Thursday, June 26, 2014

United States Supreme Court Declares Massachusetts' Buffer Zone Unconstitutional in McCullen v. Coakley

A unanimous Court, albeit in separate opinions, found the Massachusetts statute imposing a 35 foot buffer zone around places where abortions are performed violates the First Amendment in its opinion in McCullen v. Coakley,  reversing the First Circuit.

Writing for the Court, Chief Justice Roberts - - - who, unusually, did not ask any questions during the oral argument - - -found that the statute was not subject to strict scrutiny because it was content and viewpoint neutral, despite arguments to the contrary.  However, the Court found that the statute failed the so-called "time, place, and manner" test articulated in  Ward v. Rock Against Racism, 491 U. S. 781 (1989).   The Court's opinion - - - joined by Justices Ginsburg, Breyer, Sotomayor, and Kagan - - - concluded that the statute burdened more speech than necessary and was not sufficiently closely tailored.  In large part, this was based on the statute's exceptional coverage of public streets and sidewalks.  It was also based on the specific petitioners in the case, who are not "protesters," but people who "attempt to engage women approaching the clinics in what they call 'sidewalk coun­seling,' which involves offering information about alternatives to abortion and help pursuing those options." Further, the Court articulated other less restrictive means available to Massachusetts, including targeted injunctions, and found that the record did not support the need for Massachusetts' sweeping approach.  As the Court concluded:

Petitioners wish to converse with their fellow citizens about an important subject on the public streets and sidewalks—sites that have hosted discussions about the issues of the day throughout history. Respondents assert undeniably significant interests in maintaining public safety on those same streets and sidewalks, as well as in preserving access to adjacent healthcare facilities. But here the Commonwealth has pursued those interests by the extreme step of closing a substantial portion of a tradi­ tional public forum to all speakers. It has done so without seriously addressing the problem through alternatives that leave the forum open for its time-honored purposes. The Commonwealth may not do that consistent with the First Amendment.

Justice Scalia's concurring opinion, joined by Justices Kennedy and Thomas, criticizes the Court's opinion as one

that has Something for Everyone, and the more significant portion continues the onward march of abortion-speech-only jurisprudence. That is the first half of the Court’s analysis, which concludes that a statute of this sort is not content based and hence not subject to so-called strict scrutiny. The Court reaches out to decide that question unnecessarily—or at least unnecessarily insofar as legal analysis is concerned.

Justice Alito, wrote separately but briefly to express his belief that the statute discriminates on the basis of viewpoint.

The takeaway is this: In a unanimous opinion, the Court ruled that Massachusetts went too far in seeking to protect the reproductive rights of women seeking abortions and infringed the First Amendment rights of those who seek to counsel them to change their minds.  The Court's opinion approves more narrow methods governments might use to protect the reproductive rights of women entering clincs.  But four Justices seem inclined to find a violation of the First Amendment in even more narrow government attempts.

June 26, 2014 in Abortion, Courts and Judging, First Amendment, Fourteenth Amendment, Fundamental Rights, Gender, Speech | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack (0)

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Tenth Circuit Holds Utah's Same-Sex Marriage Ban Unconstitutional in a Divided Decision

In a divided decision, the Tenth Circuit opinion in Kitchen v. Herbert held that the

Due Process and Equal Protection Clauses of the United States Constitution, those who wish to marry a person of the same sex are entitled to exercise the same fundamental right as is recognized for persons who wish to marry a person of the opposite sex, and that [Utah's state constitution's] Amendment 3 and similar statutory enactments do not withstand constitutional scrutiny.

Affirming the district court's decision as well as its analysis, the Tenth Circuit panel majority, authored by Judge Carlos Lucero, and joined by Judge Jerome Holmes, applied strict scrutiny because it found that the "right to marry is a fundamental liberty."

In applying strict scrutiny, the panel majority assumed that three of the four interests advanced by the government - - - (1) “fostering a child-centric marriage culture that encourages parents to subordinate their own interests to the needs of their children”; (2) “children being raised by their biological mothers and fathers—or at least by a married mother and father—in a stable home”; (3) “ensuring adequate reproduction” - - - were compelling.  However, the court found that the means chosen - - - the prohibition of same-sex marriage - - - did not sufficiently serve these interests.  Instead, each of the

justifications rests fundamentally on a sleight of hand in which same-sex marriage is used as a proxy for a different characteristic shared by both same-sex and some opposite-sex couples.

The court noted that Justice Scalia, dissenting in Windsor, and numerous district judges, reached a similiar conclusion.  The majority observed that the lack of narrow tailoring is "often revealed" by underinclusiveness, finding it important that Utah did not ban nonprocreative marriages. 

The court's analysis of each of the three rationales is substantial and erudite, firmly rooted in precedent and well-reasoned.

As to the fourth and final interest asserted by the government - - -“accommodating religious freedom and reducing the potential for civic strife,” - - - the court reasoned that "the Supreme Court has repeatedly held that public opposition cannot provide cover for a violation of fundamental rights" and emphasized that its "decision relates solely to civil marriage." 

Dissenting from the more than 60 page majority opinion, Judge Paul Kelly wrote more than 40 pages in disagreement (although he did agree with the majority on the standing issue, making the opinion concurring in part).   Not surprisingly, he disagreed with the level of scrutiny to be applied; he concluded that there was no fundamental right at issue and would have applied rational basis scrutiny.  Also not surprisingly, he would have concluded that Utah's ban on same-sex marriage satisfied this most easily satisfied level of scrutiny given the state's interests in (1) responsible procreation, (2) effective parenting, and (3) the desire to proceed cautiously in this evolving area.

More surprisingly, Judge Kelly found that the Supreme Court's per curiam dismissal in 1972 of Baker v. Nelson, for "want of a substantial federal question" controlling ; it  "should foreclose the Plaintiffs’ claims, at least in this court," notwithstanding the Court's decision invalidating the federal Defense of Marriage Act's ban on recognition of same-sex marriage last term in Windsor.

 If - -  and most probably when - - - the United States Supreme Court does consider the issue of state laws banning same-sex marriage, Baker v. Nelson will be irrelevant and the Court will directly grapple with issues if fundamental constitutional rights and levels of scrutiny under the Fourteenth Amendment's due process and equal protection doctrines. 

Given that the Tenth Circuit stayed its decision pending the disposition of any subsequently filed petition for certiorari it may be that both sides seek review from the United States Supreme Court,

June 25, 2014 in Courts and Judging, Due Process (Substantive), Equal Protection, Family, Fourteenth Amendment, Fundamental Rights, Gender, Interpretation, Opinion Analysis, Sexual Orientation, Sexuality | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack (0)

Unanimous Supreme Court Requires Warrant for Cell Phone Search Incident to Arrest

A unanimous Supreme Court today ruled in Riley v. California that officers must obtain a warrant before searching an arrrestee's cell phone incident to arrest.  The ruling deals a blow to law enforcement, to be sure.  But it only means that law enforcement must obtain a warrant before searching a cell phone, or satisfy some other exception to the Fourth Amendment's warrant requirement (like exigent circumstances), before conducting a search of the phone.  In general, this should not be overly difficult, assuming that an officer can meet the requirements for a warrant: an arresting officer need only drop a seized cell phone into a Faraday bag and obtain a warrant for a later search.  Again: the ruling still preserves other exceptions to the warrant requirement, so that officers can search a phone without a warrant if there are exigent circumstances, for example.

