Wednesday, January 6, 2016
The California Supreme Court ruled earlier this week that the California legislature had authority to put on the general election ballot the nonbinding, advisory question whether Congress should propose, and the legislature ratify, a federal constitutional amendment overturning Citizens United.
The court said that the measure fell within the state legislative authority:
We conclude: (1) as a matter of state law, the Legislature has authority to conduct investigations by reasonable means to inform the exercise of its other powers; (2) among those other powers are the power to petition for national constitutional conventions, ratify federal constitutional amendments, and call on Congress and other states to exercise their own federal article V powers; (3) although neither constitutional text nor judicial precedent provide definitive answers to the question, long-standing historical practice among the states demonstrates a common understanding that legislatures may formally consult with and seek nonbinding input from their constituents on matters relevant to the federal constitutional amendment process; (4) nothing in the state Constitution prohibits the use of advisory questions to inform the Legislature's exercise of its article V-related powers; and (5) applying deferential review, Proposition 49 is reasonably related to the exercise of those powers and thus constitutional.
Still, there are no actual plans to put the measure on the 2016 ballot--at least not yet. The legislature previously directed that the measure go on the 2014 ballot; that decision was before the court. Now that 2014 is over, you might think the case was moot. But if so, you'd be wrong: the court said it should address the question, notwithstanding the lack of plans to put the measure on the ballot, because the legislature might direct that the measure go on a future ballot (apparently in the spirit of capable-of-repetition-but-evading-review).
Campaign finance transfers that Justice Alito called a "wild hypothetical" at oral arguments in McCutcheon v. FEC are the reality in today's presidential race, writes Paul Blumenthal at HuffPo. That means that a candidate's joint fundraising committee (which raises money for candidates and state and national parties) can bring in over a million dollars per donor in the 2016 election cycle. This is the maximum amount a donor can contribute to the candidate and the parties within base contribution limits. State parties can redistribute their take to benefit the candidate, circumventing the base limits.
Justice Alito called this a "wild hypothetical" at oral arguments in McCutcheon, at least as regards congressional elections. But Blumenthal says it's reality, and cites the Clinton campaign as an example. He describes it this way:
Donors are limited by how much they can give to campaign committees, national party committees and state party committees. A single donor can give $5,400 to a candidate's campaign to cover both a primary and general election, $33,400 annually to a national party committee's general fund and $10,000 annually to each state party. These limits are known as "base" contribution limits. (Additionally, donors can give $100,200 annually to each of the national party committee's convention, building and legal funds . . . .)
Since the Hillary Victory Fund links the Clinton campaign, the DNC and 33 state parties, the total amount a donor could give is $669,400 per year. Technically, a maximum contribution to the fund would include $330,000 to be split amount the 33 state parties. Since party committees are allowed to make unlimited transfers between each other, that money can easily be sent to the state parties most advantageous to the candidate's raising the money--in a swing state, for example. Or, as is happening with the Hillary Victory Fund, that money can be sent to the DNC, which redistributes it as they see fit.
Why does this matter? Well, the Court in McCutcheon said that aggregate contribution limits (designed to complement base limits and avoid corruption by effectively restricting the amount of money candidates could transfer between each other) violated the First Amendment. The Court said this in part because the FEC's rules on earmarking contributions and limits on transfers between candidates effectively prevented these kinds of shenanigans. In other words, the Court said that aggregate limits weren't necessary to avoid corruption, because other features of the regulatory scheme prevented donors from circumventing base limits and corrupting politicians.
But those features don't limit state political party transfers. So a joint fundraising committee can send donations to state parties, which can then strategically funnel those donations to other state parties or to the national party, directly benefiting the candidate. That's exactly what SG Verrilli raised--and what Justice Alito dismissed as a "wild hypothetical" in the context of congressional elections--at oral argument in McCutcheon. It's also what seems to be happening in the 2016 presidential election.
Tuesday, January 5, 2016
President Obama's executive actions to control gun violence are drawing predictable Second Amendment howls. But there's another constitutional claim against President Obama's actions--that President Obama overreached and violated the separation of powers.
The emerging separation-of-powers claim focuses on the President's attempt to clarify statutory language, in particular, which gun sellers are "engaged in the business of dealing firearms" under federal law. Sellers so engaged have to get a federal license and conduct background checks on purchasers.
Firearms dealers certainly qualify; individuals selling guns don't. But that leaves a big grey area and allows many sellers to avoid federal licensing and background checks, even if they sell a lot of guns. President Obama's actions are designed to give some guidance to federal regulators and law enforcement on who is "engaged in the business of dealing firearms," so that more sellers who sell many guns (but have previously flown under the regulatory radar) have to get a license and conduct background checks.
So: the President's action is either validly enforcing the law, or it's invalidly rewriting the law, in violation of the separation of powers.
Phillip Bump at WaPo has a nice, short summary of the positions.
Bob Adelmann, writing in the New American, says that the measure invalidly rewrites the law, and surveys the emerging arguments that support that position.
On the other side, law professors who urged President Obama to take action last month say that this measure is valid enforcement of federal law.
The law professors surely have the better argument. But the courts will soon have their own say.
Friday, December 18, 2015
Judge Royce Lamberth (D.D.C.) ruled yesterday that the district court lacked jurisdiction over a Guantanamo detainee's habeas claim seeking his periodic review, as ordered by President Obama.
The ruling in Salahi v. Obama leaves Guantanamo detainees without a way to enforce the Periodic Review Board process set by executive order by President Obama.
