Friday, November 18, 2016

Citizen Lacks Standing to Sue Senators Over Scuttled Supreme Court Nomination

Judge Rudolph Contreras (D.D.C.) ruled that a private citizen lacked standing to sue Senators McConnell and Grassley for failing to give President Obama's Supreme Court nominee, Judge Merrick Garland, a vote in the Senate.

Plaintiff Steven Michel brought the action under the Seventeenth Amendment, arguing that McConnell's and Grassley's stonewalling resulted in a loss of voice of his own home-state senators, and therefore a violation of his own right to vote for his home-state senators under the Seventeenth Amendment.

The court said that Michel lacked standing:

Mr. Michel has not shown that he has suffered an individualized injury such that he can maintain this action. This alleged diminution of his vote for United States Senators is the type of undifferentiated harm common to all citizens that is appropriate for redress in the political sphere: his claim is not that he has been unable to cast votes for Senators, but that his home-state Senators have been frustrated by the rules and leadership of the United States Senate. This is far from the type of direct, individualized harm that warrants judicial review of a "case or controversy."

November 18, 2016 in Cases and Case Materials, Jurisdiction of Federal Courts, News, Opinion Analysis, Standing | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, November 17, 2016

Ten Commandments at City Hall Violates Establishment Clause (even with other secular monuments)

The Tenth Circuit ruled last week in Felix v. City of Bloomfield that the city's monument to the Ten Commandments violated the Establishment Clause, even though the overall display included other, later-erected secular monuments.

The case arose when a city council member obtained council permission to place a Ten Commandments monument in front of city hall, along with other monuments that would celebrate the city's "history of law and government." The council member raised private money for the Ten Commandments monument (from churches, among other sources), and, after some fits and starts, placed the massive monument (over five feet tall, 3,400 pounds, sunk 14 inches into the ground) right in front of city hall. The city held an unveiling ceremony, which included religious references, statements, and the like, and some secular ones, too.

After this suit was filed, arguing that the Ten Commandments monument violated the Establishment Clause, the council member arranged for other monuments at city hall, including one for the Declaration of Independence, one for the Gettysburg Address, and one for the Bill of Rights.

The Tenth Circuit ruled that the Ten Commandments monument violated the Establishment Clause. The court wrote that an objective observer, reasonably informed about the monument, would have concluded that the city was endorsing religion. The court said that the text on the monument, its prominent location, the religious circumstances surrounding its financing and unveiling, and the timing of this lawsuit (just seven months after the monument's unveiling) all pointed toward endorsement.

The court recognized the city's effort to secularize the display with later, secular monuments, but said that this wasn't enough to scrub the religious history behind it.

November 17, 2016 in Cases and Case Materials, Establishment Clause, News, Opinion Analysis, Religion | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tenth Circuit: State is Immune From Federal Slavery Claim

The Tenth Circuit ruled in Mojsilovic v. State of Oklahoma that the state's sovereign immunity barred the plaintiffs' forced-labor claim under the federal Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act. The ruling ends this case.

The plaintiffs, Danijela and Aleksandar Mojsilovic, were hired by the University of Oklahoma on H-1B visas to conduct DNA sequencing and issue typing and to make transfectants and tissue cultures. Their supervisor, Dr. William Hildebrand, forced them to work longer hours than permitted by their visas, without pay, for his private corporation, Pure Protein, on threat of having their visas revoked. The Mojsilovic's sued under the TVPRA, seeking monetary damages under the Act; the University asserted sovereign immunity; and the district court dismissed the case.

The Tenth Circuit affirmed. The court ruled that Congress enacted the TVPRA under its Commerce Clause authority (and not its Thirteenth Amendment authority), and so could not abrogate state sovereign immunity under the Eleventh Amendment. In any event, the court said that any abrogation wasn't sufficiently clear in the language of the TVPRA. (The TVPRA applies to "whoever," without specifically naming "states.")

The ruling, while not surprising under the Court's abrogation doctrine, illustrates the impact of the rule that Congress cannot abrogate state sovereign immunity using its Commerce Clause authority. It means that states and state agencies can get away with trafficking, slavery, involuntary servitude, forced-labor, and the like without incurring TVPRA liability.

Congress could, of course, change this by making clear that the TVPRA is enacted under the Thirteenth Amendment and clearly abrogating state sovereign immunity.

November 17, 2016 in Cases and Case Materials, Commerce Clause, Congressional Authority, Eleventh Amendment, Federalism, News, Opinion Analysis, Thirteenth Amendment | Permalink | Comments (1)

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

Sixth Circuit Says Bankruptcy Gives Detroit a Free Pass on Civil Rights

The Sixth Circuit ruled this week that the Bankruptcy Code prevented citizens and organizations in Detroit, which is is Chapter 9 bankruptcy proceedings, from suing the city for certain constitutional violations.

The ruling gives Detroit a free pass on certain civil rights--because it is in bankruptcy. Indeed, the court goes so far as to say (based on almost no authority) that because the financial conditions in Detroit are so bad, federalism considerations even more support a reading of the Bankruptcy Code that bars certain civil rights actions against the city.

The lesson: If you're out to have your constitutional rights violated, do it in a city that's not in bankruptcy, with really big financial problems.

The case arose when Detroit citizens and organizations sued the city in the Eastern District of Michigan for turning off thousands of residents' water for nonpayment and refusing to negotiate. The plaintiffs sought declaratory and injunctive relief; they brought due process and equal protection claims (among others) under 42 U.S.C. Sec. 1983 and Monell.

The district court then transferred the case to bankruptcy court and consolidated it with Detroit's Chapter 9 case. The plaintiffs moved for a TRO, and the city moved to dismiss pursuant to 11 U.S.C. Sec. 904 (in the Bankruptcy Code). That section says:

Notwithstanding any power of the court, unless the debtor consents or the plan so provides, the court may not, by any stay, order, or decree, in the case or otherwise, interfere with--

(1) any of the political or governmental powers of the debtor;

(2) any of the property or revenues of the debtor; or

(3) the debtor's use or enjoyment of any income-producing property.