The ruling breaks little new ground on Fourth Amendment analysis.  Instead, it applies a familiar framework to a relatively new technology, cell phones.  (The ruling applies to both smart phones and flip phones.)

The Court applied the familiar balancing test, "assessing, on the one hand, the degree to which [the search] intrudes upon an individual's privacy and, on the other, the degree to which it is needed for the promotion of legitimate governmental interests."  Wyoming v. Houghton.  As to government interests, the Court looked to the two recognized interests in a search incident to arrest in Chimel: to remove weapons that threaten officer safety or could be used for escape, and to prevent the destruction of evidence.

The Court said that the government lacked an interest in protecting officer safety or preventing escape, because "a cell phone cannot itself be used as a weapon to harm an arresting officer or to effectuate the arrestee's escape."  It said that the government lacked an interest in protecting evidence, because officers can easily protect evidence on a seized cell phone (by turning it off, or putting it in a Faraday bag, to prevent remote wiping, for example).  (The Court said that there was little evidence that destruction of evidence was even a problem.)

On the other side of the balance, the Court recognized the massive storage capacity and vast personal information contained in cell phones, and contained remotely but accessible by cell phones, and said that the search was a significant invasion of privacy, even if diminished in the context of an arrest.

In sum:

On the government interest side, Robinson concluded that the two risks identified in Chimel--harm to officers and destruction of evidence--are present in all custodial arrests.  There are no comparable risks when the search is of digital data.  In addition, Robinson regarded any privacy interests retained by an individual after arrest as significantly diminished by the fact of the arrest itself.  Cell phones, however, place vast quantities of personal information literally in the hands of individuals.  As search of the information on a cell phone bears little resemblance to the type of brief physical search considered in Robinson.

Justice Alito wrote a concurrence (for himself alone), arguing that the search-incident-to-arrest rule should be based on the government's interest in "the need to obtain probative evidence," and not the two Chimel interests.  He also called on Congress and state legislatures "to assess and respond to to [technological advances] that have already occurred and those that almost certainly will take place in the future." 

June 25, 2014 in Cases and Case Materials, Fourth Amendment, Fundamental Rights, News, Opinion Analysis | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Monday, June 23, 2014

Court Releases Memo Outlining Legal Authority for Targeted Killing, Drones

The Second Circuit today released a redacted version of the DOJ/OLC memo outlining the government's legal authority for the use of a drone attack to kill Anwar al-Aulaqi (sometimes spelled al-Awlaki).  We've blogged extensively about this issue, including here, on the earlier released white paper outlining the government's authority to conduct the same attack.

The released version does not include the first 11 pages of the memo, presumably including the information that the government passed on to the OLC about al-Awlaki that formed the basis of the analysis.  It's not clear whether that first 11 pages included other material or analysis.  (The released version starts with "II.")  There are other redactions throughout, especially in the portion analyzing the CIA's authority to conduct drone attacks.

The analysis in the memo differs slightly from the analysis in the earlier white paper, but, because of the redactions, it's not clear how much this matters.  Thus, for example, the analysis released today makes a careful distinction between DoD authority and CIA authority to conduct a targeted drone attack.  (The earlier white paper didn't make this clear distinction.)  But it's not entirely clear why or how that distinction is significant, given that much of the CIA analysis is redacted.  The analysis released today is also more fact specific.  (The earlier white paper didn't so clearly limit itself to the facts of one case.) But the memo today redacts the facts, so we don't know them.

Other than those points, the analysis released today doesn't appear to be importantly different than the earlier white paper.

As we've noted, and as others have noted, the analysis leads to the surprising result that the government may be able to kill someone by drone attack more easily than it may detain them (with due process under Hamdi).  Still, we don't know this for sure, because we don't know precisely what processes the government used in killing al-Awlaki: that detail is redacted from the memo.

The memo starts by outlining the statutory prohibition on foreign murder of a U.S. national--the federal provision that outlaws one U.S. national from killing another overseas.  That provision, 18 U.S.C. 1119(b), says that "[a] person who, being a national of the United States, kills or attempts to kill a national of the United States while such national is outside the United States but within the jurisdiction of another country shall be punished as provided under sections 1111, 1112, and 1113."  Section 1111 penalizes "murder," defined as "the unlawful killing of a human being with malice aforethought."  The memo thus centers on whether al-Aulaqi's killing was "unlawful."

The memo says that the killing was not unlawful, because the prohibition includes the "recognized justification" of "public authority"--that is, the government's ability to kill under its public authority.  As to the Defense Department's use of drones, the memo says that (1) the president had executive war powers authorized by Congress under the AUMF, (2) the AUMF authorized the president to use all necessary force against al-Qaida and associated forces (the OLC said that the AUMF included associated forces in an earlier memo), (3) al-Aulaqi was a member of al-Qaida or associated forces (AQAP) who posed a "continued and imminent threat" to the U.S., and (4) the DoD was acting pursuant to statutory authorization in targeting and killing al-Aulaqi.  Moreover, the memo says that al-Aulaqi's killing comports with the laws of war.  That's because DoD "would carry out its operation as part of the non-international armed conflict between the United States and al-Qaida, and thus that on those facts the operation would comply with international law so long as DoD would conduct it in accord with the applicable laws of war that govern targeting in such a conflict."  The memo said that this operation in Yemen is part of that conflict, even though Yemen is not within the area of that conflict.  Finally, the memo says that the method of killing complies with the laws of war--that is, that the targeted drone attack complies with the principle of distinction, it would minimize civilian casualties, and it would not violate prohibitions on "treachery" and "perfidy" (because those "do not categorically preclude the use of stealth or surprise, nor forbid military attacks on identified, individual soldiers or officers . . . and we are not aware of any other law-of-war grounds precluding the use of such tactics.").

The memo drew the same, or very similar, conclusions as to the CIA's use of a drone strike, but that section was largely redacted.

(The memo also said that another murder-abroad statute similarly did not prohibit the strike, and that the War Crimes Act did not prohibit it, because al-Aulaqi was still an active, fighting beligerent, and an allowable target under the laws of war.)

As to Fourth- and Fifth Amendment protections, the memo says that a high-level decision-maker ("the highest officers in the intelligence community") can make a determination to use lethal force and authorize a strike.  (That's about all it said: this portion of the memo is also highly redacted.)

The memo makes clear that this is all context specific: the "facts" given to OLC that form the basis of its analysis are "sufficient" for the Office to form its conclusions, but the memo declines to say whether those facts are also necessary.  (And we don't know them, in any event, because they're redacted.)

 

June 23, 2014 in Cases and Case Materials, Congressional Authority, Executive Authority, Fifth Amendment, Fourth Amendment, Fundamental Rights, News, Separation of Powers, War Powers | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Brennan Center on the State of Voting

The Brennan Center released a report this week on the state of voting in the run-up to the 2014 election.  Among the highlights:

  • Since 2010, 22 states have implemented new voting restrictions, including voter ID requirements, requirements that make registration harder, restrictions on early voting, and restrictions on restoring voting rights for people with past criminal convictions.  The report says that "[p]artisanship played a key role" and that "[r]ace was also a significant factor" in enacting restrictions.  The 2014 election will be the first election for new restrictions in 15 states, possibly leading to problems on Election Day as those states implement the restrictions for the first time.
  • There are ongoing cases challenging restrictions in seven states--Arizona, Arkansas, Kansas, North Carolina, Ohio, Texas, and Wisconsin.  More may come.
  • Since 2012, 16 states have passed laws to make it easier to vote, including laws that modernize registration, inrease early voting opportunities, allow pre-restration of 16- and 17-year-olds, restore voting rights to people with past convictions, ease voter ID burdens, and expand access by language and absentee voting.  These laws will be in effect in 11 states in the 2014 election.