Recall that President created an interagency process in 2011 to periodically review whether continued detention of certain Guantanamo detainees was "necessary to protect against significant threat to the security of the United States." Under EO 13567, every detainee was to get a full hearing every three years from a PRB, plus interim review under certain circumstances.
Salahi has been detained at Guantanamo since 2002, without charges, and has yet to have a PRB hearing (or even have one scheduled). He filed a habeas claim in the D.C. District seeking, among other things, a scheduled PRB hearing.
The court rejected his claim. The court said that "probabilistic" claims--that is, claims that only might lead to release--don't fall within habeas, and that in any event the EO didn't create any substantive rights that a Guantanamo detainee might actually enforce in court.
The upshot is that while the President may order periodic review, that doesn't mean that detainees can actually get it.
Wednesday, December 16, 2015
The full Second Circuit last week denied en banc review of its June ruling in Turkmen v. Ashcroft. That ruling allowed a civil rights case against former AG Ashcroft and former FBI Director Mueller, among others, by alien detainees held at the Metropolitan Detention Center in New York to go forward. (The June ruling was not a ruling on the merits, however.) The full Second Circuit denied review by a 6-6 vote. (H/t: Joe Dicola.)
The June ruling and the full court's denial of review are victories for the plaintiffs and, more generally, for access to justice. They deal a major blow to the government in defending detainee-abuse suits that arise in domestic, non-military detention facilities. But while the rulings are significant (to say the least), they may be short-lived. That's because the government is sure to appeal to the Supreme Court, and because the Court will almost surely take it.
Tuesday, December 15, 2015
The Supreme Court yesterday upheld a mandatory arbitration clause in a consumer contract-of-adhesion, forcing the consumer-plaintiffs into arbitration (and out of the courts) to sue DIRECTTV over early termination fees. The ruling is yet another blow to consumers who seek to recover relatively small damages from corporations--the kinds of claims that are best suited for class action lawsuits (in courts). But yesterday's ruling all but bolts the door to the courts for these kinds of claims, as corporations increasingly include mandatory arbitration clauses in their standard-form consumer contracts.
At the same time, the opinion includes powerful federal supremacy language, and reminds us of the constitutional requirement that state court judges uphold federal law, explicitly mentioning federal civil rights. The ruling thus illustrates that the politics in preemption cases can be complicated, and that a federal-friendly ruling in one area (mandatory arbitration clauses) can have important implications in others (civil rights enforcement).
Of course, Congress can "reverse" the holding simply by changing the FAA, although that seems highly unlikely.
The case, DIRECTTV v. Imburgia, grew out of consumers' disputes with DIRECTTV over early termination fees. The plaintiffs' contracts with DIRECTTV (a standard-form contract of adhesion) included a mandatory arbitration clause and a class-arbitration waiver. In particular, the contracts said that "any Claim either of us asserts will be resolved only by binding arbitration," and that "[n]either you nor we shall be entitled to join or consolidate claims in arbitration." The contract also said that if the "law of your state" makes the waiver of class arbitration unenforceable, then the entire arbitration clause is unenforceable.
But at the time the parties contracted, California law said that a waiver of class arbitration in a consumer contract of adhesion was unconscionable and thus unenforceable. This rule came from the California Supreme Court's decision in Discover Bank v. Superior Court. This was the "law of your state," at least insofar as the parties understood it at the time of the contract, and would have rendered the entire arbitration clause unenforceable, allowing the plaintiffs' case to proceed in court (and not requiring arbitration).
An earlier Supreme Court case and the Federal Arbitration Act threw a wrench into that analysis. The Federal Arbitration Act says that a "written provision" in a contract providing for "settle[ment] by arbitration" of "a controversy . . . arising out of" that "contract . . . shall be valid, irrevocable, and enforceable, save upon such grounds as exist at law or in equity for the revocation of any contract." The Supreme Court ruled in AT&T Mobility v. Concepcion (2011) (after the parties contracted) that the FAA preempted California's Discover Bank rule, because that rule stood as an obstacle "to the accomplishment and execution of the full purposes and objectives of Congress."
So the plaintiffs' ability to sue in state court turned on whether the contract's reference to "law of your state" meant the Discover Bank rule absent preemption, or the Discover Bank ruled as preempted under Concepcion. If the former, then the contract provision would have made the entire arbitration clause unenforceable, and the plaintiffs could have pursued their claims in court. If the latter, then the contract provision would have left the arbitration clause in place, and forced the courts to dismiss the plaintiffs' claim (and go to arbitration instead).
The Court ruled that the latter interpretation was the better one. In other words, the Court said that "law of your state" meant valid California law--that is, the Discover Bank rule as preempted by the FAA under Concepcion--which did not render the class-arbitration waiver unenforceable. As a result, the arbitration clause in the contract stayed in place, and the plaintiffs' court case will be dismissed. (Justice Breyer wrote the opinion, joined by the Court's conservatives (minus Justice Thomas) and Justice Kagan. Justices Breyer wrote the dissent, and Justice Kagan joined him, in Concepcion.)
Justice Ginsburg dissented, joined by Justice Sotomayor. She wrote that "law of your state" should be interpreted to mean the Discover Bank rule, as the parties intended and expected at the time of the contract (because the Court had not then issued Concepcion). Justice Thomas dissented separately, arguing that the FAA has no application to state court proceedings.
The ruling adds yet more authority to FAA preemption of consumer mandatory arbitration clauses and thus deals a blow to consumer-plaintiffs who seek to sue corporations in court. (Arbitration often favors the corporation.) It tilts the scales (again) toward the corporation, and away from the consumer.
