Thursday, April 14, 2016
In its opinion in Vergara v. California today, the Court of Appeal for the Second Appellate District of California reversed the conclusion of Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Rolf Treu that the state tenure statutes for public school teachers violate the California Constitution's provisions on equal protection and provision of education. California's so-called teacher tenure statutes challenged in the action are provisions of California's Education Code governing teacher employment, including the permanent employment statute (§44929.21(b)); dismissal statutes (§§ 44934; 44938(b)(l) and (2) and 44944); and a seniority statute, "Last In First Out" or "LIFO" statute (§44955).
In a nutshell, the appellate court found:
Plaintiffs failed to establish that the challenged statutes violate equal protection, primarily because they did not show that the statutes inevitably cause a certain group of students to receive an education inferior to the education received by other students. Although the statutes may lead to the hiring and retention of more ineffective teachers than a hypothetical alternative system would, the statutes do not address the assignment of teachers; instead, administrators—not the statutes—ultimately determine where teachers within a district are assigned to teach. Critically, plaintiffs failed to show that the statutes themselves make any certain group of students more likely to be taught by ineffective teachers than any other group of students.
The appellate court implied that the trial judge had misconstrued his constitutional task:
With no proper showing of a constitutional violation, the court is without power to strike down the challenged statutes. The court’s job is merely to determine whether the statutes are constitutional, not if they are “a good idea.” (McHugh v. Santa Monica Rent Control Bd. (1989) 49 Cal.3d 348, 388.) Additionally, our review is limited to the particular constitutional challenge that plaintiffs decided to bring. Plaintiffs brought a facial equal protection challenge, meaning they challenged the statutes themselves, not how the statutes are implemented in particular school districts. Since plaintiffs did not demonstrate that the statutes violate equal protection on their face, the judgment cannot be affirmed.
The appellate court's 36 page opinion contains a careful rehearsal of the evidence before the trial judge as well as a discussion of his opinion. In its own analysis, the appellate court considered the plaintiffs' original contentions that:
the challenged statutes create an oversupply of grossly ineffective teachers because (i) the tenure statute’s probationary period is too short, preventing the identification of grossly ineffective teachers before the mandated deadline for reelection; (ii) when grossly ineffective tenured teachers are identified, it is functionally impossible to terminate them under the overly burdensome and complicated dismissal statutes; and (iii) when reductions-in-force are required, the statute requires the termination of junior, competent teachers while more senior, grossly ineffective teachers keep their jobs only because they have seniority. Plaintiffs argued, and the trial court agreed, that two distinct classes of students—Group 1 (an “unlucky subset” of students within the population of students at large) and Group 2 (poor and minority students)—were denied equal protection because the challenged statutes led members of these groups to be assigned to grossly ineffective teachers.
The unanimous panel found that there was no "identifiable class" for equal protection purposes: the group of "unlucky students" who are allegedly harmed by being assigned to grossly ineffective teachers have only one defining characteristic - - - they are assigned to grossly ineffective teachers. As for the second group - - - identified as poor and minority students - - - the appellate court found that there was insufficient causation for a facial constitutional violation: "the statutes do not differentiate by any distinguishing characteristic, including race or wealth." While it is possible, the appellate court noted, that the plaintiffs could have shown that the implementation of the statutes inevitably resulted in "consequential assignment of disproportionately high numbers of grossly inefficient teachers to schools predominantly serving low-income and minority students," the plaintiffs here did not make such a showing.
While the appellate court recognized there were "deplorable staffing decisions made by some local administrators," this was not sufficient to support a facial challenge to teacher tenure statutes.
The appellate decision is much better reasoned than the trial judge's opinion, which derided the "uber due process" provided by the statutes and did not elaborate on the facts and evidence. It is likely to stand.
Wednesday, April 13, 2016
The Ninth Circuit ruled today in Chen v. Allstate Insurance that a defendant's unaccepted offer of full judgment on a plaintiff's individual claim does not moot the plaintiff's individual claim, or his class action.
The ruling means that plaintiff Florencio Pacleb's individual claim and his class-action complaint against Allstate can move forward at the district court. This is a significant win for Pacleb (and other Ninth Circuit class plaintiffs) and answers a question left open by the Supreme Court.
The case arose when Pacleb filed a class-action suit against Allstate for calls he received from the insurance company on his cell phone, in violation of the Telephone Consumer Protection Act. Before Pacleb moved for class certification (and shortly after the Supreme Court handed down Campbell-Ewald), Allstate tried to pick him off (and thus undermine his class action) by depositing full monetary judgment in escrow and promising to stop making calls to his cell phone. Allstate then moved to dismiss the case as moot.
Allstate's move was a clever exploitation of an open question from Campbell-Ewald. In that case, the Supreme Court held that "an unaccepted settlement offer has no force" and does not moot a claim. But the Court left open the question "whether the result would be different if a defendant deposits the full amount of the plaintiff's individual claim in an account payable to the plaintiff, and the court then enters judgment for the plaintiff in that amount." Allstate's move took up that open question.
But the Ninth Circuit didn't bite. The Ninth Circuit ruled first that Pacleb's individual claim wasn't moot, because he hadn't received full judgment. (The money was still in escrow, not in Pacleb's bank account.) The court went on to rule that circuit law allowed Pacleb to seek class certification, even if Allstate could fully satisfy Pacleb's individual claims. But the court said that even if circuit law didn't answer the question, language in Campbell-Ewald suggests that "when a defendant consents to judgment according complete relief on a named plaintiff's individual claims before certification, but fails to offer complete relief on the plaintiff's class claims, a court should not enter judgment on the individual claims, over the plaintiff's objection, before the plaintiff has had a fair opportunity to move for class certification."
In other words, a plaintiff's interest in class certification isn't satisfied by an offer of full judgment to the individual plaintiffs. And such an offer therefore doesn't moot the plaintiff's class claims.
The ruling is a victory for Pacleb and class plaintiffs in the Ninth Circuit (and maybe beyond), as it forecloses the latest pick-off gambit left open by the Supreme Court in Campbell-Ewald.
Monday, April 11, 2016
The Fifth Circuit ruled on Friday in Google v. Hood that a federal district court's injunction against Mississippi Attorney General James M. Hood III jumped the gun, and struck it. The ruling means that AG Hood's subpoena to Google remains live, and that he is not enjoined from bringing civil and criminal action against the web giant.
The case arose when AG Hood and certain other state AGs started expressing concerns that search engines weren't doing enough to stop copyright infringement, prescription drug and counterfeit product sales, and other "illegal and harmful" activity on the internet. Hood wrote to Google, and after some back-and-forth, issued a wide-ranging administrative subpoena, stating that there were "reasonable grounds to believe that Google Inc. may have violated . . . the Mississippi Consumer Protection Act."
Google sued in federal court, alleging that Hood's investigation violated Google's immunity under the Communications Decency Act, the Fourth Amendment, and the First Amendment rights of Google and its users, and seeking an injunction. The district court preliminarily enjoined Hood from enforcing the administrative subpoena and "bringing a civil or criminal charge against Google under Mississippi law for making accessible third-party content to Internet users (as threatened)."
Without touching the merits (even for likelihood of success, under the preliminary injunction standard), the Fifth Circuit struck the injunction. The court said that Google could bring the case in federal court, and that the district court did not err in not abstaining under Younger. But the court went on to say that Google's federal lawsuit was not ripe. That's because the subpoena was non-self-executing, and Hood had no independent authority to enforce it. (Instead, he has to enforce it through injunctive relief and a contempt motion in state court.) As to Hood's threats of civil or criminal enforcement: the court said that these were too "fuzzily defined," and that the court could not "on the present record predict what conduct Hood might one day try to prosecute under Mississippi law." In short: Google's case wasn't ripe, and the district court jumped the gun in issuing the injunction.
The ruling means that Hood can go ahead and try to enforce his subpoena in state court. He can also initiate any civil and criminal actions that Mississippi might allow. But when he does, he'll face Google's immunity and constitutional defenses in state court, and a likely second try in federal court.
Thursday, April 7, 2016
In its opinion in Arizona Dream Act Coalition v. Brewer, the Ninth Circuit has found unconstitutional an Executive Order by Arizona Governor Jan Brewer that prohibits recipients of the federal program called the “Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals” (DACA) from obtaining driver’s licenses by using Employment Authorization Documents as proof of their authorized presence in the United States.
Recall that the Ninth Circuit had earlier reversed the denial of a preliminary injunction finding that the plaintiffs had a substantial likelihood of success on their equal protection claim. The United States Supreme denied Arizona's application for a stay. On remand, the district judge had found that the plaintiffs prevailed on their equal protection claim, applying a rational basis standard of review, and entered a permanent injunction.
In this appeal by the Arizona state defendants, the same Ninth Circuit panel of judges - - - Harry Pregerson, Marsha S. Berzon, and Morgan Christen - - - in the opinion again authored by Judge Pregerson, not surprisingly found equal protection "problems" but decided to resolve the case on the "nonconstitutional grounds" of preemption, explaining (in footnote 5),
Though preemption principles are rooted in the Supremacy Clause, this court has previously applied the principle that preemption does not implicate a constitutional question for purposes of constitutional avoidance.
Yet the panel's opinion spends more than half of its analysis on the equal protection question. The court's opinion states that the judges "remain of the view" that "Arizona's policy may well fail even rational basis review" and rejected all of Arizona's asserted government interests. Moreover, the opinion stated that it "bears noting, once again" that "the record does suggest" that Arizona's policy was motivated by "a dogged animus against DACA recipients," and as the Supreme Court has "made very clear that such animus cannot constitute a legitimate state interest, and has cautioned against sowing the seeds of prejudice," citing cases including United States v. Windsor.
The opinion continued
Given the formidable Equal Protection concerns Arizona’s policy raises, we turn to a preemption analysis as an alternative to resting our decision on the Equal Protection Clause. Doing so, we conclude that Arizona’s policy encroaches on the exclusive federal authority to create immigration classifications and so is displaced by the INA.
While the court's final opinion is of questionable precedential value concerning the equal protection conclusion, the previous opinion's equal protection conclusion remains of high precedential value, and certainly the ultimate conclusion - - - here based on the Supremacy Clause preemption - - - is definitive.