The Sixth Circuit ruled, with little analysis, that each of these three conditions applied, and therefore the bankruptcy court had no power to issue declaratory or injunctive relief, and therefore the case must be dismissed.

Along the way, the court had some pretty surprising things to say about federalism and protection of rights. For example, the court wrote that Section 904 is essentially a federalism protection for a city like Detroit, and a city in bankruptcy--and especially one with really bad financial problems--ought (perhaps paradoxically) to have more protection against constitutional-rights claims (than a city in a regular district court) because of it. Here's how the court put it:

That a federal court's power should be more constrained in the chapter 9 context than in a typical Monell action also makes sense. Monell plaintiffs may claim damages and prospective injunctive relief, such as the implementation of a training program that better protects citizens' constitutional rights, provided they make the appropriate showing. We agree that the Tenth Amendment is not a barrier to a federal court's authority over a municipality in that setting.

But a discrete change in policy in a particular office or department of local government is far removed from the complete financial overhaul undertaken in a municipal reorganization. Detroit's case is a good example. "At the time of filing, the City had over $18 billion in escalating debt, over 100,000 creditors, hundreds of millions of dollars of negative cash flow," failing infrastructure, and "a crumbling water and sewer system." The bankruptcy court bore responsibility for approving a plan of adjustment equally vast in its aim to remedy these conditions. Concerns for state sovereignty loom larger with so much at stake. "As a state-federal cooperative enterprise conducted in delicate circumstances in which state sovereignty must be respected, Congress has been sedulous to assure that the bankruptcy power not be used in municipal insolvencies in a manner that oversteps delicate state-federal boundaries." The massive scale of a municipal bankruptcy simply provides more opportunities for excessive federal court interference.

Apparently only one other court, a bankruptcy court, had used federalism in the way the Sixth Circuit did to support its Section 904 analysis, because that's the only case (in two versions) that the Sixth Circuit cited in support of its federalism claims.

Surprisingly, the court said that this reasoning applies equally to the plaintiffs' request for declaratory relief. (It's not entirely clear how declaratory relief alone interferes with any of the three categories in Section 904.)

All this said, the ruling probably doesn't extend to other civil rights claims that don't involve a "contract" with the government. This case ended up in the bankruptcy court because the residents had a water-services "contract" with the city that fell under the city's bankruptcy. A different kind of claim (police brutality, for example) wouldn't involve a "contract," (hopefully) wouldn't get kicked to bankruptcy, and therefore wouldn't get dismissed under Section 904.

November 16, 2016 in Cases and Case Materials, Federalism, News, Opinion Analysis | Permalink | Comments (0)

Enclave Clause is No Restriction on Federal Land Taking for Oneida Nation

The Second Circuit last week rejected claims that the federal government exceeded its authority and violated the Enclave Clause in taking about 13,000 acres of land in central New York into trust on behalf of the Oneida Indian Nation of New York.

The ruling is a victory for the Nation and its ability to self-govern. In particular, under federal land-into-trust law, it means that the Nation's land is not subject to state and local taxes and zoning and regulatory requirements, and that (unless the Nation consents) New York lacks criminal and civil jurisdiction over Nation members on the land.

The ruling is also a reaffirmation of the federal government's land-into-trust powers, by which the federal government can take state land into trust for Native American nations, and the very limited restrictions on federal power to take and regulate land under the Enclave Clause. (The Enclave Clause, Art. I, Sec. 8, cl. 17, is a favorite of those who argue against federal authority to hold and regulate lands other than Washington, D.C., even though that reading is not supported by the text, history, or precedent of the Clause.)

The case arose when the federal government took about 13,000 acres of land in New York into trust on behalf of the Oneida Indian Nation, pursuant to authority under the Indian Reorganization Act. (The dispute goes back much farther, however.) The Oneida Nation already owned the land--it purchased it on the private market--but sought the trust in order to govern itself and avoid state taxes and certain regulations. Plaintiffs (two towns, a civic organization, and some individuals) sued, arguing that the land-into-trust procedures violated the Indian Commerce Clause, state sovereignty, and the Enclave Clause. (Plaintiffs asserted that they'd be harmed by the Nation's casino, and the inability to collect taxes on the land where it sits.)

The Second Circuit flatly rejected those claims. The court ruled that under the Indian Commerce Clause the federal government has plenary authority to regulate with respect to Native American nations, including authority to take land in trust for nations, and that this authority wasn't correlated to the Interstate Commerce Clause or otherwise bound only to purely intra-state activities. The court also ruled that no constitutional provisions protected "state sovereignty" as against the land-into-trust procedures.

As to the Enclave Clause claim, the court, drawing on longstanding precedent, wrote that "state consent is needed only when the federal government takes 'exclusive' jurisdiction over land within a state." (This follows from precedent and the plain language of the Clause itself: "The Congress shall have Power . . . To exercise exclusive Legislative in all Cases whatsoever, over such District . . . as may, by Cession of particular States, and the Acceptance of Congress, become the Seat of the Government of the United States, and to exercise like Authority over all Places purchased by the Consent of the Legislature of the State in which the Same shall be, for the Erection of Forts, Magazines, Arsenals, dock-Yards, and other needful Buildings[.]") Because the federal government's land-into-trust procedures leave some authority to a state (like civil and criminal law as against non-members, and the power to impose a sales tax on sales to non-members), it did not need "Cession of" the state under the Enclave Clause.

November 16, 2016 in Cases and Case Materials, Congressional Authority, Federalism, News, Opinion Analysis | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, November 14, 2016

District Judge Halts Phoenix Fire at Washington Monument

Judge Colleen Kollar-Kotelly (D.D.C.) denied the group Catharsis on the Mall a preliminary injunction against the National Park Service from enforcing its regulation against certain bonfires on Park Service land in D.C.