But at the same time, the ruling is strong on federal supremacy, including federal civil rights. Justice Breyer included powerful language reinforcing the supremacy of federal law and the constitutional requirement of state court judges to enforce federal law, explicitly mentioning federal civil rights law.
Thursday, December 10, 2015
The Seventh Circuit this week denied a preliminary injunction to owners of a would-be nude-dancing establishment in Angola, Indiana, because the owners stipulated to the city's secondary-effects justification for its zoning ordinance that blocked development of the establishment.
The plaintiffs' surprising concession means that the plaintiffs could not show a "substantial likelihood of success" on the merits of their First Amendment claim, and that they therefore could not get an injunction ordering the city to grant a license to develop the business.
The case arose when the plaintiffs proceeded with developing a site for an adult entertainment business, the only one in Angola, Indiana. The city reacted by changing its zoning law in a way that would bar the plaintiffs from completing the project and starting the business. In particular, the city adopted a zoning rule that required sexually oriented businesses to be located at least 750 feet from every residence--a standard that the plaintiffs could not meet. The city justified the new rule based on the "secondary effects" of adult entertainment businesses, including crime, prostitution, disease, public indecency, and the like.
The city and plaintiffs filed motions for partial summary judgment, and the plaintiffs filed for a preliminary injunction. Oddly, the plaintiffs stipulated to the city's secondary-effects justification at the hearing (even as they said they'd challenge it later):
We'll stipulate that in our preliminary injunction motion we are not challenging here the factual predicate for the ordinances. We do want to challenge that. That was part of the amended complaint that was struck. We've asked for discovery on that. We haven't been able to take discovery. So we want to challenge that, at some point, but we will stipulate so that [Angola's counsel] is not concerned that we would go up to the Court of Appeals and make the argument that they . . . didn't have a requisite basis at least for this point to enact these ordinances. They're relying on that. That's fine. We're not challenging that here.
The district court denied the plaintiffs' motion, and the Seventh Circuit affirmed, because the stipulation meant that the plaintiffs couldn't show a likelihood of success on the merits. (Under Renton the city can zone adult entertainment establishments based on their secondary effects.)
Still, this ruling doesn't end the case. The district has yet to decide whether the city left open an alternative avenues for the communication. (If not, the plaintiffs could still win on the merits.) So the case will go back to the district court on this question. In the meantime, the Seventh Circuit's ruling means that there won't be adult entertainment in Angola, unless and until the plaintiffs win on the merits.
Monday, December 7, 2015
The Supreme Court today declined to hear an appeal upholding an assault-weapon ban against a Second Amendment challenge. The action, a denial of cert., means that Highland Park's ban on assault weapons stays on the books, even though the decision says nothing on the merits.
The case, Friedman v. City of Highland Park, involved a Second Amendment challenge to Highland Park's ban on semi-automatic firearms. The Seventh Circuit upheld the ban. That court, frustrated with the lack of guidance on the question, devised and applied this test:
[W]hether a regulation bans weapons that were common at the time of ratification or those that have "some reasonable relationship to the preservation or efficiency of a well regulated militia," and whether law-abiding citizens retain adequate means of self-defense.
The Seventh Circuit said that the ban didn't run afoul of this test, because assault weapons weren't common at the time of ratification; they had no reasonable relationship to the preservation or efficiency of a well regulated militia; and law-abiding citizens had other options for self-defense (handguns and long-guns). The court went on to say that regulation of assault weapons really ought to go "through the political process and scholarly debate" and not by judges "parsing ambiguous passages in the Supreme Court's opinions."
While the Supreme Court didn't see fit to intervene and reconsider this ruling, the Seventh Circuit's approach didn't sit well at all with Justices Thomas and Scalia. They dissented from the denial of cert., arguing that the Seventh Circuit's test "eviscerate[d] many of the protections recognized in Heller and McDonald." Justice Thomas dissected the Seventh Circuit's test and wrote that each part of it--commonality at the time of ratification, preservation of a militia, and self-defense alternatives--undermined Heller and McDonald. The upshot: "I would grant certiorari to prevent the Seventh Circuit from relegating the Second Amendment to a second-class right."
Again, the Court's denial of cert. says nothing on the merits. But it leaves Highland Park's regulation and the Seventh Circuit's opinion both on the books. With just two justices dissenting, it looks like either (1) the Court's not yet ready to revisit the Second Amendment, or (2) it's content with the Seventh Circuit's approach.
Friday, December 4, 2015
Two studies this week detail something that we probably already knew, or could guess: State court judicial elections impact the protection of unpopular fundamental rights.
One study, How Judicial Elections Impact Criminal Cases, by Kate Berry at the Brennan Center, concludes that criminal defendants get a raw deal by state court judges the closer it comes to election time. In particular:
- The more frequently television ads air during an election, the less likely state supreme court justices are, on average, to rule in favor of criminal defendants.
- Trial judges in Pennsylvania and Washington sentence defendants convicted of serious felonies to longer sentences the closer they are to re-election.
- In states that retain judges through elections, the more supportive the public is of capital punishment, the more likely appellate judges are to affirm death sentences.
- In the 37 states that heard capital cases over the past 15 years, appointed judges reversed death sentences 26 percent of the time, judges facing retention elections reversed 15 percent of the time, and judges faces competitive elections reversed 11 percent of the time.
- Trial judges in Alabama override jury verdicts sentencing criminal defendants to life and instead impose death sentences more often in election years.
