Friday, October 2, 2015

Daily Read: Chief Justice Roberts at Ten

The inimitable Linda Greenhouse in "A Chief Justice Without A Friend" notes that John Roberts is unpopular as he celebrates his decade on the bench.

I can’t think of a chief justice who has been so uniformly vilified by both left and right.

The attacks from the left are logical enough. It’s the fire from the right that merits closer observation than it has generally received. Sure, it’s titillating in a man-bites-dog sort of way. But it’s also revealing of an ideological transformation now underway in how an increasingly influential segment of the conservative elite views the role of courts.

A good quick read, with a link to The Nation special issue - - - The Case Against the Roberts Court - - - which is likewise worth a read.



October 2, 2015 in Courts and Judging, Current Affairs, Supreme Court (US) | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, October 1, 2015

Court Grants Review of Bias of Pennsylvania State Supreme Court Justice in Death Penalty Case

The Court has granted certiorari in Williams v. Pennsylvania on issues of due process and the Eighth Amendment revolving around former Chief Justice of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court Ronald Castille (pictured). 


Castille, who retired from the court when he reached the state mandatory retirement age, was elected in 1993, and retained in elections in 2003 and 2013.  Importantly, before his election to the bench, Castille worked in the district attorney's office for over 20 years, including being twice elected to the District Attorney position; he reportedly claimed to have "sent 45 people to death row."

One of those people on death row is Terrence Williams, the petitioner in Williams v. Pennyslvania.  Williams claims that it was a violation of due process and the Eighth Amendment for Justice Castille to deny the motion to recuse himself from consideration of Williams' petition for post conviction relief.  Williams contends that Castille, as a prosecutor, was personally involved in the case and the decision to seek the death penalty.  Williams' claim, moreover, is based on prosecutorial misconduct. 

Williams relies on Caperton v. Massey (2009) regarding judicial bias. Unlike the situation of Justice Benjamin in Caperton, Castille did not cast a "deciding vote" on the court.  [Nevertheless, Castille's concurring opinion is worth reading for its defensiveness].  Recognizing this distinction, Williams also relies on Atena Life Insurance v. Lavoie (1986), and notes there is a circuit split regarding bias when the biased decided is only one member of a multi-member tribunal.

October 1, 2015 in Courts and Judging, Criminal Procedure, Due Process (Substantive), Supreme Court (US) | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, September 30, 2015

Seventh Circuit Upholds Chicago's Weed and Fence Ordinances

In its opinion in Discount Inn v. City of Chicago, the Seventh Circuit has rejected constitutional challenges to the city's fence and weed ordinances, affirming the district judge's dismissal of the complaint.  The plaintiff, a corporation that Judge Posner's opinion for the unanimous panel notes is inadequately identified in the record, sought "recovery of the fines that it has paid for violating" the ordinances —"it claims to have been fined more than twenty times." 

Discount Inn alleged that the challenged ordinances violate the prohibition in the Eighth Amendment of “excessive fines.”  Basically, Judge Posner rejects this claim with a simple statement: "A fine topped off at $600 can hardly be deemed an excessive penalty for violating the ordinance."

Discount Inn also alleged that the challenged "weed ordinance is vague and forbids expressive activity protected by the First Amendment."  Posner does recognize that it is possible that plants could have an expressive dimension:

The gardens of Sissinghurst Castle and of Giverny might well be recognized as works of art were they in the United States. There may be gardens in Chicago, whether consisting of native or other plants, that are or should be recognized as works of art.

However, he ultimately dispatches the First Amendment claim thusly:

the plaintiff’s claim that the free‐speech clause insulates all weeds from public control is ridiculous. It’s not as if the plaintiff invented, planted, nurtured, dyed, clipped, or has otherwise beautified its weeds, or that it exhibits or in‐ tends or aspires to exhibit them in museums or flower shows. Its weeds have no expressive dimension. The plaintiff just doesn’t want to be bothered with having to have them clipped.

Thus, this should be a rather routine affirmance of a dismissal. 

However, Judge Posner has taken the opportunity to provide some discourse - - - and some illustrations - - - of "weeds."  Posner writes:

there is an ambiguity in the concept of a “weed,” an ambiguity brought out by comparing “weed” to ”native plant.” A native plant, like a weed (or perhaps it could be thought of as an elite type of weed), is “born” and matures normally without human intervention although it may also have been deliberately planted. It need not be destructive. In contrast, an “invasive plant species” enters either naturally or by human transport into an area in which native or other valued plants are growing, and squeezes out or otherwise injures or destroys those plants. Cf. 40 C.F.R. § 166.3, defining “invasive species” for purposes of federal pesticide regulations as “any species that is not native to [a particular] eco‐system, and whose introduction does or is likely to cause economic or environmental harm or harm to human health.”

Here is one of the five photographs included in the 16 page opinion:


This image, like the other images in the opinion, and some of the discussion, is not in the record.

This opinion seems more confirmation of ConLawProf Josh Blackman's labeling of Judge Posner as the "most flagrant, and brazen offender" of the appellate rule against fact-finding. 

Nevertheless, coupled with the Second Circuit's decision on "credit card surcharges," this case could be a great introduction in First Amendment: Neither prices nor weeds are speech.

September 30, 2015 in Courts and Judging, First Amendment, Opinion Analysis | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

SEC Target Can't Jump the Gun (to Federal Court)

The D.C. Circuit ruled in Jarkesy v. SEC that the target of an SEC administrative proceeding has to run the administrative course before he can challenge the proceeding in federal court for violating his constitutional rights.

The ruling aligns with a recent Seventh Circuit decision, but is at odds with some of the district courts that have ruled on the question.