Tuesday, April 5, 2016
The D.C. Circuit ruled today in U.S. v. Fokker Services B.V. that a federal district court cannot deny an exclusion of time under the Speedy Trial Act for a deferred prosecution agreement (DPA) because the court disagrees with the government's charging decisions. The ruling, a victory for both parties, reverses the district court's decision on separation-of-powers grounds and remands the case.
The case arose when the parties asked the court for an exclusion of time under the Speedy Trial Act in order to allow the defendant to meet the government's conditions under the DPA. (The DPA provided that the government would defer prosecution so long as Fokker met certain conditions over an 18-month period. But if Fokker failed to meet the conditions after 18 months, the Speedy Trial Act would have prevented the government to pursue prosecution. So the parties moved the court for an exclusion of time under the Act.) The court denied the motion, saying that it disagreed with the government's decision to charge only the corporation, and not its individual officers, with violations. Both parties appealed.
The D.C. Circuit reversed. The court said that "[t]he Constitution allocates primacy in criminal charging decisions to the Executive Branch," and that "the Judiciary generally lacks authority to second-guess those Executive determinations, much less to impose its own charging preference." So when the court denied an exclusion of time because of its disagreement with the government's charging decision, it exceeded its own authority and intruded into the prerogative of the Executive.
The court said that "we construe [the Speedy Trial Act] in a manner that preserves the Executive's long-settled primacy over charging decisions and that denies courts substantial power to impose their own charging preferences."
The case now goes back to the district court for an order excluding time under the Speedy Trial Act and implementation of the DPA.
Check out Prof. Tim O'Neill's (John Marshall) excellent piece in the Cal. Law Review on Chief Justice Roberts's approach to deference in the Obamacare case, NFIB v. Sebelius: Harlan on My Mind: Chief Justice Roberts and the Affordable Care Act.
O'Neill notes that "Chief Justice Roberts has never been shy about finding acts of Congress to be unconstitutional," but that he nevertheless extolled the virtues of deference to the legislature and ultimately upheld the individual mandate in NFIB. O'Neill asks: Where did this "newly minted Thayerian justice" come from?
This essay will attempt to answer that question. It will begin by further examining Posner's article and the reasons he provided for the death of Thayerian review. It will then turn to an examination of one justice in particular whom Chief Justice Roberts has cited as his model: the younger Justice John Marshall Harlan, perhaps the last justice on the Court who exhibited Thayer-like restraint. It will conclude by contending that when faced with the most important case of his judicial career, Roberts took a Thayer-like approach that might have been similar to the approach his judicial model, Justice Harlan, would have taken. Thayer-like restraint may be dead, but it appears to have come back to life for at least one decision on June 28, 2012.
Monday, April 4, 2016
A unanimous Supreme Court ruled today in Evenwel v. Abbott that states can use total population--and need not use voter-eligible population--to comply with the one-person-one-vote principle in drawing legislative districts.
The ruling is a setback for a group of conservative Texas voters that argued that states must use voter-eligible population in drawing legislative districts. Using voter-eligible population (as compared to total population) would benefit rural, and conservative, areas in a state like Texas, because urban areas contain a higher proportion of non-voter-eligible persons (who would count in measuring total population, but not voter-eligible population).
The case arose when a group of Texas voters argued that their votes were diluted as compared to the votes of eligible voters in other state senate districts, thus violating the one-person-one-vote principle. The state drew its state senate map based on total population, but the voters claimed that this resulted in inequalities. In particular, the voters claimed that their senate district contained a far greater eligible-voter population than other districts of equal total population. (The state senate map had a deviation between districts of 8.04 percent when measured by total population--the population that the state used in drawing the maps. This deviation is within the 10 percent deviation range that is presumptively permissible under the one-person-one-vote principle. But when measured by voter-eligible population, the map had a deviation of 40 percent--well outside that presumptively permissible point.) The voters argued that the state must use voter-eligible population in drawing districts.
The unanimous Supreme Court disagreed. Justice Ginsburg, writing for the Court, said that constitutional history, precedent, and practice show that a state may use total population in drawing legislative districts. In short: we've always done it this way, and we've said it's OK, so it's OK.
The Court declined to say whether a state may use voter-eligible population.
Tuesday, March 29, 2016
An equally divided Supreme Court today affirmed the Ninth Circuit's ruling upholding public-sector union fair-share fees against a First Amendment challenge. The one-sentence per curiam ruling said nothing on the merits.
The case, Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association, almost surely represented the end of public-sector union fair-share fees. The Court had sent a couple signals in recent Terms that it was prepared to overturn Abood v. Detroit Board of Education, the 1977 case upholding fair-share fees, and oral arguments earlier this year suggested that this was the case to do it.
But with Justice Scalia's passing (after oral arguments in the case), the Court divided four to four, upholding the lower court, which upheld fair-share fees.
The ruling today leaves fair-share fees on the books--at least for now, unless and until Justice Scalia's replacement votes with the four traditional conservatives to overturn it in a future case. But the Court's more recent cases--the ones that teed up the challenge in Friedrichs--also stay on the books. So Abood and the Ninth Circuit ruling in Friedrichs still represent the law, but under Harris and Knox, Abood is still hanging by a thread.
The new justice will be the swing vote on this issue, and will say whether public-sector union fair-share fees stay, or go.
Monday, March 28, 2016
The Court will hear oral arguments on Tuesday in Ross v. Blake, the case testing whether the Prison Litigation Reform Act includes a "special circumstances" exception to the exhaustion requirement that excuses an inmate's failure to exhaust when he had a reasonable, but mistaken, belief that no further administrative remedies were available.
The case raises important access-to-justice questions in the context of administrative exhaustion in PLRA litigation. Here's my preview, from the ABA Preview of United States Supreme Court Cases, with permission:
Shaidon Blake is a prisoner serving a life sentence in the custody of the state of Maryland. In 2007, Blake was housed at the Maryland Reception, Diagnostic and Classification Center.
On June 21 of that year, Lieutenant James Madigan and Sergeant Michael Ross, officers at the Center, attempting to relocate Blake to another cellblock, handcuffed Blake and removed him from his cell. As the two officers escorted Blake to his new cellblock, Madigan shoved Blake twice. He then wrapped a key ring around his fingers and struck Blake at least four times in the face.
Ross asked another officer to call for assistance. Ross and Madigan then lifted Blake and dropped him to the floor. Ross put his knee into Blake’s chest, and Madigan restrained Blake until other officers arrived.
The responding officers took Blake to the medical unit. Blake declined treatment, but was later diagnosed with nerve damage.
Blake reported the episode to senior corrections officers and provided a written account of the assaults. Captain Calvin Vincent conducted a preliminary investigation. Vincent concluded that Madigan used excessive force and recommended that Madigan be disciplined. (Madigan later resigned in order to avoid termination.)
Vincent referred the incident to the Internal Investigative Unit, or “IIU,” a division of the Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services charged with investigating criminal violations and serious misconduct of correctional officers. The IIU undertook a year-long investigation into Madigan’s behavior and issued a formal report concluding that Madigan used excessive force against Blake. The report did not assign any fault to Ross or Blake. The IIU did not otherwise provide any redress or compensation to Blake. (The IIU is a criminal investigative unit. It lacks authority to remedy a prisoner’s complaint, or to discipline a correctional officer.)
Blake sued Ross, Madigan, two supervisors, and two government entities in federal court for civil rights violations. The district court dismissed the claims against the two supervisors and the government entities, leaving only Ross and Madigan as defendants.
Ross then moved to dismiss the case against him, alleging that Blake failed to exhaust his administrative remedies as required by the Prison Litigation Reform Act, or “PLRA,” 42 U.S.C. § 1997e(a). In particular, Ross claimed that Blake failed to use the administrative remedy process, or “ARP,” that the state created to address inmate grievances, including complaints about the use of force, and to provide redress and compensation to inmates. (Ross now claims that Blake alternatively could have filed a complaint with the Inmate Grievance Office, or “IGO,” an independent entity outside the prison that has authority to hear grievances in the first instance and award monetary damages, if the ARP was unavailable. When the ARP is available, the Inmate Grievance Office hears appeals from the ARP.) Ross said that Blake admitted having received a copy of the inmate handbook, which contains information about the ARP, but that Blake did not read those portions of the handbook and did not initiate an ARP grievance.
The district court granted Ross’s motion to dismiss. (The court at first dismissed Blake’s case against Madigan, too. But the court later reinstated that case, and Blake won a $50,000 judgment against Madigan. Madigan is not a part of this appeal.) Blake appealed, and the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit reversed. This appeal followed.
The PLRA says that “[n]o action shall be brought with respect to prison conditions . . . by a prisoner confined in any jail, prison, or other correctional facility until such administrative remedies as are available are exhausted.” 42 U.S.C. § 1997e(a). This means that a prisoner like Blake has to pursue, and exhaust, any internal, administrative remedies that he has available before filing a civil rights suit in federal court. Congress adopted the measure in order to allow a prison to address complaints internally, to reduce litigation (at least to the extent that a prison can resolve complaints internally), and to improve litigation by allowing the parties to develop a useful administrative record before going to court.
The Supreme Court has said that exhaustion means “proper exhaustion.” In other words, a prisoner must use all the administrative steps that the prison makes available, and do so in compliance with the applicable deadlines and other critical procedural rules. Woodford v. Ngo, 548 U.S. 81 (2006).
Still, some read more flexibility into the requirement. For example, Justice Breyer suggested in his concurrence in Woodford that well-settled exceptions to exhaustion in administrative law should also apply to the PLRA. Justice Breyer pointed to a Second Circuit case holding that “special circumstances” can excuse exhaustion (as in administrative law). The Second Circuit in that case concluded that a prisoner’s failure to exhaust “was justified by his reasonable belief” that no further remedies were available. Giano v. Goord, 380 F.3d 670 (2004). The Fourth Circuit adopted this same approach in ruling for Blake.
The parties dispute whether the PLRA has a “reasonable belief” exception to exhaustion. But they also dispute whether Blake actually exhausted his remedies. Recall that Blake pursued his complaint through the IIU, and not the ARP or IGO. The parties disagree over whether the IIU process amounts to exhaustion, and whether the ARP and IGO processes were actually available.
