Tuesday, January 7, 2014
Judge Edmond E. Chang (N.D. Ill.) ruled yesterday in Illinois Association of Firearms Retailers v. City of Chicago that Chicago's ban on gun sales violates the Second Amendment.
Chicago Municipal Code Section 8-20-100 says, in relevant part, that "no firearm may be sold, acquired or otherwise transferred wtihin the city, except through inheritance of the firearm." Firearms dealers and would-be gun buyers sued, arguing that it violated the Second Amendment. Judge Chang agreed, granting summary judgment in their favor.
The court used the two-step process sanctioned by the Seventh Circuit: first, the court determined whether the ban fell within the Second Amendment as it was understood in 1791 (when the Bill of Rights was ratified) or in 1868 (when the Fourteenth Amendment was ratified); second, the court determined whether the ban satisfies a varying, but heightened, level of scrutiny.
As to step one, the court concluded that "[t]he City's proffered historical evidence fails to establish that governments banned gun sales and transfers at the time of the Second Amendment's enactment," and therefore the Second Amendment applies. As to step two, the court applied "not quite strict scrutiny" (because the ban "prevents Chicagoans from fulfilling, within the limits of Chicago, the most fundamental prerequisite of legal gun ownership--that of simple acquisition") and that the ban didn't sufficiently serve the city's interests in reducing criminals' access to guns, restricting gun acquisition in the illegal market, or eliminating dangerous gun stores from Chicago.
Judge Chang gave the city "limited time, before the judgment becomes effective, to consider and enact other sales-and-transfer restrictions short of a complete ban," and invited the city to move for a stay pending appeal.
As we explained, there really is no exemption. Instead, it's an OPM attempt to put members and staffers of Congress more-or-less in the position they were prior to Obamacare--just like any other employees of large corporations with employer-subsidized health insurance. In other words, Obamacare treated members and staffers differently (worse) than other similarly situated employees (by requiring them to enter an exchange instead of continue their employer-subsidized health insurance), and the OPM simply acted to continue an employer subsidy for them.
Still, there's the question whether OPM had authority to do this. That's what Johnson's suit is about (from the complaint):
The legal problem is that the OPM Rule violates the ACA and the federal statutes that apply to the [Federal Employee Health Benefit Plan]. The health plans offered through the exchanges are not OPM-negotiated large group health insurance plans. Only OPM-negotiated and contracted-for plans can be offered to federal employees through the FEHBP. Furthermore, the designated Exchange plans do not meet the statutory requirements for FEHBP plans administered by the OPM. In addition, the federal government does not meet the definition of a small business and, as a result, is not eligible to participate in a SHOP exchange. Neither the ACA nor any other applicable statute or rule permits the OPM to provide group health insurance to government employees who do not participate in the FEHBP. Finally, the OPM Rule violates the Equal Protection Clause of the United States Constitution in that it treats Members of Congress and their staffs differently than other similarly-situated employees who obtain insurance coverage pursuant to the terms of the ACA. No other employees of large employers are able to purchase insurance through small business exchanges with tax free subsidies from their employers.
What Johnson doesn't say in the complaint is that those employees of large corporations get employer-subsidized insurance, like members and staffers used to get under the FEHBP.
The Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty brought the case. Paul Clement, a consultant on the suit, joined Senator Johnson at a news conference yesterday:
The government on Friday filed its response on the emergency application for an injunction pending appeal at the Supreme Court in the Little Sisters case. That case tests whether the Obama administration's accommodation for non-profit, religious-affiliated organizations from the "contraception mandate" in Obamacare violates the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. (This case is different than the Hobby Lobby case, testing whether the "contraception mandate" violates religious freedom of for-profit, non-religious companies. That case is headed for the Supreme Court.)
Recall that the administration's accommodation allows religious-affiliated non-profits to escape the "contraception mandate" by certifying that they have a religious objection to the mandate. Then their third-party administrator ordinarily must provide or arrange separate payments for contraception, costs to be reimbursed through an adjustment to federally faciliated exchange user fees. This accommodation builds a kind of fire-wall between the organization and the third-party administrator's provision of contraception to the organization's employees.
Dozens or scores of organizations balked, however, claiming that the self-certification process violates their religious freedom--on the theory that self-certification is really just an authorization for another party to provide contraception, something that their religious beliefs forbid. Lower courts are split on whether the accommodation violates the RFRA.
