Monday, August 15, 2016
The Ninth Circuit today denied rehearing of its en banc decision in Peruta v. County of San Diego, upholding California's "good cause" requirement for a concealed carry permit against a Second Amendment challenge.
The ruling is a significant win for advocates of restricted and regulated concealed carry.
Recall that the full Ninth Circuit rejected the Second Amendment challenge to the "good cause" requirement earlier this summer. Plaintiffs petitioned for a rehearing, but the court denied it.
The ruling ends the case at the Ninth Circuit. The plaintiff's only option now is to petition for Supreme Court review. But without a ninth justice, the Court (if it accepted the case) would almost surely split 4-4, leaving the Ninth Circuit ruling in place--that is, leaving things exactly as they are now.
The plaintiffs petitioned for rehearing by arguing that the en banc majority mistakenly ruled that the Second Amendment doesn't protect a right to concealed carry (when the case was in fact about whether the "good cause" requirement infringed on the plaintiffs' right to carry at all outside the home); that the majority's approach conflicts with other courts; that the majority's approach "impermissibly relegates the Second Amendment to Second-class Status"; and that the "Decision Unnecessarily Intrudes on the Prerogatives of the State."
Today's two-page Order doesn't specifically address those claims; it simply rejects the plaintiffs' petition for rehearing.
The Ninth Circuit's case page is here, with all appellate court filings.
Friday, August 12, 2016
The Sixth Circuit ruled this week in State of Tennessee v. FCC that the Federal Communications Commission lacked statutory authority to preempt states' laws that restricted municipalities from providing broadband Internet service outside their boundaries.
The ruling means that the FCC can't require states to permit municipalities to provide service outside their boundaries, at least in the Sixth Circuit, and at least unless and until Congress specifically authorizes the FCC to preempt in the Telecommunications Act of 1996.
Because areas outside the boundaries of these particular municipalities are unserved or under-served areas, the ruling also means that certain regions outside the municipalities' boundaries will continue to go with inadequate Internet service.
The case arose when Tennessee and North Carolina implemented restrictions on municipalities' ability to provide Internet service outside their territorial boundaries. Two municipalities in those states complained to the FCC, because they saw benefits to providing service, and thus wanted to provide service, outside their boundaries. The municipalities appealed to the FCC to preempt state laws restricting broader service.
The FCC responded by finding that broader service would serve the interests of the Telecommunications Act of 1996 (expanded broadband access, and all the benefits that this brings to communities), and by issuing an order preempting the portions of the state laws that prohibited municipalities from providing access beyond their boarders.
The states sued, arguing that the FCC lacked authority to preempt under the Act's preemption provision, Section 706. The court agreed.
The court said that the FCC's order ran headlong into the "Clear Statement Rule" and Nixon. Under the Clear Statement Rule, the FCC can't preempt a state action that allocates state decision-making; under Nixon v. Missouri Municipal League, that rule applies when a federal government preemption action "interpos[es] federal authority between a State and its municipal subdivisions," which, the Court said, "are created as convenient agencies for exercising such of the governmental powers of the State as may be entrusted to them in its absolute discretion." As the Sixth Circuit said,
Any attempt by the federal government to interpose itself into this state-subdivision relationship therefore must come about by a clear directive from Congress, and the FCC can only pick the decision maker here if there exists a clear statement to do so in Section 706.
According to the court, Section 706 contains no such clear statement.
So despite the Act's ambitious goals and broad delegation to the FCC to achieve those goals, the court said that the Act stops short of authorizing the FCC to preempt state laws restricting Internet access beyond a municipality's boarders.
Nothing in the ruling requires a state to adopt this kind of restriction, however, or forbids a state from specifically authorizing a municipality to expand access. But when it does--as Tennessee and North Carolina have done--the FCC cannot preempt it, at least in the Sixth Circuit, and at least unless and until Congress gives the FCC specific authorization to do so.
(The North Carolina case was in the Fourth Circuit when that court transferred it to the Sixth Circuit for consolidation with the Tennessee case.)
Thursday, August 11, 2016
The Seventh Circuit ruled today in Kristofek v. Village of Orland Hills that a police officer's allegation of official misconduct in the higher ranks was protected speech under the First Amendment.
The ruling reverses the district court on the point and on its companion ruling that the police chief enjoyed qualified immunity. But the court rejected the officer's municipal liability claim.
The case arose when a part-time police officer, Kristofek, complained to colleagues and then to the FBI that a driver that he cited and detained may have been released, and charges dropped, because of official misconduct. (The driver's mother, a former township trustee, successfully intervened with local politicians and the police on behalf of her son. Kristofek thought that this might constitute official misconduct, based on a misconduct training that he attended.) Police Chief Scully then fired Kristofek.
Kristofek sued, arguing that his termination in retaliation for protected speech violated the First Amendment, and that the township was liable under Monell. The district court granted summary judgment to the defendants.
The Seventh Circuit reversed on the First Amendment claim. The court ruled that Kristofek spoke as a private citizen on a matter of public concern when he complained to his colleagues and to the FBI, and that the Pickering balance favored his speech. The court also denied qualified immunity to Scully.
But the court rejected Kristofek's Monell claim, because Scully didn't have authority to unilaterally fire Kristofek or to set department firing policy.
The ruling sends the case back for proceedings consistent with the opinion. But it also assigns the case to a new judge.
Wednesday, August 10, 2016
The D.C. Circuit yesterday rejected a constitutional challenge to Security and Exchange Commission Administrative Law Judges, ruling that SEC ALJs are not "officers" or "inferior officers" whose appointments need to meet the requirements of the Appointments Clause.
The court also rejected a broadside attack against the way the D.C. Circuit analyzes whether any ALJ (SEC or not) is subject to the Appointments Clause.
The petitioner's challenge was novel and sweeping. A ruling in its favor could have been quite significant, potentially threatening the authority of SEC ALJs, certain ALJs in other agencies, and possibly even ALJs across the board (at least insofar as their appointments don't satisfy the Appointments Clause). But the petitioner's novel claims ran up against circuit law. The ruling is thus a decisive win, if not a totally unpredictable one, for the government.
The case turned on whether SEC ALJs are "officers" (who, under Article II, require presidential nomination and advice and consent of the Senate), "inferior officers" (who, under Article II, may be appointed by the President alone, the courts, or the head of a department, depending on what Congress says), or just employees (who are not covered by the Appointments Clause). Under circuit law, the line between "inferior officers" and employees, in turn, depends on (1) the significance of the matters resolved by the officials, (2) the discretion they exercise, and (3) the finality of their decisions.