June 18, 2014 in Elections and Voting, Fundamental Rights, News | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Monday, June 16, 2014

No Damage Claim for U.S. Citizen Tortured in Africa

Judge Emmet G. Sullivan (D.D.C.) on Friday dismissed a case brought by a U.S. citizen against FBI agents for torturing and mistreating him as a terrorist suspect in Africa in violation of his constitutional rights

The plaintiff, Amir Meshal, was visiting Somalia in November 2006.  When fighting erupted there, Meshal fled to Kenya.  Upon arrival, he was captured by Kenyan soldiers, detained, and later interrogated repeatedly by FBI agents, who used threats, accusations that Meshal was a terrorist, and physical force to intimidate him.  Later, Meshal was transferred to Somalia, then Ethiopia, where interrogations by FBI agents continued.  Throughout, Meshal was denied outside communication (until U.S. consular officials later gained access to him), access to an attorney, and access to foreign courts.  In all, Meshal was detained abroad for four months.  He was never charged with a crime.

Meshal filed a Bivens suit for damages against the agents, but Judge Sullivan dismissed the case.  Judge Sullivan was highly critical of the U.S. government's treatment of Meshal and of the federal courts' refusal to hear Bivens claims by other U.S. citizens mistreated by government agents.  But he nevertheless concluded that the D.C. Circuit's ruling in Doe, the Fourth Circuit's ruling in Lebron, and the Seventh Circuit's ruling in Vance compelled him to dismiss Meshal's case.  DoeLebron, and Vance all also involved U.S. citizens suing government officers for violations of constitutional right in similar circumstances.  The circuit courts all ruled that "special factors" counseled against a Bivens remedy, however, because they all arose in the context of the military and national security.

Given the state of the law, there is no chance of a successful appeal.  But that didn't stop Judge Sullivan from delivering a full-throated condemnation of the agents' actions, the courts' rulings, and Congress's failure to create a remedy for U.S. citizens who are mistreated in these situations:

The facts alleged in this case and the legal questions presented are deeply troubling.  Although Congress has legislated with respect to detainee rights, it has provided no civil remedies for U.S. citizens subject to the appalling mistreatment Mr. Meshal has alleged against officials of his own government.  To deny him a judicial remedy under Bivens raises serious concerns about the separation of powers, the role of the judiciary, and whether our courts have the power to protect our own citizens from constitutional violations by our government when those violations occur abroad.

 

June 16, 2014 in Cases and Case Materials, Congressional Authority, Courts and Judging, Fundamental Rights, News, Opinion Analysis, War Powers | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

D.C. Circuit Rejects Guantanamo Detainees' Mistreatment Claims

The D.C. Circuit this week rejected a variety of claims by Guantanamo detainees for mistreatment by government officials and guards even after they had been cleared for release by the Combat Status Review Tribunal.  The court also rejected the plaintiffs' request to remand the case to amend their complaint.

The case, Allaithi v. Rumsfeld, involved detainee claims of "forced grooming, solitary confinement, sleep deprivation, forced medication, transport in 'shackles and chains, blackened goggles, and ear coverings,' and the disruption of . . . religious practices," even after some of the plaintiffs were cleared for release by the CSRT.  The plaintiffs brought claims against government officials and Guantanamo guards under the Alien Tort Statute, the Geneva Convention, the Vienna Convention on Consular Relations, the First Amendment, the Due Process Clause, and the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.

As to the ATS, the court held that the defendants were acting within the scope of their employment, which, under the Westfall Act, transforms their ATS claim into a Federal Tort Claims Act claim against the government.  But the plaintiffs didn't pursue administrative remedies under the FTCA, so their case was dismissed.

As to the Vienna Convention, the court said that the Convention confers a private right of action.

As to the other, Bivens claims, the court held, citing its second Rasul ruling, that the defendants enjoyed qualified immunity, or, alternatively, that the case raised special factors counseling against a Bivens remedy.

June 11, 2014 in Cases and Case Materials, Due Process (Substantive), First Amendment, Foreign Affairs, Fundamental Rights, Jurisdiction of Federal Courts, News, Opinion Analysis, Religion | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Court Strikes Rigid IQ Cut-Off for Death Penalty

The Supreme Court today ruled in Hall v. Florida that a state's use of a rigid cut-off to determine intellectual disability for the purpose of administering the death penalty violates the Eighth Amendment's ban on cruel and unusual punishment.  Our oral argument preview is here.

The 5-4 ruling, penned by Justice Kennedy and joined by Justices Ginsburg, Breyer, Sotomayor, and Kagan, is another in a series of blows against the death the penalty.  Justice Alito wrote the dissent, joined by Chief Justice Roberts and Justices Scalia and Thomas.

The case tested Florida's use of a rigid cut-off to determine intellectual capacity for the purpose of administering the death penalty.  The Court previously ruled in Atkins v. Virginia (2002) that the Eighth Amendment bars the use of the death penalty for persons with intellectual disabilities.  Florida defined intellectual disability with reference to an IQ score of 70 or less.  That meant that a defendant with an IQ score above 70 (including the defendant in this case) couldn't introduce further evidence of intellectual disability. 

The Court held that this violated the Eighth Amendment's ban on cruel and unusual punishment.  It said that Florida's statute could be read to comply with the standard medical definition of intellectual disability (by including consideration of the standard error of measurement in the IQ test), but that the state instead applied it in a rigid way, foreclosing additional evidence of intellectual disability when a defendant has an IQ test above 70.  That, the Court said, "disregards established medical practice in two interrelated ways": it takes the IQ score as "final and conclusive evidence of a defendant's intellectual capacity, when experts in the field would consider other evidence"; and it disregards the standard error of measurement in an IQ test.  (The standard error of measurement, or SEM, reflects the inherent imprecision in the IQ test and the resulting possible variation in results.  It means that an IQ test score really reflects a range of results, not a single number.)

The Court said that a "significant majority of States implement the protection of Atkins by taking the SEM into account."  "The rejection of the strict 70 cutoff in the vast majority of States and the 'consistency in the trend' toward recognizing the SEM provide strong evidence of consensus that our society does not regard this strict cutoff as proper or humane."

The ruling is just the latest blow to the death penalty.  It means that states can't use a rigid IQ cutoff to determine intellectual disability under Atkins; instead, they have to consider the SEM and other evidence of intellectual disability, consistent with the standard medical approach of measuring intellectual disability.

