Tuesday, November 11, 2014
The Supreme Court will hear oral arguments tomorrow in the case challenging Alabama's re-drawing of its state legislative districts after the 2010 census. The case pits a claim under Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act against a defense under Section 5, although the constitutionality of those provisions is not (directly) at issue in the case.
Alabama redrew its state legislative districts after the 2010 census in order to maintain equal population across districts (within 2 percent), to maintain the existing number of majority-minority districts, and to maintain the existing percentage of black voters in those majority-minority districts. But the state's demographics shifted so that in order to achieve those goals the state had to pack black voters into existing majority-minority districts. The net result was to consolidate minority voting power in these majority-minority districts, but to enhance Republicans' power in the rest of the state.
Democrats and black legislators and groups sued, arguing that the re-districting plans violated Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act and amounted to racial and political gerrymanders. The state countered that it was compelled to draw the districts this way under Section 5 of the VRA in order to preserve majority-minority districts and to avoid retrogression. (The irony of Alabama using Section 5 as a shield after it so vigorously attacked Section 5 in Shelby County has escaped no one.)
The three-judge district court divided along party lines--the two judges appointed by a Republican president ruling for the state, and the lone judge appointed by a Democrat dissenting.
The case pits the plaintiffs' Section 2 claim against the state's Section 5-based reason for the districts. The state's position--that Section 5 made them do it--is part of a larger trend of states applying "not the Voting Rights Act, but a hamhanded cartoon of the Voting Rights Act--substituting blunt numerical demographic targets for the searching examination of local political conditions that the statute actually demands," according to Loyola's (Los Angeles) Justin Levitt. The state's position also potentially puts the constitutionality of Section 5 before the Court: If Section 5 requires race-based decisions like this, isn't it unconstitutional? That question isn't squarely before the Court, but it's certainly lingering behind the curtains.
Monday, November 3, 2014
The Supreme Court heard oral arguments on Monday in Zivotofsky v. Kerry, the case testing whether Congress can require the State Department to list "Israel" as the country of birth for a U.S. citizen born in Jerusalem, upon the request of that citizen. The State Department has long declined to list "Israel" (or "Palestinian Territories" or the like) as the country of birth on such a passport, in order to promote its long-standing position of neutrality with regard to sovereignty over Jerusalem. This case tests which branch gets to decide whether Congress, or the executive branch, gets to decide what goes on the passport.
If arguments are any indication, this'll be a 5-4 opinion, along conventional lines (conservatives for Congress; progressives for the President). In short, conservatives didn't seem to think the Act's place-of-birth designation mattered much to recognition or to foreign affairs (or, as Justice Kennedy suggested, that its impact could be mitigated), and therefore that the Act didn't seriously interfere with any exclusive powers of the presidency. Progressives took the opposite view.
Zivotofsky tried to steer the Court toward his argument that the country-of-birth deisgnation on a passport has nothing to do with official recognition of a foreign sovereign. This position could allow the Court to dodge a thorny separation-of-powers problem entirely, by hanging its hat on the idea that the country-of-birth designation serves only an identification purpose, not a sovereign-recognition purpose. If so, the Court could rule for Zivotofsky by saying that Congress can require anything it wants in the place-of-birth line, because it doesn't interfere with the President's recognition power. (Or, as the government argued, the Court could rule for the government, saying that the congressionally required designation in effect requires the President to issue a diplomatic communication that contradicts the President's own recognition and foreign policy. But this would require at least some consideration of constitutional separation of powers--in particular, whether the President's power of recognition is exclusive.)
This approach seemed to get the attention of the conservatives on the Court. In particular, Justices Kennedy and Scalia in different ways seemed to suggest that the country-of-birth designation didn't recognize sovereignty. (If not, however, Justice Kennedy at one point wondered why Congress would have passed it in the first place.) Justice Kennedy returned several times to the ideal of a State Department disclaimer--that State could just write a statement that the place-of-birth designation didn't reflect the policy of the United States. And Chief Justice Roberts wondered later in the arguments whether the President's objections to the Act and the executive's position in litigation amount to a self-fulfilling prophecy--that is, whether designating "Israel" wasn't really all that big of a deal, until the President made it so. (This exchange, with SG Verilli, came up in a line of questions about why President Bush signed the Act in the first place, even with his constitutional reservations in the signing statement.) All these, and Justice Alito, suggested at different times that the country-of-birth designation wasn't all that important, anyway--a corollary to the country-of-birth-designation-as-mere-identification theory.
But Justice Kagan pushed back against the self-identification theory: she called the Act a "very selective vanity plate law," because it allows a passport holder to determine the designation of country of birth. She also underscored the passport-as-diplomatic-note point by asking whether a hypothetical congressional act would be constitutional if it required the State Department to inform all foreign minister that a new American was born in Israel whenever a new American was born in Jerusalem. (Zivotofsky's answer: Yes. Justice Kagan called this "a little bit shocking.") Justice Sotomayor went a step further and said (several times) that Zivotofsky and Act supporters wanted the government to lie--to say that Israel was the place of birth, even though the government doesn't recognize Israel as sovereign over Jerusalem.