Ross argues first that the plain language of the PLRA requires strict and mandatory exhaustion. Ross claims that the Supreme Court affirmed this reading through its “proper exhaustion” rule in Woodford. Ross says that the Fourth Circuit’s approach—adopting an exception to exhaustion based on a prisoner’s “reasonable belief”—conflicts with the PLRA’s strict approach to exhaustion, because it excuses a prisoner’s failure to use a particular remedy based only on the prisoner’s misunderstanding. Ross contends that the PLRA’s plain language is clear, and that the courts have no authority to create an extra-textual exception to its strict and mandatory exhaustion requirement.
Ross argues next that the Fourth Circuit’s approach conflicts with the history and purposes of the PLRA. Ross claims that Congress enacted PLRA’s exhaustion requirement in order to replace a prior, ineffective requirement that permitted courts to require exhaustion only if doing so would be in the “interests of justice” and that the remedies were “plain, speedy, and effective.” Ross says that the current PLRA was enacted in order to eliminate judicial discretion from the exhaustion inquiry. He contends that the Fourth Circuit’s approach takes us back to the old system, which Congress unambiguously superseded with the more recent mandatory exhaustion requirement. Moreover, Ross claims that the Fourth Circuit’s approach would undermine the purposes of the PLRA, because it would result in more lawsuits without affording the prisons an opportunity to resolve them in the first instance. According to Ross, the Fourth Circuit’s approach would also mire the courts in the nuances of a prison’s grievance system in order to determine the reasonableness of a prisoner’s belief as to available remedies within the prison.
Third, Ross argues that the Fourth Circuit wrongly interpreted traditional administrative law exceptions, and thus wrongly imported a “reasonable belief” exception into the PLRA’s exhaustion requirement. Ross claims that there are only three sets of traditional exceptions to administrative exhaustion—where exhaustion would cause irreparable harm, where exhaustion would be futile, and where an agency is biased. Ross says that none of these traditional categories includes a “reasonable belief” exception, and so the Fourth Circuit erred in importing that exception (even if traditional administrative law exceptions apply to PLRA exhaustion).
Finally, Ross argues that even if the Fourth Circuit were correct in applying a “reasonable belief” exception, Blake does not satisfy it. Ross points to the fact that Blake never read the state’s grievance procedures. Ross says that if Blake would have read them, he would have seen that the APR process was available and most relevant to his kind of complaint. (Ross claims that the IIU process that Blake used against Madigan is designed for a different purpose—investigation of wrongdoing, not redress and compensation—and therefore does not satisfy the PLRA’s exhaustion requirement.) Ross contends that Blake’s failure to read the processes cannot amount to a “reasonable belief,” even if there is a “reasonable belief” exception to PLRA exhaustion.
(The government weighs in as amicus curiae in favor of Ross and makes substantially similar arguments.)
Blake argues first that this case does not properly address the Question Presented, whether the PLRA exhaustion requirement bars a lawsuit by a prisoner who made an objectively reasonable mistake in pursuing his administrative remedies. This is because Blake says that he made no mistake. He claims that the ARP process was not available to him, because routine practice at the time was to dismiss an ARP complaint when (as here) an IIU investigation was pending. (Blake points to five separate cases, including one filed on the same day as his assault, in which ARP complaints were dismissed as procedurally improper because an IIU investigation was pending.) He contends that the IGO procedure was similarly unavailable to him. Because his case does not fall within the Question Presented, Blake says that the Court should either affirm the Fourth Circuit’s decision or dismiss the appeal (as improvidently granted).
In the alternative, Blake argues that he properly exhausted his administrative remedies, because the ARP process and the IGO procedure were unavailable to him. Blake says that for a remedy to be available under the PLRA, it must be “sufficiently clear so that an objectively reasonable prisoner would know which remedy to use and how to use it.” Blake asserts that the two processes here fail that test. He claims that even Ross (represented here by the state attorney general) fails to identify which of the two proffered processes were available to him, underscoring just how unclear the policies were. Moreover, Blake claims that Ross’s position that the exhaustion requirement applies whenever a prisoner makes an error—and that the clarity of the remedy is irrelevant to its availability—is untenable, and gives the prisons a perverse incentive to make their administrative processes unnecessarily complex.
This case tests the flexibility of the exhaustion requirement in the PLRA. It asks: Does the exhaustion requirement apply rigidly, so that a prisoner must exhaust all administrative remedies, even if he reasonably, but mistakenly, thought he satisfied it? Or does the requirement have some give, so that a prisoner can satisfy it under those circumstances? The answer to these questions will also tell us when a federal judicial remedy is available to prisoners for civil rights violations. This is an important access-to-justice issue, and the Court’s ruling (one way or the other) will impact when and how prisoners can pursue a meaningful damages claim in court.
Whatever the Court says, however, Congress will have the last word. That’s because the case raises only a statutory question—interpretation of the PLRA—and not a constitutional one. Congress can always go back and undo through legislation anything the Court does through litigation.
Friday, March 25, 2016
Judge Amy Berman Jackson ruled this week in Friends of Animals v. Ashe that Friends lacked standing to challenge a decision by the Fish and Wildlife Service to issue permits authorizing two American hunters to import the trophies they garnered in legal hunts of black rhinoceros in Namibia. The ruling means that the case is dismissed.
The ruling illustrates the barriers for plaintiffs in challenging this kind government action, even before they get to the merits. The core problem, according to the court, is that the Service didn't cause the rhino hunting--the government of Namibia did--and so the court was powerless to remedy the loss of rhinos.
Judge Jackson ruled that the plaintiff-organization demonstrated an injury, the first standing requirement, through one of its members--but barely. In particular, Judge Jackson wrote that a Friends of Animals member who lives in Namibia demonstrated an injury, because he claimed that he viewed, and would view, black rhinos in the Kunene region and Etosha National Park. But the rhinos in this case came from Mangetti National Park. Judge Jackson nevertheless said that the plaintiff alleged a sufficient injury--though "the thinnest reed of an injury"--based on the allegation that the import permits will affect rhinos in the future, throughout the country.
But Judge Jackson went on to rule that the injury lacked causation and redressibility. In particular, she said that the reduced viewing opportunities of rhinos was caused by the Namibian government's authorization of the hunt, not the Service's permits, and that an order halting the permits would do nothing to stop hunting (again, authorized by Namibia).
Finally, the court held that Friends' claim that the Service has a "policy and repeated practice of issuing permits to import sport-hunted trophies of endangered animals" in violation of the Endangered Species Act and the APA wasn't ripe for review.
Thursday, March 24, 2016
In a case that's just crazy enough to have come right out of a ConLaw exam, the Tenth Circuit ruled this week that a group of nonprofits and businesses lacked standing to challenge Colorado's background-check requirement and ban on the possession, sale, and transfer of large-capacity magazines under the Second Amendment and the ADA.
The ruling says nothing on the merits, of course. But it is a pretty good "how-to" on losing on standing (if you're looking for such a thing): the ruling recounts, in detail, the plaintiffs' numerous and surprising missteps and lost opportunities in pressing their standing arguments.
First, the court rejected the plaintiffs' economic injury claim. But this isn't (necessarily) because it's a bad claim; instead, it's because the plaintiffs don't make it. "While compelling arguments may exist as to why we should adopt [an accepted approach on economic burdens when compliance is coerced by the threat of enforcement], the plaintiffs fail to make those arguments in their opening brief, and we decline to make them on their behalf." So the Tenth Circuit denied the plaintiffs' newly generated economic injury theory and applied the district court's credible-threat-of-prosecution test.
Next, under that test, the court said that a number of plaintiffs simply waived their challenge to the district court's ruling as to the background-check requirement. As to those left over, these organizations could only show that they had standing to challenge the background check by showing that it was a burden to comply with the background check--which means, of course, that they couldn't satisfy the credible-threat-of-prosecution test. One organization that alleged that it previously violated the background-check requirement ran into another problem: the prosecutor declined to prosecute. And as to current or future violations: the head of the organization pleaded the Fifth and thus declined to give any details.
Third, a good number of plaintiffs failed to provide any evidence of standing to challenge the large-capacity-magazine ban at the district court. They didn't appeal, and the plaintiffs didn't appeal the district court's failure to address other plaintiffs below. That left just one group on appeal. But that group couldn't establish associational standing on behalf of its member, because her large-capacity magazine was grandfathered by the ban, and her claim that she might eventually want to buy another was too speculative an injury.
Finally, two individuals argued that the gun laws violated the ADA, but failed to allege anything other than that they were disabled. The court said that this may be enough to show standing under the ADA, but it's not enough to show that they had constitutional standing to challenge the gun laws at issue here.
There were other problems with the plaintiffs' case, equally baffling. Take a peek if you're trawling for a good standing fact pattern for your next exam, or if you're looking for a good example how not to argue standing.
The Illinois Supreme Court today issued two opinions on state constitutional provisions as they relate to public employees' compensation. One went for the employees; the other went for the state.
In the first, Jones v. Municipal Employees' Annuity and Benefit Fund of Chicago, the court ruled that the state's effort to cut back on promised annuity payment increases under public-sector union contracts violated the state constitutional Pension Protection Clause. The case involved Public Act 98-641, which would have, among other things, cut the flat annual annuity increases under the contract in order to bring the funds back to solvency. Union members sued, arguing that the provision violated the state constitution's Pension Protection Clause, which says: "Membership in any pension or retirement system of the State, any unit of local government or school district, or any agency or instrumentality thereof, shall be an enforceable contractual relationship, the benefits of which shall not be diminished or impaired."
The court agreed. It said that the Clause means what it says--"shall not be diminished" really means "shall not be diminished"--and that Public Act 98-641 therefore violates it. The court rejected the state's arguments that the Act, when read as a whole, actually provides a net benefit to members and that the Act was part of a bargained-for exchange supported by consideration.
While Jones is a win for public employees, the other case, State of Illinois v. AFSCME, most certainly is not. In AFSCME, the state legislature failed to fund a promised 2-percent raise for certain government employees, even though that raise itself was a concession by those employees, who were entitled to a 4-percent raise under their contract. (In order to meet the state's fiscal crisis, the union and state agreed to a 2-percent raise on schedule, and a later, additional 2-percent raise, for a total of 4 percent--the contractual amount.) AFSCME took the case to an arbitrator and won, but the court reversed. The court said that the state constitutional Appropriations Clause overrode the agreement. That Clause reads: "The General Assembly by law shall make appropriations for all expenditures of public funds by the State." Moreover, an Illinois statute qualifies all public-sector collective bargaining with this language: "Subject to the appropriation power of [the legislature] . . . ." The court said that the Appropriations Clause and Illinois law together mean that the legislature can effectively override a promised contractual raise by failing to fund it.
