Thursday, September 15, 2016
The Seventh Circuit had little patience at oral arguments yesterday for Governor Mike Pence's position defending his anti-Syrian-refugee policy in Indiana. Pence sought to appeal a lower court's preliminary injunction halting his policy, but the Seventh Circuit panel was all but outright hostile to Pence's arguments. The panel's pointed questions--and the Governor's utter lack of coherent responses--only revealed that Pence's policy (and his defense of it in this case) is just raw politics.
The arguments came just days after the White House announced that it would increase the total number of all refugees admitted next year.
The case came to the court after a lower court granted a preliminary injunction against Governor Pence's order that state agencies stop using federal Refugee Act funds to resettle Syrian refugees in Indiana "pending assurances from the federal government that proper security measures have been achieved." Under the policy, "[u]nless and until the state of Indiana receives assurances that proper security measures are in place, this policy will remain in full force and effect."
One of the groups that receives federal Refugee Act funds (through the state) to help resettle Syrians brought suit, arguing that Pence's order was preempted by the federal Refugee Act and that it violated Equal Protection and Title VI. The lower court granted a preliminary injunction, finding a likelihood of success on the merits of the discrimination claims and (without specifically holding) a likelihood of success on the preemption claim.
The Seventh Circuit panel focused on preemption and, in particular, Governor Pence's (lack of) authority to take federal resettlement funds designated for resettlement of refugees, including Syrians, but to refuse to use them to resettle Syrians. According to the panel, nothing in the Refugee Act authorizes a state governor to pick and choose among refugees in this way (although a state could decline to take Refugee Act funds altogether), and nothing delegates the power to a state governor to second-guess the State Department and the President himself on judgments about the which refugees present security concerns.
The Governor pointed to congressional testimony by the FBI that, according to the Governor, said that the government couldn't guarantee that Syrian refugees wouldn't pose a security risk.
But Judge Easterbrook pointed out that it's not the FBI's call--and it's certainly not a state governor's call. Under the Refugee Act, the State Department makes that call. And nothing gives a state governor the authority to discard the judgment of the State Department and the President himself as to the security risk of any particular group of refugees.
Tuesday, September 13, 2016
The Third Circuit ruled in Associated Builders v. City of Jersey City that the City's efforts to enforce labor standards through its tax subsidies is subject to challenge under the National Labor Relations Act, ERISA, and the dormant Commerce Clause. In particular, the court said that Jersey City acted as a regulator, not a market participant, when in awarded tax subsidies to developers on the condition that they enter into certain agreements with labor unions that bind the developers to negotiate with a union and cover employees in union negotiations, even if employees aren't a members.
The ruling only says Jersey City's practice is subject to NLRA, ERISA, and dormant Commerce Clause challenge--not that the practices violates them. That's now the question on remand.
The case arose when a developer challenged Jersey City's practice of offering tax subsidies on the condition that a developer execute a project labor agreement ("PLAs"), an agreement that requires developers to abide by a pre-hire collective bargaining agreement that covers all employees during the term of the project. As such, a PLA is an agreement between the developer and a labor union, and, because it's entered into with a labor union, it requires a developer to negotiate with the union and requires that all employees be represented by that union in negotiations--even if the developer doesn't ordinarily employ unionized labor, and even if the employees are not union members.
Jersey City argued that it fell under the "market participant" exception to the NLRA, ERISA, and the dormant Commerce Clause, and that therefore those provisions didn't apply.
But the Third Circuit disagreed. The court ruled that Jersey City wasn't a market participant, because, under the circuit test, "the City lacks a proprietary interest in Tax Abated Projects." The court ruled that Camps Newfound/Owatonna, Inc. v. Town of Harrison dictated the result. In that case, the Supreme Court held that Maine wasn't acting as a market participant when it provided "general exemption from real estate and personal property taxes for 'benevolent and charitable institutions incorporated' in the state, but provided more limited or no tax benefits to charities benefiting residents of other states. The court also distinguished Dep't of Revenue v. Davis, saying that in that case Kentucky sold the bonds, whereas Jersey City isn't selling anything.
The ruling sends this case back to the district court for a ruling on the merits.
Wednesday, September 7, 2016
The Sixth Circuit ruled yesterday that the courts lacked jurisdiction over an anonymous complaint about the lengths of voting lines in Ohio in the 2016 primary election. The ruling means that this strange case is dismissed, and the district court's preliminary injunction keeping polling places open an extra hour is vacated. (That extra hour turns out not to have mattered in the results, anyway.)