May 27, 2014 in Cases and Case Materials, Fundamental Rights, News | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Judge Orders Release of Force-Feeding Videos

Judge Gladys Kessler (D.D.C.) ordered the government to release videos of force-feeding and medical records of Guantanamo detainee Abu Wa'el Dhiab in today's status conference in Dhiab's habeas case.  Recall that Judge Kessler previously entered a temporary restraining order halting force-feedings of Dhiab until today and ordering the government to produce medical records and videotapes

But Judge Kessler's order today didn't address force feedings.  According to Wells Bennet over at Lawfare, that means that force-feedings can resume:

Intriguingly, court and counsel didn't address (so far as I could tell) the TRO's "no force feeding" instruction with respect to Dhiab.  Considering that Judge Kessler's prior ruling limiting the ban until today's date of May 21, it seems the prohibition could dissolve as early as tomorrow.  For her part, Judge Kessler gestured in this direction, by emphasizing both that her prior ruling was meant to preserve the status quo for so long as needed to handle the emergency motion, and that it did not embody a decision regarding preliminary relief.  (The motion for a preliminary injunction, like the larger habeas case, obviously aims to stop Dhiab's force feeding; but the detainee's emergency motion papers did not, strictly speaking, ask the court to take that step.)

May 21, 2014 in Cases and Case Materials, Fundamental Rights, News, War Powers | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Pennsylvania District Judge Declares State's Same-Sex Marriage Ban Unconstitutional

In his opinion in Whitewood v. Wolf, Judge John E. Jones, III, announced that Pennsylvania would "join the twelve federal district courts across the country" that had declared their respective same-sex marriage bans unconstitutional.

The judge considered both a Due Process and Equal Protection challenge to Pennsylvania's statutory ban on same-sex marriage and found both had merit.

800px-1827_Finley_Map_of_Pennsylvania_-_Geographicus_-_Pennsylvania-finley-1827
1827 Finley map of Pennsylvania

Regarding due process, he concluded that

 the fundamental right to marry as protected by the Due Process Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution encompasses the right to marry a person of one’s own sex. . . . that this fundamental right is infringed upon by 23 Pa. C.S. § 1102, which defines marriage as between one man and one woman and thus precludes same-sex marriage. Accordingly, 23 Pa. C.S. § 1102 is unconstitutional.

Judge Jones' equal protection analysis first considered the proper level of scrutiny for sexual orientation and after extensive discussion of the factors (a modified Carolene Products analysis), he concluded that sexual orientation classifications are quasi-suspect and deserve heightened scrutiny. The application of this standard is relatively brief:

Significantly, Defendants claim only that the objectives are “legitimate,” advancing no argument that the interests are “important” state interests as required to withstand heightened scrutiny. Also, Defendants do not explain the relationship between the classification and the governmental objectives served; much less do they provide an exceedingly persuasive justification. In essence, Defendants argue within the framework of deferential review and go no further.  Indeed, it is unsurprising that Defendants muster no argument engaging the strictures of heightened scrutiny, as we, too, are unable to fathom an ingenuous defense saving the Marriage Laws from being invalidated under this more-searching standard.

Resembling many of the other opinions, including yesterday's opinion from an Oregon federal judge, Judge Jones' 39 page opinion acknowledges its part in a growing trend, cites all the other federal cases, includes a reference to Scalia's dissenting opinion in Windsor to support its rationale, and includes an acknowledgement of the divisiveness of the issue but invokes a historical perspective (represented by Plessy v. Ferguson and Brown v. Board of Education) in its relatively brief conclusion. 

It differs from other similar opinions in explicitly resting its Equal Protection analysis in intermediate scrutiny befitting a quasi-suspect class.

But the doctrinal differences are less noteworthy than the tide of federal judges (and some state judges) striking down their state laws banning same-sex marriage.

May 20, 2014 in Courts and Judging, Current Affairs, Due Process (Substantive), Equal Protection, Family, Fundamental Rights, Opinion Analysis, Recent Cases | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Waldman's Biography of the Second Amendment

Michael Waldman, writing over at Politico, tells the story of how the NRA rewrote the Second Amendment, not through the Article V process, but through persistent and carefully calculated political action and legal argument. Over time, the NRA's position worked its way into the consciousness of politicians and judges and lawyers and ordinary people, until Heller seemed to many (and obviously most on the Court) like an inevitability.  That process--and not raw legal argument, not some new and significant historical find, and certainly not a constitutional amendment--is how we got the individual right to keep and carry guns, according to Waldman.

Waldman, the president of the Brennan Center for Justice at NYU, writes on the occasion of the release of his latest book, The Second Amendment: A Biography.

Waldman's piece in Politico is as much about the political process of constitutional change as it is about the Second Amendment.  In that way, it's a how-to for anyone interested in influencing the direction of constitutional law outside the amendment process, and a healthy reminder that a well organized movement can still influence the direction of American constitutional law:

So how does legal change happen in America?  We've seen some remarkably successful drives in recent years--think of the push for marriage equality, or to undo campaign finance laws.  Law students might be taught that the court is moved by powerhouse legal arguments or subtle shifts in doctrine.  The National Rifle Association's long crusade to bring its interpretation of the Constitution into the mainstream teaches a different lesson: Constitutional change is the product of public argument and political maneuvering.  The pro-gun movement may have started with scholarship, but then it targeted public opinion and shifted the organs of government.  By the time the issue reached the Supreme Court, the desired new doctrine fell like a ripe apple from a tree.

May 20, 2014 in Fundamental Rights, Interpretation, News, Scholarship, Second Amendment | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Sunday, May 18, 2014

Court Temporarily Stops Force-Feeding at Guantanamo

Judge Gladys Kessler (D.D.C.) on Friday temporarily enjoined the government from force-feeding Abu Wa'el Dhiab, a hunger-striking Guantanamo detainee.  Judge Kessler's order also requires the government to produce medical records and videotapes of Dhiab's "forcible cell extractions" for the purpose of "enteral feedings."  Judge Kessler will preside over a status conference on May 21 to work some of this out.

This isn't the first time Judge Kessler ruled on the case.  In her earlier ruling, on July 10, 2013, she held that 28 U.S.C. Sec. 2241(e)(2) deprived the court of jurisdiction to hear a claim over a Guantanamo detainee's conditions of confinement.  She was also highly critical of force feedings in that ruling, however, and telegraphed her likely ruling on the merits, should it ever come to the merits.

It did come to the merits after the D.C. Circuit ruled that Guantanamo detainees could challenge the conditions of their confinement under 28 U.S.C. 2241(e)(2).  After that ruling, Dhiab's case came back to Judge Kessler, leading to Friday's ruling.

Judge Kessler's ruling is only temporary.  But if this ruling and her prior ruling (in the first round) are any indication, she's almost certain to rule against the practice. 

May 18, 2014 in Cases and Case Materials, Courts and Judging, Fundamental Rights, Jurisdiction of Federal Courts, News, War Powers | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

Frontline's United States of Secrets

Frontline airs the first of its two-part series United States of Secrets tonight.  The documentary examines NSA secret surveillance programs developed in the wake of the 9/11 attacks.  There's a clip at the link above, and another here, Inside the NSA the Day After 9/11.

 

May 13, 2014 in Fourth Amendment, Fundamental Rights, News, War Powers | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Court in Schuette: Michigan Can Ban Affirmative Action

The Court's opinion in Schuette v. BAMN (Coalition to Defend Affirmative Action, Integration and Immigrant Rights and Fight for Equality By Any Means Necessary),  clearly upheld Michigan's Proposal 2, enacted as Article I §26 of the Michigan Constitution barring affirmative action in state universities and subdivisions. The plurality opinion for the Court was authored by Justice Kennedy, and joined by Chief Justice Roberts and Justice Alito.  Chief Justice Roberts also authored a brief concurring opinion. Justice Scalia's concurring opinion was joined by Justice Thomas.  Justice Breyer also wrote a concurring opinion.  Justice Sotomayor's impassioned dissent was joined by Justice Ginsburg.  Justice Kagan was recused.