Justice Kilbride dissented on this point. He argued that the legislature's failure to fund the 2-percent raise constituted a violation of the state constitution's Contract Clause.
The Supreme Court heard oral arguments yesterday in Zubik v. Burwell, the case testing whether the government's accommodation to the contraceptive requirement for religious nonprofits violates the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. Our preview is here.
The big news is, well, that there's no big news. Nothing new came out in oral arguments, and the justices' questions seemed only to put their positions on public display or to help them write their mostly-already-decided decisions. The Court spent plenty of time on how the accommodation works (and therefore whether it's a substantial burden), and whether there are other ways the government can achieve its interests (and therefore whether the accommodation is narrowly tailored). The number and types of exceptions already built into the requirement will clearly play a part in the decisions (because they show, or don't, how the accommodation isn't narrowly tailored, depending on your view). The question where the government does, or can, draw the line between religious nonprofits and churches will also be important (for the same reason). But none of this is really new.
The justices seemed to divide four-four, traditional progressives for the government and traditional conservatives for the nonprofits. Justice Kennedy may have left himself a small (very small) opening to go with the progressives; but if he does, it'll be on narrowly tailoring. (Justice Kennedy bought the nonprofits' theory that the government accommodation "hijacked" their insurance coverage--"hijack" being the word of the day for the nonprofits and the conservatives--and therefore created a substantial burden on their religious practice.)
If there's a four-four split, the lower courts' decisions will stand. This means, without some other action by the Court, that the accommodation will be invalid only in the Eighth Circuit--the only one to rule for the nonprofits so far--and valid in the rest of the country.
Wednesday, March 23, 2016
Here's my oral argument analysis in Simmons v. Himmelreich, re-posted from SCOTUSblog, with permission:
If you read the briefs in Simmons v. Himmelreich, you know that it could be tricky to figure out when a court’s dismissal of a federal prisoner’s Federal Tort Claims Act case forecloses his parallel Bivens claim. The issue involves no fewer than four interlocking FTCA provisions that together create quite a puzzle.
But for all the potential technicalities and complications in the case, the oral arguments turned on a surprisingly straightforward question: Does the plain language of just one FTCA provision, the “exceptions” provision, explicitly allow a parallel claim?
The question harkens back to the lead argument that Walter Himmelreich made in his merits brief. He pointed to Section 2680 of the FTCA, titled “Exceptions,” which says that “[t]he provisions of this chapter and section 1346(b) of this title shall not apply to” over a dozen different types of claims that are altogether exempt from the FTCA. (This includes Himmelreich’s FTCA claim, dismissed under the discretionary-function exception in Section 2680.) This means that the government has not waived immunity for these claims, and that the FTCA offers no cause of action, liability, or relief for them.
But by a literal reading, it also means that there is no bar to a non-FTCA claim arising out of the same events that falls within a Section 2680 exception. That’s because “the provisions of this chapter” in Section 2680 include the FTCA judgment bar itself. In other words, the plain language of Section 2680 exempts from the excepted claims (like Himmelreich’s FTCA claim) the very FTCA provision that bars a person like Himmelreich from filing a parallel claim. If this is right – and the plain language seems to support it – then the “exceptions” provision explicitly allows Himmelreich’s parallel Bivens claim. This may be the cleanest path to victory for Himmelreich, and it seemed to have the support of Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor, and Elena Kagan.
While the argument seems straightforward, there are some problems, according to the federal government. For example, if this reading of Section 2680 is right, then other key sections of the FTCA similarly wouldn’t apply to Section 2680 claims. In particular, the FTCA’s definitions section wouldn’t apply, and the section precluding state tort suits against federal agencies that could otherwise be subject to suit under their sue-and-be-sued authority wouldn’t apply. According to the government, this would lead to absurdities (in the case of the FTCA’s definitions section) and “massively expand[ed]” direct liability for the government, contrary to the intent of the FTCA (in the case of the section precluding state tort suits against federal agencies with sue-and-be-sued authority). (The provision applying the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure and the appellate review provision wouldn’t apply to Section 2680 claims, either. But it’s not clear that these lead to significant problems under the FTCA.) Chief Justice John Roberts pushed back against Christian Vergonis, arguing on Himmelreich’s behalf, on these points, suggesting that he wasn’t persuaded by Himmelreich’s literal reading of Section 2680.
The Court also spent significant time trying to figure out if Himmelreich’s Section 2680 argument runs contrary to the result in United States v. Smith. The government argued that if Section 2680 means precisely what it says (as Himmelreich claims), then Smith came out wrong. But Smith doesn’t address the question in this case, and it doesn’t compel the result. The arguments didn’t produce any further clarity on Smith or suggest that Smith might sway anyone’s vote. In the end, Smith is probably neutral: the government’s Smith argument alone doesn’t seem likely to change any positions on the Court.
Other arguments were in play, but barely. For example, Sotomayor opened with a line of questions for the government about why something as arbitrary as timing should matter – that is, why a plaintiff’s Bivens claim should be dismissed if filed after his FTCA claim, but not if filed before it. Ginsburg emphasized that the FTCA claim and the Bivens claim were different – the former looking to the government, but the latter looking to the individual officer – and why that means that Himmelreich’s Bivens claim is not subject to claim preclusion. And Justice Samuel Alito, leaning in the opposite direction, against Himmelreich, asked several times, and in several different ways, why a plain reading of the term “judgment” in the FTCA’s judgment bar didn’t answer the case. He also asked whether the Court should even address Himmelreich’s Section 2680 argument, given that the Sixth Circuit didn’t rule on it.
Based on the arguments, we could be looking at a four-to-four split, with the Court’s more liberal Justices siding with Himmelreich and his Section 2680 argument, and the more conservative Justices siding with the government and its judgment-bar argument. (Justice Anthony Kennedy asked just two questions, but they seemed to lean against Himmelreich.) That would leave the Sixth Circuit’s ruling in favor of Himmelreich in place. But it would also leave Himmelreich’s Section 2680 argument – and the larger question whether a prisoner’s dismissed FTCA claim can foreclose his parallel Bivens claim – open and on the table.
Argument Preview: Does the Accommodation to the Contraception Requirement Violate Religious Freedom?
The Court will hear oral arguments tomorrow in, Zubik v. Burwell, the case challenging the government's accommodation to the Affordable Care Act's contraception requirement under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. Here's my preview of the case for the ABA Preview of U.S. Supreme Court Cases, with permission:
Does the federal accommodation to the contraceptive-coverage requirement for religious nonprofits substantially burden their religious practices, and, if so, is the accommodation the least restrictive way to promote a compelling government interest?
The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (the “Act,” “Affordable Care Act,” or sometimes called “Obamacare”) requires health insurers and employer-sponsored group health plans to provide certain preventive services to their customers without imposing copayments, deductibles, or other cost-sharing charges. Congress included this requirement in order to encourage individuals to get appropriate preventive care and, as a result, to improve public health. But the Act did not specify the exact preventive services to be covered; instead, Congress provided for coverage of services according to recommendations of medical experts.
The requirement included preventive services specific to women’s health. Congress included these gender-specific services in order to remedy a particular problem—that women pay significantly more for preventive care and thus often fail to seek preventive services. As with the more general preventive services, the Act did not specify the exact gender-specific preventive services to be covered; instead, Congress left this task to the experts, providing for coverage of “preventive care and screenings” specified in “comprehensive guidelines support by the Health Resources and Services Administration” (or “HRSA”), a component of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (“HHS”).
In developing the guidelines, HRSA relied on recommendations from the Institute of Medicine (“IOM”), a part of the National Academy of Sciences. IOM recommended including the full range of contraceptive methods approved by the Food and Drug Administration (“FDA”), including oral contraceptive pills, diaphragms, injections and implants, emergency contraceptive drugs, and intrauterine devices. IOM based this recommendation on extensive medical literature establishing that contraceptives greatly decrease the risk of unintended pregnancies and negative health outcomes. IOM cited the deterrent effect of copayments on the use of contraception, and concluded that “[t]he elimination of cost sharing for contraception therefore could greatly increase its use, including the more effective and longer-acting methods.”
HRSA adopted IOM’s recommendations and included all FDA-approved prescription contraceptive methods in its guidelines. The relevant federal agencies (HHS, the U.S. Department of Labor, and the U.S. Department of the Treasury) incorporated the HRSA guidelines in their regulations.
The Act’s preventive-services requirement applies to individual health insurance plans and employer-sponsored group plans. (The Act exempts a small and declining percentage of plans from certain reforms, including the preventive-services requirement. About 25 percent of plans were exempt in 2015.) The requirement is enforced against health insurers by state insurance regulators and HHS; it is enforced against employer-sponsored group health plans through the Employee Retirement Income Security Act (“ERISA”) and a tax penalty on employers with noncompliant plans.
Recognizing that some employers have religious objections to contraceptives, but at the same time that their employees should receive the same access to FDA-approved contraceptives as other individuals in employer-sponsored plans, the relevant departments created an accommodation. This accommodation applied specifically to religious nonprofits that opposed covering contraceptive services on religious grounds. The regulations allowed an objecting employer to opt out of any requirement by sending a simple form (EBSA Form 700) to the plan’s health insurer or third-party administrator (for self-insured plans), or by providing written notification to the Secretary of HHS. (The government adopted the latter procedure in light of the Court’s ruling in Wheaton College v. Burwell, 134 S. Ct. 2806 (2014). In that case, the Court granted an injunction pending appeal to Wheaton College, halting the use of the form, but requiring the plaintiff to inform HHS in writing that it satisfied the requirements for the accommodation. The latter procedure (the letter) is simply an extension of this procedure to all religious nonprofits.) Either method (EBSA Form 700, or written notification to the Secretary) requires an objecting employer to provide only essential information—the basis for its accommodation, the type of plan it offers, and contact information for the plan’s insurer or third-party administrator.
If an objecting employer opts out of the contraceptive-coverage requirement, either the employer’s insurer (for insured plans) or third-party administrator (for self-insured plans) must provide contraceptive coverage to the employer’s employees directly, independently of the objecting employer, and without additional cost to the employees. (Health insurers have to provide contraceptive services, anyway. But the accommodation requires them to provide those services under a plan that is separate and distinct from the objecting employer’s plan. As to third-party administrators to objecting employers: the Act gives them sole legal responsibility for providing contraceptive coverage under ERISA.)