Justice Breyer took an institutional competence view of the case, asking if the foreign affairs experts at the State Department declined to recognize Israeli sovereignty over Jerusalem, who was he to question them?
Justice Kagan took the final shot at the it-doesn't-matter-that-much view at the very end of arguments:
Can I say that this seems a particularly unfortunate week to be making this kind of, "oh, it's no big deal" argument. I mean, history suggests that everything is a big deal with respect to the status of Jerusalem. And right now Jerusalem is a tinderbox because of issues about the status of and access to a particularly holy site there. And so sort of everything matters, doesn't it?
It seems doubtful that she'll persuade her conservative colleagues.
Thursday, October 23, 2014
The Constitutional Accountability Center is examining Chief Justice John Roberts's first decade in office in a series of posts and articles called Roberts at 10. Here's the intro.
Brianne Gorod, the CAC's appellate counsel, posted most recently on Chief Justice Roberts and federal power, in particular, NFIB. Here's her conclusion:
[I]t is nonetheless clear that the Chief Justice is concerned about the scope of federal power and, in particular, the breadth of the federal regulatory state . . . . And while Chief Justice Roberts may not have the same appetite to change the law in these areas as Chief Justice Rehnquist had, it also seems clear that Chief Justice John Roberts's views on the Commerce Clause and the Spending Clause aren't exactly what Judge Roberts presented them to be at his confirmation hearing in 2005. Just how different they are . . . remains to be seen. But supporters of the Affordable Care Act shouldn't give Chief Justice Roberts too much credit for his decision in NFIB. It's complicated.
Thursday, October 2, 2014
A divided panel of the Fourth Circuit affirmed in part and reversed in part a district court ruling that declined to enjoin North Carolina's voting law under Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act. We posted on the district court case, with more background and links, here. (Recall that North Carolina moved swiftly to put this law into place after the Supreme Court struck the coverage formula for Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act in Shelby County. The move suggested that North Carolina itself thought that the law, or portions of it, wouldn't pass muster under Section 5, but that it would pass a Section 2 challenge.)
The ruling means that the state's elimination of same day registration and prohibition on counting out-of-precinct ballots are preliminarily enjoined during the pendancy of the case, but that the other portions of the law are not. Thus, the following provisions will go into effect pending the outcome of the merits case: (1) the state's reduction of early voting days; (2) expansion of allowable voter challengers; (3) elimination of discretion of county boards of election to keep polls open an additional hour on election day; (4) the elimination of pre-registration of 16- and 17-year-olds; (5) and the "soft" roll-out of voter identification requirements.
Unless the full Fourth Circuit or the Supreme Court steps in (and quick), that'll be the situation for the fall election. (The North Carolina AG reportedly said he'd appeal.)
The majority was quick to remind us that this is is not a final ruling on the merits, and does not speak to the underlying merits challenge. That case is still plugging forward in the district court.
The majority pulled no punches when it wrote that "the district court got the law plainly wrong in several crucial respects." It went on to identify, point by point, eight seperate ways the lower court misinterpreted and misapplied Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act. Perhaps most importantly, the court said that the district court misinterpreted the Section 2 standard in relation to Section 5:
First, the district court bluntly held that "Section 2 does not incorporate a 'retrogression' standard" and that the court therefore was "not concerned with whether the elimination of [same-day registration and other features] will worsen the position of minority voters in comparison to the preexisting voting standard, practice or procedure--a Section 5 inquiry."
Contrary to the district court's statement, Section 2, on its face, requires a broad "totality of the circumstances" review. Clearly, an eye toward past practices is part and parcel of the totality of the circumstances
Further, as the Supreme Court noted, "some parts of the [Section] 2 analysis may overlap with the [Section] 5 inquiry. . . .
The issue goes to the relevant baseline: Should the court measure a voting change with reference to the state's immediately preceding practice, or with reference to some other, lower baseline? (The issue came up recently in the Ohio early voting case, too.) The Fourth Circuit said that Section 2's totality-of-the-circumstances analysis requires a court to judge a voting change with reference to the state's prior practice. That, along with the rest of the totality of the circumstances, meant that the plaintiffs were likely to succeed on their challenges to the two portions of the North Carolina law that the court enjoined.
The Supreme Court will consider its first Section 2 case after Shelby County this Term--the Alabama redistricting cases. We'll likely get a better sense from that case how the current Court will analyze a Section 2 challenge--and how (and whether) it overlaps with the Section 5 standard.
Judge Motz dissented, emphasizing the high standard for a preliminary injunction, the timing of the case (right before the election), and the problems with implementation and potential confusion.
Tuesday, September 30, 2014
Judge Ronald A. White (E.D. Okla.) ruled today in Oklahoma v. Burwell that the IRS rule providing subsidies for individual purchasers of health insurance on an exchange established by the federal government (and not a state government) ran afoul of the plain language of the Affordable Care Act. Judge White stayed his ruling pending appeal, however, so it has no immediate impact on subsidies in Oklahoma.