The case arose when the district court clerk's office received a late election-day phone call complaining that a traffic accident in the Cincinnati area was making it tough for voters to get to the polls by the 7:30 closing time. The clerk contacted a district court judge, and the judge ordered certain polling places to stay open an extra hour. (Some did, some didn't, because of communications issues.)
The Ohio Secretary of State and two counties covered in the order appealed.
But there was a problem: The case had no plaintiff. (It also had no complaint, no caption, no case.)
The Sixth Circuit ruled that the courts lacked jurisdiction over this kind of phantom suit, because there was no standing. As the court explained, in language that can now go in every Con Law and Fed Courts textbook, "There is no plaintiff with standing if there is no plaintiff."
The majority went on to say that it was impossible to rule on whether the case was moot (under the capable-of-repetition-but-evading-review exception), because "it is impossible to say that this complaining party would not be subjected to the same action again," because, well, there's no plaintiff. (The dissent took issue with this conclusion.)
The court had a pretty simple solution to the jurisdictional issues: The clerk simply could have asked "Who is it?" But, alas, that didn't happen.
Tuesday, September 6, 2016
The D.C. Circuit today dismissed a case challenging Federal Highway Administration guidance allowing digital billboards. The ruling says that Scenic America, a non-profit that "seeks to preserve and improve the visual character of America's communities and countryside," lacked standing to challenge the guidance as violating notice-and-comment rulemaking and that it lost on the merits of its claim that the guidance was promulgated "contrary to law" in violation of the APA.
The ruling means that FHWA guidance that allows digital billboards stays on the books.
Under the federal Highway Beautification Act, the FHWA enters into agreements with states that detail things like size, lighting, and spacing standards for billboards along the interstate highways. Every state has one of these federal-state agreements ("FSA"); most were written in the '60s and '70s. FHWA regs say that states have to implement standards in their FSAs and submit their laws to the FHWA's regional offices for approval.
Nearly all of the FSAs contain a prohibition against "flashing," "intermittent," and "moving" lights.
In 2007, the national FHWA office issued a memo that said that this prohibition did not apply to digital billboards--those billboards lit by LED lights that change pictures every ten seconds or so. The effect of the guidance was to permit digital billboards under the FSAs. (Many states already permitted digital billboards, but at least two (Texas and Kentucky) did not. After the guidance came down, those two states also permitted digital billboards.)
Scenic America sued the FHWA, arguing that the 2007 guidance violated the APA's notice-and-comment requirement and that it violated the HBA.
As to the notice-and-comment claim, the D.C. Circuit ruled that Scenic America lacked standing (both organizational and representational). In particular, the court said that Scenic America's requested relief (vacating the guidance) wouldn't redress its injury (having to work harder to fight digital billboards), because other factors may have driven states to permit digital billboards, and vacating the guidance wouldn't necessarily mean that states would stop permitting digital billboards. In short: "Scenic asserts injuries that stem not directly from the FHWA's issuance of the 2007 Guidance, but from third parties not directly before the court--the Division Offices and the states."
As to the substantive HBA claim, the court ruled that Scenic America had standing, but lost on the merits. The court said that Scenic America had representational standing, because it had a member who was harmed by a digital billboard, and because
[i]f we were to find for Scenic on the merits of its claim, a point we must assume for standing purposes, we could only do so by effectively repudiating the FHWA's interpretation of the FSAs. Repudiation would provide much more robust relief than vacatur [the relief requested in the notice-and-comment claim]. Not only would it prohibit the agency from relying on that interpretation in any future rulemakings, it would also require the agency to subject extant billboards to either removal or an order requiring those billboards to operate in a manner that does not violate the FSAs, for instance by keeping the image displayed by the billboard constant and unchanging. Scenic's injury, clearly caused by the Guidance, is therefore redressable.
The court went on to reject the HBA claim on the merits, however, dealing Scenic America a complete loss in the case.
Friday, September 2, 2016
The Ninth Circuit ruled today in C.R. v. Eugene School District 4J that a student's sexually-harassing speech a few hundred feet off school property and as school was letting out was not protected by the First Amendment. The ruling upholds the school district's decision to suspend the student.
The case arose when C.J. and a group of students harassed two disabled students shortly after school let out and just a few hundred feet off school grounds. School administrators concluded that the harassment violated the school's policy on sexual harassment and suspended C.J. C.J. sued, arguing that his speech was protected by the First Amendment.