The other study, A Handful of Elected State Judges Continue to Deny Marriage Equality, by Billy Corriher at the Center for American Progress, links judges subject to judicial election or retention to their willingness to recognize marriage equality after Obergefell. According to the study,
The counties where judges or magistrates still refuse to recognize marriage equality are in states that have seen increasingly politicized judicial elections and a flood of campaign cash into those races.
Corriher's conclusion: "Politicized elections require judges to cater to public opinion, instead of protecting individual rights in the face of public pressure."
Tuesday, December 1, 2015
The right-to-a-remedy is a standard in our constitutional songbook, going back to Marbury v. Madison, even before. But what about rights against a remedy? While we might not think about such things often, they're there. And the Court in Shelby County elevated one of them to a higher level, with potentially devastating consequences to our system of constitutional remedies against the states.
Davis argues that the Court's newfangled "equal sovereignty" principle that contributed in Shelby County to the demise of Section 4 of the VRA (the coverage formula for preclearance) is a right against a remedy--but one of a different sort altogether. Davis says that "equal sovereignty" stands apart from other rights-against-remedies, because the Court neglected to consider any countervailing interests or factors, or whether there are other ways to respect "equal sovereignty"--in short, that the Court used "equal sovereignty" as a trump card on the right to a remedy (in Section 5 preclearance). Davis explains:
Rights against remedies are usually shaped by considered judgments about the whole remedial scheme. Due process, for instance, limited remedies that might "intimidate" regulated parties from seeking judicial review. [See Ex Parte Young.] . . . Equal sovereignty imposes a different kind of right, it appears. The Shelby County majority simply did not address Justice Ginsburg's argument that a bailout process adequately protected a state's equal sovereignty.
Thus, the Court treated Shelby County more like a third party claiming an equal protection right against reverse discrimination than as a recidivist jurisdiction with a history of voting wrongs. . . .
At a minimum, this newfound equal sovereignty right against remedies is unusual and troubling. Equal sovereignty requires the Court to strike down a constitutional remedy without considering whether that remedy is necessary to redress constitutional violations.
The result: "equal sovereignty" as a right-against-remedies "has the potential to undercut the system of constitutional remedies against states.
Sunday, November 29, 2015
Judge Christopher Cooper (D.D.C.) ruled last week that a constitutional challenge to the federal restrictions on soft money by state and local political party committees will be heard by a three-judge district court. The ruling puts the case on the fast-track to the Supreme Court, whose plurality ruling last year in McCutcheon puts the federal soft-money restrictions on extremely shaky ground. The net result: this case, Republican Party of Louisiana v. FEC, will likely go to the Supreme Court; the Court will almost surely strike the soft-money restrictions; and the ruling will open yet another spigot for vast amounts of money to flow in politics.
The case involves BCRA's limits on soft money by state and local political parties. "Soft money" is a contribution to a political party for state and local elections and for "issue advertising," but not for influencing federal elections. (Money for federal elections is subject to other restrictions.) The 2002 Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act flatly prohibits national political parties from raising or spending soft money. But as to state and local party committees, BCRA permits them to use soft money for state and local elections and issue ads, but not for federal election activities. As a result, state and local political party committees use (1) a federal fund, consisting of contributions at and below federal (FECA) limits, for federal elections, and (2) nonfederal funds, consisting of soft-money contributions, for state and local elections and issue ads. (There is a third category, too: Levin funds. Levin funds are a type of nonfederal fund that can be used for some federal election activity. They don't appear to be a game-changer in this case, though.)
The plaintiffs in this case, state and local committees of the Republican Party in Louisiana, challenged BCRA's limits on soft-money. In particular, they challenged (1) BCRA's prohibition on the use of soft-money for federal election activity, (2) BCRA's requirement that state and local committees pay direct costs of fundraising activity for funds used for federal election activity, and (3) BCRA's monthly reporting requirement disbursements and receipts for federal election activity. (BCRA defines "federal election activity" as voter registration, voter identification and GOTV, in addition to campaign communications that refer to a clearly identified candidate for federal office.) The plaintiffs claim these restrictions violate the First Amendment.
The plaintiffs moved to convene a three-judge court to hear their claims. BCRA authorizes such a court to hear constitutional challenges to BCRA, and allows the loser to take the case directly to the Supreme Court. (Constitutional challenges to FECA, on the other hand, go first to an en banc court of appeals. The plaintiffs wanted to by-pass this step and fast-track the case to the Supreme Court, so, learning a lesson from earlier cases, they challenged BCRA's restrictions, not FECA's limits on contributions. Still, a successful challenge would effectively erase FECA's contribution limits.) In this way, the plaintiffs will get the case to the Supreme Court, and quickly.
And that matters, because the Supreme Court has signaled that it's ready to strike at least some soft-money restrictions. In McCutcheon, a plurality defined "corruption"--the only justification for contribution limits that will withstand constitutional scrutiny--quite narrowly, as "quid pro quo corruption or its appearance," or vote-buying. By that definition, the Court is almost sure to strike soft-money restrictions for things like voter registration, GOTV, and issue ads, and maybe others. (How do these things lead directly to quid pro quo corruption?) Even as the Court said in McCutcheon that it wasn't disturbing prior cases upholding restrictions on soft money, its cramped definition of corruption almost surely rules some or all of those restrictions out.
At least the uncertainty created by the Court's definition in McCutcheon caused Judge Cooper to conclude that the plaintiffs' constitutional challenge was "substantial"--a trigger for the three-judge court.