Judge White's ruling aligns with the D.C. Circuit panel decision in Halbig and stands opposite the Fourth Circuit ruling in King. (Recall that the full D.C. Circuit vacated the panel ruling and agreed to rehear the case en banc. That argument is set for December.) All this means that there is currently no circuit split on the issue; instead, the Fourth Circuit upheld the tax subsidies, the full D.C. Circuit will reconsider them in December, and the Tenth Circuit will consider them soon (on the inevitable appeal from Judge White's ruling).
Judge White wrote that the plain language of the ACA resolved the case. That language allows a tax subsidy for a purchaser of health insurance who is "covered by a qualified health plan . . . enrolled in through an Exchange established by the State under section 1311 of the [ACA]." 26 U.S.C. Sec. 36B(c)(2)(A)(i) (emphasis added). Like the panel in Halbig, Judge White said that the language was clear, and that the IRS rule extending credits to purchasers of health insurance on exchanges established by the federal government (and not a state) violated it.
Judge White downplayed the effect of striking the IRS rule, saying that "apocalyptic" claims about the challenges tot he IRS rule are overstated. In any event, he wrote, Congress could re-write the law to specifically authorize the subsidies.
Judge White also ruled that Oklahoma had standing to challenge the IRS rule, because the state, as a large employer, would have been subject to federal penalties for some of its employees who might purchase health insurance on the federal exchange and qualify for a subsidy under the IRS rule.
Judge White's ruling probably doesn't make this case any more (or less) likely to go to the Supreme Court soon. With just two circuits weighing in so far--and one of them vacating the panel ruling and rehearing the case en banc--the Court will likely wait to see what the full D.C. Circuit, and now the Tenth Circuit, do with it. Still, the challengers in the Fourth Circuit case have asked the Supreme Court to review it.
Wednesday, September 24, 2014
President Obama sent two letters to Congress yesterday pursuant to the War Powers Resolution notifying it of U.S. military efforts in Iraq and Syria against ISIS and the Khorasan Group.
The first letter outlines "a series of strikes in Syria against elements of al-Qa'ida known as the Khorasan Group." It says that "[t]hese strikes are necessary to defend the United States and our partners and allies against the threat posed by these elements." The letter cites as authority the constitutional Commander-in-Chief, Chief Executive, and foreign relations powers of the presidency, and authority under the 2001 AUMF, the authorization for use of force against those who planned the attacks of September 11 and anyone who helped or harbored them.
The second letter reviews previous military efforts against ISIS in Iraq and outlines the deployment of 475 additional troops to Iraq and the use of U.S. forces "to conduct coordination with Iraqi forces and to provide training, communications support, intelligence support, and other support to select elements of the Iraqi security forces, including Kurdish Peshmerga forces." The letter also says that the President "ordered the U.S. Armed Forces to conduct a systematic campaign of airstrikes and other necessary actions against [ISIS] in Iraq and Syria . . . in coordination with and at the request of the Government of Iraq and in conjuntion with coalition partners." The letter cites the same authority as the first letter, above, along with the 2002 AUMF, the authorization for use of military force against Iraq.
The President has faced plenty of criticism for relying on his inherent constitutional authority and these two AUMFs in authorizing recent strikes. Congress is considering new AUMFs that would specifically authorize his actions. The Hill reports that Senator Levin, chairman of the Armed Services Committee, thinks that Congress will take up the measures after the mid-terms.
Friday, September 12, 2014
Senate Republicans unanimously blocked the campaign finance constitutional amendment proposed by Democrats. The measure, S.J. Res. 19, failed 54 to 42, short of the 60 votes necessary to close debate and move to a vote on the merits.
The proposed amendment would have overturned Citizens United and allowed Congress and state legislatures to regulate campaign contributions and spending. It read:
Section 1. To advance democratic self-government and political equality, and to protect the integrity of government and the electoral process, Congress and the States may regulate and set reasonable limits on the raising and spending of money by candidates and others to influence elections.
Section 2. Congress and the States shall have power to implement and enforce this article by appropriate legislation, and may distinguish between natural persons and corporations or other artificial entities created by law, including by prohibiting such entities from spending money to influence elections.
Section 3. Nothing in this article shall be construed to grant Congress or the States the power to abridge the freedom of the press.
Republicans argued that the measure infringed on free speech. Senator Ted Cruz captured the point when he said that SNL producer "Lorne Michaels could be put in jail under this amendment for making fun of any politician." That seems pretty unlikely, but still possible under the language. Politifact gave it a "half-true," based on interviews with several ConLawProfs.
Tuesday, September 9, 2014
According to The Hill, President Obama told congressional leaders today that he doesn't need congressional approval for his campaign against ISIS, details to be announced tomorrow night.
While he told the congressional leaders he would welcome congressional action that demonstrated a unified front, the president told the bicameral, bipartisan group "he has the authority he needs to take action against [ISIS] in accordance with the mission he will lay out in his address," according to the White House.