The Ninth Circuit rejected that claim. The court said that by either the "nexus" test or the "reasonably foreseeable" test used in other circuits, C.J.'s speech fell within the school's authority--and within the free-speech rules for schools. As to "nexus," the court said that the harassment "was closely tied to the school" based on location (close to the school, on a common student route home from school) and timing (just as school let out). As to "reasonably foreseeable," the court said that "[b]ecause the harassment happened in such close proximity to the school, administrators could reasonably expect the harassment's effects to spill over into the school environment."
The court went on to say that the speech was punishable under Tinker, because of its potential disruption to school activities.
The Ninth Circuit ruled this week that the up-and-down case against the Native Hawaiian self-governance movement is now moot. The ruling ends the case, and the dispute--at least against Na'i Aupuni, the group supporting and sponsoring the self-governance effort--but leaves a draft constitution out there for potential future action (and likely accompanying future litigation).
The case started when the State of Hawaii enacted legislation and authorized funds to support a Native Hawaiian constitutional-drafting process. The State awarded a grant to Na'i Aupuni to convene a constitutional convention (including running an election for Native Hawaiian delegates) and running a vote on the draft constitution.
Plaintiffs sued, arguing that the process violated equal protection and the Voting Rights Act, because the delegate election discriminated by race. The plaintiffs moved for a preliminary injunction to stop defendants "from undertaking certain voter registration activities and from calling or holding racially-exclusive elections for Native Hawaiian." The trial court and Ninth Circuit denied an injunction, but the Supreme Court enjoined the counting of the ballots "pending final disposition of the appeal by" the Court.
At the same time, a separate group of Hawaii residents moved to intervene, arguing that the definition of "Native Hawaiian" was too restrictive.
Na'i Aupuni cancelled the delegate election and instead invited all 196 Native Hawaiian candidates to participate in the convention. (The plaintiffs filed a motion for civil contempt with the Supreme Court, but the Court denied it.) They produced a draft constitution for a Native Hawaiian government. But Na'i Aupuni decided not to run a ratification vote; instead, the group returned the unused grant money to the state and dissolved as an organization.
The plaintiffs then appealed the district court's order denying their motion for a preliminary injunction.
The Ninth Circuit this week ruled that the PI case was moot. The court said that Na'i Aupuni dissolved, and that there were currently no plans for any elections. The court said that it's not a case of voluntary cessation, because "the challenged conduct cannot be reasonably expected to start up again." The court also said that it's not capable-of-repetition-but-evading-review, because "[t]here is no reasonable expectation that the plaintiffs will be subject to the same injury again, given Na'i Aupuni's disavowal of any election."
The court did acknowledge that another group might move forward with a vote at some future time. But not Na'i Aupuni, and not now.
The court also denied the motion to intervene, saying that it, too, was moot. In any event, the prospective intervenors' interests weren't at stake in the litigation.
Thursday, August 25, 2016
The First Circuit ruled today in Wal-Mart Puerto Rico, Inc. v. Zaragoza-Gomez that Puerto Rico's amendment to its Alternative Minimum Tax discriminates against interstate commerce in violation of the Dormant Commerce Clause.
The ruling means that Puerto Rico can't apply its amended AMT against Wal-Mart, the largest private employer in Puerto Rico. The ruling also strikes a blow at Puerto Rico's effort to deal with its fiscal crisis and to prevent multi-state corporations doing business in Puerto Rico from shifting profits off-island by purchasing goods and services from related mainland entities at artificially inflated prices.
The amended AMT provided for a graduated corporate tax on goods sold or transferred to the corporate taxpayer by a related party or home office outside of Puerto Rico (for example, Wal-Mart's offices in the mainland US selling to Wall-Mart Puerto Rico). The top rate, 6.5%, applied to corporate taxpayers with $2.75 billion or more in gross sales. Wal-Mart was the only company big enough to be subject to this rate. Moreover, "[f]or a retailer like Wal-Mart PR that engages in a high volume of transactions with low profit margins on each item sold, this feature of the AMT can result in a particularly high tax liability relative to income."
Wal-Mart sued, and the First Circuit struck the tax. The court said that the tax plainly discriminated against interstate commerce, because it taxed only interstate transactions. Moreover, the court said that the amended AMT wasn't the only way (and therefore wasn't necessary) to meet Puerto Rico's interest in stopping profit shifting:
The amended AMT is a blunt and unnecessary overinclusive approach to combating profit-shifting abuse. It essentially establishes an irrebuttable presumption that all intercorporate transfers to a Puerto Rico branch from related mainland activities are fraudulently priced to evade taxes. In fact, the Secretary all but admits that there are narrower alternatives that target profit-shifting. . . . Having identified numerous less restrictive alternatives to advance Puerto Rico's legitimate local purpose, we hold that the AMT is a facially discriminatory law that does not survive heightened scrutiny under the dormant Commerce Clause.