The court said that decisions of SEC ALJs are not final under the third prong, and therefore SEC ALJs are employees, not subject to the Appointments Clause. That's because under the law the SEC itself makes the final decision, even if only by passively adopting an ALJ's decision. The court explained:
Until the Commission determines not to order review, within the time allowed by its rules, there is no final decision that can "be deemed the action of the Commission." As the Commission has emphasized, the initial decision becomes final when, and only when, the Commission issues the finality order, and not before then. Thus, the Commission must affirmatively act--by issuing the order--in every case. The Commission's final action is either in the form of a new decision after de novo review, or, by declining to grant or order review, its embrace of the ALJ's initial decision as its own. In either event, the Commission has retained full decision-making powers, and the mere passage of time is not enough to establish finality. And even when there is not full review by the Commission, it is the act of issuing the finality order that makes the initial decision the action of the Commission within the meaning of the delegation statute. . . .
Put otherwise, the Commission's ALJs neither have been delegated sovereign authority to act independently of the Commission nor, by other means established by Congress, do they have the power to bind third parties, or the government itself, for the public benefit.
The court went on to uphold the Commission's finding of liability and sanctions against the petitioner on other grounds.
Monday, August 8, 2016
Judge Rosemary Collyer (D.D.C.) on Friday dismissed a case by the Libertarian and Greens against the Commission on Presidential Debates and others challenging their exclusion from the 2012 presidential debates and seeking to participate in the 2016 debates.
The ruling is hardly a surprise, despite the plaintiffs' mighty efforts to navigate well settled precedent.
The Libertarians and Greens argued that their exclusion under the Commission's 15% rule (a candidate needs 15% support in the polls to participate) violated antitrust laws and the First Amendment. But Judge Collyer held that they lacked standing, and that they failed to state a claim.
Judge Collyer said that the plaintiffs lacked standing, because their injury (lack of electoral support) was too speculative and was not traceable to Commission action (on the First Amendment claim) and because their injury wasn't a harm to the market (on the antitrust claim).
Judge Collyer went on to say that the plaintiffs failed to state a claim, because the Commission isn't a government actor subject to the First Amendment (on the free speech claim) and because they failed to allege an injury to competition in a commercial market (on the antitrust claim).
Given the plaintiffs' attempts to navigate well settled First Amendment law, Judge Collyer's ruling sometimes reads like a law exam answer--covering everything from the public function exception to the state actor doctrine, to right-to-access laws, to forum analysis, to the Jaybird primaries.
Despite the plaintiffs' efforts, however, they still lost. The ruling means that the Libertarians and Greens won't be at the 2016 presidential debates, at least not by court order.
Wednesday, August 3, 2016
The Court today issued a stay in G.G. v. Glouster County School Board, the case from the Fourth Circuit concluding that Title IX's ban on sex discrimination, 20 U.S.C. § 1681(a), requires schools to provide transgender students access to restrooms congruent with their gender identity. As we discussed,while the constitutional issues are not "front and center," the case implicates both the constitutional power of Executive branch agencies, federalism, and Equal Protection.
The stay opinion divides the Court, with Justices Ginsburg, Sotomayor, and Kagan dissenting without opinion.
Justice Breyer - - - the crucial vote for the majority - - - writes separately to concur stating that he votes to grant the stay "as a courtesy" joining the four other Justices to "preserve the status quo (as of the time the Court of Appeals made its decision)," meaning presumably, before the Fourth Circuit rendered its decision.
[Caricature image of Justice Breyer by Donkey Hotey via]
Friday, July 22, 2016
Alaska Supreme Court Holds Parental Notification Law Violates State Constitution's Equal Protection Clause
In its opinion in Planned Parenthood of the Great Northwest v. State of Alaska, the Alaska Supreme Court held unconstitutional the 2010 voter-enacted Parental Notification Law which required 48-hour advance parental notice before a physician may terminate a minor’s pregnancy, but importantly not before a physician could provide other care. The court's majority opinion, authored by Justice Daniel Winfree, found that the Parental Notification Law violates the Alaska Constitution’s equal protection guarantee by unjustifiably burdening the fundamental privacy rights only of minors seeking pregnancy termination, rather than applying equally to all pregnant minors.
Although explicitly under the state constitution, the court's equal protection analysis is a familiar one and executed with great precision. The court first identifies the classification - - - pregnant minors seeking termination and pregnant minors seeking to carry to term - - - and then identifies the level of scrutiny; because the right at stake is the fundamental one of reproductive choice is strict scrutiny. Applying the level of scrutiny, the court then examined the state's interests and the means chosen to effectuate those interests.
The court noted that to "justify differently burdening fundamental privacy rights, the State’s interests in doing so must be compelling," and that the State asserts two main interests as justifying the Notification Law’s disparate treatment of pregnant minors: (1) “aiding parents to fulfill their parental responsibilities” and (2) “protecting minors from their immaturity.” The court accepted that these were compelling interests, even as it refined the immaturity interest because "immaturity in and of itself is not a harm." Instead, the court defined the interest in “protecting minors from their immaturity” as "protecting minors from specific pitfalls and dangers to which their immaturity makes them especially susceptible" which in this case would be risks to mental and physical health and from sexual abuse.
The problem arose - - - as it so often does in equal protection - - - with the "fit" between the state's chosen means to effectuate its interests. As to the parental responsibility interest:
We conclude that vindicating the State’s compelling interest in encouraging parental involvement in minors’ pregnancy-related decisions does not support the Notification Law’s disparate treatment of the two classes of pregnant minors. Parents do have an “important ‘guiding role’ to play in the upbringing of their children.” We have said that “it is the right and duty, privilege and burden, of all parents to involve themselves in their children’s lives; to provide their children with emotional, physical, and material support; and to instill in their children ‘moral standards, religious beliefs, and elements of good citizenship.’ ” But as the State acknowledged at oral argument, this must be true for all pregnant minors’ parents, not just those whose daughters are considering termination.
[footnotes omitted; emphasis added]. Similarly, regarding the minor's immaturity, the court concluded that the statute suffered from being
under-inclusive because the governmental interests asserted in this case are implicated for all pregnant minors — as they face reproductive choices and as they live with their decisions — and the asserted justifications for disparate treatment based upon a minor’s actual reproductive choice are unconvincing.
One of the complicating legal issues of the case was the effect of a previous decision regarding a parental consent law, which the concurring opinion argued precluded an equal protection analysis. Instead, the concurring opinion argued that the 2010 statute was unconstitutional under the state constitution's privacy provision.
One of the five Justices of the Alaska Supreme Court dissented, arguing that the 2010 Parental Notification law violated neither equal protection nor privacy and was thus constitutional.