Participants in the meeting--the House Speaker and Minority Leader, and the Senate Majority and Minority Leaders--didn't say anything about the need for congressional approval afterward.
The Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee held a hearing today on President Obama's nomination of Sharon Block to the NLRB. Block was one of the recess-appointees to the NLRB that the Supreme Court struck this summer in Noel Canning. Her nomination this time is going through the regular Appointments Clause process.
If confirmed, Brown would replace Nancy Schiffer and become the third Democrat on the five-member Board.
Republicans oppose Brown because of her political ideology and the direction of the Board with President Obama's appointments. They also see her appointment as an end-run around Noel Canning (given that Noel Canning struck her recess appointment).
Still, the full Senate will likely confirm her. That's because of the filibuster rules change that allows most presidential nominees to move forward to an up-or-down majority vote in the Senate.
Of course, if nominees like Brown hadn't faced a Republican filibuster in the first place, President Obama wouldn't have recess-appointed them; instead, they would have been confirmed through the ordinary appointment process--exactly what's happening to Brown now. In that way, after all the drama and attention to President Obama's recess appointments in Noel Canning, we're right back where we might have started: majority (not super-majority) confirmation of presidential nominees through the ordinary appointment process.
Thursday, September 4, 2014
The full D.C. Circuit today agreed to rehear Halbig v. Burwell, in which a three-judge panel of the court previously struck the IRS rule that offers tax credits to purchasers of health insurance on a federally operated exchange who meet certain income requirements. Today's order also vacates that earlier ruling. It means that the full, en banc D.C. Circuit will get a bite at the apple, and that the earlier panel ruling is wiped from the books. The court will hear arguments on December 17.
Recall that the earlier panel ruling striking the tax credit was in direct conflict with a Fourth Circuit ruling the same day upholding the tax credit. Today's order also removes that circuit split.
We last posted on the case, with background explanation, here. In short, the case involves an IRS rule that extends tax credits to purchasers of health insurance on a federally operated exchange. Opponents of the rule argue that the plain text of the ACA limits credits to purchasers on a state-operated exchange. The government argues that the broader text of the ACA and its purposes show that the credit applies to purchasers on both state and federal exchanges.
A ruling striking the credits for purchasers on a federal exchange would deal a major blow to the Affordable Care Act and its goal of universal coverage, and could put lower-income purchasers in a pinch. That's because purchasers in states that declined to establish their own exchanges (and thus triggered the federal government to establish a federal exchange) wouldn't qualify for a credit, and may not be able to afford insurance without it, yet would still be required to purchase it. An amendment to the ACA could easily solve the problem (again, if a court struck the credits for purchasers on federal exchanges), but congressional opponents of the ACA, and thus Congress, would never go for it--at least unless and until these cases are resolved in favor of the government (when the point would be moot, anyway).
Wednesday, July 30, 2014
The House of Representatives voted along party lines this afternoon to authorize a federal lawsuit against President Obama for alleged constitutional overreach in implementation of the Affordable Care Act.
The case will have several problems right out of the gate, most notably standing. Here's our last post on the suit, with links to earlier posts.
Tuesday, July 29, 2014
The D.C. Circuit today rejected an Origination Clause challenge to the so-called individual mandate under the Affordable Care Act. The court also rejected a Commerce Clause challenge to the individual mandate. The ruling means that this long-shot case is dismissed.
The plaintiff in the case, Matt Sissel, argued that the individual mandate violated the Origination Clause. That Clause requires revenue-raising bills to originate in the House; it says,
All Bills for raising Revenue shall originate in the House of Representatives; but the Senate may propose or concur with Amendments as on other Bills.
Sissel argued that the ACA's individual mandate really originated in the Senate, not the House, and therefore violated the Clause.
The court summarily rejected that argument. The court said that the Supreme Court has given a narrow reading to the Origination Clause, applying it only to bills that "levy taxes in the strict sense of the word." But the court said that the taxing feature (or the revenue-raising feature) of the individual mandate was merely a by-product of the mandate, not the principal goal of the mandate--and therefore not a tax in the strict sence. Instead, the court said, the mandate was designed to help achieve universal health care coverage, not principally to raise revenue:
The purposive approach embodied in Supreme Court precedent necessarily leads to the conclusion that [the individual mandate] is not a "Bill for raising Revenue" under the Origination Clause. . . . And after the Supreme Court's decision in NFIB, it is beyond dispute that the paramount aim of the Affordable Care Act is "to increase the number of Americans covered by health insurance and decrease the cost of health care," not to raise revenue by means of the shared responsibility payment.
The court also rejected Sissel's Commerce Clause argument, ruling that the this argument was foreclosed by the Supreme Court's decision in NFIB, which upheld the individual mandate as a valid measure under Congress's taxing power. The court rejected Sissel's argument that his election not to purchase insurance was a violation of federal law (and therefore the federal requirement violated the Commerce Clause). Instead, the court said that under NFIB Sissel had a choice: buy insurance, or pay a tax. That's a valid exercise of the taxing power (even if it has a regulatory effect), and Sissel's argument under the Commerce Clause misses the mark.