(One potentially complicating factor: The Court is now considering when a complaint is "substantial" so that it triggers a three-judge court, in Shapiro v. McManus. Judge Cooper wrote that if the Court's ruling in Shapiro alters his analysis of "substantial," the three-judge court could dissolve itself. That wouldn't end the case (necessarily), but it would require the plaintiffs to appeal through the D.C. Circuit.)
Judge Cooper's ruling did not address the merits (except to say that the challenge was "substantial"). Still, the ruling puts the case on the fast-track to the Supreme Court (subject to any potential speedbumps from Shapiro), where some or all of the soft-money restrictions on state and local political party committees will likely meet their doom.
Tuesday, November 24, 2015
The Indiana ACLU filed suit late yesterday in federal court seeking to force Indiana to take Syrian refugees. The lawsuit argues that Governor Mike Pence's action halting state aid to refugee resettlement efforts is preempted by federal law and violates equal protection and Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964.
The case started when Indiana Governor Mike Pence said that his state would not accept Syrian refugees after the Paris attacks, and ordered state agencies not to provide assistance for resettlement efforts. Indiana then turned away a Syrian family (that was subsequently placed in Connecticut).
The ACLU sued on behalf of Exodus Refugee Immigration, Inc., a private non-profit that provides nuts-and-bolts assistance to refugee families in the state. Exodus claims it incurred costs in anticipation of the federal government accepting 10,000 Syrian refugees, some of whom would come to Indiana, but did not receive reimbursement from the state (as it usually would) after Governor Pence ordered state agencies to stop supporting Syrian refugee resettlement.
The complaint argues that the INA preempts Governor Pence's order. It recognizes that the INA requires the federal government to "take into account recommendations of the State," among other considerations and to the extent possible, but correctly says that "[t]he INA does not allow a State to veto placement of a refugee within the State . . . ." In short:
Defendants' suspension of the resettlement of Syrian refugees in Indiana is preempted by the Constitution and federal law for multiple reasons, including that it impinges on the exclusively federal authority to regulate immigration and to classify non-citizens; that federal law occupies the field of refugee admission and resettlement; and that it conflicts with the Immigration and Nationality Act and other federal statutes.
The plaintiffs also argue that Governor Pence's order violates equal protection and Title VI.
Indiana is one of 31 states that have "refused" to accept Syrian refugees after the Paris attacks. (The quotes are because states don't have this authority.) But this appears to be the first federal lawsuit against a governor's order to halt state support for resettlement.
Monday, November 23, 2015
The Second Circuit ruled today that plaintiffs are not entitled to certain memos and documents from the Office of Legal Counsel outlining the legal justification for the government's targeted killing (drone) program.
The ruling means that the OLC documents will remain under wraps, and we won't now see (and may never see) the full paper trail for the program.
Recall that the New York Times, Charlie Savage, Scott Shane, and the ACLU sued to obtain OLC memos under FOIA. In the first round of the litigation, the Second Circuit ordered the release of a 2010 OLC memo, because government officials had revealed the contents in public statements and thus waived its right to invoke a FOIA exemption. (The officials' statements revealing the contents came before and soon after the document was released.)
In this second round of litigation, the court today said that the district judge properly withheld the documents, because they contained intelligence information. As to the plaintiffs' argument that the government disclosed the contents of one of these memos, a 2002 memo, the court said that the disclosure came too long after the document (8 years), and that the disclosure might have come up in a different context. The court explained:
However, the passage of a significant interval of time between a protected document and a Government official's subsequent statement discussing the same or a similar topic considered in the document inevitably raises a concern that the context in which the official spoke might be significantly different from the context in which the earlier document was prepared. Even if the content of legal reasoning set forth in one context is somewhat similar to such reasoning that is later explained publicly in another context, such similarity does not necessarily result in waiver. Moreover, ignoring both the differences in context and the passage of a significant interval of time would risk requiring Government officials to consider numerous arguably similar documents prepared long before and then measure their public words very carefully so as not to inadvertently precipitate a waiver of protection for those earlier documents.
The upshot is that we won't get these additional OLC documents and won't learn much or anything more than we already know about the legal justifications for the program.
Wednesday, November 18, 2015
The Seventh Circuit ruled today that students who authorized the corporations who run the SAT and ACT standardized tests to provide their personal information to educational organizations lacked standing to challenge the corporations' sale of that information. The ruling means that the putative class action against the SAT and ACT is dismissed.
Along the way, the court also ruled that the Iqbal/Twombly heightened pleading standard ("plausibility") applies to facial challenges to standing under Rule 12(b)(6). This may raise the bar for plaintiffs in pleading and arguing standing. This portion of the ruling aligns with the approach in several other circuits; but it's in tension with the Ninth Circuit, which says that "Twombly and Iqbal are ill-suited to application in the constitutional standing context."
The case arose when ACT, Inc., and The College Board (which administers the SAT) sold personal information of students who signed up to take the tests. The students agreed that the corporations could share their personal information with educational groups (schools, scholarship funds, and the like), but they didn't know that the corporations were going to sell their personal information. (The price was small--$.33 per student per educational group--but would add up quickly for the defendants.) The plaintiffs argued that they were harmed by the sale because (1) they should have received some of the proceeds, (2) the sale diminished the value of their personal information, and (3) they paid a fee to take the ACT or SAT, which presumably would have been lower if they had not consented to the sale.
The Seventh Circuit flatly rejected these claims. The court ruled that under the Iqbal/Twombly standard, the plaintiffs' allegations didn't plausibly suggest that they'd been harmed. The court said that just because the defendants benefited doesn't mean that the plaintiffs were harmed for standing purposes: "Plaintiffs have claimed injury based solely on a gain to Defendants and without alleging a loss to themselves." (Although the court applied the Iqbal/Twombly standard, it looks like the plaintiffs would have failed even without it.)