The ruling, though preliminary, means that Catharsis on the Mall didn't get to burn its wooden Phoenix this weekend--symbolic speech in support of veterans' and PTSD survivors' access to treatment.

The case arose when Catharsis sought permission to hold its second annual 72-hour vigil near the Washington Monument, which was to culminate in the burning of a 24-foot tall Phoenix. The group sought to show its support for veterans' and PTSD survivors' access to treatment.

The NPS denied permission, however, citing a new regulatory scheme for outdoor events, including a regulation that bans burning structures by size.

But here's the problem: NPS granted a permit to the group to burn a structure during its vigil last year that was even bigger than this year's Phoenix. And the D.C. Fire Department didn't think the Phoenix burning would have been a problem.

Still, the court ruled that Catharsis didn't show a likelihood of success on the merits. In particular, the court wrote that the new bonfire regulation was a content-neutral time, place, manner regulation on speech in a public forum; that it was narrowly tailored to maintain safety; and that Catharsis had other ways to convey its message.

The ruling is only on Catharsis's motion for a preliminary injunction, but given the court's approach to the likelihood-of-success question, the final ruling will almost certainly be the same.

November 14, 2016 in Cases and Case Materials, First Amendment, News, Opinion Analysis, Speech | Permalink | Comments (0)

Saturday, November 12, 2016

No Free Speech for Officer Criticizing Operations, Superiors

The D.C. Circuit ruled this week in LeFande v. D.C. that the D.C. Metropolitan Police Department did not violate an officer's First Amendment rights when the MPD fired the officer for internal e-mails critical of MPD operations and officers, and refusing to respond to a superior's request.

The ruling puts an end to this very long-running dispute, and the very long-running, and highly contentious, relationship between the officer, LeFande, and the MPD.

This piece of the case arose when Matthew LeFande, police reserve officer with the MPD (a volunteer position designed to assist full-time officers), wrote a series of internal e-mails highly critical of certain MPD operations and MPD officers, and declining to comply with a superior's request. (The case actually started much earlier, with a suit LeFande filed against the MPD, and the MPD fired him. He raised a First Amendment claim to his termination (based on his free speech in bringing the suit), but the MPD said it actually fired him for the e-mails--thus opening this latest chapter of the case.)

The court ruled that it didn't have to say whether the e-mails constituted citizen speech on matters of public concern (under Pickering), because the MPD's interest  in efficiency outweighed LeFande's interests in free speech, anyway. The court held that LeFande's free-speech interest in sending e-mails criticizing MPD operations and officers "cannot outweigh the fact that their 'disruptive force' . . . threatens workplace efficiency." It further held that LeFande's interest in sending e-mails declining a superior's request were outweighed by the MPD's interest in efficiency, because "[i]f police department leadership faced opposition from employees after every routine request, the machinery of law enforcement would grind to a halt."

The court conceded that some of LeFande's speech (especially those e-mails criticizing MPD operations) implicated matters of public concern--perhaps more than the survey questions in Connick. But it ruled that the MPD's interest outweighed LeFande's, especially "given the 'special degree of trust and discipline required in a police force.'"

November 12, 2016 in Cases and Case Materials, First Amendment, News, Opinion Analysis, Speech | Permalink | Comments (0)

Sunday, November 6, 2016

Supremes Keep Arizona Ban on Ballot Collection in Place

The Supreme Court on Saturday stayed an injunction issued by the Ninth Circuit late last week halting enforcement of Arizona's ballot collection ban. The order means that Arizona can enforce its criminal ban on ballot collection pending appeal to the full Ninth Circuit--well after Election Day.

Recall that a divided three-judge panel of the Ninth Circuit denied a preliminary injunction against Arizona's 2016 ballot collection law. That law criminalized the collection and delivery of early ballots by anyone other than the voter. (Arizona had previously allowed certain persons other than the voter to collect and deliver a voter's ballot. This practice was used by minority communities in the state, including Native American, Hispanic, and African American communities that, for different reasons, lacked easy access to the polls.)

The full Ninth Circuit then agreed to hear the case. And the court issued an injunction against enforcement of the law pending appeal. As to any problems from enjoining a law so close to the election (like voter confusion)--the Purcell factors--the court wrote:

First, the injunction does not affect the state's election processes or machinery. . . .

Enjoining enforcement of H.B. 2023 will not have any effect on voters themselves, on the conduct of election officials at the polls, or on the counting of ballots. . . .

Here, the injunction preserves the status quo prior to the recent legislative action in H.B. 2023. Every other election cycle in Arizona has permitted the collection of legitimate ballots by third parties to election officials. . . .

Moreover, the court wrote that Arizona's first attempt at criminalizing ballot collection was stopped by DOJ--denied preclearance before Shelby County effective wiped preclearance off the books. But then Arizona re-enacted it in 2016, after Shelby County said that Arizona no longer had to preclear election-law changes. Thus, according to the Ninth Circuit, an injunction pending appeal didn't run into Purcell problems, because "[i]n the wake of Shelby County, the judiciary provides the only meaningful review of legislation that may violate the Voting Rights Act."

The Ninth Circuit will hear oral arguments in January, but the Supreme Court's order on Saturday ensures that Arizona's ban on ballot collection will stay in place for this election cycle.

The order was unsigned, and there were no concurrences or dissents.

The Ninth Circuit's resource page is here.

 

 

November 6, 2016 in Cases and Case Materials, Elections and Voting, News, Opinion Analysis | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, November 2, 2016

Ninth Circuit Fast-Tracks En Banc Review of Arizona Ban on Ballot Collection

A divided three-judge panel of the Ninth Circuit on Friday affirmed a district court's denial of a preliminary injunction against Arizona's law criminalizing the collection of early ballots. Today, the full Ninth Circuit agreed to rehear the case--just six days before the election.