The ruling is just the latest in a line of cases challenging different aspects of the Affordable Care Act. It's an important victory for the ACA, even if not a particularly surprising one.
Tuesday, July 22, 2014
Two federal appeals courts today issued dueling rulings on the legality of an IRS rule that offers tax credits to purchasers of health insurance on a federally operated exchange who meet certain income guidelines (100 to 400 percent of the federal poverty level). A sharply divided D.C. Circuit panel ruled in Halbig v. Burwell that the IRS exceeded its authority under the Affordable Care Act in offering these credits, and ordered the IRS rule vacated. In contrast, a unanimous panel of the Fourth Circuit ruled in King v. Burwell that the IRS did not exceed its authority.
The split makes it all the more certain (if ever there were ever any doubt) that this issue is heading to the Supreme Court for yet another judicial showdown between Obamacare opponents and the administration. If the high court upholds the D.C. Circuit ruling, that could mark the end of Obamacare. That's because health insurance for those in states with a federally operated exchange (and with incomes between 100 and 400 percent of the poverty line) could be cost prohibitive without tax credits (that's the whole purpose of tax credits, to make insurance affordable); and if as a result those individuals don't purchase insurance, that significant portion of the population would fall outside the broader insurance pool, undermining the key structural assumption of Obamacare, that everyone's covered.
Remember: We only have federally operated exchanges because many states declined to establish their own exchanges (often for political reasons--to register dissent or lack of cooperation with the ACA in general). All indications are that Congress passed, and the president signed, the ACA on the assumption that states would establish their own exchanges, and that the federal government wouldn't have to. That turned out to be wrong. That, in combination with some less-than-perfect legislative language, led to the D.C. court's ruling.
The crux of the case involves the administration's authority to offer tax credits to purchasers on federally operated exchanges, and not just state operated exchanges. Opponents of the credit argue that the plain language of the ACA allows credits only for purchasers on state operated exchanges. The administration says that a broader, contextual reading of the ACA, along with an understanding of congressional intent, allows credits for purchasers on federally operated exchanges, as well.
The ACA authorizes the tax credit to subsidize the purchase of insurance on an "Exchange established by the State under section 1131 of the [ACA]." But other sections of the Act treat an "Exchange" as only a state-created exchange. And yet a different portion requires the federal government to establish an operate an "Exchange" if a state declines to do so. (Other portions of the Act are relevant, too, but these are the key portions.)
In short, the D.C. Circuit said that the ACA's language was plain and unambiguous, and that it authorized tax credits only for state-established exchanges. It also said that the scant legislative history on this point did not change that result.
The Fourth Circuit, and the dissent in the D.C. Circuit, said that when read together these portions of the ACA could mean that the federal government stands in the shoes of a state when the federal government establishes an exchange, and that the federally established exchanges are therefore also "Exchange[s] established by the State" for the purpose of the Act. They also said that the legislative purpose of the ACA supports this reading. Because of the ambiguous language, the IRS could interpret it in any way that's reasonable. And its interpretation was reasonable.
Saturday, July 19, 2014
The D.C. Circuit ruled on Friday that survivors of rape and sexual assault in the military did not have constitutional damage claims against military officers who failed to address the prevalence of sexual misconduct and retaliation in the Navy and Marine Corps, even in the face of congressional mandates to take action. (The plaintiffs did not sue their assailants in this case; instead, they sued higher-ups for perpetuating and grossly mismanaging the problem.) The ruling means that this avenue of relief--the constitutional tort--is unavailable, and that survivors will have to look elsewhere for a remedy.
The three-judge panel declined to apply a Bivens remedy to the survivors' claims that officers violated the First, Fifth, and Seventh Amendments. (A Bivens remedy would have allowed the survivors to sue the officers for monetary damages, even though there's no statutory authorization for such a suit.) The court said that "special factors" counseled against a Bivens remedy. (The court did not say whether other avenues of relief were available, the other part of the Bivens inquiry.) In particular, the court wrote that "the military context" and "Congress's extensive legislation on this specific issue" were "special factors that counsel decisively against authorizing a Bivens remedy."
The court rejected the plaintiffs' argument that rape and sexual assault were not "incident to service," and that therefore the military context shouldn't foreclose a Bivens remedy. The court said that the plaintiffs did not sue their assailants for rape and sexual assault; instead, they sued higher-ups for creating and failing to change a hostile environment--"a decade's worth of military management decisions," which, according to the court, is exactly the kinds of military decisions that fall outside Bivens's scope.
The court also rejected the plaintiffs' argument that officers ignored Congress in failing to establish an investigatory commission and failing to create a database. The court said that Congress's extensive regulation of the issue, without creating a statutory civil damages remedy, was telling, and that it would violate separation-of-powers principles for the courts to step in and create a remedy when Congress declined.