In the Little Sisters case, the district court concluded that the accommodation did not substantially burden the organization's religious liberties--in particular, that the self-certification requirement wasn't a burden, and that the organization's third-party administrator declined to provide coverage, anyway (see below). The Tenth Circuit denied an injunction pending appeal, but Justice Sotomayor last week issued a stay, prompting DOJ to respond with its Friday filing.
This case is an especially bad test case, though. That's because Little Sisters' third-party administrator is exempt from the contraception requirement (as a "church plan" under ERISA), and has said that it won't provide contraception. In short: Little Sisters certifies, its third-party administrator declines to provide contraception (as it may), and no contraception is provided. As the government explains:
In this case, however, as both of the lower courts again recognized, the third-party administrator of applicants' church plan says it will not provide contraceptive coverage. As a result, a signed certification will discharge all employer-applicants' responsibilities under the contraceptive-coverage provision, and their employees will not receive such coverage from the third-party administrator. Given these circumstances, applicants' concern that they are "authorizing others" to provide coverage lacks any foundation in the facts or the law.
Sunday, January 5, 2014
Senator Ron Johnson (R-Wis) writes in the Wall Street Journal that he'll file suit today to stop the congressional "exemption" from Obamacare. Senator Johnson writes that the OPM rule allowing members of Congress and staffers to use the exchange and also get an employer subsidy violates the Affordable Care Act and exceeds executive authority.
The dispute over the congressional "exemption" goes way back. But it turns out, there's no such exemption at all. The ACA contained a provision that required members of Congress and their staffers to get health insurance on an exchange. But that was unusual, because members and staffers already had employer-subsidized coverage under the Federal Employee Health Benefit Plan. (Exchanges are for the uninsured or employees of small corporations, not for employees of large corporations who already have coverage. Congress, which previously provided subsidized health insurance to members and staffers, nevertheless inserted a provision in the ACA that required members and staffers to use an exchange.) As a result, members and staffers would have lost their subsidy. So OPM stepped in and ruled this fall that members and staffers would qualify for an employer subsidy on the exchange if they purchased insurance in a Small Business Health Options Program, or SHOP.
As PolitiFact, Factcheck.org, and WaPo's Fact Checker all explain, this treatment is different and unusual, but it's hardly an exemption. Instead, the employer subsidy simply attempts to put members and staffers back in the position they would have been in if they were treated as employees with employer-subdized health insurance in any large corporation. In other words, the ACA treated members and staffers differently (worse) than similarly situated employees in large corporations; OPM merely tried to return them to their previous situation--so that they would be treated like everybody else.
Still, there's the question whether OPM had authority to authorize subsidies for member and staffer insurance purchases on an exchange, or whether that required a congressional fix to the ACA. Senator Johnson says OPM exceeded its authority--that this was a job (were it to be done at all) only for Congress.
The D.C. Circuit on Friday ruled that an opinion of the Office of Legal Counsel that provided a legal justification for the FBI to use "national security letters" to subpoena telephone and financial records that it certifies are connected to an authorized national security investigation is exempt from public disclosure under the FOIA. The ruling in Electronic Frontier Foundation v. U.S. DOJ means that the OLC opinion will remain classified.
The court held that the OLC opinion met the deliberative process privilege because it was requested by the FBI in response to an Office of Inspector General Investigation into the Bureau's use of national security letters:
On the record before us, we hold that the OLC Opinion, which was requested by the FBI in response to the OIG's investigation into its information-gathering techniques, is an "advisory opinion, recommendation and deliberation comprising part of a process by which governmental decisions and policies are formulated," and is therefore covered by the deliberative process privilege. We also hold that the FBI did not "adopt" the OLC Opinion and thereby waive the deliberative process privilege. The OIG mentioned the OLC Opinion in its report, and a congressional committee inquired about the OLC Opinion, but the FBI never itself adopted the OLC Opinion's reasoning as its own. Finally, because the entire OLC Opinion is exempt from disclosure under the deliberative process privilege, we need not decide whether particular sections were properly withheld as classified, or whether some material is reasonably segregable from the material properly withheld.
Op. at 3.
Thursday, January 2, 2014
Chief Justice Roberts again highlighted the lack of resources for the judicial branch in his 2013 year-end report, emphasizing the effects of the sequestration in particular. At the same time, he emphasized the courts' cost-cutting measures.