The court rejected the plaintiffs' claim that their complaint gave rise to a reasonable inference that if they knew of the sale they would have conditioned their permission on receipt of a portion of the proceeds. The court said that the plaintiffs didn't provide factual support for the inference, so it didn't even need to get to whether the claim gives rise to a plausible claim of subject matter jurisdiction under Iqbal and Twombly.
In other words, it's not clear that the heightened Iqbal/Twombly standard mattered to the outcome at all. Still, the case says that the standard now applies to standing in the Seventh Circuit.
Monday, November 9, 2015
A sharply divided panel of the Fifth Circuit ruled today that states had a substantial likelihood of success on the merits in their case against the President's deferred action program for parents of Americans and lawful permanent residents, or DAPA. The ruling affirms a nationwide injunction issued by the lower court and means that the government is barred from enforcing DAPA across the country--unless and until the government files for and wins a stay and appeals.
The ruling is a win for plaintiff-states that don't like DAPA and a loss, though perhaps not unexpected (at the conservative Fifth Circuit), for the government.
The dispute between the majority and the dissent on the merits comes down to whether DAPA is really an exercise of discretionary non-enforcement (majority says no; dissent says yes) and whether DAPA violates federal law (majority says yes; dissent says no). The majority and dissent also dispute the states' ability to bring the suit in the first place, or their standing.
This ruling is surely not the last say on the question; this case is undoubtedly going to the Supreme Court.
The court issued four key holdings. First, the court said that the states had standing, and that the case is justiciable. Next, the court said that DAPA likely violated notice-and-comment rules of the APA. Third, the court said that DAPA likely violated federal law (the Immigration and Naturalization Act) and therefore violated substantive APA requirements. Finally, the court said that the district court was within its discretion to issue a nationwide injunction.
The court did not address the plaintiffs' Take Care Clause challenge.
As to standing, the court said as an initial matter that the states were due "special solicitude" for standing under Massachusetts v. EPA. The court went on to say that the states had standing because DAPA would require them to issue drivers licenses to DAPA beneficiaries, because DAPA would "impos[e] substantial pressure on them to change their laws" for drivers licenses, and because the states "now rely on the federal government to protect their interests" in immigration matters.
On the procedural APA claim, the court ruled that the states "established a substantial likelihood that DAPA would not genuinely leave the agency and its employees free to exercise discretion," despite conflicting evidence on the point, apparently ignored by the lower court. The court also ruled that DAPA is a substantive rule (and not procedural), because "receipt of DAPA benefits implies a 'stamp of approval' from the government and 'encodes a substantive value judgment,' such that the program cannot be considered procedural." As a result, according to the court, DAPA was subject to APA notice-and-comment rulemaking, and, because the government didn't use notice and comment, the states had a substantial likelihood of success on their procedural APA claim.
On the substantive APA claim, the court said that DAPA is "manifestly contrary to the [Immigration and Naturalization Act]," in particular, the INA's "specific and intricate provisions" that "directly addressed the precise question at issue." The court rejected the government's claim that DAPA is consistent with historical practice.
Importantly, the court did not "address whether single, ad hoc grants of deferred action made on a genuinely case-by-case basis are consistent with the INA . . . ." It only concluded "that the INA does not grant the Secretary discretion to grant deferred action and lawful presence on a class-wide basis to 4.3 million otherwise removable aliens."
Finally, the court said that the district court could issue a nationwide injunction, because, in short, immigration is a nationwide issue that calls for uniform regulation.
Judge King wrote a lengthy and sharp dissent, challenging the majority at each turn.
Saturday, November 7, 2015
The Supreme Court yesterday agreed to hear the cases testing whether the government's accommodation to the "contraception mandate" violates the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.
The move was expected. The Court will likely hear oral arguments in March 2016.
The cases involve HHS's requirement under the Affordable Care Act that employers' health insurance plans include certain kinds of contraception, and the government's accommodation to that requirement for religious non-profits. (Religions are already exempt.) The accommodation simply requires non-profit that objects to providing contraception on religious grounds to so notify the government (a letter will do, or the non-profit can use a government form). At that point, the government requires the insurer or third-party administrator to provide contraception, free of charge, directly to the non-profit's employees.
Some religious non-profits argue that the accommodation itself violates the RFRA, because their notification to the government triggers the provision of contraception. Seven circuits have rejected that claim; only the Eighth Circuit has accepted it. We posted most recently, on the Eighth Circuit's ruling, here.
The accommodation isn't a new idea. The Court itself identified it as a possible solution to objecting closely held for-profit corporations in Hobby Lobby. But the Court didn't say whether it would violate the RFRA--that issue simply wasn't before the Court.
The parties in the case will argue whether the accommodation creates a "substantial burden" on their religious freedoms and, if so, whether it is narrowly tailored to meet a compelling government interest.
The non-profits' arguments push the bounds of the RFRA. After all, if an accommodation can be a "substantial burden"--and one that operates in such a minimally intrusive way--it's hard to see what couldn't be a substantial burden on some religion. Moreover, to get to the non-profits' result, the courts have to accept their view of how the law works--that the accommodation triggers the provision of contraception (in contrast to the view that the law itself triggers the requirement that insurers provide contraception). The Eighth Circuit (and the Eighth Circuit alone) got there, but seemingly by deferring to the non-profits' view of their own religion, as I explained here. Under RFRA, the courts certain defer to a religion on its own tenets and beliefs, but it's hard to see why the courts should extend that deference to a religious belief about the way the law works.