The SEC brought an administrative proceeding against George Jarkesy, charging him with securities fraud. Before the SEC ruled on the case, but after Jarkesy's co-respondents settled (in a way that didn't look good for Jarkesy), Jarkesy sued in federal court to stop the proceeding, arguing that it violated various constitutional rights.

The district court dismissed Jarkesy's case, and the D.C. Circuit affirmed.

The court applied the two-part framework in Thunder Basin Coal Co. v. Reich and held (1) that congressional intent to require a litigant to proceed exclusively through the SEC's statutory scheme of administrative and judicial review was "fairly discernible in the statutory scheme" itself and (2) that Jarkesy's claims were "of the type Congress intended to be reviewed within [the SEC's] statutory structure."

The court rejected an argument that Jarkesy's case was like the plaintiffs' challenge in Free Enterprise Fund v. PCAOB. In that case, the Supreme Court sustained district-court jurisdiction over the plaintiffs' facial constitutional challenge to Sarbanes-Oxley. The court also rejected an approach that would distinguish between different types of constitutional challenges (allowing some on collateral attack, but not allowing others). The court explained:

We do not read the Free Enterprise Court's characterization of the plaintiffs' claims in that case, however, to define a new category of collateral claims that fall outside an otherwise exclusive administrative scheme. In its subsequent decision in Elgin [v. Department of the Treasury], the Court considered and rejected the idea that one could divine an exception to an otherwise exclusive administrative scheme based on the distinction between various types of constitutional challenges. "[A] jurisdictional rule based on the nature of an employee's constitutional claim would deprive the aggrieved employee, the MSPB, and the district court of clear guidance about the proper forum for the employee's claims at the outset of the case," the Court wrote, dismissing the plaintiffs' proposed line between constitutional challenges to statutes and other types of constitutional arguments to be "hazy at best and incoherent at worst." The Elgin Court also rejected the dissent's proffered rule making an exception to the CSRA scheme specifically for facial attacks on statutes. The Court explained that "the distinction between facial and as-applied challenges is not so well defined that it has some automatic effect or that it must always control the pleadings and disposition in every case involving a constitutional challenge."

September 29, 2015 in Congressional Authority, Courts and Judging, Jurisdiction of Federal Courts, News, Opinion Analysis | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, September 28, 2015

D.C. Circuit to Rehear Judgment Vacating Military Commission Conviction

The D.C. Circuit announced that it would rehear en banc a panel's earlier judgment vacating the military commission conviction of Ali Hamza Ahmad Suliman al Bahlul, an alien enemy combatant who one time bragged about his role in the 9/11 attacked.

A panel this past June vacated al Bahlul's conviction for inchoate conspiracy. The panel said that the conviction violated Article III because it was based on "the purely domestic crime" of inchoate conspiracy, which is not an offense under the international law of war.

The panel's summer ruling was a victory for al Bahlul and a blow to the government in conducting military commission trials. But the court's latest ruling gives it a second bite at this apple. The ruling vacates the panel's summer judgment and sets oral argument before the entire court for December 1, 2015.

September 28, 2015 in Cases and Case Materials, Congressional Authority, Courts and Judging, Executive Authority, News, Opinion Analysis, Separation of Powers, War Powers | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

No Constitutional Claim for Former Embed Journalist

Steven D. Schwinn, John Marshall Law School

The D.C. Circuit this week dismissed a case of a former embed journalist against Defense Department officials for terminating his embed status in violation of the First Amendment and the Administrative Procedure Act.

The ruling may reveal a rift on the court over the sweep of sovereign immunity in a constitutional case for non-monetary, specific relief against government actors in their official capacity--that is, over the meaning or sweep of Clark v. Library of Congress (D.C. Cir.). The issue is critically important for access to justice.

The case arose when NATO officials terminated Wayne Anderson's embed status after he posted pictures that violated the Ground Rules for embeds. Anderson sued the Secretary of Defense and DoD officials in their individual and official capacities, seeking reversal of the memo terminating his embed status and declaratory relief (but no monetary damages).

Anderson appealed the lower court's dismissal, but only as to the defendants in their official capacities. He alleged a claim for retaliation under the First Amendment and a violation of the Administrative Procedure Act. (Anderson's precise arguments were a little muddied, and maybe included a procedural due process claim, too.)

The D.C. Circuit ruled that the government enjoyed sovereign immunity against a suit against the defendants in their official capacities, and did not waive it through the APA. (The APA might have provided a statutory waiver of immunity, except that it exempts "military authority exercised in the field in time of war.")

The court went on to say that Anderson's claim was also moot. That's because the Afghanistan mission was drawn down, and NATO (not a party to the suit) led the embed program. In other words, the court said that it couldn't grant any relief to Anderson. But the court noted that Anderson could re-apply for the current embed program.

Judge Srinivasan concurred and dissented. He argued that the government did not enjoy sovereign immunity, citing Clark v. Library of Congress (D.C. Cir.). In that case, the court declined to apply sovereign immunity to shield the government from suit for non-monetary, specific relief for officials' unconstitutional behavior. The Clark court wrote, "Clark's claims for non-monetary, specific relief are not barred by sovereign immunity. It is well-established that sovereign immunity does not bar suits for specific relief against government officials where the challenged actions of the officials are alleged to be unconstitutional or beyond statutory authority."

Judge Srinivasan also argued that the case was not moot, given that the "government has not shown that the transition to a NATO-led mission has made it impossible for the court to provide any relief bearing on a United States journalist's ability to embed."