Tuesday, August 23, 2016
The Ninth Circuit ruled in American Hotel and Lodging Association v. City of Los Angeles that federal labor law did not preempt LA's ordinance requiring a minimum wage for certain hotel workers in the city.
The ruling is a win for the city and for covered hotel workers. It denies the plaintiffs' motion for a preliminary injunction, but in terms that, as a practical matter, put an end to these claims. (The court ruled that federal law did not preempt, not only that that it likely did not preempt (the usual preliminary injunction standard). So the ruling tees up a city motion to dismiss these claims on the merits. And unless the plaintiffs have other claims, this ruling tees up a city motion to dismiss the entire case.)
The case arose when LA enacted an ordinance that required large hotels in the city, and smaller hotels near LAX, to pay workers $15.37 an hour (and provide other minimum benefits), unless they were covered by a collective bargaining agreement (the "collective-bargaining exemption"), and unless this wage would drive an employer into bankruptcy (the "hardship waiver"). American Hotel and Lodging Association and the Asian American Hotel Owners Association sued, arguing that the entire wage ordinance and the collective-bargaining exemption were preempted by the National Labor Relations Act, because they interfered with labor-management relations. The plaintiffs pointed to Machinists preemption (named for Int'l Ass'n of Machinists v. Wis. Emp't Relations Comm'n) which says that the NLRA implicitly preempts state restrictions on "self-help," like a strike or lock-out--things that "regulate the mechanics of labor dispute resolution." The plaintiffs moved for a preliminary injunction on this theory.
The Ninth Circuit flatly rejected the claim. The Ninth Circuit said that "[m]inimum labor standards, such as minimum wages, are not subject to Machinists preemption":
Such minimum labor standards affect union and nonunion employees equally, neither encouraging nor discouraging the collective bargaining processes covered by the NLRA. Minimum labor standards do technically interfere with labor-management relations and may impact labor or management unequally, much in the same way that California's at-will employment may favor employers over employees. Nevertheless, these standards are not preempted, because they do not "regulate the mechanics of labor dispute resolution."
The court said that minimum standards are merely background conditions of collective bargaining, not interferences with collective bargaining.
As to the collective-bargaining exemption, the court was even more direct, merely citing Lividas v. Bradshaw and its language that says that "familiar and narrowly drawn opt-out provisions" for collective bargaining agreements are valid, because they do not impact rights to collective bargaining.
Wednesday, August 17, 2016
The Seventh Circuit ruled this week that language in a state statute criminalizing the possession of cocaine near a "youth program center" was unconstitutionally vague. The ruling sends this case of hyper-aggressive prosecution back for resentencing (though the criminal law has been repealed).
The case arose when police arrested Walker Whatley at his father's home on an unrelated charge. The officer discovered a bag with just over three grams of cocaine in Whatley's pocket. Ordinarily, this would have constituted a Class C felony under state law, with a sentence of two to eight years. But because Whatley's dad lived 795 feet from the Robinson Community Church, Whatley was charged with a Class A felony of possessing more than three grams of cocaine within 1,000 feet of a "youth program center"--a charge that brought 20 to 50 years. Whatley was convicted and got 35 years--more than four times the maximum sentence for a Class C felony.
Whatley appealed through the state courts, and then brought a federal habeas claim. The district court rejected that claim, however, ruling that Whatley defaulted.
The Seventh Circuit reversed. The court ruled that the statute was unconstitutionally vague, because it defined "youth program center" as a facility with "regular" youth programs, and because "regular" didn't put a person of ordinary intelligence on notice of what was illegal. (The church hosted youth programs, but only a few times a week, and only for a few hours at a time.)
The court rejected the state court's reasoning that fair notice wasn't required, because the statute created strict liability; the court said that reasoning was "inconsistent with Supreme Court precedent that requires fair notice for all criminal statutes." "The lack of an intent element in the statute does not cure the vagueness problem; it makes it worse by making unknowing defendants absolutely liable for violating an indeterminate standard," that is, the definition of "youth program center."