Wednesday, November 4, 2015
The Sixth Circuit ruled yesterday that the federal Clean Air Act does not preempt state common law claims.
The ruling was hardly a surprise, given the plain language of the CAA. Still, the case is a victory for those who seek to enforce clean air requirements through the higher standards of state common law. (The court emphasized several times that the CAA permits states to adopt more stringent standards than the federal standards.) The ruling also allows the plaintiffs' state common law case to move forward.
The case arose when neighbors of Diageo Americas Supply, Inc., a whiskey distiller, complained that ethanol vapors from the facility combined with condensation to propagate "whiskey fungus" on their property. The neighbors filed suit in federal court, alleging state common law caused of action. Diageo moved to dismiss, arguing that the CAA preempted these claims.
The Sixth Circuit rejected that argument. The court looked to the plain text of the Act, congressional purposes, and Supreme Court precedent--all of which pointed against preemption. But the case can be resolved on the text alone, in particular, the savings clause. As the court explained:
The states' rights savings clause of the Clean Air Act expressly preserves the state common law standards on which plaintiffs sue. The clause saves from preemption "the right of any State or political subdivision thereof to adopt or enforce (1) any standard or limitation respecting emissions of air pollutants or (2) any requirement respecting control or abatement of air pollution," except that the "State or political subdivision may not adopt or enforce any emission standard or limitation" that is "less stringent" than a standard or limitation under an applicable implementation plan or specified federal statute.
The court went on to say that state courts are part of the "state," and that common law requirements are "requirement[s] respecting control or abatement or air pollution."
In addition to looking at text, purpose, and precedent, the court added a federalism point:
When Congress acts to preempt state law--especially in areas of longstanding state concern--it treads on the states' customary prerogatives in ways that risk upsetting the traditional federal-state balance of authority. This is why there is a strong presumption against federal preemption of state law, one that operates with special force in cases "in which Congress has legislated . . . in a field which the States have traditionally occupied." Environmental regulation is a field that the states have traditionally occupied. Accordingly, even if the express language of the states' rights savings clause here did not preserve state common law claims, principles of federalism and respect for states' rights would likely do so in the absence of a clear expression of such preemption.
Monday, November 2, 2015
The Supreme Court heard oral arguments today in Spokeo v. Robins, the case testing whether Congress can confer standing on a plaintiff by statute, even when the plaintiff lacks a sufficient and independent harm for Article III standing purposes.
The case is important for what it will say about access to the courts, and, in particular, class actions. The justices at oral arguments seemed sharply divided along conventional ideological lines, with progressives favoring access and conservatives, including Justice Kennedy, going the other way. If so, the case will take its place among the line of cases coming out of the Roberts Court that limit access to the judiciary and favor (corporate and government) defendants.
(Check out the outstanding Vanderbilt roundtable on the case, with six different takes, available here.)
The case arose when Spokeo, the owner of a web-site that provides searchable reports containing personal information about individuals, reported false information about Thomas Robins. For example, Spokeo reported that Robins had a graduate degree (he doesn't), that he was employed in a professional or technical field, with "very strong" "economic health" and wealth in the "Top 10% (he's unemployed), and that he's in his 50s, married, with children (he's not in his 50s, not married, and no children).
Robins filed suit, claiming that Spokeo's representations violated the federal Fair Credit Reporting Act. He sought damages under the Act for a willful violation. Robins claimed that Spokeo's false report made it harder for him to find a job.
Justices Kagan and Scalia marked out the competing positions early in Spokeo's argument, and at times bypassed Spokeo's attorney (Andrew Pincus) entirely and simply argued with each other. At one point, Justice Scalia even intervened to answer a question for Pincus, and then told Pincus that it was the right answer. In short, Justice Kagan argued that Congress identified a concrete harm in the Act and provided a remedy for it; Justice Scalia argued that any harm was merely "procedural," because any harm was only Spokeo's violation of the Act's procedures (with no additional concrete harm). Here's a little of the exchange:
Justice Kagan: But did that procedural requirement--this is--this is exactly what Lujan says, "It's a procedural requirement the disregard of which could impair a concrete interest of the plaintiff."
And we distinguished that from procedural requirements in vacuo.
. . .
Justice Scalia: Excuse me. That--that would lead to the conclusion that anybody can sue . . . not just somebody who--whose information was wrong.
Pincus seemed to make an important concession in response to a question by Justice Kennedy, whether "Congress could have drafted a statute that would allow [Robins] to bring suit?" Pincus said yes, and proceeded to describe it--basically a statute that required a plaintiff to show a concrete harm that would be sufficient for Article III. If Justice Kennedy is in play, Pincus's softer position may assuage any concerns over an extreme position that Congress can never confer standing. The softer position also saves other statutes that have similar Congress-confered-standing provisions. (Justice Kennedy picked up this theme with Robins's attorney (William Consovoy) and noted that Consovoy's position of a Congress-created-harm (alone) seemed circular--but Consovoy didn't seem to give a satisfying answer.) At one point Pincus made another important concession: some plaintiffs might have standing under the FCRA, so long as they show an independent and sufficient harm.
On the other side, Chief Justice Roberts pressed Consovoy early on the limits of his argument--a point we're likely to see in the opinion:
Chief Justice Roberts: What about a law that says you get a--a--$10,000 statutory damages if a company publishes inaccurate information about you? . . . The company publishes your phone number, but it's wrong. That is inaccurate information about you, but you have no injury whatever. Can that person bring an action for that statutory damage?