Chief Justice Roberts wrote that the lack of resources is causing problems across the board:
Sequestration cuts have affected court operations across the spectrum. There are fewer court clerks to process new civil and bankruptcy cases, slowing the intake procedure and propagating delays throughout the litigation process. There are fewer probation and pretrial services officers to protect the public from defendants awaiting trail and from offenders following their incarceration and release into the community. There are fewer public defenders available to vindicate the Constitution's guarantee of counsel to indigent criminal defendants, which leads to postponed trials and delayed justice for the innocent and guilty alike. There is less funding for security guards at federal courthouses, placing judges, court personnel, and the public at greater risk of harm.
Chief Justice Roberts wrote that our judiciary is a "model for justice throughout the world." Still, he wrote, foreign jurists "do raise an eyebrow when I also point out the vital role of the Legislative Branch of government."
The report warned that foregoing requested funding (of $5.05 billion) for a "hard freeze" at the sequester level would have dire consequences:
The future would be bleak: The deep cuts to Judiciary programs would remain in place. In addition, faced with inflation-driven increases in the "must-pay" components of this account, the Judicial Conference would need to cut allocations to the courts nationwide by an additional three percent below fiscal year 2013 levels. Those cuts would lead to the loss of an estimated additional 1,000 court staff. The first consequence would be greater delays in resolving criminal cases. In the civil and bankruptcy venues, further consequences would include commercial activity, lost opportunities, and unvindicated rights. In the criminal venues, those consequences pose a genuine threat to public safety.
The report also warns of dangers to public defender services.
Still, there's a hopeful conclusion:
Both A Christmas Carol and It's a Wonderful Life have happy endings. We are encouraged that the story of funding for the Federal Judiciary--though perhaps not as gripping a tale--will too.
Monday, December 30, 2013
Judge Lee H. Rosenthal (S.D. Texas) on Friday enjoined the government from applying regulations that require "nonprofit religious organizations" to execute the self-certification forms that enable their health insurers to provide health insurance coverage for emergency contraception under Obamacare.
The ruling in East Texas Baptist University v. Sebelius says that the plaintiffs, "nonprofit religious organizations," have a substantial likelihood of success on the merits of their challenge to the regulations under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.
The ruling is now at least the twelfth on the issue, and the cases are split. Judge Rosenthal cites the cases in footnote 2, starting on page 2. (These are different than the challenges to the contraception mandate by secular for-profit corporations, the case going to the Supreme Court.)
The challenged government regulations require "religious employers" that are not exempt from the contraception mandate to self-certify that they meet the criteria for "eligible organization" (opposes contraception coverage, is a nonprofit, and holds itself out as a religious organization) to their insurer or third-party administrator. If the employer so certifies, the insurer or third-party administrator must expressly exclude contraception coverage from the group plan, but must also provide separate payments for contraception for plan participants. (The issuer must segregate premium revenue collected from the eligible organization from the monies used to make payments for contraception services.)
The regs attempt to build a firewall between an eligible organization and contraception provided by the insurer or third-party administrator. They were designed as a compromise for these organizations that aren't churches (on the one hand) or for-profit corporations (on the other, whose challenge to the contraception mandate is going to the Supreme Court), but organizations that have a religious dimension.
Still, many of these organizations have balked at the certification requirement. And here (and elsewhere), they've won.
Judge Rosenthal ruled that the RFRA uses a subjective standard, from the perspective of the organization, to determine whether the government regs create a substantial burden:
But under RFRA case law, if the plaintiffs are themselves compelled or pressured by threat of punitive fines to: 1) themselves take or forbear from an action; and 2) it is their own action or forbearance that they find religiously offensive, there is a substantial burden.
Op. at 36.
Here he said there was a substantial burden--the self-certification process:
The plaintiffs have demonstrated that the mandate and accomodation will compel them to engage in an affirmative act and that they find this act--their own act--to be religiously offensive. That act is completing and providing to their issuer or TPA the self-certification forms. The act of self-certification does more than simply state the organization's religious objection to covering or paying for its employees to get emergency contraception. The self-certification act designates the organization's TPA as the TPA for contraception coverage. The act tells the TPA or issuer that it must provide the organization's employees coverage that gives those employees free access to emergency contraceptive devices and products. That act tells the TPA or issuer that it must notify the employees of that benefit.
. . .
But the self-certification form requires the organizations to do much more than simply protest or object. The purpose of the form is to enable the provision of the very contraceptive services to the organization's employees that the organization finds abhorrent. . . . The purpose and effect of the form is to accomplish what the organization finds religiously forbidden and protests. If the organizations do not act in the way the accomodation requires, they face onerous fines.
. . .