Affirmative_Action_March_in_WashingtonThe state constitutional amendment was a reaction to the Court's opinion in Grutter v. Bollinger (2003), upholding the University of Michigan Law School's use of diversity in admissions.  But since Grutter, the Court has been decidely less friendly to affirmative action, as in  Fisher v. University of Texas.

Recall that the en banc Sixth Circuit majority had relied upon the so-called "political process" aspect of the Equal Protection Clause which asks whether a majority may vote to amend its constitution to limit the rights of a minority to seek relief, relying on Washington v. Seattle Sch. Dist. No. 1, 458 U.S. 457 (1982) and Hunter v. Erickson, 393 U.S. 385 (1969).  At oral arguments, the Justices had seemed hostile to that theory.

Justice Kennedy's plurality opinion for the Court carefully rehearses the cases, but it is probably his rhetoric that is most noteworthy:

This case is not about how the debate about racial preferences should be resolved. It is about who may resolve it. There is no authority in the Constitution of the United States or in this Court’s precedents for the Judiciary to set aside Michigan laws that commit this policy determination to the voters.

As for Justice Scalia's opinion, it admits that the "relentless logic of Hunter and Seattle would point to a similar conclusion in this case" as the Sixth Circuit understood.  However,  both Hunter and Seattle should be overruled.  Justice Breyer, concurring, would distinguish Hunter and Seattle because Schuette  "does not involve a reordering of the political process; it does not in fact involve the movement of decisionmaking from one political level to another."

It is Justice Sotomayor's dissent, joined by Justice Ginsburg, that displays the most heft.  At more than 50 pages and almost as lengthy as all the other opinions combined, Sotomayor's opinion is an extended discussion of equal protection doctrine and theory, as well as the function of judicial review.  In her last section, she also addresses the "substantive policy" of affirmative action and the difference it makes.

The stark division among the Justices is clear.  Sotomayor writes that "race matters."  Scalia reiterates that the constitution is "color-blind."  Roberts implies that racial "preferences do more harm than good."  And Kennedy invokes a First Amendment right to debate race:

Here Michigan voters acted in concert and statewide to seek consensus and adopt a policy on a difficult subject against a historical background of race in America that has been a source of tragedy and persisting injustice. That history demands that we continue to learn, to listen, and to remain open to new approaches if we are to aspire always to a constitutional order in which all persons are treated with fairness and equal dignity. . . . The respondents in this case insist that a difficult question of public policy must be taken from the reach of the voters, and thus removed from the realm of public discussion, dialogue, and debate in an election campaign. Quite in addition to the serious First Amendment implications of that position with respect to any particular election, it is inconsistent with the underlying premises of a responsible, functioning democracy. One of those premises is that a democracy has the capacity—and the duty—to learn from its past mistakes; to discover and confront persisting biases; and by respectful, rationale deliberation to rise above those flaws and injustices. . . . It is demeaning to the democratic process to presume that the voters are not capable of deciding an issue of this sensitivity on decent and rational grounds. The process of public discourse and political debate should not be foreclosed even if there is a risk that during a public campaign there will be those, on both sides, who seek to use racial division and discord to their own political advantage. An informed public can, and must, rise above this. The idea of democracy is that it can, and must, mature. Freedom embraces the right, indeed the duty, to engage in a rational, civic discourse in order to determine how best to form a consensus to shape the destiny of the Nation and its people. These First Amendment dynamics would be disserved if this Court were to say that the question here at issue is beyond the capacity of the voters to debate and then to determine.

Given this passage, perhaps it is not surprisingly that Justice Kennedy does not cite Romer v. Evans - - - which he authored in 1996 - - - in today's plurality opinion in Schuette.  In Romer v. Evans, Kennedy had this to say about Colorado's Amendment 2, which prohibited the enactment of anti-discrimination laws on the basis of sexual orientation:

It is not within our constitutional tradition to enact laws of this sort. Central both to the idea of the rule of law and to our own Constitution's guarantee of equal protection is the principle that government and each of its parts remain open on impartial terms to all who seek its assistance. . . . A law declaring that in general it shall be more difficult for one group of citizens than for all others to seek aid from the government is itself a denial of equal protection of the laws in the most literal sense.

[image via]

April 22, 2014 in Affirmative Action, Equal Protection, First Amendment, Fundamental Rights, Opinion Analysis, Race, Supreme Court (US) | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Monday, April 7, 2014

The Constitutionality of Anti-LGBT Discrimination Laws: US and UK Comparisons Continued

Recall that in November 2013 we posted "UK Supreme Court Confronts Clash Between Freedom of Religion and Gay Equality: Is the Issue Coming to The US Supreme Court Soon?" 

The answer is "no," at least if "soon" means the case discussed in that post, Elane Photography v. Willock, a decision from the New Mexico Supreme Court in favor of a same-sex couple against a wedding photographer.  The petition concentrated on the First Amendment speech rights of the photographer rather than religious rights; the Court denied certiorari today. 

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King Henry VIII, an important figure
in the "Church of England"

Meanwhile, Lady Brenda Hale, a Justice on the UK Supreme Court, appeared at a Comparative and Administrative Law Conference last month at Yale and spoke on the topic of "Religion and Sexual Orientation: The clash of equality rights,"  posting her written remarks on the UK Supreme Court site.  Justice Hall considered the Bull case which we discussed as well as cases from Canada and the EU, all presenting the same basic issue: should religious persons be exempt from anti-discrimination laws?  Justice Lady Hale offers some interesting observations: "it is fascinating that a country with an established church can be less respectful of religious feelings than one without."  She also discusses direct and indirect discrimination and reiterates a point she made in the Bull case itself: 

Both homosexuals and Christians were subject to the same laws requiring them not to discriminate in the running of their businesses. So if homosexual hotel keepers had refused a room to an opposite sex or Christian couple, they too would have been acting unlawfully.

This leads her to proclaim:

If you go into the market place you cannot pick and choose which laws you will obey and which you will not.

This may be an indication of how Lady Brenda Hale would rule in Hobby Lobby so recently argued before the United States Supreme Court, assuming the English Parliament would enact a statute similar to the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.

Another difference: The arguments before the UK Supreme Court are televised live.

April 7, 2014 in Comparative Constitutionalism, Current Affairs, Establishment Clause, First Amendment, Free Exercise Clause, Fundamental Rights, International, Religion, Speech, Supreme Court (US) | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Eleventh Circuit Invalidates Florida's Attempt to Remove Voters from Rolls

The Eleventh Circuit's opinion in Arcia v. Florida Secretary of State, Detzner concludes that Florida's program to remove "suspected non-citizens" from the voter rolls in 2012 violated Section 8(c)(2)(A) of the National Voter Registration Act (the 90 Day Provision) which requires states to “complete, not later than 90 days prior to the date of a primary or general election for Federal office, any program the purpose of which is to systematically remove the names of ineligible voters from the official lists of eligible voters.” 42 U.S.C. § 1973gg-6(c)(2)(A).