Today's grant means that Friday's decision has no precedential value, and that the full Ninth Circuit will reconsider the matter itself.

The case challenges Arizona's 2016 law that criminalizes the collection of early ballots, with certain exceptions. This changed Arizona's earlier practice, which permitted individuals other than the voter to collect early ballots and submit them on behalf of the voter--a practice relied upon and favored by minority communities in the state, including Native American, Hispanic, and African American communities that, for different reasons, lack easy access to the polls.

Plaintiffs challenged the new law under the Voting Rights Act, the Equal Protection Clause, and the First Amendment. The district court ruled that they didn't show a likelihood of success on the merits and thus denied a preliminary injunction. A 2-1 panel of the Ninth Circuit affirmed on Friday. Then, today, the full court agreed to rehear the case.

But under Ninth Circuit rules, don't necessarily expect a reversal. As Judge Reinhardt explains in concurring with today's grant:

Unfortunately, however, our en banc process is not perfect and also does not necessarily represent the view of the full court. It is selected by lot, as a full court en banc is ordinarily deemed too unwieldy. Thus, although it is preferable to a three judge panel, in an extraordinary case such as this, it too may not accurately reflect the view of the court as a whole. . . . The en banc court here is composed of a majority of judges who did not support the en banc call [and] it may be that its judgment will not reflect the view of the full court.

Judges O'Scannlain, Tallman, Callahan, Bea, and Ikuta dissented from the grant, arguing that just six days out from the election, the en banc court "risks present chaos and future confusion."

November 2, 2016 in Cases and Case Materials, Courts and Judging, Elections and Voting, News | Permalink | Comments (1)

Monday, October 24, 2016

Backpage Lacks Standing to Challenge Ban on Advertising Sex Trafficking

Judge Reggie B. Walton (D.D.C.) ruled today in Backpage.com v. Lynch that Backpage lacked standing to challenge a federal law criminalizing ads for sex trafficking.

The ruling ends this case, unless and until Backpage successfully appeals.

Backpage, an on-line classified ad service that hosts an "adult services" section, challenged the Stop Advertising Victims of Exploitation Act of 2015, which amended the existing sex-trafficking prohibition and created a criminal penalty for advertising sex trafficking, including trafficking of minors. Backpage brought a pre-enforcement challenge to the SAVE Act, arguing that it was unconstitutionally vague and overbroad, and that it violated Backpage's free speech. To establish standing, Backpage argued that it intended "to engage in a course of conduct arguably affected with a constitutional interest."

The court rejected that argument. The court said that Backpage only "intends to continue hosting third party advertisements, including advertisements that are adult-oriented and concern escort services," but not advertisements that (even arguably) violate the SAVE Act (which, according to the court, wouldn't be constitutionally protected, anyway). Because Backpage didn't "allege[] an intention to engage in a course of conduct arguably affected with a constitutional interest," and that is "proscribed by [the] statute [it] wishes to challenge," it lacked standing for its pre-enforcement challenge.

The court distinguished the several other cases that Backpage won, writing that those cases were different.

October 24, 2016 in Cases and Case Materials, First Amendment, Jurisdiction of Federal Courts, News, Opinion Analysis, Speech, Standing | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, October 21, 2016

No Political Question Bar for Abu Ghraib Torture Victims

The Fourth Circuit ruled today that victims of torture at the hands of a private military contractor are not barred by the political question doctrine from pressing their case in federal court.

The ruling is a significant victory for the plaintiff-victims and for access to justice in general. It means that some portion of this case (and maybe all of it) can move forward on the merits.

The case arose when former prisoners at Abu Ghraib sued a private military contractor, CACI, for torture and mistreatment under the Alien Tort Statute. After some up-and-down on different issues, the district court ruled that the case raised a non-justiciable political question and dismissed it. In particular, the district court said (1) that CACI was under the control of the military, (2) that the case raised questions of "sensitive judgments made by the military," and (3) that the court lacked judicially manageable standards for resolving the dispute.

The Fourth Circuit reversed and remanded. As to the district court's first two grounds, the Fourth Circuit said that they don't apply when a plaintiff alleges illegal behavior under international law or criminal law. "Accordingly, when a military contractor acts contrary to settled international law or applicable criminal law, the separation of powers rationale underlying the political question doctrine does not shield the contractor's actions from judicial review."

More particularly, as to the first ground (under the control of the military), the Fourth Circuit said that "when a contractor has engaged in unlawful conduct, irrespective of the nature of control exercised by the military, the contractor cannot claim protection under the political question doctrine." The court said that the district court improperly analyzed the under-the-control-of-the-military question and remanded for further consideration of the question of illegal conduct. (The court was quite clear, however, that there was some illegal behavior. The question on remand is just how much.)

As to the second ground (sensitive judgments of the military), the Fourth Circuit again looked to the legality of the conduct: "to the extent that the plaintiffs' claims rest on allegations of unlawful conduct in violation of settled international law or criminal law then applicable to the CACI employees, those claims fall outside the protection of the political question doctrine." The court said that the district court improperly analyzed the sensitive-judgments-of-the-military question and remanded this, too. (Again, the court was quite clear that there was some illegal behavior.)

In short:

Any conduct of the CACI employees that occurred under the actual control of the military or involved sensitive military judgments, and was not unlawful when committed, constituted a protected exercise of discretion under the political question doctrine. Conversely, any acts of the CACI employees that were unlawful when committed, irrespective whether they occurred under actual control of the military, are subject to judicial review. Thus, the plaintiffs' claims are justiciable to the extent that the challenged conduct violated settled international law or the criminal law to which the CACI employees were subject at the time the conduct occurred.

As to the third ground (that the court lacked judicially discoverable and manageable standards for adjudicating the case), the Fourth Circuit said that "torture" and "war crimes" are well defined in the U.S.C. The court said that it may be a hard question, but it's not one that lacks standards. No remand on this question.