But under the accommodation, the plaintiffs' employees would obtain coverage and no-cost-sharing payments for emergency contraception only because the employees are otherwise covered by the plaintiffs' group health plan. The government has taken significant steps to separate this payment from the group health plan. But the coverage and payment for employees to obtain emergency contraceptive products and devices is because those employees are covered by the group health plan that the plaintiff put into place.
Op. at 36-39.
Having determined that there was a substantial burden, Judge Rosenthal proceeded to apply strict scrutiny. As to the fit under strict scrutiny, the court said that the government didn't satisfy the least-restrictive-means test, because there were other ways for the government to achieve its interests:
The courts have identified several "less restrictive means" of serving the interests the government has identified [in promoting public health and ensuring equal access by women to health care services] than a total denial of the religious exemption request. One is to have the government provide the contraceptive services or coverage directly to those who want them but cannot get them from their religious-organization employers. . . . Another alternative would be to have the government work with third parties to provide emergency contraception without requiring the plaintiffs' active participation. Still another alternative could be to have the employee self-certify on an as-needed basis that their employer is a religious nonprofit that does not provide coverage for such services.
Op. at 43.
The ruling now adds to the body of lower-court case law. With the growing split, this is surely yet another issue (in addition to the question whether the contraception mandate violates the religious rights of secular for-profits) headed for the Supreme Court.
Friday, December 27, 2013
Ilya Shapiro (Cato) wrote a list this week in Forbes of President Obama's Top Ten Constitutional Violations of 2013.
The top five are (not surprisingly) all related to Obamacare: (1) the delay of out-of-pocket caps; (2) the delay of the employer mandate; (3) the delay of the requirement to purchase compliant plans; (4) the exemption of Congress; and (5) the expansion of fines for employers who don't provide coverage in states where the exchanges are established by the federal government. We posted on President Obama's authority for delays here, here, and here.
Number 8, recess appointments, is before the Court next month in Noel Canning, the case testing whether President Obama's intra-session recess appointments of three members to the NLRB violated the Recess Appointments Clause. Number 10 is the mini-DREAM Act.
Monday, December 23, 2013
The Director of National Intelligence this weekend released previously classified DNI and NSA declarations in support of the government's assertions of the state secrets privilege in litigation challenge the TSP program. We posted on the government's assertion of the state secrets privilege in Jewel v. NSA here.
The cases, Jewel v. NSA and In re National Security Agency Telecommunications Record Litigation, both in the Northern District of California, challenged the NSA's "dragnet" surveillance program. The declarations say that no such program exists, and that to defend the cases would reveal national security secrets.
Saturday, December 21, 2013
Robert J. Spitzer (SUNY Cortland) recently posted perhaps the most recent comparison of assertions of executive power in the Bush and Obama presidencies coming out of the political science world: Comparing the Constitutional Presidencies of George W. Bush and Barack Obama: War Powers, Signing Statements, Vetoes. As the title suggests, Spitzer compares the presidencies just in three dimensions. But his piece also briefly summarizes the political science literature comparing other dimensions. Here's Spitzer . . .
On war powers:
Nevertheless, in constitutional terms, Bush had the congressional authorization he needed [for the Iraq war]; Obama did not [for Libya]. Ironically, the grotesque scale of, and web of deception surrounding, the Iraqi war suggest that its precedential value for future presidents may be limited, whereas the presidential consequences of Obama's actions--another instance of an intervention without congressional approval, and the first instance of violation of the 60 day limit [in the War Powers Act]--are more likely to encourage future presidents tempted to engage in unilateral military actions.
On signing statements:
Presidents surely have interpretive latitude, especially when legislative language is vague or ambiguous, and therefore open to interpretation. This is nothing new. . . . What presidents may not do, Bush's unitary executive theory notwithstanding, is to rewrite legislation at the point at which a bill is presented for signature through signing statement in what some have called a de facto item veto. As James Pfiffner concluded, "Bush's systematic and expansive use of signing statements constitutes a direct threat to the separation of powers system in the United States." Obama has, to date, skirted, if not walked away from, this ambition, especially after the criticism of his 2009 signing statement of P.L 111-8 [directing that legislation that calls for congressional committee approval of spending decisions by federal agencies is to be treated as "advisory" and "not . . . dependent" on committee approval]. Contrary to the claim of some that Obama has assumed the mantle of a unitary president, his signing statement use to date has been comparable to, or less than that of any predecessor from Reagan on. And Bush II's signing statement use continues to keep him in a class by himself.