September 22, 2015 in Cases and Case Materials, Courts and Judging, First Amendment, Jurisdiction of Federal Courts, News, Opinion Analysis | Permalink | Comments (0)

Second Circuit Grants Standing to Challenge NY's Criminalization of "Gravity Knives"

A gravity knife is “any knife which has a blade which is released from the handle or sheath thereof by the force of gravity or the application of centrifugal force which, when released, is locked in place by means of a button, spring, lever or other device,” according to New York Penal Law §265.00 (5).  It is clear that having one is criminal possession of a weapon in the fourth degree, a misdemeanor punishable by no more than one year in prison.  It is less clear, at least according to the plaintiffs in Knife Rights, Inc. v. Vance, exactly what a gravity knife is: what if a person possesses a "common folding knife" that he is unable to open with a "wrist flick," but that someone else (presumably more talented) can open with a "wrist flick."? 

The Second Circuit's opinion in Knife Rights, Inc. v. Vance, however, is concerned not with the due process challenge to the New York law, but the Article III standing of the plaintiffs seeking to challenge it. 

circa 1613 via

Almost two years after the district judge's opinion dismissing all plaintiffs, the Second Circuit has affirmed the lack of standing of the organizational plaintiffs, Knife Rights and Knife Rights Foundation, but reversed as to the individual plaintiffs, Copeland and Perez, as well as Native Leather, a retail knife store.

In applying the well-established test for Article III standing - - -(1)  ‘injury in fact,’ (2) a sufficient ‘causal connection between the injury and the conduct complained of,’ and (3) a ‘likelihood that the injury ‘will be redressed by a favorable decision.’ - - - the Second Circuit disagreed with the district judge that the plaintiffs had not established an injury in fact. 

Indeed, the three individual plaintiffs had been prosecuted under the statute.  Copeland and Perez, an artist and an art dealer, both carry knives for their work.  Perez was stopped by law enforcement in 2010 in Manhattan for a

metal clip protruding from his pocket. Inquiry revealed the clip to be part of a Gerber brand common folding knife that Perez had purchased approximately two years earlier at Tent & Trail, an outdoor supply store in Manhattan. Plaintiffs assert that the charging officers were unable themselves to flick open Perez’s knife, but based on the possibility that someone could do so, they issued Perez a desk appearance ticket charging him with unlawful possession of a gravity knife.

Copeland was similarly stopped in 2010, but although he had previously shown his knife to NYC police officers to inquire about the legality of its possession and those officers were "unable to flick open the knife and so returned it to Copeland, advising that its possession was legal," when he was stopped, the officers were "able to open the knife by “grasping the knife’s handle and forcefully ‘flicking’ the knife body downwards” and, thus, issued Copeland a desk appearance ticket for violating the statute.

As to the store, Native Leather, it had entered into a deferred prosecution agreement with District Attorney Vance, which included the payment of fines and a "compliance program" to stop selling "gravity knives."

The Second Circuit easily found that the plaintiffs' alleged an imminent threat of prosecution.  The court rightly distinguished the controversial case of City of Los Angeles v. Lyons (1983) involving the police practice of choke-holds, by noting that the plaintiffs here seek to engage in the very conduct that is being subjected to criminalization.  The court denied the organization's standing by concluding that its monetary injury incurred by supporting persons prosecuted under the statute would not be adequately redressed by the injunctive relief sought in the complaint.  (The district court had denied leave to amend, which the Second Circuit affirmed).

The plaintiffs ability to move forward with the merits of their challenge to the New York statute criminalizing specific - - - or as alleged, not sufficiently specific - - - knives seems long overdue. 

September 22, 2015 in Courts and Judging, Criminal Procedure, Due Process (Substantive), Opinion Analysis, Standing | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, September 18, 2015

Second Circuit Says No Waiver of General Immunity when State Removes

The Second Circuit this week ruled that a state does not waive its general state sovereign immunity (as opposed to its Eleventh Amendment sovereign immunity) when it removes a case to federal court.

The ruling is a win for the states and adds to the apparent weight of authority in the circuits. Still, the Second Circuit noted that "there has . . . been some confusion in the Circuit Courts" on the question, inviting the Supreme Court to clarify.

The case started with state employees' Fair Labor Standards Act case against Vermont in state court. Vermont removed the case to federal court, declined to assert any form of sovereign immunity, and even at one point represented that it wouldn't assert Eleventh Amendment immunity (as a result of its removal to federal court). Then it asserted general common law state sovereign immunity and moved to dismiss.

The Second Circuit dismissed the case. The court said that while Vermont waived its Eleventh Amendment immunity by virtue of its removal to federal court (under Lapides v. Board of Regents), it did not waive its general state sovereign immunity by virtue of removal. The court noted that the state in Lapides had already waived its general state sovereign immunity, so did not support the plaintiffs' position that Vermont waived immunity (because Vermont had not previously waived its general state sovereign immunity). The court also said that the circuits that have considered the question have ruled that a state does not waive its general state sovereign immunity by virtue of removal (even if it waives Eleventh Amendment immunity by virtue of removal)--even while noting that there's some confusion in the circuits on how to apply Lapides.

The court said that both logic also supported its result:

A state defendant sued in state court, when entitled to remove the suit to federal court, may well wish to do so in the belief that its entitlement to have the suit dismissed by reason of the state's sovereign immunity, an entitlement largely elaborated by federal courts, will be better protected by the federal courts than by courts of the state.

The court also rejected the plaintiffs' arguments that Vermont's foot-dragging on asserting immunity amounted to a waiver and that Vermont expressly waived immunity.