As the majority opinion notes, other states have similarly found state constitutional infirmities with parental notification laws. The Alaska opinion, however, is particularly well-reasoned and applicable to many state constitutions.
July 22, 2016 in Abortion, Cases and Case Materials, Due Process (Substantive), Equal Protection, Family, Gender, Medical Decisions, Privacy, Sexuality, State Constitutional Law | Permalink | Comments (5)
Thursday, July 21, 2016
The en banc Fifth Circuit yesterday ruled that Texas's voter-ID law, widely described as the most restrictive voter-ID law in the country, had a discriminatory effect in violation of Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act.
The ruling is a decisive victory for voting-rights advocates and opponents of Texas's voter-ID law. If the state appeals, it'll face an 8-member Supreme Court (assuming the Court would take the case). If the Supreme Court were to divide 4-4, the Fifth Circuit's ruling stays in place. (The Texas AG hasn't said yet what he plans to do, if anything.)
The sharply divided ruling sends the case back to the district court to fashion a remedy for the November elections.
Recall that Texas's voter-ID law was denied preclearance under the VRA, but Texas implemented the requirements as soon as the Supreme Court struck the coverage formula for preclearance in Shelby County.
This suit challenged the law under Section 2. The district court ruled that the law had a discriminatory purpose and a discriminatory effect in violation of Section 2.
The Fifth Circuit yesterday walked that ruling back, but just slightly. The court said that the district court erred in its analysis of discriminatory purpose, and sent the case back for further proceedings on that ground (because there may be sufficient evidence of discriminatory purpose, but the district court analyzed it the wrong way). But the court went on to agree with the district court that the law had a discriminatory effect.
Given the timing of the ruling (so soon before the fall elections), the Fifth Circuit instructed the district court to fashion a remedy for the law's discriminatory effect as to "those voters who do not have SB 14 ID or are unable to reasonable obtain such identification," with an eye toward one of the legislature's purposes, reducing voter fraud. That remedy could include something like voter registration cards, or an indigency exception to the ID requirement. The Fifth Circuit also instructed the lower court to "consider the necessity of educational and training efforts to ensure that both voters and workers at polling places are capable of making use of whatever remedy the district court selects."
The Fifth Circuit did not rule on the constitutional claims.
Monday, July 18, 2016
Judge Ellen Segal Huvelle (D.D.C.) ruled last week in State national Bank of Big Spring v. Lew rejected a Recess Appointments Clause challenge to Consumer Protection Financial Bureau Director Richard Cordray. At the same time, the court declined to rule on the plaintiffs' separation-of-powers challenge to the Bureau itself.
The ruling is a decisive win for Director Cordray and actions he took during his period of recess appointment (before he was confirmed by the Senate). But it leaves open the question whether the CFPB itself it unconstitutional--a question that the D.C. Circuit could answer any day now.
This is just the latest case in a spate of challenges to Cordray's appointment and the CFPB. We posted on this case when the D.C. Circuit ruled that the plaintiffs had standing.
The plaintiffs argued that Director Cordray's recess appointment in January 2012 violated the Recess Appointments Clause. And they had good reason to think they were right: the Supreme Court ruled in NLRB v. Noel Canning that the President's recess appointments to the NLRB on the same day he appointed Cordray violated the Clause.
But Judge Huvelle didn't actually rule on that argument. That's because President Obama re-nominated Cordray in 2013, and the Senate confirmed him; he then (as validly appointed head of the CFPB) issued a notice in the Federal Register ratifying all the actions he took during his recess-appointment period. Judge Huvelle said that under circuit law the ratification cured any actions during this period that would have been invalid because of his invalid recess appointment.
But at the same time, the court punted on the plaintiffs' separation-of-powers challenge to the CFPB itself. That argument--which says that the CFPB invalidly combines legislative, executive, and judicial powers in the hands of a single individual--is currently pending at the D.C. Circuit in another case, PPH Corp. v. CFPB, and the court could rule any day now.
Judge Huvelle's ruling is a clear win for the CFPB and Cordray. But the real heart of opponents' claims against the Bureau are the ones now at the D.C. Circuit--that the CFPB violates the separation of powers.
Saturday, July 16, 2016
The D.C. Circuit yesterday upheld a lower court's dismissal of David Patchak's long-running attempt to stop the Match-E-Be-Nash-She-Wish Band's casino in Wayland Township, Michigan, based on a federal law that stripped the courts of jurisdiction over the case.
The ruling ends this dispute in favor of the Band and its casino, with little or no chance of further appeals.
The case started when David Patchak sued the Interior Department for putting certain land in Wayland Township in trust for the Match-E-Be-Nash-She-Wish Band of Pottawatomi Indians to build a casino. Patchak, a neighboring property owner, argued that Interior lacked authority under the Indian Reorganization Act and sought damages for economic, environmental, and aesthetic harms.
The case went to the Supreme Court on justiciability grounds, and the Court ruled in 2012 that Patchak had prudential standing.
After that ruling came down, Congress enacted a stand-alone law that affirmed that Interior had authority to put the land in trust and divested the courts of jurisdiction over Patchak's case. The act, in relevant part, read:
NO CLAIMS -- Notwithstanding any other provision of law, an action (including an action pending in a Federal court as of the date of enactment of this Act) relating to the land described in subsection (a) shall not be filed or maintained in a Federal court and shall be promptly dismissed.
The district court then dismissed Patchak's case, and yesterday the D.C. Circuit affirmed.
The court first rejected Patchak's claim that the jurisdiction-stripping provision violated the separation of powers. The court looked to the familiar distinction (recently sharpened by the Court's ruling in Bank Markazi) between a congressional act that applies a new legal standard in pending civil cases (which is OK) and an act that "prescribes a rule of decision" in those cases (which is not). The court said that this act falls squarely in the former class, even though Congress set the legal standard in a separate, stand-alone statute (and not the statute at issue in the case, the IRA).
The court next rejected Patchak's various individual-rights claims. The court said that the Act did not violate Patchak's First Amendment right to access the courts, because that right isn't absolute, and it yields to Congress's power to set the jurisdiction of the lower federal courts. The court said that the Act also did not violate Patchak's due process rights (because the legislative process provided Patchak any process that he might have been due) and the Bill of Attainder Clause (because the Act wasn't punishment).
Given the Supreme Court's powerful reaffirmation of congressional authority of federal court jurisdiction in Bank Markazi, the D.C. Circuit's ruling almost certainly ends Patchak's challenge.
