Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Divided DC Circuit Grants Standing to Challenge Battle of Blair Mountain Historic Preservation

In its split opinion in Sierra Club v. Jewell, a panel of the DC Circuit Court of Appeals has held that a coalition of groups have standing to challenge the revocation of listing on the National register of Historic Places for Blair Mountain Battlefield in West Virginia.

As the first paragraph of the opinion by Judge Srinivasan reminds us:

The Battle of Blair Mountain is the largest armed labor conflict in our nation’s history. Blair-1921-miners-turning-in-guns-6052-copyIn late August 1921, after years of tension between coal miners and coal companies, more than 5,000 West Virginia coal miners began a march to Logan and Mingo Counties, West Virginia. They aimed to unionize and liberate fellow miners living under martial law. When they reached Blair Mountain, a 1,600-acre area in Logan County, they encountered roughly 3,000 armed men. Those men, mostly hired by coal companies, manned a ten-mile defensive line across Spruce Fork Ridge, including Blair Mountain. They dug trenches, mounted machine guns, and dropped homemade bombs. The miners responded with gunfire of their own. The Battle endured for several days, causing numerous casualties. President Harding sent federal troops to quell the fighting, and the coal miners surrendered.

 In this case, the battle again features coal companies, but on the other side are environmental and historic preservation groups.  The registration of the Battlefield on the National Register, which would arguably prevent surface mining, was hard-fought.  One criteria is that a majority of property owners not object, but after the Battlefield was listed, "a number of objections" from a "law firm representing several coal companies" were determined not to have been counted, and the Battlefield was delisted.  It is this delisting that is being challenged.

The district judge found that the challengers did not satisfy any of the classic elements of standing.  On appeal, the majority of the panel found that the challengers satisfied all three. 

Probably most controversial is the initial requirement of "injury in fact" that is both "concrete and particularized" and "imminent."   The panel rejected the coal companies amicus argument that the challengers cannot suffer an injury in fact because they possess no "legal right to enter the Battlefield area."  It is this absence of  "legal right" that Senior Judge Sentelle, dissenting, rests his disagreement.  For the majority, however, the challengers could enjoy and observe the land from surrounding areas, including public roads: "there is no reason that the cognizability of aesthetic and associated interests in a particular site could turn on owning a legal right to enter or view the property."  Thus, their injury was sufficiently concrete and particularized.   As to the imminence of injury, while the district judge had stressed the non-use of the existing mining permits for the past decade, the appellate panel noted that in a letter objecting to the registration of the Battlefield, the coal companies stated that they had an "expectation of developing" the coal in the site.

More complicated are the questions of causation and redressibility, "two sides of the causation coin," because they involve the interplay of the federal registration requirements and West Virginia law, and specific issues regarding the initial approval of mining permits as opposed to permit renewals.  The panel stated that the challengers must only show that their argument is "non-frivolous" and not convince the court that their interpretation on the merits is correct, in order to satisfy the standing causation and redressibility requirements.

Thus, the battle of Blair Mountain will be proceeding to yet another round. 

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[image of Blair Mountain Battle via; image of West Virginia autumn colors via]

August 26, 2014 in Opinion Analysis, Standing | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Sunday, August 24, 2014

Ninth Circuit Upholds Ban on Solicitation at LAX

The Ninth Circuit ruled last week in International Society for Krishna Consciousness of California, Inc. (ISKCON) v. City of Los Angeles that the ban on continuous or repetitive solicitation at Los Angeles International Airport--including a ban on solicitation in parking lots and sidewalks--did not violate the First Amendment.

This final ruling ends this long-running case, which worked its way back and forth between the trial court, appeals court, and state courts for nearly two decades.

The provision at issue, Section 23.27(c) of the Los Angeles Administrative Code, bans solicitation in the LAX terminal, sidewalks, and parking lots.  ISKCON wished to solicit in these areas and argued that the ban violated free speech.

The Ninth Circuit applied familiar forum analysis and ruled that the terminal, surrounding sidewalks, and parking lots were non-public forums and that the government's reasons for the ban--reducing congestion and fraud at LAX--were legitimate.  The court said that changes to security and the resulting reduction in space available for passengers since 9/11 made the government's interests stronger than the interests in Int'l Soc'y for Krishna Consciousness, Inc. v. Lee (Lee I) (upholding the Port Authority's ban on solicitation in New York City's airport terminals).  ISKCON goes a step farther than Lee I, however, in that it specifically upholds the ban on sidewalks and parking lots, too.  As to sidewalks, the court said,

In all events, [the government's] interest in reducing congestion only heightened along LAX's narrow, oft-crowded sidewalks, which span but twelve feet in certain areas.  Furthermore, [the government's] interest in protecting against fraud and duress is just as strong on the sidewalks as it is inside the terminals.

