, along with other, similar health-care providers, challenged the rate through the state administrative-dispute system, arguing that it was preempted by the federal Airline Deregulation Act. They lost, and the lead plaintiff, PHI, appealed.

While the appeal was pending, Air Evac filed this case in federal court, seeking a declaration that the ADA preempted the TWCA and an injunction against TWCA enforcement (under Ex Parte Young). But the district court dismissed the case for lack of subject-matter jurisdiction, because the state defendants weren't charged with enforcing the maximum-reimbursement scheme against Air Evac (because the rate "constraints the amount insurers can pay, rather than the amount air-ambulance companies can charge"), and because Air Evac "failed to show an enforcement proceeding concerning the balance-billing prohibition is imminent, threatened, or even intended."

The Fifth Circuit reversed. The court ruled that Air Evac had standing, because the maximum rate actually constrained the amount that Air Evac could receive, even though it operated directly on the third-party insurer (and not Air Evac). The court held that there was federal question jurisdiction, because Air Evac pleaded that the federal ADA preempted the TWCA. And the court ruled that the state defendants had "some connection" to enforcement of the maximum rate against Air Evac, again because the maximum rate actually constrained Air Evac's reimbursement, even if it operated on the insurer. The court declined to abstain while PHI's state appeal was pending, because the parties and claims were different.

The ruling sends the case back to the district court for proceedings on the merits, the preemption claim.

 

March 23, 2017 in Cases and Case Materials, Federalism, Jurisdiction of Federal Courts, News, Opinion Analysis, Preemption | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, March 20, 2017

Fourth Circuit: No First Amendment Protection for Fire Battallion Chief's Disruptive Facebook Posts

The Fourth Circuit today dismissed a fire department battalion chief's First Amendment retaliation claim for his Facebook activity in violation of the Department's Social Media and Code of Conduct policies. The court also dismissed his facial challenge against the policies as moot.

The case arose when Howard County (Maryland) Fire and Rescue Services Battalion Chief Kevin Patrick Buker posted a series of statements and "likes" on his Facebook page. On January 20, 2013, Buker posted this while on duty (sics omitted):

My aide had an outstanding idea . . lets all kill someone with a liberal . . . then maybe we can get them outlawed too! Think of the satisfaction of beating a liberal to death with another liberal . . . its almost poetic . . .

He then "liked" a colleague's post that added ugly racial comments to this.

The assistant chief directed Buker to remove the posts pursuant to the Department's Social Media Policy. That Policy, relatively new at the time, prohibited employees from posting anything that "might reasonably be interpreted as discriminatory, harassing, defamatory, racially or ethnically derogatory, or sexually violent when such statements, opinions or information, may place the Department in disrepute or negatively impact the ability of the Department in carrying out its mission."

Buker removed the posts, but then posted comments criticizing the Social Media Policy and the "liberals" who were behind it. The Department moved Buker out of field operations and into an administrative assignment and began an investigation.

About three weeks later, another colleague posted to his own Facebook page a picture of an elderly woman with her middle finger raised, with a caption saying that he'll post whatever he wants, and a note stating, "for you Chief." Buker "liked" it.

Shortly after that, Buker was fired for violating the Social Media Policy and the Code of Conduct. (The Code of Conduct banned "conduct unbecoming," that is, "any conduct that reflects poorly on an individual member, the Department, or County government, or that is detrimental to the public trust in the Department or that impairs the operation and efficiency of the Department.")

Buker sued, arguing that the Department fired him in retaliation for his speech, and that the Social Media Policy and Code of Conduct Policy were facially unconstitutional. The Fourth Circuit disagreed.

Applying Pickering, the court held that two of Buker's posts (the one about assaulting liberals, and the one criticizing the Social Media Policy) addressed matters of public concern. (The court assumed, without deciding, that Buker's Facebook activity constituted a "single expression of speech.") But the court said that the Department's interest in efficiency and preventing disruption outweighed Buker's interests:

  • Buker's Facebook activity "interfered with an impaired Department operations and discipline as well as working relationships within the Department.
  • The posts "significantly conflicted with [his] responsibilities as battalion chief," including "acting as an impartial decisionmaker and 'enforcing Departmental policies and taking appropriate action for violations of those policies.'"
  • Buker's "speech frustrated the Department's public safety mission and threatened 'community trust' in the Department, which is 'vitally important' to its function."
  • Buker's activity "expressly disrespect[ed] [his] superiors" after he had been reprimanded.
  • The posts "disregarded and upset the chain of command."