In all, under the Fourth Circuit's ruling, some portion of this case (and maybe all of it) can move forward. It all depends on how much CACI behavior was clearly illegal.

October 21, 2016 in Cases and Case Materials, Courts and Judging, Jurisdiction of Federal Courts, News, Political Question Doctrine, Separation of Powers | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

D.C. Circuit Hands Victory to Unitary Executive Theory, Defeat to CFPB

In a sweeping endorsement of the unitary executive theory, the D.C. Circuit ruled today in PHH Corp. v. CFPB that the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau is unconstitutional. But at the same time, the court limited the remedy to reading out the "for-cause" termination provision for the director and turning the Bureau into an ordinary executive agency.

The ruling allows the Bureau to continue to operate, but, unless the ruling is stayed pending the inevitable appeal, removes the for-cause protection enjoyed by the director. Because that for-cause protection is what makes the CFPB "independent," the ruling turns the Bureau into a regular executive agency, with a single head that enjoys no heightened protection from removal.

In an opinion by Judge Kavanaugh, the court ruled that the single head of the Bureau, terminable only for cause, put the Bureau outside the reach of the President, in violation of Article II. The court said that this feature of the Bureau--single head, terminable only for cause--meant that there was no political accountability for the Bureau, and no check on the director's actions. (The court contrasted this single-head structure with a board structure in an independent agency, where, according to the court, the members could check each other.) The court also said that the single-head structure cuts against the historical grain--that we've never done it that way. Here's a summary:

The CFPB's concentration of enormous executive power in a single, unaccountable, unchecked Director not only departs from settled historical practice, but also poses a far greater risk of arbitrary decisionmaking and abuse of power, and a far greater threat to individual liberty, than does a multi-member independent agency. The overarching constitutional concern with independent agencies is that the agencies are unchecked by the President, the official who is accountable to the people and who is responsible under Article II for the exercise of executive power. Recognizing the broad and unaccountable power wielded by independent agencies, Congress and Presidents of both political parties have therefore long endeavored to keep independent agencies in check through other statutory means. In particular, to check independent agencies, Congress has traditionally required multi-member bodies at the helm of every independent agency. In lieu of Presidential control, the multi-member structure of independent agencies acts as a critical substitute check on the excesses of any individual independent agency head--a check that helps to prevent arbitrary decisionmaking and thereby to protect individual liberty.

Emphasizing a unitary executive, the court wrote at length, and disapprovingly, about how the director is entirely unaccountable. But this ignores the fact that the for-cause termination provision does not mean "never able to fire." It also ignores other ways that a President can influence the Bureau, outside of just firing the director at will. And it also ignores other checks on the office, like statutory authorities and restrictions, congressional oversight, and (ironically) judicial review of CFPB actions (although these are obviously not presidential checks on the Bureau).

After ruling the CFPB unconstitutional--but saving it by striking only the for-cause termination provision for the director--the court went on to hold that the CFPB misapplied the Real Estate Settlement Procedures Act.

Judge Randolph joined the majority opinion and added that the ALJ who presided over the hearing (after the CFPB filed its charges) was appointed in violation of the Appointments Clause.

Judge Lecraft Henderson concurred in the court's statutory ruling, but argued that the court did not need to touch the constitutional question (because it could grant PHH relief under the statute alone).

This ruling is hardly the end of this case: it'll undoubtedly go to the Supreme Court.

October 11, 2016 in Appointment and Removal Powers, Cases and Case Materials, Executive Authority, News, Opinion Analysis, Separation of Powers | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, October 4, 2016

Seventh Circuit Reality Checks Mike Pence on Syrian Immigrants

Schwinn-stevenThe Seventh Circuit upheld a preliminary injunction against Indiana Governor Mike Pence's program to halt federal resettlement funds to a private organization that resettles Syrian immigrants. The smack-down ruling was hardly a surprise after the brutal oral arguments, just last month.

The ruling means that Indiana cannot stop payment of federal funds for Syrian resettlement, at least for now. But if the courts' actions so far are any indication, this preliminary injunction will quickly turn to a permanent one.

The case arose when Governor Pence announced that he would stop payment under the federal Refugee Act for resettlement of Syrians, and Syrians alone. But there was a problem: The Refugee Act bans discrimination by nationality, among other characteristics. And that's exactly what Pence did in denying payment for Syrian resettlement.

The Seventh Circuit rejected Pence's argument that he wasn't really discriminating by nationality:

But that's the equivalent of his saying (not that he does say) that he wants to forbid black people to settle in Indiana not because they're black but because he's afraid of them, and since race is therefore not his motive he isn't discriminating. But that of course would be racial discrimination, just as his targeting Syrian refugees is discrimination on the basis of nationality.

The court also schooled Pence on some basics of refugee screening (it's thorough, and the federal government does it, without the second-guessing of the likes of Pence), and called him on his empty claims and baseless fears:

The governor of Indiana believes, though without evidence, that some of these persons were sent to Syria by ISIS to engage in terrorism and now wish to infiltrate the United States in order to commit terrorist acts here. No evidence of this believe has been presented, however; it is nightmare speculation.

The ruling only affirms the lower court's grant of a preliminary injunction, so theoretically doesn't end the case. But the handwriting is on the wall: This program violates the terms of the federal Refugee Act.

October 4, 2016 in Cases and Case Materials, Federalism, News, Opinion Analysis | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, September 30, 2016

Tax Court is, Indeed, a "Court" (Under FOIA)

Judge Rudolph Contreras (D.D.C.) ruled in Byers v. United States Tax Court that the Tax Court is a "court," not an "agency," under FOIA. The ruling means that the Tax Court isn't subject to the plaintiff's FOIA request.

The case arose when Ronald Byers filed a FOIA request against the Tax Court. Byers argued that the Tax Court should be exempt from FOIA (as Article III courts are), because it's located in the Executive Branch.