On protective return pocket vetoes:
Unlike the other powers discussed in this paper, the Bush and Obama protective returns were nearly identical in form, and both appeared to arise from the bowels of the "deep structure" of the executive bureaucracy rather than from top political aides seeking to expand executive authority. Here is one of the most important, if underappreciated, aspects of executive power accretion: secular bureaucratic power incrementalism. A day may come where a constitutional challenge or political flare-up may drag the protective return pocket veto into the intense lights of the legal or political stage, and where a full airing, and final disposition, of this arcane executive power grab may be vetted and resolved. Absent such a moment, however, the executive's "deep structure" will continue to advance the protective return for every subsequent chief executive.
Friday, December 20, 2013
Catharine MacKinnon Awarded Ruth Bader Ginsburg Award for Lifetime Achievement from AALS Section on Women in Legal Education
Professor Catharine MacKinnon, author of the books Feminism Unmodified and Toward a Feminist Theory of the State, as well as Are Women Human? has been announced as the recipient of the Ruth Bader Ginsburg Lifetime Achievement Award. There will be an event January 3, 2014 at the AALS Conference in NYC .
More from Feminist Law Professors here.
For those unfamilar with MacKinnon's recent work, this video from a 2011 talk at U Chicago Law School "Trafficking, Prostitution and Inequality" provides a good introduction.
Friday, December 13, 2013
Judge John D. Bates (D.D.C.) earlier this week dismissed Rep. Charles Rangel's suit against House Speaker John Boehner and others growing out of Rangel's censure in 2010 for a variety of improprieties.
Rangel sued Boehner and others after politico.com posted a memo purportedly written by the chief counsel of the House Ethics Committee. Rangel argued that that memo undermined the integrity of his censure proceeding--so much so that he had a cause of action.
The defendants moved to dismiss the case, arguing that Rangel lacked standing, the case raised a political question, the defendants enjoyed immunity from suit under the Speech and Debate Clause, Rangel's complaint failed to state a claim upon which relief could be granted, and even if the court had jurisdiction it should exercise its discretion not to reach the merits.
Judge Bates agreed. He concluded that Rangel lacked standing based on injury to his reputation (causation was too attenuated), his loss of status on the House Ways and Means Committee (again, no causation, because the Democrats lost seats on the Committee after the 2010 election, and it wasn't clear that Rangel's censure caused him to lose a subcommittee seat), the political exploitation of his censure by a primary opponent (because that's not an injury), or a due process injury (again, no injury).
Judge Bates also concluded that Rangel's claims were political questions, and that each defendant is immune under the Speech or Debate Clause.
The Senate yesterday confirmed Nina Pillard (Georgetown) to the D.C. Circuit, after previously filibustering her nomination. (The Senate earlier this week confirmed Patricia Millett, another earlier filibustered nominee.)
Think Progress has a really nice piece comparing Pillard to Ruth Bader Ginsburg on her contribution to women's rights, and predicting that she'll "imediately rocket to the top of the Democratic shortlist of potential nominees to the Supreme Court." From TP:
Pillard was a member of the legal team in United States v. Virginia, which eliminated the Virginia Military Institute's discriminatory policies against women and cemented the rule that no law may engage in gender discrimination unless there is an "exceedingly persuasive justification" for doing so. Seven years later, Pillard argued and won Nevada Department of Human Resources v. Hibbs, an important case helping women (and men) with families have a fair opportunity to participate in the workplace.
Indeed, it is likely that there is only one other judge currently on the bench who accomplished as much as a litigator for women's rights as Judge Pillard did in her career as an attorney--Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
Wednesday, December 11, 2013
The Senate confirmed Patricia Millett to the D.C. Circuit and Mel Watt to head the Federal Housing Finance Agency under its new, filibuster-free majority rule for confirmations (except Supreme Court confirmations). WaPo's Post Politics blog reports here. We posted earlier on Millett's nomination and on the Senate's move to do away with the filibuster for confirmations.
Wednesday, December 4, 2013
The Ninth Circuit earlier this week upheld a congressional ban on paid advertisements for for-profits, issues of public importance or interest, and political candidates. The 9-2 (or 8-1-1) ruling in Minority Television Project, Inc. v. FEC said that the ban, at 47 U.S.C. Sec. 399b, did not violate the First Amendment.
The ruling is most notable for Chief Judge Kozinski's call for the Supreme Court to reconsider its approach to the First Amendment for broadcast media. If Chief Judge Kozinski is reading the tea leaves right, this case may just be the vehicle for the Court to change course on its traditional lower-level review (and therefore greater tolerance) for speech restrictions on broadcast media.