While the case rests on an issue of statutory application, it raises two constitutional concerns.

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Ferdinand DeSoto's Map of "Florida"

First, there are Article III concerns of standing and mootness, with the Secretary of State arguing the court should not exercise jurisdiction over the matter.  The standing argument as to the individual plaintiffs focused on the lack of "injury in fact," but the court found that they were directly injured when they were wrongly identified as noncitizens, even though they were not ultimately prevented from voting.  Additionally, they had standing to challenge Florida's second attempt to remove voters by showing "imminent injury."   The standing argument as to the organization plaintiffs  -- Florida Immigration Coalition, Inc., The National Congress for Puerto Rican Rights, and 1199SEIU United Healthcare Workers East - - - was resolved by the court's conclusion applying both a diversion-of-resources theory and an associational standing theory.

The court likewise rejected the mootness argument.  Although the 2012 election had certainly passed, the court found that the situation fit squarely within the “capable of repetition, yet evading review” exception to the mootness doctrine.  It reasoned that the challenged action fit both prongs of the test: the action in its duration was too short to be fully litigated prior to cessation or expiration; and there is a reasonable expectation that the same complaining party will be subject to the same action again.

The other constitutional aspect of the case involved the interpretation of the federal statute's 90 day provision itself:

We reject Secretary Detzner’s attempts to have us decide today whether both the General Removal Provision and the 90 Day Provision allow for removals of non-citizens. Certainly an interpretation of the General Removal Provision that prevents Florida from removing non-citizens would raise constitutional concerns regarding Congress’s power to determine the qualifications of eligible voters in federal elections. Cf. Arizona v. Inter Tribal Council of Arizona, Inc., ___ U.S. ___, 133 S. Ct. 2247, 2257 (2013) (“Arizona is correct that the Elections Clause empowers Congress to regulate how federal elections are held, but not who may vote in them.”). We are not convinced, however, that the Secretary’s perceived need for an equitable exception in the General Removal Provision also requires us to find the same exception in the 90 Day Provision. None of the parties before us have argued that we would reach an unconstitutional result in this case if we found that the 90 Day Provision prohibits systematic removals of non-citizens. Constitutional concerns would only arise in a later case which squarely presents the question of whether the General Removal Provision bars removal of non- citizens altogether. And before we ever get that case, Congress could change the language of the General Removal Provision to assuage any constitutional concerns. With this in mind, we will confine our ruling to apply to the plain meaning of the 90 Day Provision and decline Secretary Detzner’s invitation to go further.

The panel opinion, written by Judge Beverly Martin, was not unanimous.  While Judge Adalberto Martin joined the opinion, Judge Richard F. Suhrheinrich, United States Circuit Judge for the Sixth Circuit, sitting by designation, wrote a very brief dissent, simply citing the two federal district court cases on the issue.

April 2, 2014 in Courts and Judging, Fifteenth Amendment, Fundamental Rights, Interpretation, Mootness, Opinion Analysis, Race, Standing | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Force-Feeding As Torture at Guantanamo

Jon B. Eisenberg, counsel, along with Reprieve US, for Shaker Aamer and Emad Hassan, Guantanamo detainees, writes over at Jurist.org that force-feeding detainees at Guantanamo is akin to the medieval form of torture called "pumping," or the water cure.  Eisenberg makes the case that force-feeding is not "reasonably related to legitimate penological interests," the standard under Turner v. Safley, because the government force-feeds prematurely, long before detainees are at risk of death or great bodily harm.  He writes that there are "obvious, easy alternatives," and that force-feeding is an "exaggerated response."

Recall that the D.C. Circuit ruled earlier this year that federal courts could hear Aamer's habeas claim--a claim not for release, but rather against his conditions of confinement.  This was a huge victory for Guantanamo detainees: it was the first time the court said that they could bring a habeas claim challenging their conditions of confinement. 

But the court also ruled that Aamer was not likely to succeed on the merits of his claim.  Eisenberg explains why that was wrong.

The government hasn't said whether it'll appeal the Aamer ruling.  In the meantime, Eisenberg and Reprieve US are going forward with another claim against force-feeding, Hassan's.

March 23, 2014 in Cases and Case Materials, Courts and Judging, Fundamental Rights, Habeas Corpus, Jurisdiction of Federal Courts, News | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Minnesota Supreme Court Reverses Conviction for Advising or Encouraging Suicide

The Minnesota Supreme Court yesterday reversed a conviction for advising or encouraging another in committing suicide, ruling that the conviction violated the First Amendment.  At the same time, the court remanded the case to determine whether the defendant "assisted" suicides in violation of Minnesota law.

The case, Minnesota v. Melchert-Dinkel, involved the defendant's prosecution and conviction for violation of Minnesota Stat. Sec. 609.215, which makes it illegal to "intentionally advise[], encourage[], or assist[] another in taking the other's own life."  Melchert-Dinkel, posing as a depressed and suicidal young female nurse, responded to posts on web-sites related to suicide and encouraged two individuals, one in England and one in Canada, to take their own lives.  Melchert-Dinkel gained the trust of the victims and then urged them each to hang themselves, falsely claiming that he (as she) would also commit suicide.

Melchert-Dinkel was charged with violating Minnesota's ban on advising or encouraging suicide.  The trial court convicted him, specifically finding that he "intentionally advised and encouraged" both victims to take their own lives, and concluded that Melchert-Dinkel's speech was not protected by the First Amendment.

The Minnesota Supreme Court disagreed.  The state high court said that the ban swept too broadly to meet strict scrutiny.  In particular, "advise" and "encourage" could include "speech that is more tangential to the act of suicide and the State's compelling interest in preserving life," even "general discussions of suicide with specific individuals or groups."

The court rejected the state's argument that Melchert-Dinkel's speech was unprotected because it was "integral to criminal conduct."  The court noted that suicide is no longer illegal in Minnesota, Canada, or the UK.  With no underlying criminal conduct, the speech couldn't be integral to it.

The court also rejected the state's argument that Melchert-Dinkel's speech was unprotected incitement.  That's because there was no underlying lawless action, imminent or not.

Finally, the court rejected the state's argument that Melchert-Dinkel's speech was unprotected "deceit, fraud, and lies."  The court (citing Alvarez) said that there was no such exception to the First Amendment.

At the same time, the court ruled that the portion of the statute that banned "assisting" another in taking his or her own life survived.  The court remanded the case to the trial court to determine whether Melchert-Dinkel's actions constituted "assisting" in the suicides.

March 20, 2014 in Cases and Case Materials, First Amendment, Fundamental Rights, News, Speech | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Monday, March 3, 2014

Justice Scalia's Dissents and the Post Windsor Same-Sex Marriage Cases

There have been a spate of federal judges declaring state constitutional or statutory provisions banning recognition of same-sex marriage unconstitutional under the Fourteenth Amendment: 

De Leon v. Perry, from the Western District of Texas;
Bostic v. Rainey  from the Eastern District of Virginia;
Bourke v. Beshear from the Western District of Kentucky; 
Bishop v. United States from the Northern District of Oklahoma;
Obergefell v. Wymyslo from the Southern District of Ohio;
Kitchen v. Herbert, from the District of Utah;
Lee v. Orr applicable only to Chicago.

Other than Lee v. Orr, in which the judge was only ruling on an earlier start date for same-sex marriage than the Illinois legislature had declared, the judges in each of these cases relied on Justice Scalia's dissenting opinions.