September 18, 2015 in Cases and Case Materials, Courts and Judging, Eleventh Amendment, Federalism, Jurisdiction of Federal Courts, News, Opinion Analysis | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Federal Judge Finds Arrest for Obscenity Violates First Amendment - - - and Denies Prosecutorial Immunity

In her decision from the bench in Barboza v. D'Agata, federal district judge Cathy Seibel has not only found that the arrest of William Barboza violated the First Amendment but has granted summary judgment against a state prosecutor for a First Amendment violation and allowed a claim against the village to proceed.

0b0d6031e6e41dfbaf5986c2c98f3915After Barboza received a speeding ticket from Liberty, New York, he not only paid the fine but returned the form with "Liberty" in "Liberty Town Court" crossed off and replaced with "tyranny" and with the phrase "fuck your shitty town bitches" written in all caps and underlined.  (photo here).  An assistant district attorney, Robert Zangala, made a decision that the statement constituted "aggravated harassment" under NY Penal Law 240.30 (1) (a). While New York courts had rejected facial challenges to the subsection,  New York's highest court had found the statute unconstitutional as applied in a 2003 case in which the defendant had "left five voice messages on the Village of Ossining Parking Violations Bureau's answering machine in which the defendant rained invective on two village employees, wished them and their family ill health, and complained of their job performance as well as the tickets that she had received."  Judge Seibel found that decision was "on all fours" with the present case.

Importantly, the prosecutor not only charged Barboza, but participated in the plan to arrest Barboza when he came to court about the speeding ticket; a judge having ordered Barboza to appear. While Judge Seibel found that the prosecutor was entitled to absolute immunity for the decision to charge Barboza, he was not entitled to absolute immunity for the decision to have him arrested.  Moreover, Judge Seibel found that the prosecutor was not entitled to qualified immunity.  However, she did find that the police officers who actually made the arrest were entitled to qualified immunity.

Regarding the reasonableness of their actions, Judge Seibel's discussion about the differences between the police officers executing the arrest and the prosecutor is illuminating.   She stated that the precedent "distinguishing police officers from lawyers, which helps the officers, hurts Zangala," the prosecutor.

If cops are not expected to know what a lawyer would learn or intuit from researching case law, an assistant district attorney certainly is. And  there surely is nothing unfair or impracticable about holding a trained lawyer to the standard of trained lawyer. While it is reasonable for a police officer to rely in certain circumstances on the legal advice of a prosecutor, the prosecutor himself must be held to the standard of a trained lawyer.

And given that the assistant district attorney was a "trained lawyer," she held that he is "not saved by his getting approval from the District Attorney in the way that the officers are saved by complying and getting approval from an assistant district attorney."  Indeed, the prosecutor's actions are not reasonable "given that he had the time to do the relatively simple legal research but did not."  Additionally, Judge Seibel intimates that the prosecutor may have known that the arrest suffered from First Amendment infirmities and simply chose to continue.

Finally, Judge Seibel decided that the claim against the village could proceed on the issues of whether there was a sufficient pattern of similar violations, the obviousness of the risk of a violation (under a single incident theory), and whether the village's failure to train caused the arrest.

She also directed the parties to discuss settlement.

September 16, 2015 in Courts and Judging, Criminal Procedure, First Amendment, Opinion Analysis, Speech | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, September 15, 2015

Daily Video: Justice Breyer on Colbert's "The Late Show"

Friday, September 11, 2015

Seventh Circuit Strikes Partisan Balance Statute in Judicial Elections

The Seventh Circuit this week struck an Indiana law election law that ensured "partisan balance" on the Marion Superior Court, in Marion County. Curiously (and tellingly), the law only applied to judicial elections in Marion County (the home of Indianapolis); more regular judicial election rules (or, in two counties, merit selection) applied in the rest of the state.

Here's how it worked. Each major party conducted a primary election in which each party selected a number of candidates that equaled half the open seats on the court in the general election. (If there were 16 open seats, the Republicans would put up 8 candidates, and the Dems would put up 8.) Then, in the general election, all primary winners would win a seat. The system virtually ensured an equal divide among the judges on the court. ("Virtually," because there was a remote chance that a minor-party candidate or independent could get elected.)

Common Cause challenged the law, arguing that it infringed on the right to vote. (What good is your vote in the general, if you can't select among competing candidates?) The court agreed.

The court applied the Burdick/Anderson balancing test and ruled that the infringement on the right to vote outweighed the state's interests. On the infringement side of the balance, the court simply noted that the system denied voters any choice in the general election--a "severe" burden on the right to vote:

the Statute removes electoral choice and denies voters any effective voice or ability to choose between candidates of the two major parties. In fact, absent a possible third party or independent candidate on the ballot [a remote chance, by the way--ed.], the general election is guaranteed to be uncontested, rendering any vote meaningless because there is no choice to be made.

On the state's interests side of the balance, the court rejected the claimed interest in ensuring fair political representation and impartiality, because that interest doesn't really apply to judicial elections (where judges make independent decisions in their own independent courtrooms, not like a legislature, where the body makes a decision as a whole), and because the state had other ways of achieving this interest (by enforcing standards of judicial conduct, e.g.). The court said that the state's interests in saving money and ensuring stability and public confidence could be achieved in other ways, too, and that in any event they were outweighed by the severe restriction on the right to vote.

The ruling means that the state needs to come up with a different way to elect Marion County judges before the next election (in 2018). The ruling is a victory for the right to vote, but it's a victory for judicial independence, too, given that this strange system applied only to Marion County, suggesting a legislative power-play against the court system in the state's capital and largest city.

The state hasn't said whether it will seek en banc review or cert.