Judge Contreras disagreed. He wrote that the touchstone for FOIA coverage of the Tax Court isn't where the Tax Court is located, but rather its nature. "[A] number of factors, including congressional intent, Supreme Court interpretation, and the function of the Tax Court, all suggest that the Tax Court is best understood as a court, not an agency, for the purposes of FOIA." And because FOIA exempts "courts of the United States," the Tax Court is exempt.

September 30, 2016 in Cases and Case Materials, Courts and Judging, News, Opinion Analysis, Separation of Powers | Permalink | Comments (0)

Eleventh Circuit Upholds PAC-to-PAC Transfer Ban

The Eleventh Circuit this week rejected a First Amendment challenge to Alabama's ban on PAC-to-PAC political contributions. The ruling upholds Alabama's ban and deepens a split in the circuits.

The Alabama Democratic Conference, an Alabama PAC perhaps best known for its yellow sample ballot that it distributes to voters, brought the case, arguing that Alabama's law that bans political contributions between PACs violates free speech. The ADC gets money from individual contributors, other PACs, and even candidates; it spends money in support of particular candidates and independent advocacy. The ADC uses separate bank accounts for candidate contributions and its own independent expenditures. Still, the state's PAC-to-PAC transfer ban prohibited the ADC from receiving money from other PACs. So it sued.

The Eleventh Circuit upheld the state's transfer ban. The court ruled that the state enacted the ban in response to a concern by state voters that PAC-to-PAC transfers were being used to conceal the true identity of political contributors--and raised the appearance of quid pro quo corruption. Moreover, the court said that the ADC didn't do enough to segregate its two accounts to reduce the appearance that it might use other PACs' contributions for candidate contributions. Because the ban was closely drawn to address the appearance of corruption, the Eleventh Circuit upheld it.

The ruling aligns with the Second and Fifth Circuits, but against the Tenth, on the question whether a PAC-to-PAC transfer ban violates free speech, when a PAC has two separate accounts, one for candidate contributions and the other for independent expenditures.

September 30, 2016 in Campaign Finance, Cases and Case Materials, First Amendment, News, Opinion Analysis | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, September 29, 2016

First Circuit: Statute Prohibiting "Ballot Selfies" Violates First Amendment

In its opinion in Rideout v. Gardner, the First Circuit, affirming the district judge, held that New Hampshire's prohibition of "ballot selfies" violates the First Amendment.

New Hamp. Rev. Statute §659.35, I, was amended in 2014 to provide:

No voter shall allow his or her ballot to be seen by any person with the intention of letting it be known how he or she is about to vote or how he or she has voted except as provided in RSA 659:20. This prohibition shall include taking a digital image or photograph of his or her marked ballot and distributing or sharing the image via social media or by any other means.

(amended language underlined). The rationale for the statute was to prevent situations in which voters could be coerced into providing proof that they voted in a particular way, and thus as a means to prevent vote-coercion or vote-buying. 

1900_New_York_polling_place
polling place 1900 via

Judge Sandra Lynch's succinct opinion for the First Circuit panel includes a discussion of the nineteenth century practice in which political parties and other organizations had the power to print their own ballots, which they printed in a manner as to make the ballots easily identifiable by size and color.  "This practice allowed the ballot-printing organizations to observe how individuals voted at the polls, which in turn created an obviously coercive environment. "  Thus, "New Hampshire undertook a series of reforms to combat widespread vote buying and voter intimidation" and in 1891 passed legislation requiring the Secretary of State to prepare ballots for state and federal elections, and in 1911 passed the precursor statute forbidding any voter from allowing the "ballot to be seen by any person, with the intention of letting it be known how he is about to vote."

New Hampshire's problem in defending the constitutionality of the 2014 statute is that the problem of vote-buying and coercion has been solved.  As Judge Lynch stated, New Hampshire could not point to any such incidents since the nineteenth century (with the last complaint, seemingly unsubstantiated, being in 1976).  While the state's interests might be compelling in the abstract, they need to be real.  A broad prophylactic prohibition is unwarranted, despite worries about new technologies and media.  Indeed, Judge Lynch wrote:

Digital photography, the internet, and social media are not unknown quantities -- they have been ubiquitous for several election cycles, without being shown to have the effect of furthering vote buying or voter intimidation. As the plaintiffs note, "small cameras" and digital photography "have been in use for at least 15 years," and New Hampshire cannot identify a single complaint of vote buying or intimidation related to a voter's publishing a photograph of a marked ballot during that period.

And even if there were a present problem that needed solving, "the statute still fails for lack of narrow tailoring."  Judge Lynch's opinion for the panel stated that the statute infringed on the rights of all voters and not the smaller (or even nonexistence) pool of those motivated to cast a vote for illegal reasons.  Additionally, there exist other state and federal laws prohibiting vote corruption which are adequate to address the problem, should it arise.  In an interesting footnote, the court lists statutes from other states allowing ballot selfies and notes that these states have not reported "an uptick" in vote buying or voter intimidation.

SnapchatThe First Circuit opinion applied intermediate scrutiny under the First Amendment.  The district judge had concluded the New Hampshire statute was a  content-based regulation and applied strict scrutiny.  However, relying on McCutcheon v. FEC (2014), the First Circuit reasoned that given that the statute fails the lower intermediate standard, the court need not "parse the differences" between the two standards in this case.  Nevertheless, the First Circuit did note that the New Hampshire statute affects voters who are engaged in "core political speech," and in a footnote quoted from the amicus brief for Snapchat that "younger voters" especially use ballot selfies as political expression.

Governments contemplating prohibiting "ballot selfies" would be wise to reconsider after a read of Rideout v. Gardner.

September 29, 2016 in Campaign Finance, Cases and Case Materials, Elections and Voting, Film, First Amendment, Opinion Analysis, Speech | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, September 26, 2016

SCOTUS ConLaw Cases Preview for 2016-17 Term

The United States Supreme Court hears only small fraction of cases: The Court hears about 80 cases a year, of the approximately 8,000 requests for review filed with the Court each year, flowing from the approximately 60, 000 circuit court of appeals decisions and many more thousands of state appellate court opinions. And of this small fraction, generally about half involve constitutional issues, including constitutional criminal procedure issues.