In "Justice Scalia’s Petard and Same-Sex Marriage," over at CUNY Law Review's "Footnote Forum," I take a closer look at these cases and their relationship to Shakespeare's famous phrase from Hamlet.

 

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"A petard, from a seventeenth century manuscript of military designs" via

 

 

March 3, 2014 in Courts and Judging, Current Affairs, Due Process (Substantive), Equal Protection, Family, Fourteenth Amendment, Fundamental Rights, Sexual Orientation, State Constitutional Law, Supreme Court (US), Theory, Weblogs | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Court to Determine Scope of Immunity in Police Chase

The Supreme Court will hear oral arguments tomorrow, Tuesday, in Plumhoff v. Rickard, the case testing the scope of qualified immunity for police officers who were sued for damages arising out of a police chase.  Here's a portion of my preview of the oral arguments, from the ABA Preview of United States Supreme Court Cases, with permission:

FACTS

 Around midnight on July 18, 2004, Officer Joseph Forthman of the West Memphis police force stopped a Honda Accord driven by Donald Rickard after noticing that the car had a broken headlight. Rickard had one passenger, Kelly Allen, who sat in the front passenger seat.

 Officer Forthman asked Rickard for his license and registration; he also asked about a large indentation in the windshield “roughly the size of a head or a basketball.” Allen told Officer Frothman that the indentation resulted from the car hitting a curb. Officer Forthman then asked Rickard if he had been drinking alcohol and twice ordered him out of the vehicle.

Rickard did not comply with Officer Forthman’s instruction. Instead, he sped away on Highway I-40 toward the Arkansas-Tennessee border. Officer Forthman reported over his radio that a “runner” fled a traffic stop; he got back in his vehicle and proceeded to pursue Rickard. Officer Forthman was quickly joined by fellow West Memphis Officer Vance Plumhoff, who became the lead officer in the pursuit. Other West Memphis Officers Jimmy Evans, Lance Ellis, Troy Galtelli, and John Gardner, each in separate vehicles, also joined the pursuit.

The ensuing high-speed chase lasted nearly five minutes. Many of the details were captured by video cameras mounted on three of the police vehicles; many of the statements by officers came over the radio, or were recorded, or both.

During the chase, Rickard swerved in and out of traffic and rammed at least one other vehicle. Officer Plumhoff stated that “he just rammed me,” “he is trying to ram another car,” and “[w]e do have aggravated assault charges on him.”

Rickard led the officers over the Mississippi River from Arkansas into Memphis, Tennessee, where he exited the highway onto Alabama Avenue. As he made a quick turn onto Danny Thomas Boulevard, his car hit a police vehicle and spun around in a parking lot. Rickard then collided head-on with Officer Plumhoff’s vehicle. (It is not clear whether this was intentional).

Some of the officers exited their vehicles and surrounded Rickard’s car. Rickard backed up. Officer Evans hit the butt of his gun against the window of Rickard’s vehicle. As other officers approached, Rickard spun his wheels and moved slightly forward into Officer Gardner’s vehicle.

Officer Plumhoff approached Rickard’s vehicle close to the passenger side and fired three shots at Rickard. Rickard reversed his vehicle in a 180-degree arc onto Jackson Avenue, forcing an officer to step aside to avoid being hit. Rickard began to drive away from the officers. Officer Gardner then fired ten shots into Rickard’s vehicle, first from the passenger side and then from the rear as the vehicle moved further away. Officer Galtelli also fired two shots into the vehicle.

Rickard lost control of the vehicle and crashed into a building. Rickard died from multiple gunshot wounds; Allen died from the combined effect of a single gunshot wound to the head and the crash.

Rickard’s survivors brought a civil rights lawsuit in federal district court against the six officers involved in the chase. They alleged, among other things, that the officers violated the Fourth Amendment. The officers moved for summary judgment or dismissal arguing that they were entitled to qualified immunity. The district court denied qualified immunity, and the United States Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit affirmed. This appeal followed.

CASE ANALYSIS

Qualified immunity shields government officials performing discretionary functions from suits for alleged constitutional violations, unless their actions violate “clearly established statutory or constitutional rights of which a reasonable person would have known.” Harlow v. Fitzgerald, 457 U.S. 800 (1982). The doctrine is designed to give government officials some breathing room to do their jobs by limiting the threat of liability, and to ensure that capable individuals are not deterred from entering government service for fear of liability.

A plaintiff can defeat a claim of qualified immunity by pleading and ultimately proving that (1) the defendant-official violated a statutory or constitutional right and (2) the right was “clearly established” at the time of the challenged conduct. In determining whether a right was “clearly established,” a court must first define the right at the appropriate level of specificity. (That is, the court must define the right at a particularized level, not a general one, because at a general enough level every right is “clearly established.”) Once the court defines the right, the court must ask whether a reasonable official would have known that his or her behavior violates that right.

In arguing over the application of these rules, the parties rely principally on two cases. In the first, more recent one, Scott v. Harris, 550 U.S. 372 (2007), the Supreme Court held that a police officer did not violate the Fourth Amendment when he rammed a fleeing vehicle from behind in order to stop a chase. The officer’s maneuver caused the suspect to lose control of the fleeing vehicle and crash, resulting in serious injuries to the suspect. But the Court held that the officer’s action was objectively reasonably in light of the grave danger that the fleeing driver posed to both the police and bystanders. The Court ruled that the officer did not violate the Fourth Amendment, and that the officer was entitled to qualified immunity from suit.

In the second, earlier case, Tennessee v. Garner, 471 U.S. 1 (1985), the Court held that a state statute that authorized police to use deadly force to stop an apparently unarmed, non-dangerous suspect who was fleeing on foot violated the Fourth Amendment. But the Court went on to say that “it is not constitutionally unreasonable” for an officer to use deadly force to prevent a suspect that poses a threat of serious physical harm, either to the officer or to others, from escaping.

The parties frame their arguments against this background.

The officers argue first that the Sixth Circuit erred in applying the second prong of the qualified immunity test. In particular, they claim that the Sixth Circuit concluded only “that the officers’ conduct was reasonable as a matter of law”—a conclusion that either conflated the two prongs of the test, or ignored the second prong entirely. In either event, they say, the lower court never discussed whether their use of force violated clearly established law at the time of the incident, in July 2004. Indeed, the officers contend that the Sixth Circuit only compared their conduct in 2004 to the facts of Scott v. Harris, a case that came down in 2007. They say that they could not have known about Scott v. Harris when they acted, and that therefore the court misused that case to determine whether the law was clearly established and that their actions were unreasonable at the time.

The officers argue next (on the second prong) that the law in 2004 did not clearly establish that their use of deadly force was objectively unreasonable in violation of the Fourth Amendment. They say that the Supreme Court ruled in December 2004, just five months after the incident here, that there was no clear answer to the question whether it is acceptable “to shoot a disturbed felon, set on avoiding capture through vehicular flight, when persons in the immediate area are at risk from that flight.” Brosseau v. Haugen, 543 U.S. 194 (2004). The officers claim that the threat posed by Rickard was even greater than the threat posed by the fleeing felon in Brosseau, so, if anything, their use of deadly force was more justified. They also contend that neither the law in the Sixth Circuit (where the shootings occurred) nor the law in the Eighth Circuit (where the officers worked) clearly established that their actions were unconstitutional at the time. On the contrary, they claim, the law in those circuits in July 2004 gave the officers “every reason to believe their conduct was objectively reasonable.”