The ruling aligns with the Fourth Circuit's Cioca v. Rumsfeld and adds to the recent line of cases rejecting Bivens claims for military torture, including Doe v. Rumsfeld, Vance v. Rumsfeld, and Lebron v. Rumsfeld. In other words, it adds to the well established body of law that says that courts defer entirely to the military in defining the kinds of military actions that fall outside of Bivens--even when those actions quite clearly have nothing to do with running a good ship.
July 19, 2014 in Cases and Case Materials, Congressional Authority, Fundamental Rights, Jurisdiction of Federal Courts, News, Opinion Analysis, Separation of Powers | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)
Thursday, July 17, 2014
White House Counsel Neil Eggleston wrote this week to Congressman Darrell Issa, Chair of the House Oversight Committee, to explain why David Simas, Assistant to the President and Director of the White House Office of Political Strategy and Outreach, wouldn't appear before Issa's Committee this week. Issa issued a subpoena to Simas as part of the Committee's investigation of possible Hatch Act violations in Simas's office.
Eggleston's letter to Issa explains that Simas, as an immediate presidential adviser, is absolutely immune from congressional testimonial subpoenas. Eggleston cites a recently issued OLC memo (apparently not yet public) and the "longstanding position of Administrations of both political parties."
Indeed, the administration's position is exactly the same as the position of the Bush White House when Congress issued subpoenas to Harriet Miers and Karl Rove. (Congress was investigating the firings of U.S. attorneys.) That episode resulted in Committee on the Judiciary v. Miers, the D.C. Circuit ruling granting Miers and Chief of Staff Josh Bolton's motion for stay pending appeal of the lower court's ruling against them. (The Committee and House held Miers in contempt and sued to get her to testify; she asserted absolute immunity under executive privilege. The district court ruled that Miers was not absolutely immune and denied her motion for a stay pending appeal.) The appeals court did not reach the merits, however. Instead, Miers and Bolton effectively ran the clock on the case.
Issa is now reportedly considering holding Simas in contempt of Congress.
Although the claims of privilege are exactly the same, there is one big difference in the two cases: Issa opposed holding Miers in contempt.
The House Rules Committee had a hearing yesterday on the House Resolution authorizing a lawsuit against President Obama for alleged overreach in implementing the Affordable Care Act. (We posted on some of these alleged overreaches here.) Profs. Elizabeth Price Foley (FIU) and Jonathan Turley (GW) testified in support of the measure; Simon Lazarus (CAC) and Walter Dellinger testified against.
The big hurdle to a suit is standing: under current doctrine, the House lacks standing to sue (although Foley reiterated her theory of standing, and Turley argued that current standing doctrine is wrong). Without standing, the courts won't hear the case.
And they shouldn't. This is obviously a gimmick, not a serious constitutional challenge to the President's authority, as evidenced by the nonsense at yesterday's hearing. Dana Milback over at WaPo hits the nail on the head. (H/t to Darren Elliott.) We might add that it's just a little ironic that political conservatives are now touting the benefits of open courts, access to justice, and an activist judiciary.
Supporters of the suit argue, among other things, that the courts are the proper venue for this dispute, because the House has no other realistic way to control the President. (Changing the law or withholding appropriations won't work, they say, because a bill would also have to pass the Senate (and get signed by the President).) But that's no standard for standing. It also ignores the fact that Congress, even one party in Congress, has a whole panoply of ways to check and frustrate the President--which Republicans have used to great effect. Finally, it proves too much: If there really are no political ways to check the President, maybe that's because the President's actions enjoy wide political support (because they help people, not harm them, and thus raise standing problems for anyone seeking to challenge them).
The Resolution authorizes the Speaker to "initiate or intervene in one or more civil actions on behalf of the House of Representatives" to force the President to "act in a manner consistent with [his] duties under the Constitution and laws of the United States with respect to implementation (and failure to implement) any provision of [the Affordable Care Act]."
The authorization doesn't identify a particular presidential action that violates the Constitution. Turley identifies shifting funds between line-items in the budget to fund portions of the ACA and extending tax credits to health-insurance purchasers in states where the federal government runs the exchange, among others. Lazarus offers good arguments why these are valid executive actions in implementing the ACA, and not violations of separation of powers principles.
Wednesday, July 2, 2014
The Supreme Court's ruling in Hobby Lobby this week opened up a potential free-for-all for closely held corporations to challenge all types of federal government regulations in the name of the owners' religious beliefs. (The only requirement: the reg has to pose a substantial burden on the belief. But we saw in Hobby Lobby itself how easy it is to meet that standard.) If so, those regs would be subject to RFRA's strict scrutiny test. That test requires the government to show that its regulation is the least restrictive way that it can achieve its compelling government interest--a tall order, indeed, and one that the government in other contexts can almost never satisfy.
In other words, the ruling seems to invite a religious exception for unknown numbers of federal laws. The majority dismissed this worry and did its best to cabin the ruling, but in truth only time will tell how far Hobby Lobby reaches. We can expect to a flurry of cases testing this.
So: What now?