September 11, 2015 in Cases and Case Materials, Courts and Judging, Elections and Voting, Equal Protection, Fundamental Rights, News, Opinion Analysis | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, September 10, 2015

Ninth Circuit Rejects Equal Protection and Due Process Challenges to California Sexual Predator Statute

In its opinion in Taylor v. San Diego County today, a panel of the Ninth Circuit rejected constitutional challenges to indefinite detention as a "sexually violent predator" raised in a habeas petition governed by the Antiterrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act of 1996 (AEDPA).

"Lunatic Asylum" circa 1831 via

The court's equal protection analysis was essentially that "sexually violent predators" are "not similarly situated" to other civilly committed offenders.  "California’s expressed legislative policy is to protect the public from the increased danger posed by sexually violent predators," and thus indefinite detention, rather than one year renewable periods of detention do not offend equal protection. 

Additionally, the court found that there was no due process problem with the California statute's requirement that the person (not the state) bears the burden of proving, by a preponderance of the evidence, that he no longer meets the definition of a sexually violent predator. 

The opinion is another example of the federal courts giving wide latitude to state civil commitment of sexual offenders.

September 10, 2015 in Courts and Judging, Criminal Procedure, Due Process (Substantive), Equal Protection | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

District Judge Says House of Representative Challenge to ACA Can Go Forward (in part)

Judge Rosemary Collyer (D.D.C.) ruled today that the U.S. House of Representatives has standing to pursue its claim that the administration spent money on a portion of the Affordable Care Act without a valid congressional appropriation. But at the same time, Judge Collyer ruled that the House lacked standing to sue for an administration decision to delay the time when employers have to provide minimum health insurance to their employees.

The split ruling means that the House's case against the administration for spending unappropriated funds can go forward, while the case for extending the time for the employer mandate cannot.

But Judge Collyer's ruling is certainly not the last word on this case. The government will undoubtedly appeal.

And just to be clear: this is not a ruling on the merits. It only says that a part of the case can go forward.

The case arose when the House authorized the Speaker to file suit in federal court against HHS Secretary Burwell and Treasury Secretary Lew for spending money on an ACA program without an appropriation and for unilaterally extending the statutory time for employers to comply with the employer mandate.

As to the spending claim, the House said that a provision of the ACA, Section 1402, which authorizes federal reimbursements to insurance companies for reducing the cost of insurance to certain eligible beneficiaries (as required by the ACA), never received a valid appropriation. That is, Congress never funded the provision. That's a problem, the House said, because Article I, Section 9, Clause 7 of the Constitution says that "No Money shall be drawn from the Treasury, but in Consequence of Appropriations made by Law . . . ." In short, the administration's funding of Section 1402 violated the Constitution.

As to the employer mandate claim, the House said that the administration pushed back the employer mandate beyond December 31, 2013, the date set in the ACA, without congressional authorization. (The House couched this in constitutional terms, but, as Judge Collyer wrote, it's really essentially a statutory claim.)

The Secretaries filed a motion to dismiss for lack of standing.

Judge Collyer denied the motion as to the appropriations theory, but granted it as to the employer mandate claim. According to Judge Collyer, the House could show an institutional harm from the administration's use of non-appropriated funds (because the Constitution itself specifies a role in appropriations for the Congress, which the House said that the administration ignored here, and because the claim isn't about the administration's execution of law). But at the same time she wrote that the House couldn't show a particular institutional harm for the administration's push-back for the employer mandate (because this claim was all about the administration's execution of the law--a role reserved under the Constitution to the executive). She explained:

Distilled to their essences, the Non-Appropriation Theory alleges that the Executive was unfaithful to the Constitution, while the Employer-Mandate Theory alleges that the Executive was unfaithful to a statute, the ACA. That is a critical distinction, inasmuch as the Court finds that the House has standing to assert the first but not the second.

As to the employer mandate claim, she said,

The [House's] argument proves too much. If it were accepted, every instance of an extra-statutory action by an Executive officer might constitute a cognizable constitutional violation, redressable by Congress through a lawsuit. Such a conclusion would contradict decades of administrative law and precedent, in which courts have guarded against "the specter of 'general legislative standing' based upon claims that the Executive Branch is misinterpreting a statute or the Constitution."

We'll watch this case on appeal.


September 9, 2015 in Cases and Case Materials, Congressional Authority, Courts and Judging, Executive Authority, Jurisdiction of Federal Courts, News, Opinion Analysis, Separation of Powers, Standing | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, September 7, 2015

Washington Supreme Court Finds Charter School Initiative Unconstitutional

Late Friday before the long Labor Day weekend, the Washington Supreme Court found Initiative 1240, known as the Charter School Act (codified at chapter 28A.7 10 RCW) unconstitutional in its divided opinion,  League of Women Voters of Washington v. State of Washington, affirming a King County Superior Court decision.

The Washington Supreme Court majority found that the Charter School Act violated Article IX §2 of the state constitution which provides:

PUBLIC SCHOOL SYSTEM. The legislature shall provide for a general and uniform system of public schools. The public school system shall include common schools, and such high schools, normal schools, and technical schools as may hereafter be established. But the entire revenue derived from the common school fund and the state tax for common schools shall be exclusively applied to the support of the common schools.

In essence because the charter schools were decidedly not "common schools" as that phrase has been defined under state law since 1909 and because the funding for charter schools was from the "common school fund," the Charter School Act's funding provision violated the state constitution.  The court, in its opinion by Chief Justice Barbara Madsen (pictured center front below), rejected the state's argument that notwithstanding the constitutional provision funding should follow the student. 