The very harsh sentencing also played a factor:
In sum, a triad of factors convince us that the state courts were not simply wrong but unreasonable in applying federal law on vagueness in Whatley's case: (1) the use of the word "regular" in the definition of "youth program center" provides no objective standard, and thereby fails to place persons of ordinary intelligence on notice of the conduct proscribed and allows for arbitrary enforcement; (2) defendants are strictly liable for violating the terms of this nebulous sentencing enhancement, exacerbating the effect of the subjectivity; and (3) the consequences of violating this indeterminate strict liability provision are extreme: an increase in the sentencing range from 2-to-8 years to 20-to-50 years' imprisonment.
Monday, August 15, 2016
The Ninth Circuit ruled in Democratic Party of Hawaii v. Nago that the plaintiff failed sufficiently to prove that Hawaii's open primary violated its First Amendment right of association. The ruling dismisses the case and keeps the state's open primary system in place.
The Democratic Party of Hawaii challenged Hawaii's open primary system as a facial violation of its associational rights. But the Party declined to submit evidence in support (showing, for example, that cross-over primary voters would influence the positions of candidates and result in candidates not supported by the Democrats), and maintained its position that the courts could decide the claim as a pure matter of law.
The courts disagreed. The Ninth Circuit said that the plaintiff had to submit proof to show that an open primary system infringed on associational rights--that the claim turns on a question of fact. And because the Democrats failed to provide any proof, their facial challenge had to fail.
The Ninth Circuit today denied rehearing of its en banc decision in Peruta v. County of San Diego, upholding California's "good cause" requirement for a concealed carry permit against a Second Amendment challenge.
The ruling is a significant win for advocates of restricted and regulated concealed carry.
Recall that the full Ninth Circuit rejected the Second Amendment challenge to the "good cause" requirement earlier this summer. Plaintiffs petitioned for a rehearing, but the court denied it.
The ruling ends the case at the Ninth Circuit. The plaintiff's only option now is to petition for Supreme Court review. But without a ninth justice, the Court (if it accepted the case) would almost surely split 4-4, leaving the Ninth Circuit ruling in place--that is, leaving things exactly as they are now.
The plaintiffs petitioned for rehearing by arguing that the en banc majority mistakenly ruled that the Second Amendment doesn't protect a right to concealed carry (when the case was in fact about whether the "good cause" requirement infringed on the plaintiffs' right to carry at all outside the home); that the majority's approach conflicts with other courts; that the majority's approach "impermissibly relegates the Second Amendment to Second-class Status"; and that the "Decision Unnecessarily Intrudes on the Prerogatives of the State."
Today's two-page Order doesn't specifically address those claims; it simply rejects the plaintiffs' petition for rehearing.
The Ninth Circuit's case page is here, with all appellate court filings.
This year the American Constitution Society is doing something new at the AALS annual meeting in San Francisco: a public law workshop for junior-ish scholars (legal academics with 10 years or less in full-time teaching).
The announcement explains: "A committee composed of members of ACS’s Board of Academic Advisors will select 10 papers and each selected author will have the opportunity to discuss his/her paper in depth with two experienced scholars, from a group that includes Erwin Chemerinsky, Pamela Karlan, Bill Marshall, Reva Siegel, Mark Tushnet, and Adam Winkler."
It's the afternoon of January 5th in San Francisco. Submissions are due October 15th. More information is available here.
Saturday, August 13, 2016
Check out the first of a planned six-part series on executive power under President Obama by Binyamin Appelbaum and Michael D. Shear at the NYT. The first part deals with federal regulations; here's a taste:
Once a presidential candidate with deep misgivings about executive power, Mr. Obama will leave the White House as one of the most prolific authors of major regulations in presidential history.
Blocked for most of his presidency by Congress, Mr. Obama has sought to act however he could. In the process he created the kind of government neither he nor the Republicans wanted--one that depended on bureaucratic bulldozing rather than legislative transparency. But once Mr. Obama got the taste for it, he pursued his executive power without apology, and in ways that will shape the presidency for decades to come.
Friday, August 12, 2016
The Sixth Circuit ruled this week in State of Tennessee v. FCC that the Federal Communications Commission lacked statutory authority to preempt states' laws that restricted municipalities from providing broadband Internet service outside their boundaries.
The ruling means that the FCC can't require states to permit municipalities to provide service outside their boundaries, at least in the Sixth Circuit, and at least unless and until Congress specifically authorizes the FCC to preempt in the Telecommunications Act of 1996.
Because areas outside the boundaries of these particular municipalities are unserved or under-served areas, the ruling also means that certain regions outside the municipalities' boundaries will continue to go with inadequate Internet service.