The majority applied the traditional intermediate scrutiny test set out in League of Women Voters and ruled that 399b comfortably satisfied it:
We conclude that substantial evidence before Congress supported the conclusion that the advertising prohibited by Section 399b posed a threat to the noncommercial, educational nature of NCE programming and that the additional evidence bears out Congress's predictive judgment in enacting Section 399b.
Op. at 16. As to fitness:
In contrast [to the statute overturned in League of Women Voters], Section 399b's restrictions are narrowly tailored to the harms Congress sought to prevent. Having documented the link between advertising and programming, Congress reaffirmed the long-standing ban on advertising on NCE stations, but in a more targeted manner. In place of the prior absolute ban on promotional content, which swept within its reach a wide range of speech that did not pose a significant risk to public programming, Congress enacted targeted restrictions that leave untouched speech that does not undermine the goals of the statute. The restrictions leave broadcasters free to air enhanced underwriting, which both the FCC and Congress determined did not pose the same risk to programming as advertisements. Broadcasters may air any promotional content for which consideration was not receieved. Finally, the statute permits non-profit advertisements. As to this latter category, the government offered evidence that non-profit advertisements, which are few in number and perceived by the public as consistent with the mission of public broadcasting, do not pose the same threat as other forms of advertising.
Op. at 26-27.
The court declined the plaintiff-petitioner's invitation to apply strict scrutiny under Citizens United. The court said that "Citizens United was not about broadcast regulation; it was about the validity of a statute banning political speech by corporations." Citizens United did not "overrule decades of precedent sub silentio--especially given that the Court there expressly overruled two other cases with no mention of League of Women Voters or an intent to change the level of scrutiny for broadcasting." Op. at 13.
Judge Callahan concurred as to the prohibition against paid advertisements by for-profits, but dissented (for the same reasons as Chief Judge Kozinski) as to the prohibition on ads on issues of public importance and for political candidates.
Chief Judge Kozinski dissented (joined by Judge Noonan) with a full frontal assault on the intermediate scrutiny standard for speech restrictions in broadcast media. He wrote that the rationale for that standard "no longer carries any force." He said that intermediate scrutiny was too squishy and was undermined for broadcast media by "intervening developments" in the media. He pointed to an earlier Ninth Circuit ruling in which the court defied Supreme Court precedent based on changed circumstances, but was nevertheless affirmed by the Supreme Court. "So I guess the lesson is, we must not get ahead of the Supreme Court--unless we're right."
He obviously thinks he's right in predicting the downfall of intermediate scrutiny here.
Gerard Magliocca (Indiana) appeared recently on Your Weekly Constitutional, a pod-cast and radio show affiliated with James Madison's Montpelier, to discuss his new book American Founding Son: John Bingham and the Invention of the Fourteenth Amendment. Magliocca talks about John Bingham and the creation of the Fourteenth Amendment in this terrific hour-long segment with YWC host Stewart Harris.
Tuesday, December 3, 2013
Opponents of the Affordable Care Act, or Obamacare, have set off a new wave of challenges to the Act, according to today's NYT. Among these: the religious challenges to the contraception mandate; cases challenging President Obama's extension of the employer mandate deadline; and challenges to the IRS rule providing a subsidy to purchasers of health insurance on the federal exchange.
As to that last one: plaintiffs in a spate of cases argue that Section 1401(a) of the ACA provides that purchasers of health insurance on a state exchange, but not the federal exchange, get a federal subsidy; yet the IRS issued a rule that extends the federal subsidy (in the form of a tax credit) to purchasers on the federal exchange. This, they say, violates the Administrative Procedures Act and the Tenth Amendment.
Why the Tenth Amendment? Opponents say that under the ACA an employer who declines to extend coverage has to pay a penalty if and when the federal government gives the employer's employees a subsidy for purchasing health insurance on a state exchange. Opponents say that the IRS rule extends this federal subsidy, and also the employer penalty, when the employer's employees purchase health insurance on the federal exchange. According to opponents, that undermines the state's policy decision not to open a state exchange in the first place. Or, as Indiana put it in paragraph 10 of its complaint in State of Indiana v. IRS:
[The IRS rule] contravenes the text of the ACA, thwarts Indiana's ability to execute State policy sparing employers from Employer Mandate penalties, induces Plaintiffs to reduce the hours of certain employees, including part-time and intermittent employees, to avoid having to provide all such employees with minimum essential coverage, and requires Plaintiffs to file onerous reports with the IRS detailing insurance coverage decisions. It thereby violates both the Administrative Procedure Act and the Tenth Amendment, and the Court should permanently enjoin Defendants from putting it into effect.