A good number of religious nonprofits have taken advantage of the accommodation. In 2014, HHS provided user-fee reductions to compensate TPAs for making contraceptive coverage available to over 600,000 employees and beneficiaries. In 2015, more than 10 percent of all nonprofit organizations with 1,000 or more employees took advantage of the accommodation.
At the same time, however, more than two-dozen nonprofits objected. These included religious colleges and universities, other religious nonprofits (like Little Sisters), and three Catholic dioceses. (The Catholic dioceses are automatically exempt from the contraceptive-coverage requirement as houses of worship.) They brought nine separate suits in various federal courts around the country, arguing that the accommodation violated the federal Religious Freedom Restoration Act, or “RFRA.” The U.S. Courts of Appeals for the Third, Fifth, Tenth, and D.C. Circuits rejected these claims. (The U.S. Courts of Appeals for the Second, Sixth, and Seventh Circuits agreed, although those cases are not part of this consolidated appeal.) Only the Eighth Circuit ruled for the plaintiffs.
The federal RFRA says that the government cannot “substantially burden a person’s exercise of religion” unless the burden is “the least restrictive means of furthering [a] compelling government interest.” 42 U.S.C. Sec. 2000bb-1(a) and (b)(2). The Act thus has two prongs: the “substantial burden” prong, and (2) the “fitness” prong, which requires a close fit between the means (here, the accommodation) and the government interest. The courts only consider the fitness prong if the plaintiffs can satisfy the substantial burden prong.
All the lower courts (with the sole exception of the Eighth Circuit) have ruled that the accommodation is not a “substantial burden” under RFRA. As a result, those courts have not even considered whether the accommodation is the least restrictive means to further a compelling interest. Here, the parties argue both.
The plaintiffs argue first that the accommodation is a substantial burden on their religious exercise, because it implicates them in the provision of contraception, contrary to their religious beliefs. In particular, the plaintiffs claim that the accommodation requires them to submit a document that authorizes their own insurance companies or TPAs to provide contraceptive coverage to their own employees and students, in violation of their religious beliefs. They say that the accommodation then requires them to maintain an ongoing relationship with an insurer or TPA that continues to provide contraceptive coverage, again in violation of their religious beliefs. The plaintiffs contend that the accommodation violates their sincerely held religious belief, and that the Court should defer to them on this question.
The plaintiffs argue next that the accommodation is not the least restrictive way that the government can further a compelling government interest. They claim that the government has already granted a number of exemptions from the contraceptive-coverage requirement, leaving out millions of people, for both religious and other, less important, and nonreligious reasons. They say that this shows that the government’s interest in applying the requirement to them (even with the accommodation) cannot be compelling. Moreover, they contend that the government has other ways to provide contraceptive coverage. For example, they claim that the government could provide contraceptive coverage through insurance exchanges, certain existing federal programs, or tax subsidies. Because the government has no compelling interest, and because it has alternative ways to provide contraceptive coverage, the accommodation fails the second prong of the RFRA test.
The government argues first that the accommodation is not a substantial burden on the plaintiffs’ religious beliefs. The government claims that the accommodation allows the plaintiffs to entirely opt out of the contraceptive-coverage requirement, and that the government itself then directly requires insurers or TPAs to provide contraceptive coverage, completely independently and separately from the coverage provided by the plaintiffs. (In this way, according to the government, the accommodation doesn’t force the plaintiffs to authorize the coverage; instead, the law itself requires coverage.) Moreover, the government contends that the plaintiffs’ sincere objections to the government’s independent requirement of third parties (the insurers and TPAs) cannot constitute a substantial burden under the RFRA. If it were otherwise, any religious accommodation could subject countless government programs to RFRA’s stringent second prong and “profoundly impair the government’s ability to accommodate religious objections.”
The government argues next that even if the accommodation amounts to a substantial burden, the accommodation serves a compelling government interest. In particular, the government says that it has a compelling interest in protecting the health of female employees, and that contraceptive coverage advances that interest. The government claims that the plaintiffs are wrong to argue that other exemptions mean that the government lacks a serious compelling interest. After all, it says, most laws have exceptions, and they don’t take away from a law’s purposes. Moreover, the government contends that other exemptions to the contraceptive mandate do not undermine its core purpose and compelling interest. Finally, the government argues that the accommodation serves its interest in the least restrictive way, because it ensures that female employees can automatically receive contraceptive coverage and that they can receive contraceptive services through their regular medical care, without having to sign up for a new and different plan or program (which does not currently exist in federal law).
This is a strange case to wrap one’s head around. That’s because the plaintiffs are not complaining that the contraceptive coverage requirement itself violates their religious freedom. That claim might be understandable. And it would probably be an easy case, in light of the Court’s decision just two Terms ago in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby, holding that the contraceptive-coverage requirement violated the Religious Freedom Restoration Act as to a closely-held for-profit corporation.
But instead, the plaintiffs claim that the government’s effort to exempt them from the contraceptive-coverage mandate violates their religious beliefs. More particularly, they claim that the accommodation violates their religious beliefs, because it triggers the offending government policy. On the face of it, this kind of claim seems to turn the idea of an accommodation on its head. And moreover, as the government argues, it potentially subjects other religious accommodations in other policy areas to similar religious freedom challenges. This could put the government between the Scylla of a policy that might burden a religious practice and the Charybdis of an accommodation to that policy—with a result of forcing the government ship in the future to turn away from a policy altogether. It seems strange and surprising that the RFRA could frustrate this and other government policies this way.
Still, the question is open. The Supreme Court in Hobby Lobby identified the accommodation (the very one at issue here) as an example of how the government might exempt a closely-held, for-profit corporation from the contraceptive-coverage requirement. (The Court used this to show that the government had other, less restrictive ways to further its purpose under the fitness prong of RFRA.) But the Court consciously declined to say whether the accommodation violated the RFRA. As a result, the Court seemed to sanction the accommodation, even as it also seemed to invite this challenge to it.
And speaking of challenges, this is the fourth challenge to the ACA to reach the Court. The first involved challenges to the individual coverage requirement and Medicaid expansion. The Court in NFIB v. Sebelius, 567 U.S. __ (2012), upheld those provisions, with one caveat: the government could not withhold a state’s entire Medicaid budget if the state declined to expand Medicaid (although the government could withhold additional funding for the expansion itself). The second involved a challenge to the contraceptive coverage requirement. The Court in Hobby Lobby ruled that the requirement violated the First Amendment as applied to closely-held, for-profit corporations, although the government could create an accommodation. The most recent challenge involved the subsidies to help lower-income individuals purchase health insurance on the government exchanges. The Court in King v. Burwell, 576 U.S. __ (2015), upheld those subsidies. As a result, ACA challengers have gone 0 and 3, even as they have forced some important changes to implementation of the Act along the way.
There are more challenges in the pipeline, however. One of those involves a challenge to the tax penalty that enforces the individual coverage requirement. Challengers argue that the ACA did not originate in the House of Representatives (as the Constitution requires for revenue-raising bills), and thus the tax penalty is unconstitutional. Another involves a challenge to the government’s subsidies to health insurers to offset their costs in providing certain benefits under the Act. Challengers in the House of Representatives argue that the government spent money for this program without a congressional appropriation. There are others, too.
None of these (including the present case) is likely to threaten the Act in its entirety. But each one (again, including the present case) has the potential to chip away at, or significantly alter, a portion.
Monday, March 21, 2016
The Supreme Court heard oral arguments today in Whittman v. Personhuballah, the case testing whether a state's move to pack black voters into a congressional district supposedly to comply with Section 5 of the Voting Right Act, but with the effect of diluting black voters' influence, violates equal protection.
Not surprisingly, the justices spent a good deal of time on standing, in particular, whether Representative Forbes, a congressman who had a lock on reelection in District 4, had standing to challenge the lower court's redistricting plan, because it made it tougher for him to get reelected in District 4. (Indeed, he's running in District 2, where he has a better chance of election, for this reason.) Justices Sotomayor and Kagan seemed to take strong positions that Forbes lacked standing; Justice Breyer staked out an only somewhat weaker position. The conservatives, along with Justice Kennedy, seemed to lean the other way.
On the merits, Justice Kagan put the finest point on the challengers' theory: If a legislature redistricts based malign racial intent, but the map also perfectly promotes acceptable political interests, is it subject to strict scrutiny? Michael Carvin, attorney for the challengers, said no. Justice Kagan went right to the point: "that sounds to me as though it's a harmless error rule for racial discrimination. And we've never had a harmless error rule for racial discrimination."
Chief Justice Roberts put a similar question to all the attorneys, but his hypo did not include any other evidence of racial motive: "If race and partisanship are co-extensive, then . . . which one predominates?" Opponents of the legislature's map had to concede that it'd be a tie; and under a tie, race could not predominate.
The difference between Justice Kagan's hypo and Chief Justice Roberts's hypo is the evidence of the 55-percent BVAP floor. But Chief Justice Roberts didn't seem inclined to look to that evidence to show that race predominated with the legislature. He asked: How do we determine the intent of the legislature? By 10 percent say-so? By 80 percent say-so? What if most of the legislators were only interested in protecting their own party, even though the sponsor of the legislature's redistricting plan used a 55-percent-BVAP (race-based) floor? If the direct evidence of a 55-percent-BVAP floor doesn't persuade that race predominated, then it's a tie, and then race didn't predominate--and the legislature's plan stands.
Chief Justice Roberts was also troubled that the lower court didn't require the plaintiffs to show that a map based on partisanship interests would be different.
With Justice Kennedy seeming to lean with the conservatives, the case could be headed for a 4-4 split, which would uphold the lower court's ruling that District 3 was an unconstitutional racial gerrymander.
Thursday, March 17, 2016
The Court will hear oral arguments on Monday in Whittman v. Personhuballah, a case testing whether a state's move to pack black voters into a congressional district supposedly to comply with Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, but with the net effect of diluting black voters' influence, violates equal protection. This is the second time in two Terms that the Court has dealt with the issue: last Term the Court ruled in Alabama Legislative Black Caucus v. Alabama that the lower court applied the wrong standard and remanded the case for further proceedings. Whittman deals with a slightly different question, as described below. There's also a significant question of standing.