The court dismissed Buker's facial challenge to the Social Media Guidelines and Code of Conduct as moot. The court said that although the Department changed the policies to eliminate the earlier version's prohibitions on the private use of social media, the Chief and defendants' counsel both promised the court that the Department wouldn't re-implement the old guidelines (so as to make this a "voluntary cessation" case).

 

 

March 20, 2017 in Cases and Case Materials, First Amendment, News, Opinion Analysis, Speech | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, March 9, 2017

No Standing to Challenge BIA's Native American Land Lease Tax Reg

The Ninth Circuit ruled that the California Desert Water Agency lacks standing to challenge a new Bureau of Indian Affairs regulation concerning taxes on leases on Native American lands to third parties. The ruling ends DWA's challenge, although DWA could resurrect it, if BIA later halts DWA taxes under the reg.

The case centers around a BIA reg on state and local government taxation of leases by non-Native Americans on Native American lands. The relevant subsection says that "[s]ubject only to applicable Federal law, the leasehold or possessory interest is not subject to any fee, tax, assessment, levy, or other charge imposed by any State or political subdivision of a State. Leasehold or possessory interests may be subject to taxation by the Indian tribe with jurisdiction."

The DWA, which assess taxes on these leases, sued under the APA. But the Ninth Circuit ruled that it lacked standing.

The court said that the regulatory language "[s]ubject only to applicable Federal law," incorporated existing case law, in particular, White Mountain Apache Tribe v. Bracker (1980), which held that courts must apply a fact-specific balancing test in order to determine whether federal law preempts any particular state effort to regulate non-Native American conduct on tribal lands. In other words, the reg, as understood incorporating the Bracker test, couldn't preempt and halt DWA taxation until a court, applying the Bracker test, said so. The reg by its own force doesn't preempt. And with no preemption of DWA taxation, DWA doesn't have a harm, and without a harm DWA lacks standing. (Indeed, after BIA issued the reg, DWA continued to collect taxes on these leases, with no direct threat of enforcement by the BIA.)

The court went on to reject DWA's argument that notwithstanding Bracker incorporation, it still suffered a harm, because the reg would encourage leaseholders not to pay their taxes. The court applied Linda R.S. v. Richard D. and Simon v. Eastern Ky. Welfare Rights Org. in support of its conclusion that "a plaintiff in DWA's position lacks standing if, notwithstanding the relief sought, the third parties would retain discretion to continue their harmful behavior or, alternatively, if it is too speculative to conclude that they would modify their behavior in the way the plaintiff desires."

March 9, 2017 in Cases and Case Materials, Jurisdiction of Federal Courts, News, Opinion Analysis, Standing | Permalink | Comments (1)

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Fourth Circuit Upholds Maryland's Assault Weapon Ban

The en banc Fourth Circuit yesterday upheld Maryland's ban on assault weapons and large-capacity magazines against a Second Amendment challenge. The ruling reverses an earlier panel decision and puts the circuit in line with other circuits that have ruled on the issue. (We posted on the earlier panel ruling here.)

The court said first that assault weapons aren't even protected by the Second Amendment. Quoting Heller, the majority wrote, "Because the banned assault weapons and large-capacity magazines are 'like' 'M-16 rifles'--'weapons that are most useful in military service'--they are among those arms that the Second Amendment does not shield."

The court said next that even if the Second Amendment applied, the ban satisfied intermediate scrutiny. (The court applied intermediate scrutiny, not strict, because Maryland's ban "does not severely burden the core protection of the Second Amendment, i.e., the right of law-abiding, responsible citizens to use arms for self-defense in the home.") The court wrote that the ban is "reasonably adapted" to the state's "substantial" (indeed, compelling) interest in public safety, because assault weapons and large-capacity magazines are especially dangerous and are disproportionately used in crime and to kill law enforcement officers. The court also noted that the ban did not regulate the more typical weapon used in the home for self-defense (the core of the Second Amendment right, under Heller)--the handgun.

The court also ruled that the ban didn't violate equal protection by allowing retired police officers to possess assault weapons, because police officers are highly trained, and thus not situated similarly to civilians. Finally, the court held that the ban on "copies" of assault weapons wasn't unconstitutionally vague, because the term ("copy") is sufficiently clear under well established Maryland law.

The ruling drew a sharp dissent and several other opinions.

February 22, 2017 in Cases and Case Materials, News, Opinion Analysis, Second Amendment | Permalink | Comments (0)