Thursday, July 14, 2016
While the constitutional issues are not front and center in the controversies and litigation over gender identity and school bathroom access, the disputes certainly implicate constitutional issues of equal protection, federalism, unconstitutional conditions, and executive/agency as well as judicial powers.
A Virginia school board has filed a stay application in the United States Supreme Court pending a petition for writ of certiorari to the Fourth Circuit's opinion in G.G. v. Glouster County School Board. In G.G., a divided panel, reversing the senior district judge, concluded that Title IX's ban on sex discrimination, 20 U.S.C. § 1681(a), requires schools to provide transgender students access to restrooms congruent with their gender identity. (The senior district judge had not reached the Equal Protection claim, so it was not before the Fourth Circuit.) In construing Title IX, the Fourth Circuit relied upon a January 7, 2015 opinion letter from the United States Department of Education, Office for Civil Rights, with a similar conclusion. The Fourth Circuit accorded deference to the agency interpretation of Title IX under Auer v. Robbins (1997), because the relevant regulation was ambiguous - - - perhaps not in the plain meaning, but in its application:
Although the regulation may refer unambiguously to males and females, it is silent as to how a school should determine whether a transgender individual is a male or female for the purpose of access to sex-segregated restrooms. We conclude that the regulation is susceptible to more than one plausible reading because it permits both the Board’s reading— determining maleness or femaleness with reference exclusively to genitalia—and the Department’s interpretation—determining maleness or femaleness with reference to gender identity. [citation omitted]. It is not clear to us how the regulation would apply in a number of situations—even under the Board’s own “biological gender” formulation. For example, which restroom would a transgender individual who had undergone sex-reassignment surgery use? What about an intersex individual? What about an individual born with X-X-Y sex chromosomes? What about an individual who lost external genitalia in an accident? The Department’s interpretation resolves ambiguity by providing that in the case of a transgender individual using a sex-segregated facility, the individual’s sex as male or female is to be generally determined by reference to the student’s gender identity.
The Fourth Circuit panel rejected G.G.'s request to have the case reassigned to another district judge, but did reverse, vacate, and remand the district court's order dismissing the complaint. The Fourth Circuit panel, in an unpublished opinion on July 12, denied the school board's motion for a stay pending appeal, again with one dissent.
The stay application in the United States Supreme Court pending a petition for writ of certiorari argues that the Fourth Circuit's opinion in an "extreme example" of judicial deference to an administrative agency and is the "perfect vehicle" for the Court's reconsideration of Auer v. Robbins (1997). The motion notes that several Justices have signaled such a reconsideration might be warranted, notably the late Justice Scalia, as well as Alito and Thomas, and Chief Justice Roberts. The application also argues that the DOE and DOJ have "seized momentum" and issued further instructions (citing a May 13 DOE "Dear Colleagues" Letter) which would further solidify Auer deference, making action by the Court necessary.
Meanwhile, thirteen states have filed a complaint and application for preliminary injunction in Texas, based on the same letter:
The central challenge is failure to conform with the Administrative Procedure Act, including notice and comment for rule-making. However, the complaint also alleges that the federal government defendants "violated the Spending Clause" by engaging in "unconstitutional coercion" by "economic dragooning." The complaint relies on that portion of the "Obamacare" case, NFIB v. Sebelius, in which a plurality found constitutional issues with the medicaid expansion program.
On May 13, 2016, following years of incremental preambles (“guidances,” “interpretations,” and the like), Defendants informed the nation’s schools that they must immediately allow students to use the bathrooms, locker rooms and showers of the student’s choosing, or risk losing Title IX-linked funding. And employers that refuse to permit employees to utilize the intimate areas of their choice face legal liability under Title VII. These new mandates, putting the federal government in the unprecedented position of policing public school property and facilities, inter alia, run roughshod over clear lines of authority, local policies, and unambiguous federal law.
July 14, 2016 in Cases and Case Materials, Current Affairs, Equal Protection, Executive Authority, Federalism, Fourteenth Amendment, Gender, Interpretation, Sexuality, Theory | Permalink | Comments (0)
Justice Ginsburg's comments about presidential candidate Donald Trump have caused controversy and invited comparisons with the late Justice Scalia's remarks and relationship with a sitting Vice President and his refusal to recuse himself from a case involving the VP which Scalia himself described as "heroic" in an interview. (Amy Howe for SCOTUSBlog has a great round-up of commentary on the controversy; Howard Bashman also has a good list).
But interestingly, Justice Scalia - - - as well as Justice Kennedy - - - broached the possibility of a Donald Trump presidential candidacy more than 25 years ago, in the 1989 oral arguments in Austin v. Michigan Chamber of Commerce. The Court in Austin upheld the constitutionality of a Michigan statute that prohibited corporations, excluding media corporations, from using general treasury funds for independent expenditures in connection with state candidate elections, rejecting both First Amendment and Equal Protection claims, and recognizing a government interest in preventing corruption or the appearance of corruption in the political arena from large corporate treasuries. Both Scalia and Kennedy dissented. Twenty years later, the Court, 5-4, with Kennedy authoring the opinion and Scalia joining, overruled Austin in the controversial 2010 Citizens United v. FEC.
Near the beginning of the Austin oral arguments, Justice Scalia uses Donald Trump, alluding to the wealth that would allow him to self-finance a campaign, as a comparison to corporate financing:
General Caruso, why is there a greater risk to the political process from an independent political expenditure by a family corporation, closely held corporation, eight family members, and they want to spend the corporation's money for a particular candidate whom they think will favor their business.
That... that is prohibited by this.
But if Donald Trump wants to come in and spend as much money as he likes, that is perfectly all right.
Why wouldn't it make much more sense, if you are worried about the problem, to establish an amount of money as the criterion?
A few moments later, Kennedy follows:
Then it... it seems to me that Justice Scalia's question indicates that you have to give a specific reason why a corporation of that type presents more [of] a danger than Donald Trump, and I didn't really hear the answer to that question.
Louis J. Caruso: Well, the thing of it is--
Anthony M. Kennedy: And it has to be answered in the terms of a compelling interest that is narrowly tailored.
Did Justice Kennedy actually call Donald Trump a "danger" in 1989?
h/t Navid Khazanei
July 14, 2016 in Campaign Finance, Cases and Case Materials, Courts and Judging, Elections and Voting, Equal Protection, First Amendment, News, Oral Argument Analysis, Speech, Supreme Court (US) | Permalink | Comments (0)
Monday, July 11, 2016
In its opinion in Lone Star Security and Video v. City of Los Angeles, the Ninth Circuit upheld L.A.'s mobile billboard ordinances against a First Amendment challenge distinguishing the United States Supreme Court's 2015 Reed v. Town of Gilbert.