Here's my oral argument preview, from the ABA Preview of United States Supreme Court Cases, with permission:
Does a redrawn congressional district, which is based on maintaining a minimum fixed percentage of black voters in a district and in fact increases the percentage, violate equal protection?
Case at a Glance
The Equal Protection Clause forbids a state legislature from unjustifiably using race as the predominate factor in redrawing state legislative and congressional districts. At the same time, some states were required under the Voting Rights Act to ensure against retrogression, the diminution of a minority group’s ability to elect a preferred candidate of their choice. This means that a covered state had to consider race in redistricting. This case tests how a covered state can consider race.
The Virginia legislature adopted a redistricting plan that increased the percentage of black voters in a majority-minority congressional district. The legislature based the plan on maintaining a fixed percentage of black voters in a certain congressional district, supposedly to comply with the Voting Rights Act. A three-judge district court struck the plan as a racial gerrymander and ordered the implementation of its own map.
- Does a member of congress from an adjoining district have standing to challenge the court-ordered map, on the theory that the map may make it harder for him to win re-election?
- Did the Virginia legislature’s use of race predominate when it drew congressional district 3, and, if so, was its use of race justified in order to comply with the Voting Rights Act?
In 1991, as part of its redistricting plan after the 1990 Census, Virginia created its Third Congressional District, or “CD3.” The state created CD3 as its only majority-minority district, so that racial minorities in the district could elect a candidate of their choice. At the time, CD3 had a black voting age population, or “BVAP,” of 61.17 percent. The U.S. Department of Justice, or “DOJ,” precleared the plan and CD3 under Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, “VRA.”
In 1997, however, a three-judge court invalidated CD3 as a racial gerrymander. The court in Moon v. Meadows, 952 F. Supp. 1141 (E.D. Va. 1997), found the evidence “overwhelming that the creation of a safe black district predominated in the drawing of the boundaries.” As a result, the General Assembly redrew the district, and lowered its BVAP to 50.47 percent. DOJ precleared the plan, and CD3 was not challenged.
After the 2000 Census, the state redrew CD3 again, along with its other congressional districts. As part of this redistricting, the state shifted a number of black voters from CD4 into CD3 and CD5. As a result, the BVAP in CD3 increased to 53.1 percent. DOJ precleared the plan, and CD3 was not challenged. (This plan is sometimes called “the Benchmark Plan,” because it immediately preceded the challenged plan and thus sets the benchmark against which the challenged plan is measured.)
After the 2010 Census, the state once again undertook to redraw its congressional districts. This time, CD3 was underpopulated by 63,976 citizens, so it needed additional citizens in order to reach the state’s benchmark population for compliance with the one-person-one-vote principle. Delegate Bill Janis introduced a plan that added population to CD3 and increased its BVAP from 53.1 percent to 56.3 percent.
Janis said that he based his plan on several criteria. These included the one-person-one-vote principle, the VRA rule against retrogression of minority voter influence, respecting the will of the Virginia electorate as reflected in the November 2010 elections, and maintaining current boundaries as much as possible. Throughout the floor debates on the plan, Janis repeatedly said that Section 5 of the VRA prohibited retrogression of minority voter influence, that compliance with Section 5 was “nonnegotiable,” and that compliance with the non-retrogression mandate was a “paramount concern” in drafting the plan.
The Virginia legislature failed to enact a plan in its 2011 special session. But Janis’s plan was reintroduced in the 2012 session (although Janis was no longer a member). At least two members of the legislature (Senators Locke and McEachin) protested that the plan packed black voters into CD3 and some surrounding districts, leaving them “essentially disenfranchised.” The House and Senate nevertheless passed the Janis plan, and the governor signed it. The plan maintained an 8-3 partisan division in favor of Republicans in the state and protected all incumbent members of congress. DOJ precleared the plan in March 2012.
In June 2013, in Shelby County v. Holder, 133 S. Ct. 2612, the Court invalidated the preclearance coverage formula in Section 4 of the VRA. This meant that Virginia (along with other previously covered jurisdictions) were no longer subject to the non-retrogression requirement in Section 5.
In October 2013, Dawn Curry Page, Gloria Personhuballah, and James Farkas, three voters in CD3, filed this case, seeking to invalidate CD3 as a racial gerrymander. Republican members of congress from districts surrounding CD3, including Representative Randy Forbes, Republican from CD4, intervened in the case to defend the plan.
The plaintiffs alleged that CD3 was designed to pack black voters in the district, which would dilute black voters’ influence in CD3 and in other districts. During trial, the plaintiffs called an expert, Dr. Michael McDonald, who testified that CD3 was drawn as a majority-black district for predominantly racial reasons. (McDonald based his conclusion in part on an Alternative Plan, produced by the plaintiffs, that resulted in a 50.1 percent BVAP in CD3. The parties disagree over the meaning of the Alternative Plan and whether it supports McDonald’s conclusion.) The state called its own expert, John Morgan, who testified that CD3 was explainable by race-neutral factors of politics and incumbency protection.
Importantly, evidence suggests the General Assembly applied a 55-percent-BVAP floor in drawing CD3. In particular, some evidence shows that at least some in the legislature thought that CD3 needed a 55 percent BVAP in order to pass DOJ preclearance under Section 5 of the VRA. (Remember, the state created CD3 before the Court ruled in Shelby County.)
The district court, by a 2-1 vote, concluded that CD3 was an unconstitutional racial gerrymander and enjoined the state from conducting any further congressional elections under the 2012 plan. The intervenors appealed, and the Supreme Court vacated the district court’s judgment and remanded the case in light of Alabama Legislative Black Caucus v. Alabama, 135 S. Ct. 1257 (2015). (Alabama Legislative Black Caucus involved the same kind of challenge to a similar plan, which also packed black voters into a district supposedly to comply with Section 5 of the VRA. The Court held that the lower court used an incorrect standard for judging this kind of case and gave some guidance for applying the correct standard. As discussed below, a portion of this ruling is relevant here.)
On remand, the district court again ruled 2-1 that CD3 was an unconstitutional racial gerrymander. The court wrote that the “legislative record here is replete with statements indicating that race was the legislature’s paramount concern in enacting the 2012 Plan,” and that the legislature had impermissibly used “a 55% BVAP floor” in redrawing CD3. (Because race predominated in redrawing CD3, the court applied strict scrutiny. The court held that compliance with Section 5 was a compelling state interest, but that the state’s use of race to increase the BVAP from 53.1 percent to 56.3 percent was not narrowly tailored to avoid retrogression in CD3. That’s because Congressman Bobby Scott, “a Democrat supported by the majority of African-American voters,” had been repeatedly reelected under the prior BVAP by large margins.) The intervenors appealed to the Court.
Meanwhile, the remedial phase of the litigation proceeded in the district court. The court invited the parties and any interested non-parties to propose plans and appointed Dr. Bernard Grofman as special master. Grofman rejected the proposed plans and recommended his own. The court found that the Grofman plan cured the racial gerrymander by redrawing CD3 according to neutral districting criteria, and not race. The court also found that the plan complied with the VRA, despite the drop in CD3’s BVAP (to 45.3 percent), because the lower BVAP combined with significant white-crossover voting preserved “African-American voters’ ability to elect the representative of their choice.”
The court-ordered plan also changed CD4. The plan increased the BVAP in CD4 from 31.3 percent to 40.9 percent, creating a “realistic possibility,” according to Grofman, that black voters could elect a candidate of their choice. The plan also increased Democratic representation (as measured by the election results for the 2012 Presidential election) from 48.8 percent to 60.9 percent, turning a “safe seat for the Republican incumbent” into a “competitive” district, according to Grofman. (The current and previous maps, and alternative maps, are available at the web-site for the Virginia Division of Legislative Services, http://redistricting.dls.virginia.gov/2010/RedistrictingPlans.aspx#41,list.)
The intervenors again appealed to the Supreme Court. The plaintiffs in the original case (minus Dawn Curry Page, who was dismissed by stipulation) defend the court-ordered plan as appellees before the Court. The Virginia State Board of Elections also defends the plan as an appellee. The government defends the plan as amicus in support of the appellees. The Court divided oral argument to permit each of the parties and the government to participate.
The case involves two principal issues. Let’s take them one at a time.
In order to bring a case in federal court, a plaintiff must demonstrate (1) that he or she suffered an “injury in fact,” (2) that the challenged action caused the injury, and (3) that the lawsuit will redress the injury. The injury-in-fact requirement means that a plaintiff must show “concrete” and “particularized” harm, “actual or imminent.” The causation requirement means that the plaintiff has to show that the challenged action (here, the district court ruling and the court-ordered map) caused the injury. And the redressibility requirement means that the plaintiff must show that a successful lawsuit would redress their harm.
Standing is a threshold requirement. This means that the Court has to be satisfied that the intervenors have standing before it will rule on the merits (the discrimination claim, discussed below). Here, the parties focus particularly on intervenor Forbes. If Forbes has standing, then the Court will consider the merits. If not, the Court will dismiss the case.
The intervenors argue that they have standing, because the court-ordered plan transforms at least one of their districts (CD4, Forbes’s district) from a majority-Republican district to a majority-Democratic district. (Indeed, they say that every proposed plan would have made at least one Republican district a majority-Democratic district, so that they would have standing under any of the proposed plans.) The intervenors contend that this injures at least one of them, because it harms his or her chances for reelection, replaces his or her “base electorate” with “unfavorable” Democratic voters, and undoes his or her recommendations for the district. (The Board sides with the intervenors on standing and makes similar arguments.)
The plaintiffs argue that the intervenors lack standing. They claim that the intervenors have no responsibility for drawing or enforcing the 2012 redistricting plan (and therefore cannot complain that they were harmed by losing their redistricting power), and that they do not live in or represent CD3, the only challenged district. The plaintiffs assert that the intervenors’ only claim to standing is that the court-ordered plan might make it harder for some of them to win, if they choose to run, and if they defeat their primary challengers. The plaintiffs say that this alleged harm is too speculative and not sufficiently connected to the court-ordered plan. And in any event, they say, there are many other factors that might contribute to this harm. (The government sides with the plaintiffs on standing. The government adds that the intervenors have no right to “fence out those voters to enhance their odds of electoral success,” and therefore no harm when that happens.)