Later, in paragraph 17, it says:
In light of the IRS Rule, the State will be forced to reduce the hours of several part-time or intermittent employees in order to avoid the "assessable payment" or employer penalty of the ACA.
According to the Notice of Final Rulemaking, the IRS considered and rejected claims that the ACA itself limits subsidies to purchasers on state exchanges when it took comments on the proposed rule. The IRS said:
The statutory language of section 36B and other provisions of the Affordable Care Act support the interpretation that credits are available to taxpayers who obtain coverage through a State Exchange, regional Exchange, subsidiary Exchange, and the Federally-facilitated Exchange. Moreover, the relevant legislative history does not demonstrate that Congress intended to limit the premium tax credit to State Exchanges.
The Supreme Court heard arguments today in Northwest, Inc. v. Ginsberg, the case testing whether the Airline Deregulation Act preempts a state-law claim for breach of implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing arising out of an airline's termination of a customer's membership in its frequent flyer program. Our argument preview is here.
Given that the Court has ruled in Wolens that the ADA does not preempt an ordinary breach-of-contract claim, arguments today turned on whether the claim for breach of implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing is simply an incorporated contract requirement or a rule of contract interpretation (so that it's actually part of the contract, and thus not preempted), or whether it's an additional state-imposed obligation on top of the plain terms of the contract (and thus preempted). This question is informed by the deregulatory purpose of the ADA. Justice Breyer framed the issue this way:
I absolutely agree wtih you that--that a free market in price is at the heart of the Deregulation Act. Given.
I also think frequent flyer programs are simply price discounts. Given.
I also think that if you don't have contracts, you can't have free markets. Given.
But I also think the State cannot, under the guise of contract law, regulate the prices of airlines. If you allow that, you're going to have worse than we ever had. It'll be 50 different systems, all right?
Justice Kagan framed it this way, suggesting a solution that would preserve the implied covenant claim:
I guess what I'm suggesting is that the implied covenant here, it's just an interpretive tool. It says that there are certain kinds of provisions that are written very broadly or very vaguely, and an implied covenant comes in to help us interpret those kinds of provisions. And viewed in that way, it's just a contractual device that in light of Wolens ought to be permitted.
Justice Sotomayor said it this way, and proposed a standard for distinguishing between ordinary breach-of-contract claims and implied covenant claims:
My simpler standard comes from quoting Hennepin: "Does the implied covenant claim extend to actions beyond the scope of the underlying contract, or can it override the express terms of the agreement? If the answer is no, it's not preempted."
The question is complicated by the fact that the frequent flyer program in this case gave Northwest the "sole discretion" to terminate. So: Is an implied covenant part of that contract, or is it an additional state-law requirement? And what's the standard for sorting that out?
As an initial matter, any standard may not answer the preemption question categorically. That's because different states interpret their implied covenant laws differently. This gave the Court another problem: Does it have to sort out the particular state law on implied covenants in order to determine whether a claim in a particular state is preempted? And might the answer change depending on the state, leading to inconsistent results and undermining the deregulatory purpose of the ADA? Justice Scalia put this point on it:
Wow, somebody's really been given a raw deal. You know, that's still going to be possible even if we rule for [Ginsberg] here. It depends on what State he's from, right?
Complicating things yet more, the answer may turn on the implied covenant's waivability. Justice Kagan made this point:
But if it can't be waived, it sure seems as though it is operating independently of the parties' reasonable expectations.
It may also turn on the fact that frequent flyer programs work for airline miles, but also for other goods and services--and thus state regulation of them may not amount to a regulation of airline price, in violation of the ADA. Justice Alito put it this way:
I don't want to take up your rebuttal time, but if the facts were that under a particular program 90 percent of the miles were earned by purchasing things other than flying and 90 percent of the miles were spent on things other than flying, wouldn't that be very different?
This could give the Court a way out of the problem, by ruling that state implied-covenant claims based on frequent flyer programs aren't preempted because they don't regulate the price of airline tickets. This seems unlikely, though: even if frequent flyer programs work for other goods and services, they still also work for airline tickets.