ConLawProfBlog's own Ruthann Robson answers the question in her excellent post over at The London School of Economics Blog. Robson says that Congress has three ways to undo the Hobby Lobby ruling: (1) redefine "person" in the Dictionary Act to exclude for-profits; (2) change the level of scrutiny in RFRA (to rational basis review, consistent with the First Amendment standard); or (3) repeal RFRA entirely.
You might say that these options are unfriendly to religions. But Robson tells us why it's really the ruling itself that's religion-unfriendly. Robson argues that the ruling actually creates a disincentive for Congress to grant exemptions or accommodations to federal laws for religious organizations. That's becuase HHS's exemption for religious organizations (like Notre Dame, Little Sisters, and the like) was Exhibit A in the Court's conclusion that the so-called contraception mandate was not the least restrictive way for Congress to require insurers to provide contraception for women. (After all, if Congress could create an exemption for religious organizations, there's no reason why it couldn't similarly create an exemption for closely held corporations with religious owners. The fact that Congress had this alternative (and used it for religious organizations, but not for closely held corporations), according to the Court, shows why the so-called contraception mandate wasn't the best tailored way for Congress to achieve its goal.)
Robson's right. And she's right in arguing that Congress was sloppy and short-sighted in enacting RFRA in the first place, and that now, after Hobby Lobby, it may wreak all sorts of as-yet-unknown havoc. She concludes:
While Congress should take care when seeking to "reverse" a Supreme Court opinion, Congress did not take such care when ti sought to "overrule" Smith by enacting RFRA. Now Congress should act quickly and firmly to remedy the problem it caused by enacting RFRA. What Congress giveth, it can taketh away. And it should.
Monday, June 30, 2014
Divided Supreme Court Recognizes Right of Closely Held Corporations Hobby Lobby and Conestoga Wood Specialties under RFRA to Avoid "Contraceptive Mandate"
On this last day of the 2013-2014 Term, the Court delivered its long-awaited opinion in "Hobby Lobby" - - now Burwell v. Hobby Lobby, Inc. consolidated with Conestoga Woods Specialties Corp. v. Burwell - - - on the question of whether corporations (or their owner/shareholders) be able to interpose a religious objection under RFRA (the Religious Freedom Restoration Act) to a federal requirement that employers provide health insurance to employees that includes contraceptive coverage? Here's our primer on the issues for more detail. Recall that the Tenth Circuit en banc in Hobby Lobby ruled for the corporation, while the Third Circuit panel in Conestoga Woods ruled for the government, and several other courts entered the fray with disparate results.
The oral arguments in March were contentious and so too are the opinions in this 5-4 decision.
The majority opinion, authored by Justice Alito, holds that closely-held corporations such as Hobby Lobby and Conestoga Wood Specialties are "persons" within the meaning of RFRA and thus are entitled to raise a claim. The Court looks at Congressional intent in RFRA, its own precedent allowing RFRA claims by nonprofit corporations, and policy issues about the difficulty of determining the "beliefs" of a corporation, and held that closely held corporation that make a profit are "persons" within RFRA.
The Court then held that the challenged HHS regulations ("the contraceptive mandate") did substantially burden the business owners religious beliefs because they believe if they comply with the mandate they will be "facilitating abortions" and if they do not comply, they will face substantial fines. The Court rejected the argument that the link between the insurance coverage paid by an employer and an employee being reimbursed by the insurance company for obtaining contraception was too attenuated.
Given this finding, under RFRA, the Court applies "strict scrutiny," but interestingly assumes that the government satisfies the "compelling government interest" prong. However, the Court finds that the HHS mandate is not the "least restrictive means" to accomplish its goal: the system already in place for accommodating the religious beliefs of nonprofit entities granted exemptions under the regulations and statute.
Justice Kennedy writes a brief concurring opinion. As we discussed, Kennedy was focused on as the "Justice to watch" and he stresses that the existence of government accommodation already in existence.
The "principal dissent" (as the Court's opinion often characterizes it) is by Justice Ginsburg, joined by Sotomayor in full, and by Breyer and Kagan (except to a section regarding the construction of RFRA as applying to corporate persons). The dissent begins by labeling the majority's decision as one of "startling breadth" that allows corporations to "opt out" of "any law (saving only tax laws) they judge incompatible with their sincerely held religious beliefs." Justice Ginsburg argues there is a slippery slope in the majority's least restrictive means analysis, despite the majority's attempt to cabin it:
And where is the stopping point to the “let the government pay” alternative? Suppose an employer’s sincerely held religious belief is offended by health coverage of vaccines, or paying the minimum wage, or according women equal pay for substantially similar work? Does it rank as a less restrictive alternative to require the government to provide the money or benefit to which the employer has a religion-based objection? Because the Court cannot easily answer that question, it proposes something else: Extension to commercial enterprises of the accommodation already afforded to nonprofit religion-based organizations. “At a minimum,” according to the Court, such an approach would not “impinge on [Hobby Lobby’s and Conestoga’s] religious belief.” I have already discussed the “special solicitude” generally accorded nonprofit religion-based organizations that exist to serve a community of believers, solicitude never before accorded to commercial enterprises comprising employees of diverse faiths.