Consovoy didn't have a response, or, rather, his response only opened new cans of worms. (Justice Breyer intervened and offered an interpretation of the statutory language that gives a cause of action to "any consumer who has obtained--who suffers from false information.") Chief Justice Roberts and Consovoy had a similar exchange later in the argument, too. Consovoy maintained that the FCRA was different than the Chief's hypotheticals, because the FCRA authorizes damages only for someone who was injured. He didn't seem to persuade the Chief on this point, though, despite Justice Breyer's help.
Justice Alito pointed to the record and argued that it didn't support a concrete harm. Indeed, he pointed out that nobody in the record (other than Robins himself) searched for him on Spokeo--a "quintessential speculative harm"--probably another point we'll see in the final opinion.
Chief Justice Roberts asked a different question--and a far more loaded one (politically, and constitutionally)--to the government, amicus for Robins:
Chief Justice Roberts: [L]et's kind of say your--your--Congress thinks that the president is not doing enough to stop illegal immigration, so it passes a law that says, anyone in a border State--so it's particularized--who is unemployed may bring an action against an illegal immigrant who has a job. And they get damages, maybe they get an injunction.
. . .
And I would have thought that the--the president would be concerned about Congress being able to create its own enforcement mechanism. I thought that you would be concerned that that would interfere with the executive prerogative.
The government tried to distinguish the hypo, but, again, counsel probably didn't persuade the conservatives.
November 2, 2015 in Cases and Case Materials, Congressional Authority, Courts and Judging, Executive Authority, Jurisdiction of Federal Courts, News, Opinion Analysis, Separation of Powers, Standing | Permalink | Comments (0)
Friday, October 30, 2015
The D.C. Circuit ruled today that an association of CPAs and their firms had "competitor standing" to challenge an IRS program that allows previously uncredentialed tax return preparers who meet certain prerequisites to have their names listed in the IRS's online "Directory of Federal Tax Return Preparers."
The ruling is a victory for the association and allows the case to go forward on the merits.
The ruling is also a victory for anyone who wants to get into federal court to challenge an action that may give their competitors an edge, even if the link between the action and the edge is based only on "basic economic logic."
The IRS program allows previously uncredentialed tax return preparers--so-called "unenrolled preparers"--to get listed if they take a class and meet other requirements. The program is a boon to preparers who take advantage of it, because they'll get listed with the IRS and, as a result, get more tax preparation business. It'll also likely deal a blow to CPAs and other already-credentialed preparers, because they'll now have to compete toe-to-toe with lower-cost unenrolled preparers.
The association challenged the program for violating notice-and-comment rulemaking requirements. The district court dismissed the case for lack of standing. The association appealed and argued, among other things, competitor standing.
The D.C. Circuit agreed with the association. It wrote that association members "will face intensified competition as a result of the challenged government action. Specifically, participating unenrolled preparers will gain a credential and a listing in the government directory." The court accepted the association's claim that this "will 'dilute the value of a CPA's credential in the market for tax-return-preparer services' and permit unenrolled preparers to more effectively compete with and take business away from presumably higher-priced CPAs."
You might wonder why the link between the IRS program and the CPAs' harm isn't too speculative (under, say, Clapper v. Amnesty International). After all, the IRS program is voluntary, not compulsory, so it's not obvious that any unenrolled preparer will even participate; moreover, it's not obvious that IRS listing will benefit a participant; and moreover it's not obvious that listing will benefit a participant to the detriment of CPAs. The court had an answer to all this: "basic economic logic." The court explained:
To begin with, the link between the government-backed credentials offered to unenrolled preparers and the reputational benefit they will enjoy is hardly speculative. Indeed, the reputational benefit is the very point of the IRS Program. . . . Moreover . . . the IRS Program at issue here is both voluntary and clearly intended to offer competitive benefits to those unenrolled preparers who participate in the Program. "Basic economic logic" suggests that unenrolld preparers will choose to participate only if they believe the resulting reputational benefit will produce a substantial enough competitive advantage to outweigh their compliance costs.
The court declined to consider the IRS argument that the association's complaint wasn't within the "zone of interests protected or regulated by the statutory provision" it invokes, because the IRS didn't raise it at the district court.
Wednesday, October 28, 2015
The Pacific Legal Foundation filed a cert. petition yesterday, asking the Supreme Court to review a D.C. Circuit ruling that the individual mandate in Obamacare didn't violate the Origination Clause. We posted on the D.C. Circuit ruling here.
The Origination Clause, Article I, Section 7, Cl. 1, says that "All Bills for raising Revenue shall originate in the House of Representatives; but the Senate may propose or concur with Amendments as on other Bills." Because the Court upheld the individual mandate under Congress's taxing power, the logic goes, the ACA was a "bill for raising revenue." And while a bill that ultimately became Obamacare originated in the House, the Senate gutted that bill and replaced it with the ACA. The Pacific Legal Foundation argues that this violated the Origination Clause.
The D.C. Circuit flatly rejected the argument. It said, in short, that the individual mandate wasn't a "bill for raising revenue" for Origination Clause purposes, even if Congress enacted it under its taxing authority.
Here are the QPs in the cert. petition:
1. Is the tax on going without health insurance a "Bill for raising Revenue" to which the Origination Clause applies?
2. Was the Senate's gut-and-replace procedure a constitutionally valid "amend[ment]" pursuant to the Origination Clause?