Finally, there's the presumption against preemption--and whether it has any bearing on this case. Chief Justice Roberts seemed to think so:
I do agree, it seems pretty inconsistent with the normal presumption against preemption that we apply out of respect for the State legal regimes to say we're going to adopt a broad prophylactic rule.
But Justice Scalia thought not:
But the whole purpose of the ADA was to preempt State laws. I mean, I can understand applying that presumption to other statutes which say nothing about preemption. The whole purpose of the ADA was to deregulate airlines, was to say there was going to be no Federal regulation. Let the free market handle it and there will be no State regulation.
On the one hand, a narrow ruling in this case--one that address Ginsberg's particular claim, under Minnesota law, recognizing that this particular program gave the airline "sole discretion" to terminate--seems both likely and appropriate, especially given the particularities of this case. But on the other hand, as at least some on the Court suggested, an overly narrow ruling, without a broader standard, leaves open the possibility (or even probability) that this very same issue, or one like it, could give the lower courts a headache in the 49 other states (where implied covenant claims might work differently).
If Ginsberg loses, and his claim is preempted, the U.S. Department of Transportation can still investigate Northwest's frequent flyer program. But that remedy doesn't do anything for Ginsberg.
Ever since the Supreme Court upheld the Affordable Care Act's individual mandate in NFIB, we've been treated to a new and surprising argument by constitutional conservatives. That argument is in favor of judicial activism. Yes, that's right: after years of railing against activist judges, conservatives now claim that the federal courts aren't activist enough, in particular, in checking out-of-control exercises of legislative power.
In a series of new books this fall, and reviews in the WSJ here and here (h/t Jon Gutek), constitutional conservatives argue that government regulation has gone wild, and that the courts have not properly checked this growth. Exhibit A: the Supreme Court's ruling upholding the individual mandate in NFIB.
For example, Randy Barnett, reviewing Clark M. Neily III's Terms of Engagement, argues that Chief Justice Roberts rewrote the individual mandate as a tax, using a "saving construction" as an exercise in judicial restraint in order to uphold a law validly enacted by the legislature. George Melloan, reviewing Josh Blackman's Unprecedented and Ken Cuccinelli's The Last Line of Defense, similarly argued that Chief Justice Roberts saved the mandate by "call[ing] the act's penalty for noncompliance . . . a 'tax' and waved the ACA through."
But this turns history on its head. The government always defended the individual mandate under both its Commerce Clause authority and its taxing power. It argued the tax point explicitly to the Supreme Court, starting at page 52 of its brief. It's hardly novel, then, let alone a rewrite of the Act, that the Court upheld the individual mandate under the taxing power. Indeed, it's exactly what the government argued. This may not be how constitutional conservatives read the Act's mandate, but it's how all three branches of government did. The Court's ruling on the taxing power wasn't a reach to defer to the legislature. Indeed, it wasn't a reach at all.
Barnett's argument that the courts aren't activist enough also ignores the startling activism of the Roberts Court. Remember, the Court rejected the individual mandate under the Commerce Clause, even as it upheld it under the taxing power. The Court also limited the Medicaid expansion component of the ACA. We could go on and on with examples of how this Court overturned state and federal legislative acts, but this one is undoubtedly the biggest: the Court last summer rejected the coverage formula for preclearance under the Voting Rights Act--a provision enacted by a breathtaking bipartisan majority in Congress and signed by a Republican president (no big government types, these). Given the history, it's hard to argue that this wasn't a supremely activist ruling. This Court has demonstrated its appetite for activism. But it's apparently not activist enough.
Barnett goes on to argue that judicial activism in the name of legislative restraint is necessary because voters don't know enough to hold their elected representatives accountable:
In practice, the claim that laws and administrative regulations reflect the will of the public is often a fiction. In the economic sphere, regulations are more commonly the product of pressure from politically connected and well-established companies at the expense of upstart entrepreneurs. Because voters know little about these laws and their impact, they can't hold their representatives accountable for enacting them, and the few affected individuals can hardly influence a general election.
This seems a remarkable claim, given the political backlash to the ACA, or Obamacare, and, as Melloan notes, the political blows that Obamacare supporters suffered in the 2008 mid-terms and beyond. Voters apparently knew how to hold Obamacare supporters accountable. But the claim is also ironic: the very problem that Barnett describes only gets worse with more money in politics--a result that the activist Supreme Court ensured when it overturned congressional regulation of corporate campaign expenditures in Citizens United.
These constitutional conservative talking points fall apart on their own terms. And that's not even getting to the merits.