Not surprisingly then, with the new Term starting October 3, the traditional first Monday in October, there are only a handful of constitutional law cases included among the less than 30 the Court has already accepted.

1024px-CourtEqualJustice

The Court is set to hear two racial gerrymandering cases, both of which involve the tensions between the Voting Rights Act and the Equal Protection Clause with underlying political contentions that Republican state legislators acted to reduce the strength of Black voters; both are appeals from divided opinions from three-judge courts. In Bethune-Hill v. Virginia State Board of Elections, the challenge is to the three-judge court’s decision and order holding that a number of Virginia House of Delegates districts did not constitute unlawful racial gerrymanders in violation of the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution. Virginia concededly did consider race in the redistricting, but the more precise issue is an interpretation under current doctrine regarding whether race was the predominant (and thus unconstitutional) consideration. The three-judge lower court is faulted for requiring an “actual” conflict between the traditional redistricting criteria and race. The petitioners argue that “where a legislature intentionally assigns voters to districts according to a fixed, nonnegotiable racial threshold, “strict scrutiny cannot be avoided simply by demonstrating that the shape and location of the districts can rationally be explained by reference to some districting principle other than race.” If it were other-wise, they argue, even the most egregious race-based districting schemes would escape constitutional scrutiny. In McCrory v. Harris, a racial gerrymandering case involving North Carolina, the challenge is to a three-judge court’s decision finding a constitutional Equal Protection Clause violation. The plaintiff originally argued that the congressional map drawn by the NC Assembly in 2011 violated the Equal Protection Clause in two districts by making race a predominant factor and by not narrowly tailoring the districts to any compelling interest. North Carolina argues that the conclusion of racial predominance is incorrect and that it need not show that racial considerations were “actually necessary” as opposed to “having good reasons” under the Voting Rights Act. The North Carolina districts have been long controversial; a good timeline is here.

In another Equal Protection Clause case, the classification is sex rather than race.  In Lynch v. Morales-Santana, the underlying problem is differential requirements regarding US presence for unwed fathers and unwed mothers to transmit citizenship to their child; the Second Circuit held that the sex discrimination was unconstitutional, subjecting it to intermediate scrutiny under equal protection as included in the Fifth Amendment. The United States argues that because the context is citizenship, only rational basis scrutiny is appropriate. This issue has been before the Court before. The last time was 2011 in Flores-Villar v. United States when the Court's per curiam affirmance by an "equally divided Court" upheld the Ninth Circuit’s finding that the differential residency requirement satisfied equal protection. In Flores-Villar, Kagan was recused. The Court hearing Morales-Santana, scheduled for oral argument November 9, will also seemingly be only eight Justices, but this time including Kagan.

Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia, Mo. v. Pauley also includes an Equal Protection issue, but the major tension is between the Free Exercise of Religion Clause of the First Amendment and principles of anti-Establishment of Religion. Like several other states, Missouri has a so-called Blaine Amendment in its state constitution which prohibits any state monies being used in aid of any religious entity. It is concededly more expansive/restrictive than the US Constitution’s Establishment Clause in the First Amendment as the United States Supreme Court has interpreted it. Missouri had a program for state funds to be awarded to resurface playgrounds with used tires; the state denied the Trinity Lutheran Church preschool’s application based on the state constitutional provision. Trinity Lutheran argues that the Blaine Amendment violates both the Free Exercise Clause and the Equal Protection Clause, with the Eighth Circuit siding with the state of Missouri.

There are also several cases involving the criminal procedure protections in the Constitution.  Pena-Rodriguez v. Colorado involves a claim of racial bias on a jury in a criminal case. The Colorado Supreme Court resolved the tension between the “secrecy of jury deliberations” and the Sixth Amendment right to an impartial jury in favor of the former interest. The court found that the state evidence rule, 606(B) (similar to the federal rule), prohibiting juror testimony with some exceptions was not unconstitutional applied to exclude evidence of racial bias on the part of a juror.  Bravo-Fernandez v. United States involves the protection against “double jeopardy” and the effect of a vacated (unconstitutional) conviction. It will be argued in the first week of October. Moore v. Texas is based on the Eighth Amendment’s prohibition of cruel and unusual punishment, with specific attention to capital punishment and the execution of the mentally disabled. In short: what are the proper standards for states to make a determination of mental disability?

Finally - - - at least for now - - - the Court will also be hearing a constitutional property dispute.  Murr v. Wisconsin involves the Fifth Amendment’s “Taking Clause,” providing that private property cannot be “taken” for public use without just compensation. At issue in Murr is regulatory taking. The Court granted certiorari to a Wisconsin appellate court decision regarding two parcels of land that the Murrs owned since 1995; one lot had previously been owned by their parents. Under state and local law, the two lots merged. The Murrs sought a variance to sell off one of the lots as a buildable lot, which was denied. The Murrs now claim that the denial of the variance is an unconstitutional regulatory taking. The Wisconsin courts viewed the two lots as the “property” and concluded that there was no regulatory taking.

We will be updating this post as the Court adds more cases to its docket.

UPDATE September 29, 2016:  The Court granted certiorari to two important First Amendment cases.

September 26, 2016 in Cases and Case Materials, Courts and Judging, Criminal Procedure, Current Affairs, Elections and Voting, Equal Protection, Federalism, First Amendment, Fourteenth Amendment, Race, Religion, Sixth Amendment, Takings Clause | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, September 22, 2016

Judge Slaps FEC for Erroneous Analysis of Political Committee

Judge Christopher R. Cooper (D.D.C.) ruled earlier this week that the controlling members of the FEC applied the wrong legal analysis in concluding that two groups were not "political committees" under federal campaign finance law. The ruling reverses and remands to the FEC for reconsideration.