Ultimately, the Court hedges on its proposal to align for- profit enterprises with nonprofit religion-based organizations. “We do not decide today whether [the] approach [the opinion advances] complies with RFRA for purposes of all religious claims.” Counsel for Hobby Lobby was similarly noncommittal.
[citations and footnotes omitted].
Whether or not the Court's opinion is narrow or broad might depend more on one's political outlook and one's view of the Court as "chipping away" or as "careful crafting."
However, recall that RFRA - - - the Religious Freedom Restoration Act - - - is a statute passed by Congress that changed the standard of review the Court had announced be accorded religious claims; many now believe that Congress will be called upon to change RFRA, including perhaps the definition of "person" to exclude for-profit corporations, or to repeal RFRA in its entirety.
June 30, 2014 in Abortion, Congressional Authority, Courts and Judging, Executive Authority, Family, First Amendment, Gender, Medical Decisions, Opinion Analysis, Religion, Reproductive Rights, Sexuality, Supreme Court (US) | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack (0)
Thursday, June 26, 2014
Richard Trumka, head of the AFL-CIO, put out a statement today in reaction to the Court's ruling in Noel Canning, which struck President Obama's recess appointments to the NLRB. He said, correctly, that "[t]he impact of today's ruling is far less than it might have been, because there is now a full complement of Senate-confirmed members of the NLRB and a Senate-confrimed NLRB general counsel."
But there's another reason that the impact of today's decision is less than it might have been: the Senate's limitation on the use of the filibuster. That limitation, a Senate rules change from last fall, should also blunt today's ruling. That's because the President won't have to use recess appointments as much to dodge Senate minority obstruction on nominees, because the principle tool for that obstruction, the filibuster, is now limited to legislation and Supreme Court nominees, not executive nominees and lower federal judges.
Sean Higgins at the Washington Examiner makes a similar point, and argues that the ruling today is merely a set-back for unions at the NLRB (because they'll have to relitigate all the cases the NLRB decided with its recess-appointees). (This applies to other agencies, too, with recess appointees that are invalid under today's ruling.) The bigger fight, over the filibuster and actual appointees to the NLRB, has already been won by the President.
The Supreme Court today in NLRB v. Noel Canning gave a broad reading to the Recess Appointment Clause, but nevertheless struck President Obama's recess appointments to the NLRB, ruling that the Senate was in session. The ruling means that the NLRB lacked a quorum when it issued an order to Noel Canning, a Pepsi distributor, and that order is invalid. It's not clear yet how many other offices may be affected by the ruling. Our oral argument review (with a link to our preview) is here.
The ruling hands a defeat to President Obama in the short run (on the NLRB appointments), and, despite the broad reading of the clause, may hinder presidents in the future. That's becuase the Court said that the Senate is in session when it says it is, provided that it retains power to act, as it did here. That means that even when the Senate meets in pro forma sessions, as here, presidential appointments have to follow the usual course and get Senate confirmation (instead of dodging Senate confirmation through the recess appointment mechanism). As a result, the Senate can frustrate a president's ability to recess-appoint a nominee by going into pro forma sessions (again, with the ability to act), thus forcing a president to gain Senate confirmation (which, as we've seen, may be a difficult or impossible task).
The Court said that any session more than 3 days but shorter than 10 days is presumptively too short to constitute a recess of the Senate and thus to allow a recess appointment. And again: the Senate gets to say, presumptively, when it's in recess.
As to a recess over 3 days: the Adjournment Clause (Art. I, Sec. 5) allows the House to prevent a recess of the Senate. This gives even the House the power to block a recess--and recess appointments--for any period over 3 days. That means that the House could block a recess appointment by denying the Senate consent to recess.
Because the Senate was in session when President Obama made the NLRB appointments--because it said it was, and because it retained power to act, even if it was in pro forma sessions--the Court ruled them invalid.
At the same time, the Court handed the executive branch a victory on its broader reading of the Recess Appointments Clause. Thus the Court ruled that a "recess" includes both inter-session recesses and intra-session recesses. It also ruled that "vacancies that may happen during the recess of the Senate" include vacancies that first come into existence during a recess and vacancies that initially occurred before a recess but continued during the recess.
The judgment striking the NLRB appointees was unanimous. But Justice Scalia wrote a concurrence, joined by Chief Justice Roberts and Justices Thomas and Alito. Justice Scalia wrote that the majority went too far in reading a broader Recess Appointment Clause and relied too heavily on prior presidential practice:
To reach [its] result, the majority casts aside the plain, original meaning of the constitutional text in deference to late-arising historical practices that are ambiguous at best. The majority's insistence on deferring to the Executive's untenably broad interpretation of the power is in clear conflict with our precedent and forebodes a dimunition of this Court's role in controversies involving the separation of powers and the structure of government.
June 26, 2014 in Appointment and Removal Powers, Cases and Case Materials, Congressional Authority, Executive Authority, News, Opinion Analysis, Separation of Powers | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack (0)