Recall that in Reed, Justice Kagan separately concurred in the unanimous decision to warn that strict scrutiny was not always appropriate and that "we may do well to relax our guard so that 'entirely reasonable' laws imperiled by strict scrutiny can survive." Here, it seems that the Ninth Circuit panel has taken that advice, applying the relaxed standard of time, place, and manner doctrine rather than content-discrimination meriting strict scrutiny.
The L.A. ordinances are directed at "advertising signs" on vehicles or attached to vehicles. Signs on vehicles - - - painted or permanently affixed - - - are allowed as long as they do not extend beyond the vehicle or make the vehicle unsafe. Signs that attached to non-motorized vehicles, such as those on standalone trailers, are prohibited from parking on city streets.
Judge Mary Murguia, writing for the unanimous panel, concluded that the ordinances applicability to "advertising" did not render the ordinances content-based. The opinion relied on a state case that construed advertising as displaying any message to the public rather than the content of that message and upheld an ordinance as applied to a nonprofit organization protesting animal cruelty. Moreover,
The Supreme Court’s recent decision in Reed does not alter our conclusion. Unlike Reed, the mobile billboard ordinances do not single out a specific subject matter for differential treatment, nor is any kind of mobile billboard exempted from regulation based on its content. There has been no suggestion that the ordinances apply differently to Lone Star Security’s political endorsements than to its commercial promotional campaigns, for example. Rather, an officer seeking to enforce the non-motorized billboard ordinances must decide only whether an offending vehicle constitutes a prohibited “advertising display” because its primary purpose is to display messages, as opposed to transporting passengers or carrying cargo. . . . In the case of the motorized billboard ordinance, an enforcing officer would simply need to distinguish between signs that are permanent or non-permanent, and larger or smaller than the vehicles to which the signs are affixed to determine whether the vehicle violates the ordinance.
[ellipses added; citations omitted]. Once having determined the correct standard was not strict scrutiny, the panel easily found that the ordinances survived review.
The parties do not dispute that the cities’ stated interests in traffic control, public safety, and aesthetics are sufficiently weighty to justify content-neutral, time, place, or manner restrictions on speech, nor could they.
As for the "narrow tailoring" required, the panel found that none of the ordinances were broader than necessary. Additionally, the panel found that there were ample alternative channels for communication, including advertising.
Appellants are free to disseminate their messages through myriad other channels, such as stationary billboards, bus benches, flyers, newspapers, or handbills. Appellants may also paint signs on vehicles and attach decals or bumper stickers. Although mobile billboards are a unique mode of communication, nothing in the record suggests that Appellants’ overall “ability to communicate effectively is threatened.”
The last quotation is from the United States Supreme Court's City of Los Angeles v. Taxpayers for Vincent (1984), on which Judge Murguia heavily relied. However, for Judge John Owens, Taxpayers for Vincent has its own flaws. In a brief concurrence, Judge Owens suggested that the United States Supreme Court should take a "second look" at Taxpayers for Vincent.
This case is about ugly signs on vehicles, and no doubt I would not want these vehicles and their signs parked in front of my house. But under the ordinances at issue, a car with equally ugly decals—including a decal of a vehicle with an ugly sign—would not “go to jail,” but instead treat my curb like the upper left corner of a Monopoly board.
If “aesthetics” are to play a part in speech restriction, then such aesthetics should apply equally, decal or sign. Yet under Taxpayers for Vincent, the Court rejected the very point that I now make. See 466 U.S. 810–12 (rejecting the Ninth Circuit’s holding that “a prohibition against the use of unattractive signs cannot be justified on esthetic grounds if it fails to apply to all equally unattractive signs wherever they might be located”). I think our court was right then, and the Supreme Court should reconsider this portion of Taxpayers for Vincent. As it currently stands, politicians can use Taxpayers for Vincent and its beholderish “aesthetics” to covertly ensure homogeneous thinking and political discourse. That is a dimension we should avoid. See The Twilight Zone: Eye of the Beholder (CBS television broadcast Nov. 11, 1960).
Judge Owens was not part of the Ninth Circuit panel that the Court reversed, although the third member of this Ninth Circuit panel - - - Judge Stephen Reinhardt - - - was. Judge Reinhardt, born in 1931, may also have seen the original episode of The Twilight Zone to which Judge Owens, born more than a decade after its original airing, refers.
Thursday, July 7, 2016
The Ninth Circuit ruled this week that a prosecutor is not entitled to absolute immunity for swearing out a false declaration in support of a subpoena for medical records of an unindicted third-party witness in a murder trial.
At the same time, however, the court said that the prosecutor is entitled to absolute immunity for issuing the subpoena and using the medical records at trial.
The case arose when a prosecutor sought Detrice Garmon's medical records in preparation for Garmon's son's murder trial. Garmon was set to testify as an alibi witness in her son's trial, but she was scheduled to undergo brain surgery with an uncertain outcome before the trial date. So she gave a deposition. She also authorized her medical plan to disclose to the prosecution medical records related to her brain tumor.
But the prosecutor in the case instead swore out a declaration that Garmon was the murder victim, and issued a subpoena for all of Garmon's medical records. The prosecutor then used Garmon's unredacted records to impeach her at trial, and Garmon's son was convicted.
Garmon sued, but the trial court held (among other things) that the prosecutor enjoyed absolute immunity.
The Ninth Circuit reversed. The court applied the distinction between a prosecutor's advocacy functions (triggering absolute immunity) and a prosecutor's administrative or investigative functions (triggering the lesser qualified immunity). The court said that the prosecutor's declaration was more investigative, and only gets qualified immunity, while the prosecutor's subpoena and use of the records at trial was more advocacy, triggering absolute immunity.
The ruling means that the prosecutor in the case has some protection, but not absolute protection, against Garmon's civil rights suit based on the false declaration.
The court also rejected Garmon's argument that absolute immunity is unavailable against claims of unindicted third-party witnesses. The court's ruling aligns it with the Second, Sixth, and Seventh Circuits. There's no circuit that goes the other way.
The case now goes back to the trial court, where Garmon will have a chance to amend her complaint to square with Monell on municipal liability.
Friday, July 1, 2016
Federal Judge Issues Preliminary Injunction Against Mississippi Law Seeking to Protect LGBT Discrimination
In a 60 page opinion in Barber v. Bryant, United States District Judge Carlton Reeves (pictured below) found Mississippi HB 1523, set to become effective July 1, constitutionally problematical under both the Establishment Clause and the Equal Protection Clause, and thus preliminary enjoined its enforcement.