Finally, the officers argue (on the first prong) that their use of deadly force was an objectively reasonable response to Rickard’s behavior. They contend that the facts here are similar to the facts in Scott v. Harris. They say that their force was objectively reasonable and warranted by Tennessee v. Garner (stating that “[w]here the officer has probable cause to believe that the suspect poses a threat of serious physical harm, either to the officer or to others, it is not constitutionally unreasonable to prevent escape by using deadly force.”). And they claim that their use of deadly force to terminate a high-speed chase served the public policy goal, recognized by the Supreme Court, in avoiding threats to innocent bystanders.

The federal government, weighing in on the side of the officers, makes substantially similar arguments. In particular, the government puts this fine point on its critique of the Sixth Circuit’s ruling: “The words ‘clearly established’ do not appear in its opinion, and the court did not undertake the basic inquiries required by this Court’s decisions: defining the right at the appropriate level of specificity, canvassing pertinent authority, and ultimately determining whether a reasonable official would have understood clearly that her conduct violated the Constitution at the time it occurred.” Like the officers, the government argues that the Sixth Circuit erred in its analysis. If the Court should reach the question whether the officers are entitled to qualified immunity, the government also says that they are, because the right was not clearly established at the time of the incident. (The government says that “[f]ramed at the appropriate level of specificity, the question here is whether in 2004 it was clearly established that the police may not use deadly force to prevent a misdemeanant and his passenger from resuming a dangerous, high-speed chase on public thoroughfares after the driver had recklessly operated the vehicle both during the chase and in a close-quarters encounter with police.”) The government urges the Court not to rule on the first prong, the constitutional question, because it is unnecessary, “novel,” and “highly factbound.”

Rickard’s survivors, called “Rickard” here, argue first that the Sixth Circuit lacked appellate jurisdiction over the case. In particular, Rickard says that the officers’ appeal to the Sixth Circuit was grounded primarily in their dispute with the district court’s factual conclusions. Rickard claims that this kind of ruling—“a determination that genuine issues of fact create disputes which preclude the defense of qualified immunity”—does not give rise to appellate jurisdiction.

Next, Rickard argues that additional facts, or “factual disputes,” in the case show that the officers were not entitled to qualified immunity. In short, Rickard takes issue with the officers’ characterization of nearly every significant event, from Rickard’s car-rammings to the context of the officers’ final shots at Rickard’s car. Rickard says that the police videos and the officers’ testimonies undermine the officers’ versions of these events, and that he did not pose the kind of serious threat to the officers that they claim. As a result, Rickard says that their use of deadly force violated the Fourth Amendment as it was clearly established at the time.

Third, Rickard argues (on the first prong) that the Sixth Circuit properly held that the officers’ use of force was not objectively reasonable. Rickard claims again that the facts are disputed, and that viewed correctly they show that Rickard did not pose a threat to the officers that warranted their use of deadly force. Rickard also contends that the Court should not create a blanket rule authorizing police officers to shoot a suspect in a vehicular chase in order to prevent the suspect’s escape. Rickard says that such a rule would extend Scott v. Harris, which involved only car-ramming by the police, not shooting. Rickard also says that such a rule would “bootstrap” an otherwise non-dangerous situation (presumably, the original misdemeanor stop) into a violent felony (the high-speed chase) for the purpose of determining a suspect’s threat to the police. Rickard says that this situation was not as dangerous as the officers have claimed, and that their use of deadly force—“15 total shots at a vehicle containing an unarmed man and woman, the majority of them as the car went past and away from the police”—was excessive.

Finally, Rickard argues (on the second prong) that the officers violated clearly established Fourth Amendment law. Rickard claims that Garner established that it was “constitutionally unreasonable to shoot an unarmed, nondangerous fleeing suspect dead in order to prevent his escape.” Rickard says that under Garner the officers’ use of deadly force in this case was unreasonable. Rickard contends that it does not matter that Garner is not precisely on point: contrary to the officers’ position, the Supreme Court has never required a case exactly on point to determine whether the law is clearly established.

On both prongs, Rickard emphasizes that the State of Tennessee indicted Officers Plumhoff, Gardner, and Galtelli for reckless homicide in the death of Allen. Rickard claims that the indictment underscores their excessive use of force.

SIGNIFICANCE

The questions presented give the Court several ways to resolve the case. The first question presented would allow the Court to determine only whether the Sixth Circuit erred in its qualified immunity analysis, to correct that error (or not), and to remand the case (or not) for further proceedings. In particular, this case gives the Court an opportunity to clarify the second prong (when a right is “clearly established” at the time of an officer’s action) in the wake of the Sixth Circuit’s somewhat confusing approach. (As the officers and the government argue, the Sixth Circuit seems to address only the first prong. If it addresses the second prong, its approach seems incomplete.) As the government explains, this approach, “defin[es] the right at the appropriate level of specificity, canvass[es] pertinent authority, and ultimately determin[es] whether a reasonable official would have understood clearly that her conduct violated the Constitution at the time it occurred.” If the Court only answers the first Question Presented, this is as far as the Court needs to go. If so, the Court would likely remand the case for a proper qualified immunity analysis. (The Court could simply affirm the Sixth Circuit on this first issue, but that seems unlikely, given the Sixth Circuit’s somewhat confusing and apparently incomplete analysis.)

If the Court reaches the second question presented, it could determine for itself whether the officers are entitled to qualified immunity. If the Court reaches this question, then it could decide that the officers are immune on the second prong alone (as the officers and the government urge) or on the second or first prong (thus ruling on the merits of the Fourth Amendment—something that the government urges against). The officers probably have the better of this case, given the state of the law in 2004 (on the second prong) and the state of the law now (on the first). But the Court could conclude that the officers are not entitled to qualified immunity, because Rickard can establish both prongs.

The potential wildcard in the case is the facts. If the Court rules on the second question presented, qualified immunity (and not just on the first question presented, whether the Sixth Circuit erred), at least part of its analysis will almost certainly turn on the facts. It is unusual for the Court to review the facts of a case, but here the Court can only judge the reasonableness of the officers’ actions by taking a look at the facts for itself. (For example, the Court’s review of the videotapes in Scott v. Harris was key to its ruling there, creating what Justice Scalia (for the majority) called “a wrinkle” in the case.) We do not know how the justices will interpret the facts, but we do know that the facts are likely to come into play if the Court gets to the second question presented. And we know that this case seems to be factually similar to Scott, although Rickard vigorously contests that. (Scott was a ruling on the Fourth Amendment itself, the first prong of the qualified immunity test, so the facts were central to the Court’s ruling. But the facts are probably important on the second prong, too.)

Finally, if the Court reaches the second question presented, the case may build on Scott. In particular, it may say whether the officer’s reasonable action in Scott (ramming his car into the suspect’s car to stop a chase) extends to firing shots to stop a chase. But while Scott seems highly relevant, remember that because it came after the officers’ actions here, it will likely only play a central role if the Court rules on the first prong of the qualified immunity test, the underlying Fourth Amendment question.

 

March 3, 2014 in Cases and Case Materials, Fourth Amendment, Fundamental Rights, News | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)