  Washington Supreme Court

The dissenting and concurring opinion by Justice Mary E. Fairhurst,  joined by Justices Steven C. González and Sheryl Gordon McCloud, agreed that charter schools are not "common schools," but disagreed that the Charter School Act required charter schools to be funded by monies intended for common schools. 

The court's majority eschewed a political interpretation of the case:

Our inquiry is not concerned with the merits or demerits of charter schools. Whether charter schools would enhance our state’s public school system or appropriately address perceived shortcomings of that  system are issues for the legislature and the voters. The issue for this court is what are the requirements of the constitution.

Nevertheless, the case will most certainly be interpreted in political terms.  Proponents of charter schools will undoubtedly continue their efforts.  Importantly, however, the case is not reviewable by the United States Supreme Court since it rests exclusively on a matter of state law.  The funding of charter schools from sources not meant for public education  - - - which the dissenting Justices believed a reality - - - could be clarified.  And the possibility of an amendment of the state constitution, of course, remains an option. 

September 7, 2015 in Courts and Judging, Current Affairs, Family, Opinion Analysis, State Constitutional Law | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, September 1, 2015

District Judge Finds "Obamacare" Contraception Mandate Unconstitutional as applied to "March for Life"

In an opinion that essentially extends religious protections to a nonreligious organization, Judge Richard Leon has ruled in March for Life v. Burwell that the so-called contraceptive mandate in the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (ACA or "Obamacare") cannot constitutionally be applied to a nonprofit anti-abortion employer.  While portions of Judge Leon's opinion predictably relied upon the Supreme Court's closely divided 2014 decision in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby, Inc. under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), Judge Leon notably found that the contraception mandate's exclusion of religious organizations - - - but not other organizations - - - violated the equal protection component of the Fifth Amendment.

Judge Leon applied rational basis review, but declared that

Were defendants to have their way here, rational basis review would have all the bite of a rubber stamp!

He continued:

Defendants contend that March for Life is not “similarly situated” to the exempted organizations because it “is not religious and is not a church.” Rational basis review is met, they argue, because the purpose served, “accommodating religious exercise by religious institutions,” is “permissible and legitimate.”  This not only oversimplifies the issue—it misses the point entirely! The threshold question is not whether March for Life is “generally” similar to churches and their integrated auxiliaries. It is whether March for Life is similarly situated with regard to the precise attribute selected for accommodation.  For the following reasons, I conclude that it most assuredly is.

[citations omitted]. 

image via "March for Life" about us

In short, Judge Leon found that "March for Life" was similarly situated to religious organizations given the HHS rationale for excluding religious organizations from the contraception mandate:

HHS has chosen to protect a class of individuals that, it believes, are less likely than other individuals to avail themselves of contraceptives. It has  consequently moored this accommodation not in the language of conscientious objection,  but in the vernacular of religious protection. This, of course, is puzzling. In HHS’s own  view, it is not the belief or non-belief in God that warrants safe harbor from the Mandate.  The characteristic that warrants protection——an employment relationship based in part on a shared objection to abortifacients—is altogether separate from theism. Stated  differently, what HHS claims to be protecting is religious beliefs, when it actually is  protecting a moral philosophy about the sanctity of human life. HHS may be correct that  this objection is common among religiously-affiliated employers. Where HHS has erred,  however, is in assuming that this trait is unique to such organizations. It is not.

In other words, the HHS's rationale - - - the government interest - - - was not specifically religious and thus should not be limited to religious organizations in keeping with principles of equal protection.  Some of this reasoning is reminiscent of Hobby Lobby, of course, but there the level of scrutiny under RFRA was strict (or perhaps even stricter than strict) scrutiny, while Judge Leon is applying rational basis scrutiny. 

Interestingly, Judge Leon states that  "'religion' is not a talisman that sweeps aside all constitutional concerns," and quotes the classic conscientious objector case of Welsh v. United States (1970) for the "long recognized" principle that  “[i]f an individual deeply and sincerely holds beliefs that are purely ethical or moral in source and content . . . those beliefs certainly occupy in the life of that individual a place parallel to that filled by God in traditionally religious persons.”  Taken to its logical conclusion, this reasoning has the potential to eliminate - - - or at least ameliorate - - - the "special" protection of religious freedom.

In his application of RFRA, Judge Leon's opinion is on more well-plowed ground.  He notes that while "March for Life is avowedly non—religious, the employee plaintiffs do oppose the Mandate on religious grounds."  This brings the case within the purview of Hobby Lobby.  As Judge Leon phrases it:

The final question the Court must ask under RFRA is whether the current Mandate is the least restrictive means of serving this governmental interest. Assuredly, it is not!

While Judge Leon dismissed the free exercise claim,  based upon the DC Circuit's opinion and denial of en banc review in Priests for Life v HHS, the judge granted summary judgment in favor of plaintiffs on the Equal Protection and RFRA claims (as well as a claim under the Administrative Procedure Act).  

When this case reaches the DC Circuit, it will be interesting to see how the court - - - as well as religious organizations and scholars - - - views Judge Leon's potentially destabilizing equal protection analysis.

September 1, 2015 in Abortion, Courts and Judging, Current Affairs, Equal Protection, First Amendment, Free Exercise Clause, Medical Decisions, Opinion Analysis, Privacy, Religion, Reproductive Rights | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

Divided D.C. Circuit Again Finds Conflict Minerals Disclosure Violates the First Amendment

In its opinion on rehearing, a divided panel of the DC Circuit in National Association of Manufacturers v. Securities and Exchange Comm'n has held that 15 U.S.C. § 78m(p)(1)(A)(ii) & (E), part of the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act, requiring a company to disclose if its products were not "DRC conflict free" violated the First Amendment. 