The bill, Protecting Freedom of Conscience from Government Discrimination Act," sought to insulate the specific "sincerely held religious beliefs or moral convictions" that:
(a) Marriage is or should be recognized as the union of one man and one woman;
(b) Sexual relations are properly reserved to such a marriage; and
(c) Male (man) or female (woman) refer to an individual's immutable biological sex as objectively determined by anatomy and genetics at time of birth.
Judge Reeves characterized HB 1523 as a predictable overreaction to the Court's same-sex marriage opinion in Obergefell v. Hodges a year ago. In discussing the debates around the HB 152 and its texts, Judge Reeves also noted that the challenges to HB 1523 were also predictable, providing his rationale for consolidating the four cases.
Judge Reeves then considered standing of the various plaintiffs as well as Eleventh Amendment immunity, followed by the established preliminary injunction standards which have at their heart the "substantial likelihood of success on the merits."
On the Equal Protection claim, Judge Reeves relied on Romer v. Evans, and found that the legislative history established animus in intent:
The title, text, and history of HB 1523 indicate that the bill was the State’s attempt to put LGBT citizens back in their place after Obergefell. The majority of Mississippians were granted special rights to not serve LGBT citizens, and were immunized from the consequences of their actions. LGBT Mississippians, in turn, were “put in a solitary class with respect to transactions and relations in both the private and governmental spheres” to symbolize their second-class status.
Judge Reeves also found that the law would have a discriminatory effect. Judge Reeves applied the lowest level of scrutiny, but found that even "under this generous standard, HB 1523 fails." He agreed with the State's contention that HB 1523 furthers its “legitimate governmental interest in protecting religious beliefs and expression and preventing citizens from being forced to act against those beliefs by their government" is a "legitimate governmental interest." But concluded that the interest is "not one with any rational relationship to HB 1523." Indeed, the court declared that "deprivation of equal protection of the laws is HB 1523’s very essence."
On the Establishment Clause claim, Judge Reeves rehearsed the history of the Clause before focusing on two conclusions: HB 1523 "establishes an official preference for certain religious beliefs over others" and "its broad religious exemption comes at the expense of other citizens."For this latter point, Judge Reeves interestingly relied on and distinguished the recent controversial Burwell v. Hobby Lobby construing RFRA to confer a religious conscience accommodation to closely-held corporations:
The difference is that the Hobby Lobby Court found that the religious accommodation in question would have “precisely zero” effect on women seeking contraceptive coverage, and emphasized that corporations do not “have free rein to take steps that impose disadvantages on others.” The critical lesson is that religious accommodations must be considered in the context of their impact on others.
Unlike Hobby Lobby, HB 1523 disadvantages recusing employees’ coworkers and results in LGBT citizens being personally and immediately confronted with a denial of service.
Judge Reeves opinion is careful and well-reasoned, but is nevertheless sure to be appealed by Mississippi officials unless they alter their litigation posture.
July 1, 2016 in Cases and Case Materials, Courts and Judging, Current Affairs, Equal Protection, Establishment Clause, Federalism, First Amendment, Fourteenth Amendment, Fundamental Rights, Gender, Opinion Analysis, Recent Cases, Reconstruction Era Amendments, Religion, Sexual Orientation, Sexuality, Standing, Supreme Court (US) | Permalink | Comments (0)
Tuesday, June 28, 2016
Judge Says Timber Company is Likely, but not Substantially Likely, to Have Standing to Challenge BLM Timber Sales
Judge Richard J. Leon (D.D.C.) ruled today that a timber company has a sufficient likelihood of showing standing to withstand a motion to dismiss, but not sufficient to get a preliminary injunction, in just the latest order in this six-year litigation thicket challenging the government's timber sales in the Pacific Northwest and the habitat for the northern spotted owl.
The ruling means that the company's case against the Bureau of Land Management can continue (because it has a sufficient likelihood of showing standing to withstand the government's motion to dismiss), but that it will not now get a preliminary injunction ordering the government to sell more timber (because it doesn't have a sufficient likelihood of showing standing to satisfy the "substantial likelihood of success" test for a preliminary injunction).
The six-year old case--or, really, series of cases--involves timber companies' and individuals' challenges to BLM's failure to offer for sale a declared amount of timber from two western Oregon districts in violation of the Oregon and California Railroad and Coos Way Wagon Road Grant Lands Act of 1937. (The government declined to sell a full quota in order to protect the spotted owl.)
In earlier phases of litigation, the government successfully moved to dismiss based on lack of standing. The corporations and individual officers came back with new allegations supporting standing, which formed the basis of today's ruling.
Judge Leon said that only one timber corporation, Rough & Ready, likely satisfied standing requirements to survive the government's motion to dismiss. That's because Rough & Ready, alone among the plaintiffs, alleged with particularity that the BLM's failure to sell timber caused it to close its doors and that its requested relief (an order requiring BLM to sell more timber) would redress that harm (and allow it to re-open).
But Judge Leon went on to say that Rough & Ready didn't show a "substantial likelihood" of standing (a higher standard than a mere likelihood of standing), and thus couldn't show a "substantial likelihood on the merits" in order to get a preliminary injunction that would require the government to sell more timber. Here's Judge Leon:
While the allegations supporting Rough & Ready's standing suffice to satisfy the lower "likely" standard required at [the] motion-to-dismiss phase, they fail to rise to the level of the "substantial likelihood" required at the preliminary injunction phase. In particular, although Rough & Read plausibly claims that its injuries are likely redressable as described above, its "hope to be able to reopen the mill and resume operations" if and when the BLM offers its full ASQ of timber sales is insufficient to establish substantial likelihood of redressability. That is, while the various allegations taken as a whole establish Rough & Ready's injuries are likely redressable, they simply fail to provide the basis necessary to establish the requisite substantial likelihood.
Judge Leon seemed to leave open the possibility that Rough & Ready could later establish this substantial likelihood, however, and perhaps successfully reapply for a preliminary injunction at a later time.
In the meantime, the case can proceed on the merits, though without a preliminary injunction.
Judge Leon dismissed the other plaintiffs' claims for lack of standing--mostly because (unlike Rough & Ready's claims) they weren't specific enough.
Thursday, June 23, 2016
The Supreme Court today deadlocked 4-4 in the case challenging President Obama's deferred action plan for certain unauthorized immigrants, or DAPA. The Court's ruling in United States v. Texas affirms the Fifth Circuit's ruling in the case. (Our preview of the case is here.)