The case arose when Tennessee and North Carolina implemented restrictions on municipalities' ability to provide Internet service outside their territorial boundaries. Two municipalities in those states complained to the FCC, because they saw benefits to providing service, and thus wanted to provide service, outside their boundaries. The municipalities appealed to the FCC to preempt state laws restricting broader service.
The FCC responded by finding that broader service would serve the interests of the Telecommunications Act of 1996 (expanded broadband access, and all the benefits that this brings to communities), and by issuing an order preempting the portions of the state laws that prohibited municipalities from providing access beyond their boarders.
The states sued, arguing that the FCC lacked authority to preempt under the Act's preemption provision, Section 706. The court agreed.
The court said that the FCC's order ran headlong into the "Clear Statement Rule" and Nixon. Under the Clear Statement Rule, the FCC can't preempt a state action that allocates state decision-making; under Nixon v. Missouri Municipal League, that rule applies when a federal government preemption action "interpos[es] federal authority between a State and its municipal subdivisions," which, the Court said, "are created as convenient agencies for exercising such of the governmental powers of the State as may be entrusted to them in its absolute discretion." As the Sixth Circuit said,
Any attempt by the federal government to interpose itself into this state-subdivision relationship therefore must come about by a clear directive from Congress, and the FCC can only pick the decision maker here if there exists a clear statement to do so in Section 706.
According to the court, Section 706 contains no such clear statement.
So despite the Act's ambitious goals and broad delegation to the FCC to achieve those goals, the court said that the Act stops short of authorizing the FCC to preempt state laws restricting Internet access beyond a municipality's boarders.
Nothing in the ruling requires a state to adopt this kind of restriction, however, or forbids a state from specifically authorizing a municipality to expand access. But when it does--as Tennessee and North Carolina have done--the FCC cannot preempt it, at least in the Sixth Circuit, and at least unless and until Congress gives the FCC specific authorization to do so.
(The North Carolina case was in the Fourth Circuit when that court transferred it to the Sixth Circuit for consolidation with the Tennessee case.)
Thursday, August 11, 2016
The Seventh Circuit ruled today in Kristofek v. Village of Orland Hills that a police officer's allegation of official misconduct in the higher ranks was protected speech under the First Amendment.
The ruling reverses the district court on the point and on its companion ruling that the police chief enjoyed qualified immunity. But the court rejected the officer's municipal liability claim.
The case arose when a part-time police officer, Kristofek, complained to colleagues and then to the FBI that a driver that he cited and detained may have been released, and charges dropped, because of official misconduct. (The driver's mother, a former township trustee, successfully intervened with local politicians and the police on behalf of her son. Kristofek thought that this might constitute official misconduct, based on a misconduct training that he attended.) Police Chief Scully then fired Kristofek.
Kristofek sued, arguing that his termination in retaliation for protected speech violated the First Amendment, and that the township was liable under Monell. The district court granted summary judgment to the defendants.
The Seventh Circuit reversed on the First Amendment claim. The court ruled that Kristofek spoke as a private citizen on a matter of public concern when he complained to his colleagues and to the FBI, and that the Pickering balance favored his speech. The court also denied qualified immunity to Scully.
But the court rejected Kristofek's Monell claim, because Scully didn't have authority to unilaterally fire Kristofek or to set department firing policy.
The ruling sends the case back for proceedings consistent with the opinion. But it also assigns the case to a new judge.
Wednesday, August 10, 2016
The D.C. Circuit yesterday rejected a constitutional challenge to Security and Exchange Commission Administrative Law Judges, ruling that SEC ALJs are not "officers" or "inferior officers" whose appointments need to meet the requirements of the Appointments Clause.
The court also rejected a broadside attack against the way the D.C. Circuit analyzes whether any ALJ (SEC or not) is subject to the Appointments Clause.
The petitioner's challenge was novel and sweeping. A ruling in its favor could have been quite significant, potentially threatening the authority of SEC ALJs, certain ALJs in other agencies, and possibly even ALJs across the board (at least insofar as their appointments don't satisfy the Appointments Clause). But the petitioner's novel claims ran up against circuit law. The ruling is thus a decisive win, if not a totally unpredictable one, for the government.
The case turned on whether SEC ALJs are "officers" (who, under Article II, require presidential nomination and advice and consent of the Senate), "inferior officers" (who, under Article II, may be appointed by the President alone, the courts, or the head of a department, depending on what Congress says), or just employees (who are not covered by the Appointments Clause). Under circuit law, the line between "inferior officers" and employees, in turn, depends on (1) the significance of the matters resolved by the officials, (2) the discretion they exercise, and (3) the finality of their decisions.