Rough diamonds from DRC via

In its previous decision more than a year ago in National Association of Manufacturers (NAM),  a majority of the same panel, in an opinion authored by Senior Judge Raymond Randolph and joined by Senior Judge David Sentelle, found the conflict mineral disclosure was a First Amendment violation.  In that 2014 opinion, Judge Srinivasan dissented on the First Amendment issue and contended that this opinion should be held in abeyance "pending the en banc court’s decision" in American Meat Institute v. United States Dep't of Agriculture, regarding a  First Amendment challenge to requiring country of origin labeling (COOL) of meat and meat products.  In the DC Circuit's en banc opinion a year ago, a divided court upheld the constitutionality of the COOL requirements.  The rehearing of the conflict minerals disclosure was prompted by that intervening en banc decision in American Meat Institute (AMI).  The panel majority essentially concluded that its mind was not changed by en banc opinion. [Neither of the senior judges in the panel majority participated in the en banc opinion in AMI].

Central to the controversies in both NAM and AMI is a choice of precedent: should the constitutionality of the labeling requirements be analyzed under  Zauderer v. Office of Disciplinary Counsel  or under the more demanding standard of Central Hudson v. Gas & Electric Corp. v. Public Service Commission of New York.  The DC Circuit's divided en banc opinion in AMI found that Zauderer should be applied.  In this rehearing in NAM, the panel majority (again) found that Zauderer had no applicability, but, as the opinion states, "for a different reason."  However, in sum this panel majority found that Zauderer is limited to "advertisements" at point of sale and seemed to contradict AMI.     

The panel majority did "hedge its bets":

But given the flux and uncertainty of the First Amendment doctrine of commercial speech,15 and the conflict in the circuits regarding the reach of Zauderer,  we think it prudent to add an alternative ground for our decision. It is this. Even if the compelled disclosures here are commercial speech and even if AMI’s view of Zauderer governed the analysis, we still believe that the statute and the regulations violate the First Amendment.

In applying Central Hudson, the panel majority found that the disclosure of conflict minerals has a merely speculative relationship to addressing the interest of the government in ameliorating conflict in the Democratic Republic of the Congo as a source of such minerals.  Instead, the disclosure is akin to political propaganda.  The majority interestingly cites George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four for its passages regarding government redefinition ("WAR IS PEACE"), and concludes that the disclosure is not only not factual but also controversial: it compels "an issuer to confess blood on its hands." 

In dissent, Judge Srinivasan argues that any Scarlet Letter comparison is inapt: "requiring a company to disclose product information in the commercial marketplace is not the same as requiring Hester Prynne to “show [her] scarlet letter in the [town] market- place.”  He asserts that the majority is misreading Zauderer and that the en banc opinion in AMI controls.  Interestingly, he also contends that to the extent the court is requiring "proof" that disclosure of conflict minerals be linked to amelioration of the DRC conflict, the court should be deferring to executive judgments in this commercial context at least as much as the Court did in the political speech context involved in Holder v. Humanitarian Law Project. 

It seems likely that government attorneys are preparing its en banc petition. 

August 19, 2015 in Cases and Case Materials, Courts and Judging, First Amendment, Opinion Analysis, Speech, Supreme Court (US) | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

PETA Has Standing to Challenge Agency Inaction on Bird Regulation

The D.C. Circuit ruled this week in PETA v. USDA that the animal-rights organization had standing to challenge the USDA's decade-long foot-dragging in regulating birds under the Animal Welfare Act. But at the same time, the court ruled against PETA on the merits. The case means that PETA's claim is dismissed; it's a significant set-back in the effort to get the USDA to regulate birds under the AWA.

PETA alleged that the USDA violated the Administrative Procedure Act by failing to write avian-specific animal welfare regulations under the AWA. PETA argued that the agency "unlawfully withheld" action in violation of section 706(1) of the APA. The USDA moved to dismiss for lack of standing and on the merits.

The D.C. Circuit ruled that PETA had organizational standing, because the USDA's inaction prevented PETA from protecting birds. The court explained:

Because PETA's alleged injuries--denial of access to bird-related AWA information including, in particular, investigatory information, and a means by which to seek redress for bird abuse--are "concrete and specific to the work in which they are engaged," we find that PETA has alleged a cognizable injury sufficient to support standing. In other words, the USDA's allegedly unlawful failure to apply the AWA's general animal welfare regulations to birds has "perceptibly impaired [PETA's] ability" to both bring AWA violations to the attention of the agency charged with preventing avian cruelty and continue to educate the public. Because PETA has expended resources to counter these injuries, it has established Article III organizational standing.

But even as the court said that PETA had standing, it ruled in favor of the USDA on the merits. The ruling means that PETA's complaint against the agency is dismissed.

August 12, 2015 in Cases and Case Materials, Courts and Judging, Jurisdiction of Federal Courts, News, Opinion Analysis, Standing | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, July 24, 2015

D.C. Circuit OKs Case Against Consumer Financial Protection Bureau

The D.C. Circuit on Friday ruled that a case challenging the constitutionality of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau can move forward. At the same time, the court dismissed claims against Dodd-Frank's Financial Stability Oversight Council and the government's orderly liquidation authority.

The mixed ruling sends the plaintiffs' case against the CFPB and the recess appointment of Director Richard Cordray back to the district court for a ruling on the merits. We'll undoubtedly see this case back at the D.C. Circuit.

We last posted on a challenge to the CFPB here. (The D.C. Circuit dismissed that case for lack of standing.)

The State National Bank of Big Spring and a number of states brought the case, arguing four points. First, the Bank argued that the CFPB is unconstitutional, because, as an independent agency, it has to be headed by multiple members, not a single director (as it is). Moreover, the bank says that Congress's delegation to the CFPB violates the non-delegation doctrine.