While the Court's non-decision today has no precedential value, as a practical matter it upholds a nationwide preliminary injunction against enforcement of DAPA issued by district Judge Hanen. The ruling thus effectively halts enforcement of DAPA and sends the case back to Judge Hanen for proceedings on the merits. Here's the Fifth Circuit's summary of its ruling (which, again, is upheld under today's 4-4 split):
Reviewing the district court's order for abuse of discretion, we affirm the preliminary injunction because the states have standing; they have established a substantial likelihood of success on the merits of their procedural and substantive APA claims; and they have satisfied the other elements required for an injunction.
Note that the Fifth Circuit ruling doesn't touch the Take Care Clause issue--an issue that the Supreme Court asked the parties to brief and argue, even though the government didn't seek review on this issue. Note, too, that the Fifth Circuit upholds a district judge's preliminary injunction that applies nationwide (and not, as would ordinarily be the case, in the judge's district only).
We don't know the justices' positions on particular issues in the case--standing, APA--because the per curiam order (as is customary for a 4-4 split) simply says that "[t]he judgment is affirmed by an equally divided Court." Still, this appears to be one of those cases where Justice Scalia's absence matters: he would have likely voted with the four (likely the conservatives, although we don't know for sure) to uphold the Fifth Circuit, creating a five Justice majority opinion that would have created precedential law.
The government may petition the Court (now) for rehearing (after a ninth justice is confirmed).
Thursday, June 9, 2016
A sharply divided en banc Ninth Circuit ruled today that the Second Amendment does not protect concealed carry. The ruling, a win for the state and for local regulation of concealed carry, upholds two California local restrictions on obtaining a concealed carry permit.
The case is a significant victory for supporters of gun regulations, and a significant defeat for gun-rights advocates.
It seems unlikely that the Supreme Court will grant review quite yet, however, unless there are five justices who would vote to affirm. That's because a 4-4 split on the Court would have no effect and simply leave today's Ninth Circuit ruling in place. (The Court split 5-4 in both Heller and McDonald. In McDonald, the more recent of the two, all of the current conservatives were in the majority, and all the current progressives were in dissent (except Justice Kagan, who replaced Justice Stevens).
The case involved California's concealed carry permitting law. In general, California does not allow concealed carry. But individuals can apply for a permit if they can show "good cause." California law authorizes county sheriffs to establish and publish policies defining good cause.
The plaintiffs in the case said the good cause standards in San Diego and Yolo Counties violated the Second Amendment, because those standards prohibited them from obtaining a concealed carry permit (and thus from carrying a concealed weapon).
The en banc Ninth Circuit disagreed. Drawing on the historical approach in Heller and McDonald, the court held that the Second Amendment doesn't even protect concealed carry. The court traced the history (starting with a directive issued by Edward I in 1299 through rulings in the nineteenth century) and concluded that "[t]he right of a member of the general public to carry a concealed firearm in public is not, and never has been, protected by the Second Amendment." And because concealed carry isn't protect, the court said, "any prohibition or restriction a state may choose to impose on concealed carry--including a requirement of 'good cause,' however defined--is necessarily allowed by the Amendment."
The court went on to say that if it had to address whether the "good cause" requirements satisfied the Second Amendment (which it didn't, because it held that concealed carry wasn't protected at all by the Second Amendment), then it would uphold those requirements under intermediate scrutiny because they "promote a substantial government interest that would be achieved less effectively absent the regulation." Judge Graber, joined by Chief Judge Thomas and Judge McKeown, made this point in concurrence.
The court did not say whether the Second Amendment protects some right to carry firearms in public (i.e., open carry); it only said that the Second Amendment didn't protect concealed carry.
Judge Callahan wrote a principal dissent, joined by Judges Silverman, Bea, and N.R. Smith. Judges Silverman and N.R. Smith also wrote their own dissents. Judge Callahan argued in part that the majority erred by defining the scope of the claimed right to narrowly--as the "right to carry a concealed firearm," as opposed to a more general "right to carry a firearm in self-defense outside the home." Judge Callahan cited Obergefell, Lawrence, and Griswold in support of the argument that "[t]he Court has defined other constitutional rights broadly as well."
Monday, June 6, 2016
The Supreme Court ruled today in Simmons v. Himmelreich that a federal prison can maintain his Bivens claim against individual prison officials for Eighth Amendment violations, even though the district court threw out his earlier Federal Tort Claims Act case for the same incident under the FTCA's "discretionary function" exception.
The ruling is a win for Himmelreich and similarly situated federal civil rights plaintiffs. It means that the FTCA doesn't foreclose this kind of claim, and that Himmelreich will have his day in federal court, after all.
The unanimous ruling turned on a very plain, and very simple, reading of the FTCA exceptions provision. In short, the exceptions provision says that the FTCA judgment bar (which ordinarily would have foreclosed Himmelreich's suit against the individual officers, because the district court threw his FTCA claim out) doesn't apply to claims claims dismissed under the exceptions. And because the district court threw his first case out under the exceptions clause, the judgment bar didn't foreclose his subsequent Bivens claim.
Prisoner-rights litigation can often raise some tricky issues. Navigating them can mean the difference between keeping a claim alive in federal court, and losing it – and thus the difference between enforcing federal civil rights, and not.
One of these tricky issues was on full display in Simmons v. Himmelreich. But despite the potentially complicated questions in the case, a unanimous Supreme Court held today that one of the rules for prisoner-rights suits simply means exactly what it says: A prisoner can bring a constitutional tort claim against individual prison officials even after a court dismissed his earlier Federal Tort Claims Act suit because the officials acted in a “discretionary” capacity.
The ruling, penned by Justice Sonia Sotomayor, is a decisive win for prisoner-rights advocates. It means that Walter Himmelreich and other, similarly situated civil rights litigants retain a critical tool – the constitutional tort claim against individual officers – in enforcing civil rights and deterring their abuses. More generally, it means that there is now one less tricky issue in prisoner-rights litigation, and it is just a little bit easier, at least in the narrow circumstances of this case, to retain a claim and enforce federal civil rights.
The case involved Himmelreich’s suit against federal prison officials for violations of his Eighth Amendment rights. Himmelreich was serving time for producing child pornography when prison officials transferred another prisoner from special housing into the general population. The transferred prisoner had previously threatened to “smash a pedophile” if given the chance, so it was hardly a surprise when the transferred prisoner severely beat Himmelreich.
Himmelreich sued the government under the Federal Tort Claims Act, which waives sovereign immunity for tort claims against the federal government for the acts of its employees. It also gives federal district courts exclusive jurisdiction over those claims, subject to certain procedural requirements in Chapter 171 (which becomes relevant below, in Himmelreich’s second suit). But the FTCA also contains a list of exceptions, in particular, a “discretionary function” exception that exempts “[a]ny claim based upon . . . the exercise or performance . . . [of] a discretionary function” from the FTCA. This means that someone (like Himmelreich) who has been injured has no FTCA claim against the government for injuries that result from a discretionary act of a government employee. The district court thus dismissed Himmelreich’s FTCA claim under this exception, ruling that the prison officials’ decision as to where to house inmates was a discretionary function. The parties did not challenge this ruling.