The court said that decisions of SEC ALJs are not final under the third prong, and therefore SEC ALJs are employees, not subject to the Appointments Clause. That's because under the law the SEC itself makes the final decision, even if only by passively adopting an ALJ's decision. The court explained:
Until the Commission determines not to order review, within the time allowed by its rules, there is no final decision that can "be deemed the action of the Commission." As the Commission has emphasized, the initial decision becomes final when, and only when, the Commission issues the finality order, and not before then. Thus, the Commission must affirmatively act--by issuing the order--in every case. The Commission's final action is either in the form of a new decision after de novo review, or, by declining to grant or order review, its embrace of the ALJ's initial decision as its own. In either event, the Commission has retained full decision-making powers, and the mere passage of time is not enough to establish finality. And even when there is not full review by the Commission, it is the act of issuing the finality order that makes the initial decision the action of the Commission within the meaning of the delegation statute. . . .
Put otherwise, the Commission's ALJs neither have been delegated sovereign authority to act independently of the Commission nor, by other means established by Congress, do they have the power to bind third parties, or the government itself, for the public benefit.
The court went on to uphold the Commission's finding of liability and sanctions against the petitioner on other grounds.
Monday, August 8, 2016
Judge Rosemary Collyer (D.D.C.) on Friday dismissed a case by the Libertarian and Greens against the Commission on Presidential Debates and others challenging their exclusion from the 2012 presidential debates and seeking to participate in the 2016 debates.
The ruling is hardly a surprise, despite the plaintiffs' mighty efforts to navigate well settled precedent.
The Libertarians and Greens argued that their exclusion under the Commission's 15% rule (a candidate needs 15% support in the polls to participate) violated antitrust laws and the First Amendment. But Judge Collyer held that they lacked standing, and that they failed to state a claim.
Judge Collyer said that the plaintiffs lacked standing, because their injury (lack of electoral support) was too speculative and was not traceable to Commission action (on the First Amendment claim) and because their injury wasn't a harm to the market (on the antitrust claim).
Judge Collyer went on to say that the plaintiffs failed to state a claim, because the Commission isn't a government actor subject to the First Amendment (on the free speech claim) and because they failed to allege an injury to competition in a commercial market (on the antitrust claim).
Given the plaintiffs' attempts to navigate well settled First Amendment law, Judge Collyer's ruling sometimes reads like a law exam answer--covering everything from the public function exception to the state actor doctrine, to right-to-access laws, to forum analysis, to the Jaybird primaries.
Despite the plaintiffs' efforts, however, they still lost. The ruling means that the Libertarians and Greens won't be at the 2016 presidential debates, at least not by court order.
Thursday, July 21, 2016
The en banc Fifth Circuit yesterday ruled that Texas's voter-ID law, widely described as the most restrictive voter-ID law in the country, had a discriminatory effect in violation of Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act.
The ruling is a decisive victory for voting-rights advocates and opponents of Texas's voter-ID law. If the state appeals, it'll face an 8-member Supreme Court (assuming the Court would take the case). If the Supreme Court were to divide 4-4, the Fifth Circuit's ruling stays in place. (The Texas AG hasn't said yet what he plans to do, if anything.)
The sharply divided ruling sends the case back to the district court to fashion a remedy for the November elections.
Recall that Texas's voter-ID law was denied preclearance under the VRA, but Texas implemented the requirements as soon as the Supreme Court struck the coverage formula for preclearance in Shelby County.
This suit challenged the law under Section 2. The district court ruled that the law had a discriminatory purpose and a discriminatory effect in violation of Section 2.
The Fifth Circuit yesterday walked that ruling back, but just slightly. The court said that the district court erred in its analysis of discriminatory purpose, and sent the case back for further proceedings on that ground (because there may be sufficient evidence of discriminatory purpose, but the district court analyzed it the wrong way). But the court went on to agree with the district court that the law had a discriminatory effect.
Given the timing of the ruling (so soon before the fall elections), the Fifth Circuit instructed the district court to fashion a remedy for the law's discriminatory effect as to "those voters who do not have SB 14 ID or are unable to reasonable obtain such identification," with an eye toward one of the legislature's purposes, reducing voter fraud. That remedy could include something like voter registration cards, or an indigency exception to the ID requirement. The Fifth Circuit also instructed the lower court to "consider the necessity of educational and training efforts to ensure that both voters and workers at polling places are capable of making use of whatever remedy the district court selects."