Second, the Bank argues that President Obama appointed Director Cordray as a recess appointment during a three-day intra-session Senate recess, in violation of Noel Canning. (Cordray was subsequently confirmed by the Senate, but the Bank says his actions in the meantime are invalid.)

Third, the Bank claims that the Financial Stability Oversight Council, which monitors the stability of the U.S. financial system and responds to emerging threats and has statutory authority to designate certain "too big to fail" financial companies for additional regulation, violates the non-delegation doctrine and related separation-of-powers principles.

Finally, the states claim that Dodd-Frank's liquidation authority, which permits the government to liquidate failing financial companies that pose a risk to financial stability, violates the non-delegation doctrine and the Bankruptcy Clause's guarantee of uniform bankruptcy laws.

The court held that the bank, as an entity actually regulated by the CFPB, had standing. The court also said that the bank's claims were ripe, under Abbott Labs and Free Enterprise Fund (the PCAOB case).

But the court ruled that the Bank lacked standing to challenge the Council. In particular, it rejected the Bank's novel claim that the Bank was harmed because the Council designated one of the Bank's competitors as "too big to fail," thus giving the competitor a "reputational subsidy."

The court also held that the states lacked standing to challenge the government's liquidation authority. The states said that they invested pension funds in financial companies, that states are therefore creditors in possible future liquidations, that such liquidations could deprive the states of uniform treatment, and that as a result the states' current investments are worth less. The court said this was too speculative.

July 24, 2015 in Cases and Case Materials, Congressional Authority, Courts and Judging, Jurisdiction of Federal Courts, News, Nondelegation Doctrine, Ripeness, Separation of Powers, Standing | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Eighth Circuit Finds North Dakota's "Heartbeat" Abortion Prohibition Unconstitutional

A unanimous panel of the Eighth Circuit, affirming the district judge, found that North Dakota's abortion regulation based on a "detectable heartbeat" is unconstitutional in its opinion in MKB Management Corp. v. Stenehjem. 

North Dakota's 2013 House Bill 1456, codified at N.D. Cent. Code § 14-02.1, mandates physicians determine whether the "unborn child" has a "detectable heartbeat," and if so, makes it a felony for a physician to perform an abortion.  The medical evidence submitted was that a "detectable heartbeat" occurs when a woman is about six weeks pregnant.

LogoThe court held that a woman's constitutional right to terminate a pregnancy before fetal viability is binding United States Supreme Court precedent, quoting language from Gonzales v. Carhart (2007): "Before viability, a State 'may not prohibit any woman from making the ultimate decision to terminate her pregnancy.'” 

However, the Eighth Circuit opinion noted that while it could not depart from the current state of protection of the right to abortion, the United States Supreme Court should reconsider the issue.  Essentially, the Eighth Circuit opinion argues that "developments in the unborn" should shift the balance to the ability of the states - - - and not the courts - - - to protect the unborn and assert the interest in "potential life."  The court's opinion also discussed the controversial findings that women who have had abortions suffer from emotional ills including regret, as well as repeating evidence that "some studies support a connection between abortion and breast cancer."  The court thus concludes, "the continued application of the Supreme Court’s viability standard discounts the legislative branch’s recognized interest in protecting unborn children."

Nevertheless, the opinion clearly finds the North Dakota law unconstitutional.

July 22, 2015 in Abortion, Courts and Judging, Due Process (Substantive), Family, Fundamental Rights, Gender, Opinion Analysis, Reproductive Rights | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, July 9, 2015

No Remedy for Torture Victims, Court Reaffirms

Judge Ellen Segal Huvelle (D.D.C.) yesterday reaffirmed that torture victims lack a remedy in the federal courts. Judge Huvelle applied circuit precedent and granted the government's motion to dismiss Mohammed Jawad's torture claims against government officials. The ruling ends Jawad's case, unless and until he appeals.

The case is not surprising, given the state of the law, but it is disturbing: it reaffirms (yet again) that torture victims lack a judicial remedy.

Jawad claimed that government officials authorized his torture at Guantanamo Bay, before and after designating him an "enemy combatant" and before releasing him as no longer "legally detainable" after over six years in detention. Jawad claimed that officials violated the Alien Tort Claims Act, the Federal Tort Claims Act, the Torture Victims Protection Act, and the Fifth and Eighth Amendment.

Judge Huvelle rejected all these claims. Judge Huvelle denied Jawad's FTCA claims, because she said that government officials were acting within the scope of their employment--torture, evidently, is within the scope of employment to maintain order and discipline at Guantanamo--and because the government's waiver of immunity under the FTCA doesn't apply outside the United States. Judge Huvelle denied the TVPA claim, because U.S. officials weren't acting under the law of a foreign nation, as required by the TVPA. And she denied Jawad's constitutional claims, because she said that special factors counseled against extending a Bivens remedy.

Judge Huvelle also ruled that Jawad's claims are foreclosed by the Military Commissions Act, which bars non-habeas claims against the government or its agents related to "conditions of confinement of an alien . . . who was properly detained as an enemy combatant . . . ." Judge Huvelle said that the government never disavowed its classification of Jawad as an enemy combatant, even though the government later said that he was no longer legally detainable.

The ruling is hardly a surprise, given circuit precedent and the state of the law. But it is disturbing: It says (yet again) that torture victims don't have a judicial remedy.

July 9, 2015 in Cases and Case Materials, Courts and Judging, Jurisdiction of Federal Courts, News, Opinion Analysis, War Powers | Permalink | Comments (2)