While Himmelreich’s FTCA case was still pending, he filed a second suit against the individual prison officials for violating his Eighth Amendment rights. After the district court dismissed Himmelreich’s first suit, the officials then moved to dismiss this second suit under yet a different part of the FTCA. In particular, the officials argued that the FTCA’s “judgment bar” foreclosed this second case. The judgment bar, in Section 2676, says that once a plaintiff receives a judgment in an FTCA suit, he generally cannot bring another suit against an individual employee based on the same incident. It reads:
The judgment in any action [under the FTCA] shall constitute a complete bar to any action by the claimant, by reason of the same subject matter, against the employee of the government whose act or omission gave rise to the claim.
In other words, the government argued that the district court’s dismissal of Himmelreich’s FTCA case amounted to a “judgment,” and that the FTCA judgment bar therefore foreclosed Himmelreich’s second case against the individual officers.
This is where things get a little complicated. Himmelreich countered that the judgment bar did not apply to cases dismissed under the FTCA exceptions provision (the same one that the district court used to dismiss Himmelreich’s first case). That’s because the exceptions provision says that “[t]he provisions of this chapter” shall not apply to claims dismissed under the exceptions (including the discretionary function exception). “The provisions of this chapter,” in turn, refer to Chapter 171, the list of procedural requirements (mentioned above). And Chapter 171, in turn, includes the judgment bar. The upshot is that a case dismissed on the judgment bar (like Himmelreich’s first case) does not foreclose a case against individual officers arising out of the same incident (like Himmelreich’s second case).
The Supreme Court agreed. In a statutory analysis that required all of two paragraphs, the Court said that Himmelreich’s plain reading of the FTCA was correct, and that the FTCA created no bar to his second case against the individual officers. The Court noted that result made sense:
If the District Court in this case had issued a judgment dismissing Himmelreich’s first suit because the prison employees were not negligent, because Himmelreich was not harmed, or because Himmelreich simply failed to prove his claim, it would make little sense to give Himmelreich a second bite at the money-damages apple . . . .
Where an FTCA claim is dismissed because it falls within one of the “Exceptions,” by contrast, the judgment bar provision makes much less sense. The dismissal of a claim in the “Exceptions” section signals merely that the United States cannot be held liable for a particular claim; it has no logical bearing on whether an employee can be held liable instead.
The Court also roundly rejected the government’s non-textual arguments. It said that United States v. Smith, in which the Court held that another provision of Chapter 171 (the exclusive remedies provision) foreclosed a suit against an individual employee, did not control. That’s because Smith didn’t even discuss the “shall not apply” language in the exceptions provision. Moreover, the exclusive-remedies provision in Smith (unlike the judgment bar) was specifically designed to apply to the exceptions in the FTCA. The Court also said that it didn’t need to address the government’s parade of horribles that would result if every provision of Chapter 171 “shall not apply” to the FTCA’s exceptions. “If the Government is right about the other provisions of Chapter 171, the Court may hold so in the appropriate case.”
At the end of the day, the ruling means that Himmelreich can pursue his civil rights claim against the individual officers, even after the district court dismissed his earlier FTCA claim based on the “discretionary function” exception. More generally, it probably also means that a plaintiff can similarly pursue a civil rights claim against individual officials, even after a district court dismissed an FTCA claim based on other procedural grounds that have nothing to do with “whether an employee can be held liable instead.”
This is a clear win for Himmelreich and other, similarly situated civil rights plaintiffs, because it preserves their constitutional claims against individual officers. This is no small thing: These individual claims, more than any FTCA claim, help enforce civil rights by holding individual officers accountable and by creating a strong deterrent against civil rights abuses by other officers. Thus, today’s ruling, while dealing with just a narrow statutory issue under the FTCA, is nevertheless an important victory for Himmelreich, an important victory for access to justice, and an important victory for civil rights enforcement.
The Supreme Court ruled today in Ross v. Blake that a state prisoner wasn't excused from exhausting administrative remedies under the Prisoner Litigation Reform Act because of "special circumstances," but that he may be excused if administrative remedies are unavailable.
The ruling walks back a lower-court-created exception to the PLRA exhaustion requirement, but at the same time recognizes that PLRA statutory exhaustion only applies to "available" remedies. This is probably a net loss for state prisoners (because they can no longer excuse failure to exhaust based on "special circumstances"), but it means that the plaintiff's claim in this case will stay alive, at least through remand to the lower courts, on the question whether remedies were actually "available" to him. The ruling also gives some good language on what it means to be "available" under the PLRA--fodder, no doubt, for future prisoners defending against PLRA-failure-to-exhaust claims.
While the case is not directly constitutional, it certainly has implications for prisoner civil rights and access-to-justice.
In short, the plaintiff in the case, Shaidon Blake, brought a civil rights claim against a state prison official. The official moved to dismiss for failure to exhaust administrative remedies under the PLRA. Blake countered that he did exhaust. As the case moved to the Supreme Court, it became clear that the administrative remedial scheme itself was, well, confused, and nobody could really say whether Blake exhausted or not.
The Fourth Circuit ruled in favor of Blake, saying that court-created "special circumstances" excused any failure to exhaust, especially where an inmate, as here, reasonably believed that he had sufficiently exhausted his remedies.
But a unanimous Supreme Court rejected the Fourth Circuit's "special circumstances" approach. Justice Kagan, writing for the Court, said that the PLRA contained no "special circumstances" exception, and that the courts couldn't make it up.
But at the same time, the Court said that the PLRA itself required that a plaintiff exhaust only "available" remedies, and that there were serious questions in this case whether the remedies were, in fact, available. Indeed, the Court went on at some length describing why remedies may not have been available--providing a strong prompt to the lower court on remand to hold that they were not available (and therefore to excuse Blake's failure to exhaust).
The Court said that "special circumstances" and "availability" were two different questions. Because it's probably harder to show that a remedy is unavailable than that "special circumstances" excuse exhaustion, the ruling is probably a net loss for prisoners. But at the same time, the Court remanded Blake's case with pretty specific instructions and guidance for the lower court to determine that remedies were not available, and therefore that Blake's failure to exhaust (if any) was excused. In other words, Blake may well end up at the same place he was before his case went to the Court: Exhaustion excused, but this time for lack of available administrative remedies.