State legislatures can use a variety of factors in redrawing state legislative and congressional districts. Most of these factors are neutral—for example, preserving the compactness of a district, preserving the contiguity of a district, maintaining communities with like interests within a single district, and even advancing political interests—and do not alone raise constitutional problems. But the Equal Protection Clause prohibits a state legislature from using race as a factor, when its use of race predominates over other race-neutral factors without a sufficient justification (that is, without satisfying strict scrutiny).
States that were subject to the preclearance requirement in Section 5 of the VRA, including Virginia, had to consider race in their redistricting decisions. That’s because in order to obtain preclearance under Section 5, a covered state had to show that its new map, as compared to the immediately preceding map, would not result in retrogression, that is, diminishment of a minority group’s ability to elect its preferred candidate. (No state is subject to the preclearance requirement today. The Supreme Court in Shelby County struck the coverage formula for preclearance. This means that preclearance remains on the books, but currently there are no covered jurisdictions.)
This raises an important question: If a state legislature uses race in redistricting in order to comply with Section 5, does that use of race violate equal protection? The Supreme Court gave us some guidance to work that out last Term in Alabama Legislative Black Caucus v. Alabama. As relevant here, the Court held that Section 5 does not require a state to maintain a particular minority percentage; instead, it requires the state to maintain a minority’s ability to elect a preferred candidate of choice. This means that when a state legislature uses race as a predominate factor in redistricting in order to comply with Section 5, it cannot use a mechanical percentage—because that’s not what Section 5 requires.
That principle would seem to answer the question in this case (in favor of the plaintiffs and the Board), except that this case involves an additional wrinkle. Here, the intervenors claim even if the legislature used race as a predominate factor, CD3 would have looked the same if the legislature hadn’t used race. The intervenors rely on language from Easley v. Cromartie, 552 U.S. 234 (2001), to argue that because CD3 would have come out the same under neutral principles (without considering race), then race couldn’t have predominated, and the 2012 map satisfies equal protection.
The parties and amicus frame their equal protection arguments around these principles.
The intervenors argue first that the district court erred in finding that race predominated in drawing CD3 in the 2012 plan. The intervenors concede that race was a factor in the 2012 plan—that the legislature recognized that compliance with Section 5 of the VRA was “non-negotiable” and “paramount.” But they say that this use of race was necessary (because the state had to comply with Section 5), and that if it is considered predominant, then every use of race to comply with the VRA will automatically be deemed predominant. Moreover, they contend that the legislature’s racial goals were coextensive with neutral redistricting principles that governed all districts (like protecting incumbents by preserving the cores of existing districts) and with the legislature’s political objectives. They say that because the use of race resulted in the same district lines that would have resulted without the use of race, race cannot have predominated over neutral redistricting principles. Finally, the intervenors contend that the district court’s approach requires the legislature to treat majority-minority districts differently than majority-white districts, because under the district court’s approach the legislature could not use neutral principles to draw CD3, so long as the VRA also required the legislature to draw CD3 the same way.
Next, the intervenors argue that the district court failed to properly determine whether the legislature’s racial considerations subordinated other neutral redistricting criteria. They claim that the legislature would have drawn CD3 the same based only on neutral criteria, and so race could not have predominated. (They even say that achieving a 55 percent BVAP floor was the best way to achieve the legislature’s neutral redistricting objectives, irrespective of any racial purpose in using that floor.) The intervenors contend that the district should have determined whether there was an inconsistency between the neutral motives and the racial motives in order to determine whether racial motives predominated. But they say that the court never looked at this question.
Third, the intervenors argue that CD3 in the 2012 plan served permissible political purposes. They say that the 2012 plan treated CD3 the same as all other (majority-white) districts in the state, making only minor changes to district cores for the permissible purpose of benefitting incumbents. They claim moreover that changing CD3’s shape or reducing its BVAP would have sent a significant number of Democratic voters into the adjacent districts, all of which had Republican incumbents. Again, according to the intervenors, this means that CD3’s shape and BVAP serve the permissible purpose of benefitting incumbents. Finally, they contend that even the plaintiffs’ expert conceded that CD3 benefitted Republican incumbents and could be explained by a political purpose.
Fourth, the intervenors argue that the plaintiffs failed to show that the state could have achieved its political goals by drawing CD3 any other way. They contend that drawing CD3 with a BVAP of 56.3 percent was the only way for the state to retain all Republicans incumbents. They say that the plaintiffs’ alternative plan proves their point: this plan, which itself subordinated neutral redistricting principles to race, would have converted CD2 from a toss-up district with a Republican incumbent into a Democratic district, in order to achieve a lower BVAP.
Finally, the intervenors argue that CD3 in the 2012 plan meets the Alabama test. They claim that of all the alternatives, CD3 best advances the legislature’s political purposes and thus least subordinates those principles to race. In particular, they say that the court-ordered plan, with its reduction to a 30 percent BVAP, was not only based on race but likely would have failed DOJ preclearance. They contend that the legislature therefore had a “good reason” under Alabama to adopt the 2012 version of CD3.
The plaintiffs argue that race impermissibly predominated when the legislature redrew CD3 in 2012. They say that Janis, who originally introduced the plan, said as much, when he adopted the 55-percent-BVAP threshold based on a mistaken belief that any decrease in the BVAP would violate Section 5 of the VRA. They claim that circumstantial evidence shows this, too: the 2012 version of CD3 was the least compact district in the state, using water continuity to connect disparate black communities along the James River; it moved over 180,000 people to address underpopulation in CD3 of only 63,976; and the legislature disproportionately moved black voters into and white voters out of CD3.
The plaintiffs argue next that the intervenors are wrong to assert that the district court failed to apply Alabama—a legal error. Instead, the plaintiffs say that in truth the intervenors challenge the district court’s factual findings. But the plaintiffs contend that the intervenors cannot show that the district court’s findings were “clearly erroneous,” the standing for reversal on appeal.
The plaintiffs argue that the intervenors are also wrong to assert that the legislature’s use of race could not have predominated, because CD3 would have looked the same based on race-neutral redistricting criteria. The plaintiffs claim that if the legislature used race as a proxy for race-neutral criteria (as the intervenors seem to argue), then the legislature impermissibly used race. Moreover, the plaintiffs say that Comartie II is distinguishable: in that case, the direct evidence showed a partisan purpose, and the plaintiffs advanced a largely circumstantial case to prove otherwise; but in this case, the direct evidence (Janis’s statements) reveals a clear racial purpose behind the 2012 version of CD3.
Finally, the plaintiffs argue that Alabama supports their position. They say that the legislature made the same mistake as the legislature in Alabama, by focusing on how it could meet the arbitrary threshold of a 55 percent BVAP. But the plaintiffs argue that under Alabama the legislature should have focused on this question: “To what extent must we preserve existing minority percentages in order to maintain the minority’s present ability to elect the candidate of its choice?” Alabama, 135 S. Ct. at 1274. The plaintiffs argue that the intervenors try to escape the plain factual record, but they cannot: the record clearly reflects that race was the predominate purpose in drawing the 2012 version of CD3.
The Virginia State Board of Elections (as appellees) and the government (as amicus) make substantially similar arguments. The government clarifies a couple of points, however. First, the government says that mere statements that the legislature has to comply with the VRA does not mean that race predominated; instead, the legislature’s use of the 55-percent-BVAP threshold, along with other circumstantial evidence, means that race predominated. And the government, like the plaintiffs and the Board, argues that the court made no clear error in finding these facts. Next, the government contends, contrary to the intervenors, that a racial gerrymandering claim does not depend on a showing that race and politics conflicted. Instead, the government says that the constitutional harm comes from the predominate use of race, and that a plaintiff who can show that race predominated need not also show that the district’s actual configuration was different than an alternative configuration under race-neutral criteria. Finally, the government emphasizes that “Section 5 does not require jurisdictions to adhere to mechanical and factually unsupported racial targets, uninformed by a functional analysis of a minority group’s ability to elect.” And because that is exactly what the legislature did here, race impermissibly predominated.
This is the second time in two years that the Court will consider a case of a previously covered jurisdiction packing black voters into a district supposedly to comply with Section 5 of the VRA. The Court limited this practice last Term in Alabama by ruling that (as relevant here) a state legislature cannot use mechanical percentages in order to comply with the VRA; instead, it must use the retrogression standard. That principle seems to answer the question in this case (because the Virginia legislature used a mechanical percentage), except that the intervenors claim that CD3 would have looked the same even without race—and therefore that race did not predominate in drawing CD3. Look for the Court to test this claim at oral argument.
The history of this case and the result in Alabama both suggest that the Court may lean toward the plaintiffs and the Board (and against the intervenors). First, the Court denied the intervenors’ application for a stay of the lower court’s decision pending appeal. Ordinarily, that would not (necessarily) suggest anything about the likely outcome. But in this case, Virginia has to know the shape of its districts, because it has to conduct 2016 elections. Because Virginia is set to run its elections based on the court-ordered map, the Court would throw a real wrench into Virginia politics by reversing course. (For one, it could affect Forbes himself. Forbes has announced that he will run for re-election in 2016 in CD2, not CD4, his current district. That’s because under the court-ordered map, CD4 leans much more Democratic. If the Court reversed the lower court, this could affect Forbes and the new representative in CD4, among others. It’ll be interesting to see if Forbes’s decision to run in CD2 becomes a factor for standing purposes.) Second, Alabama was a 5-4 decision, with Justice Kennedy siding with the progressives. This is a different case, to be sure, but it could turn on a similar line-up.
If the Court gets to the merits, look for it to rule narrowly. Given the Court’s approach in Alabama and given certain features of this case, this case seems an unlikely vehicle for the Court to make a grand statement about the constitutionality of the practice of packing districts for the supposed purpose of complying with the VRA, but with the effect of diluting the impact of all black voters in the state.
But that’s only if the Court rules on the merits. Indeed, we have good reason to think it might not, or at least that the Court will take the standing issue very seriously. The Court itself introduced the issue and ordered the parties to file supplemental briefs on it—twice. The first time, the Court simply asked the parties to brief whether the intervenors had standing. This apparently didn’t satisfy the Court, however, because it then asked the parties to brief whether they had standing because none of them lived in or represented CD3. These orders raise the real possibility that the Court could simply dismiss the case based on lack of standing, and not even address the merits.