The Fifth Circuit did not rule on the constitutional claims.
Monday, July 18, 2016
Judge Ellen Segal Huvelle (D.D.C.) ruled last week in State national Bank of Big Spring v. Lew rejected a Recess Appointments Clause challenge to Consumer Protection Financial Bureau Director Richard Cordray. At the same time, the court declined to rule on the plaintiffs' separation-of-powers challenge to the Bureau itself.
The ruling is a decisive win for Director Cordray and actions he took during his period of recess appointment (before he was confirmed by the Senate). But it leaves open the question whether the CFPB itself it unconstitutional--a question that the D.C. Circuit could answer any day now.
This is just the latest case in a spate of challenges to Cordray's appointment and the CFPB. We posted on this case when the D.C. Circuit ruled that the plaintiffs had standing.
The plaintiffs argued that Director Cordray's recess appointment in January 2012 violated the Recess Appointments Clause. And they had good reason to think they were right: the Supreme Court ruled in NLRB v. Noel Canning that the President's recess appointments to the NLRB on the same day he appointed Cordray violated the Clause.
But Judge Huvelle didn't actually rule on that argument. That's because President Obama re-nominated Cordray in 2013, and the Senate confirmed him; he then (as validly appointed head of the CFPB) issued a notice in the Federal Register ratifying all the actions he took during his recess-appointment period. Judge Huvelle said that under circuit law the ratification cured any actions during this period that would have been invalid because of his invalid recess appointment.
But at the same time, the court punted on the plaintiffs' separation-of-powers challenge to the CFPB itself. That argument--which says that the CFPB invalidly combines legislative, executive, and judicial powers in the hands of a single individual--is currently pending at the D.C. Circuit in another case, PPH Corp. v. CFPB, and the court could rule any day now.
Judge Huvelle's ruling is a clear win for the CFPB and Cordray. But the real heart of opponents' claims against the Bureau are the ones now at the D.C. Circuit--that the CFPB violates the separation of powers.
Saturday, July 16, 2016
The D.C. Circuit yesterday upheld a lower court's dismissal of David Patchak's long-running attempt to stop the Match-E-Be-Nash-She-Wish Band's casino in Wayland Township, Michigan, based on a federal law that stripped the courts of jurisdiction over the case.
The ruling ends this dispute in favor of the Band and its casino, with little or no chance of further appeals.
The case started when David Patchak sued the Interior Department for putting certain land in Wayland Township in trust for the Match-E-Be-Nash-She-Wish Band of Pottawatomi Indians to build a casino. Patchak, a neighboring property owner, argued that Interior lacked authority under the Indian Reorganization Act and sought damages for economic, environmental, and aesthetic harms.
The case went to the Supreme Court on justiciability grounds, and the Court ruled in 2012 that Patchak had prudential standing.
After that ruling came down, Congress enacted a stand-alone law that affirmed that Interior had authority to put the land in trust and divested the courts of jurisdiction over Patchak's case. The act, in relevant part, read:
NO CLAIMS -- Notwithstanding any other provision of law, an action (including an action pending in a Federal court as of the date of enactment of this Act) relating to the land described in subsection (a) shall not be filed or maintained in a Federal court and shall be promptly dismissed.
The district court then dismissed Patchak's case, and yesterday the D.C. Circuit affirmed.
The court first rejected Patchak's claim that the jurisdiction-stripping provision violated the separation of powers. The court looked to the familiar distinction (recently sharpened by the Court's ruling in Bank Markazi) between a congressional act that applies a new legal standard in pending civil cases (which is OK) and an act that "prescribes a rule of decision" in those cases (which is not). The court said that this act falls squarely in the former class, even though Congress set the legal standard in a separate, stand-alone statute (and not the statute at issue in the case, the IRA).
The court next rejected Patchak's various individual-rights claims. The court said that the Act did not violate Patchak's First Amendment right to access the courts, because that right isn't absolute, and it yields to Congress's power to set the jurisdiction of the lower federal courts. The court said that the Act also did not violate Patchak's due process rights (because the legislative process provided Patchak any process that he might have been due) and the Bill of Attainder Clause (because the Act wasn't punishment).
Given the Supreme Court's powerful reaffirmation of congressional authority of federal court jurisdiction in Bank Markazi, the D.C. Circuit's ruling almost certainly ends Patchak's challenge.