The case matters because designation as a "political committee" triggers more stringent reporting requirements under campaign finance law. Judge Cooper's ruling makes it more likely that a group would be considered a "political committee," and thus marks a victory for campaign disclosure advocates.

The case arose when CREW lodged a complaint with the FEC that two groups, American Action Network and Americans for Job Security, were unregistered "political committees." Those groups spent money on TV ads and other electioneering communication in three congressional districts in the 2010 elections. In response to CREW's complaint, three FEC commissioners determined that the groups' "major purpose" wasn't "the nomination or election of a candidate," and therefore that they were not "political committees" under campaign finance law. The commissioners reasoned that the groups' electioneering communications--ads that mentioned a candidate, but that did not advocate for or against a candidate's election--shouldn't be considered in determining the "major purpose," and that groups' purposes over their entire history should be considered in determining their "major purpose."

Judge Cooper disagreed. He ruled first that under Buckley and its progeny, the commissioners should have considered the groups' electioneering communications in determining their "major purpose":

CREW's citations to legislative history, past FEC precedent, and court precedent certainly support the conclusion that many or even most electioneering communications indicate a campaign-related purpose. Indeed, it blinks reality to conclude that many of the ads considered by the Commissioners in this case were not designed to influence the election or defeat of a particular candidate in an ongoing race. . . . Instead, the Court will limit itself to identifying the legal error in the Commissioners' statements--that is, the erroneous understanding that the First Amendment effectively required the agency to exclude from its consideration all non-express advocacy in the context of disclosure.

Judge Cooper ruled next that the commissioners wrongly considered the groups' spending over their entire existence, instead of confining their analysis to spending within the most recent calendar year, in determining the "major purpose." He explained that a group's purpose can change over time:

The Commissioners' refusal to give any weight whatsoever to an organizations' relative spending in the most recent calendar year--particularly in the case of a fifteen-year-old organization like AJS--indicates an arbitrary "fail[ure] to consider an important aspect of the [relevant] problem."

Judge Cooper sent the case back to the FEC and ordered it "to conform with [this] declaration within 30 days." The FEC can, of course, appeal.

September 22, 2016 in Campaign Finance, Cases and Case Materials, First Amendment, News, Opinion Analysis | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, September 21, 2016

Tenther States Claim Sovereign Right Not to Pay Employees Overtime

Twenty-one states, led by Texas, sued the federal government this week over the Labor Department's new overtime rule. The complaint, which argues that the rule violates the Tenth Amendment and principles of state sovereignty, puts Garcia, long a thorn in the side of states'-righters, on the chopping block.

The suit challenges DOL regulations under the Fair Labor Standards Act that raise the threshold exemption for overtime pay. This means that employers now have to pay overtime to employees who earn up to $47,476, up from $23,660. (The FLSA only exempts "managerial" positions from the overtime requirement. DOL has long used a salary test as a proxy for "managerial" in its regulations, however.) The rule applies to both private-sector employers and states.

The states argue that the new rule will cost them money and require them to reshuffle spending priorities, interfering with their state sovereignty and violating the Tenth Amendment.

The Supreme Court at one time would have agreed. The Court ruled in National League of Cities v. Usery in 1976 that the FLSA minimum-wage requirement violated the Tenth Amendment for exactly these reasons. But less than a decade later, when it became clear that this approach couldn't work across the myriad federal regulations that applied to states in their non-sovereign capacity, the Court walked back. It ruled in Garcia v. San Antonio Metropolitan Transit Authority (1985) that the FLSA did not violate the Tenth Amendment, and that states had plenty of protection against federal overreach through the ordinary political process.

Now the plaintiffs in this latest lawsuit explicitly argue that Garcia should be overruled. They say that subsequent developments in the law have undermined the case, and that it's time to go back to National League of Cities.

The complaint speaks in terms of the additional burden to the states of the new DOL regulation, but its logic extends to any federal standard (like minimum wage, maximum hours, worker safety, etc.) imposed on the states. As a result, the case, if ultimately successful, would work a sea change in federal-state relations as they've existed since 1985, potentially across policy areas. That seems unlikely given the current composition of the Court. But who knows what might happen after the election.

The states also argue that the new regulation exceeds DOL authority under the FLSA, because the FLSA sets the overtime requirement based on job type ("managerial"), but the DOL regs set the requirement based on salary. This claim may have more traction (in the Fifth Circuit, at least, and possibly before the Supreme Court). It's similar to the core claim in the last state effort, also led by Texas, to challenge administrative action as a violation of the Constitution and the Administrative Procedures Act--in that case, the DAPA program. An evenly divided Supreme Court left in place the Fifth Circuit's ruling that DAPA violated the APA.

September 21, 2016 in Cases and Case Materials, Federalism, News, Opinion Analysis, Tenth Amendment | Permalink | Comments (0)

District Court Orders Texas to Halt its Nonsense Over Voter ID

After the Fifth Circuit ruled this summer that Texas's voter ID law violated the Voting Rights Act, and after a district court ordered the state to educate voters on voting requirements in light of that ruling (that voters need not produce ID), Texas continued to play games to dodge the courts' rulings and hassle voters. For example, the state issued misleading materials that mischaracterized language in the district court's order, and state officials threatened to investigate anyone who signed a declaration saying that they couldn't get the required ID.

So the district court issued a new order yesterday, requiring the state to re-issue press releases, edit printed material to go at polling places, edit its web-site and online materials, and "provide counsel for all Plaintiffs scripts and copy for documents and advertisements that have not yet been published for review and objection prior to publication."

The Texas AG is reportedly planning to seek Supreme Court review of the Fifth Circuit ruling this week.

The Brennan Center has all the litigation documents and a good overview of the case here.

September 21, 2016 in Cases and Case Materials, Elections and Voting, News | Permalink | Comments (0)