Tuesday, March 15, 2016
Here's my argument preview in Simmons v. Himmelreich, originally posted at SCOTUSblog. The case is scheduled for oral argument next Tuesday.
Federal prisoners who seek redress for civil rights violations face an infamous thicket of rules, regulations, statutes, and case law. Prisoners have to navigate often-complicated prison rules and regulations to file an administrative claim in the first instance. They have to check to see that they have exhausted all administrative options before filing in federal court. And they have to choose and plead their federal claims carefully. (And that’s just the beginning.) This thicket sometimes seems especially designed only to thwart prisoners’ claims entirely, creating an access barrier that restricts and even prohibits a federal prisoner from obtaining a remedy for a civil rights violation.
On the other hand, this thicket serves some important governmental interests. It helps ensure that a prison itself gets a first crack at providing relief to a prisoner. It helps narrow the issues and streamline a case for the federal court. And it ensures that a federal employee and the government itself need only defend against a single lawsuit arising out of the same incident.
This case tests the push and pull between the rules in this thicket. And while the case deals in the technical and sometimes complicated interplay between different statutory provisions, it really comes down to this simple question: When a federal prisoner seeks redress for a civil rights violation, does federal law favor relatively more open access to the courts, or does it favor protection of federal employees and the government?
In October 2008, Walter Himmelreich was serving a 240-month sentence at the Federal Correctional Institution in Elkton, Ohio, for the production of child pornography. Himmelreich’s crime didn’t sit well with another inmate at Elkton, a prisoner who was housed in the Special Housing Unit because of his disciplinary violations. That prisoner told officials that he was “not able to live with pedophiles” and that if he were released into the general compound he “will smash a pedophile.” Just four days after this prisoner made these claims, prison officials nevertheless transferred him back into the general compound where, perhaps unsurprisingly, he assaulted Himmelreich. Himmelreich suffered serious injuries, including internal bruising, external injuries, permanent ringing in the ears, persistent headaches, and a pinched nerve.
Himmelreich filed and lost an administrative tort claim. He then filed two separate suits in federal court – one under the Federal Tort Claims Act, and the other under Bivens, which allows a plaintiff to sue a federal officer for a constitutional violation, in this case the Eighth Amendment. The court dismissed the FTCA case and then the Bivens case. Himmelreich appealed the Bivens ruling, and after the case went up to the Sixth Circuit twice (where Himmelreich won both times), this question is now before the Court: Does a court’s dismissal of a prisoner’s FTCA case under the FTCA’s “discretionary act” exception foreclose that prisoner’s separate Bivens claim?
The case sits at the intersection of four provisions of the FTCA. The first is the FTCA’s jurisdictional provision, Section 1346(b). This provision waives the United States’s sovereign immunity and grants district courts “exclusive jurisdiction” over claims against the United States for torts by government employees arising out the scope of their employment. In practice, this section operates like ordinary tort claims against a private employer who concedes respondeat superior liability, that is, liability on behalf of its employees for acts within the scope of their employment.
The second provision is the FTCA’s list of exceptions in Section 2680. This provision contains several categories of claims to which the FTCA does not apply. One of those categories encompasses what is commonly known as the “discretionary function” exception: any claim based on a federal employee’s “exercise or performance or the failure to exercise or perform a discretionary function or duty.”
The third is the FTCA’s judgment bar in Section 2676. The judgment bar provides that:
The judgment in any action under [the jurisdictional provision] shall constitute a complete bar to any action by the claimant, by reason of the same subject mater, against the employee of the government whose act or omission gave rise to the claim.
In practice, the judgment bar forecloses a plaintiff’s ability to pursue other kinds of claims against government employees arising from the same underlying incident. Congress enacted the judgment bar to protect federal employees and the government itself from multiple suits by the same plaintiff for the same injuries. At the time of its adoption, this provision served primarily to bar parallel state-law tort claims filed against federal employees in state court. But since 1971, when the Court recognized a federal constitutional-tort cause of action against federal employees in Bivens, the judgment bar has also foreclosed a parallel Bivens cause of action.
The final provision is the Westfall Act. That act, enacted in 1988, after the FTCA, makes the FTCA the “exclusive” remedy for a tort claim against a federal employee. It also precludes state-tort claims against federal employees and provides for the prompt substitution of the United States for the employee-defendants in those state-tort cases. Because the Westfall Act bars state-tort suits directly against federal employees, the judgment bar now functions primarily to foreclose parallel federal Bivens claims.
After Himmelreich filed his first case (the FTCA case), the federal government moved to dismiss pursuant to the FTCA’s discretionary-function exception. The court granted the motion, noting that Section 2680 is an exception to the FTCA’s general waiver of sovereign immunity, and that the court therefore “lacks subject matter jurisdiction over acts falling within the discretionary function exception.” The court issued a document titled “JUDGMENT ENTRY” in which the court “ORDERED, ADJUDGED and DECREED” that the case was dismissed.
The court then dismissed Himmelreich’s second case, the Bivens case, for failure to state a claim. The Sixth Circuit reversed and remanded. The district court again dismissed the case, this time based on two alternative theories: Himmelreich’s failure to exhaust administrative remedies and the FTCA’s judgment bar. The Sixth Circuit again reversed, ruling that Himmelreich’s failure to exhaust administrative remedies was excused (an issue that is not now before the Court), and that the judgment bar did not foreclose Himmelreich’s Bivens claim. As to the latter, the court of appeals said that the district court’s dismissal under Section 2680 amounted to a dismissal for lack of subject matter jurisdiction, and that it was therefore not a “judgment” subject to the judgment bar. This is the question now before the Court.
The government argues that the district court’s dismissal of Himmelreich’s FTCA case was a “judgment” under the FTCA judgment bar and thus forecloses his Bivens claim against the individual prison officials. The government says that this interpretation comports with the plain definition of the term, Congress’s use of the term in other portions of the FTCA, and the congressional purpose of the judgment bar. The government contends that Himmelreich is wrong to argue that the judgment bar applies only to the subset of judgments that is capable of having some preclusive effect under the principle of res judicata. According to the government, the term “judgment” is nowhere confined only to judgments having preclusive effect. But even if the term “judgment” is so confined, the government claims that the district court’s dismissal under Section 2680 is still a “judgment” under the judgment bar. That’s because Section 2680 imposes “substantive limitations” on FTCA liability, which makes the dismissal a ruling “on the merits” and therefore (under claim preclusion) precludes another case raising the same claim. It’s also because the district court actually determined that Section 2680 applies, and so (under issue preclusion) the ruling precludes Himmelreich from relitigating the issue. (This argument hinges on Himmelreich’s claim that the judgment bar extends the same res judicata preclusive effect that the government has under the FTCA to a government employee.) Finally, the government says that Himmelreich is wrong to argue that the judgment bar does not apply to an FTCA action dismissed under Section 2680 (because the judgment bar covers any FTCA action), and that he is wrong to claim that the introductory language to Section 2680 prevents Section 2680 dismissals from triggering the judgment bar (because the Court has ruled otherwise in a related context).
Himmelreich counters that the judgment bar does not foreclose his Bivens claim against the individual officials. As an initial matter, he says that the judgment bar does not even apply here, because the plain terms of Section 2680 say that the FTCA’s other provisions, including the judgment bar, “shall not apply” to the categories of exceptions in Section 2680. It’s also because the judgment bar is only triggered by a “judgment” in a suit “under section 1346(b).” But he says that Section 1346(b) does not apply to the “claims” enumerated in Section 2680, so that his FTCA action was not even “under” Section 1346(b) in the first place.
Himmelreich argues next that the court’s dismissal for lack of jurisdiction is not a “judgment” under the judgment bar, because the court’s dismissal carries no res judicata effect (and thus does not shield the government employee from suit). Finally, Himmelreich claims that the government’s approach would lead to absurdities, including lower courts blocking Bivens claims based on technical defects (that result in dismissal) in a plaintiff’s FTCA case, encouraging personal-capacity lawsuits (before FTCA claims, which the FTCA was designed, in part, to prevent), and depriving plaintiffs of a remedy for civil rights violations.
In the end – as technical and complicated as this thicket can be – the bottom line is pretty simple: the Court will either favor more access to justice for federal prisoners who seek redress for civil rights violations, or it will favor the government’s interest in protecting its employees from lawsuits.
Friday, March 11, 2016
The Eighth Circuit ruled today that the ACLU lacked standing to bring a case against the director of the Missouri Department of Corrections to stop him from enforcing the state's ban on revealing the identities of execution team members. The ruling is a set-back for the ACLU and its efforts to disclose information about the state's executions, and, in particular, who provides the drugs. (Publicizing the providers has been an effective strategy by anti-death-penalty advocates to get those providers to stop providing.)
The case arose when the ACLU realized that it may have posted information about Missouri's executions (obtained under the Missouri Sunshine Law) that included "the identity of a current or former member of an execution team" in violation of a state law that prohibits revealing this information. The organization only realized the potential violation after it saw how the Department defined the members of the team--to include "anyone selected by the department director who provides direct support for the administration of lethal chemical, including individuals who prescribe, compound, prepare, or otherwise supply the lethal chemicals for use in the lethal injection procedure." So the organization removed the material from its web-site and moved quickly to sue the director for declaratory and injunctive relief, arguing that the law violated free speech, free press, and due process.
The director moved to dismiss, claiming that he was immune under the Eleventh Amendment, that the ACLU lacked standing, and that the claims failed as a matter of law.
The Eighth Circuit today sided with the director on immunity and standing (and didn't say anything on the merits). The court ruled that the director was immune, because under the law he has no role in enforcing the prohibition, even if he has authority to define the members of the execution team. But the court said that defining the members wasn't an enforcement action within the meaning of Ex Parte Young.
The court also ruled that the ACLU lacked standing. That's (again) because the director has no authority to enforce the prohibition. (Instead, the law provides for a civil cause of action by any execution team member against anyone who reveals his or her identity.) The court said that this means that the director's action (defining the execution team) didn't cause the ACLU's injury, and an injunction against the director wouldn't redress it.
But the court did recognize that the ACLU suffered an injury--an objectively reasonable fear of legal action that chills its speech. Because this fear derives from the possibility of a team member's suit, the organization could probably could sue a team member who appears in its materials for the same relief. Or it could post the material, wait to be sued, and then raise the constitutional defenses.