The ruling aligns the Ninth Circuit with the Eleventh, which upheld a similar ban in ISKCON Miami, Inc. v. Metropolitan Dade County

August 24, 2014 in Cases and Case Materials, First Amendment, Fundamental Rights, News, Opinion Analysis, Speech | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

State May Require Provider to Accompany Developmentally Disabled Client to Church

The Ninth Circuit ruled last week in Williams v. State of California that a state law requiring residential community care service providers to accompany developmentally disabled clients to religious services did not violate the First Amendment.  The very brief per curiam ruling simply incorporated the district court's order granting the state's motion to dismiss.

The plaintiffs in the case, residential community care facilities and employees, sued the state after the state cited the plaintiffs for violating their obligations to a client--in particular, for failing to accompany a client to Jehovah's Witness services in violation of the state's Lanterman Developmental Disabilities Services Act.  Several of the service providers' employees objected to accompanying the client to services, because, they argued, to do so would violate their own religious freedom.

The district court's opinion, adopted in whole by the Ninth Circuit, took the plaintiffs to task for sloppy pleading and argument, and went on to reject their Free Exercise and Establishment Clause claims.  As to the Free Exercise claim, the district court held that the Lanterman Act was a law of general applicability, and had a rational basis--"to allow developmentally disabled persons to approximate the lives of nondisabled persons."  As to the Establishment Clause claim, the court said that the Act had a secular purpose (same as above), a primary effect that neither advances nor inhibits religion (because it applies to all manner of community activities, religious or not, and to all religions equally), and no excessive government entanglement with religion. 

The plaintiffs' claims were weak, even non-starters, from the get-go, but they didn't help themselves with sloppy pleading, undeveloped arguments, and an apparent complete lack of response to certain court requests.  All this made it easy for the Ninth Circuit simply to adopt the district court's ruling as its own and to affirm the dismissal of the case.

August 24, 2014 in Cases and Case Materials, Establishment Clause, First Amendment, Free Exercise Clause, Fundamental Rights, News, Opinion Analysis | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

The Next Campaign Finance Law to Go Down?

Judge Christopher R. Cooper (D.D.C.) earlier this week in Rufer v. FEC granted a plaintiff's motion to send its First Amendment challenge to the restriction on contributions to political parties to the en banc D.C. Circuit for consideration.  But in the same ruling, Judge Cooper denied a motion to temporarily enjoin the law.

The seemingly mixed ruling means that the court sees the challenge as both including "substantial, non-frivolous constitutional claims that are not clearly foreclosed by Supreme Court precedent" (thus meeting the statutory standard for appointment of an en banc circuit court under FECA) and "in tension with forty years of Supreme Court jurisprudence upholding contribution limits to political parties" (thus failing the likely-to-succeed-on-the-merits standard for a preliminary injunction).

In plain language, the ruling seems to reflect the court's view that while current Supreme Court doctrine supports contribution limits to political parties, that's likely to change. 

He's probably right.

But Judge Cooper's decision is not a ruling on the merits.  It only sends the constitutional question to the en banc D.C. Circuit ("after developing an appropriate factual record"), thus fast-tracking it to the Supreme Court, and presages the likely end result with this Supreme Court: the federal limit on contributions to political parties will almost surely go down.

The case was brought by the national and state Republicans and Libertarians challenging the federal restriction on base contributions to political parties.  The plaintiffs argued that they could segregate contributions for independent expenditures in separate accounts, and therefore avoid quid pro quo corruption or its appearance--the two government interests that the Court has said justify contribution limits to candidates and political parties.  Judge Cooper said it better:

This case sits at the confluence of two currents of First Amendment jurisprudence concerning federal campaign finance: the constitutional permissibility of limiting contributions to federal candidates and political parties, and the constitutional impermissibility of limiting contributions to independent entities whose campaign expenditures are not coordinated with candidates or parties.  Plaintiffs rest their challenge on the latter current; the FEC resists it on the former.

Judge Cooper ruled that the plaintiffs' free speech challenge to the contribution limits raised significant enough questions to justify sending the issue to the en banc D.C. Circuit, a procedure available under FECA designed to get important issues quickly before a full circuit court and ultimately the Supreme Court.  But at the same time, Judge Cooper denied a plaintiff's motion for a preliminary injunction, ruling that well settled (for now) Supreme Court precedent meant that the plaintiffs couldn't show that they were likely to succeed on the merits.

Taken together, the two sides of this ruling mean that the court understands the current state of the law, but can also read the tea leaves--which say that the law's likely to change.

Judge Cooper's decision isn't a ruling on the merits.  Still, it fast-tracks the case to the en banc D.C. Circuit and then, inevitably, to the Supreme Court.  It also presages the likely result in this Supreme Court: contribution limits to political parties will almost surely go down.

August 20, 2014 in Campaign Finance, Cases and Case Materials, First Amendment, Fundamental Rights, News, Opinion Analysis | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

No Head-of-State Immunity for Finance Minister

Judge James E. Boasberg (D.D.C.) ruled earlier this week in Sikhs for Justice v. Singh that while Manmohan Singh enjoyed head-of-state immunity from suit in U.S. federal court for acts committed while he was Prime Minister of India, that immunity did not extend to acts he took earlier, when he was Finance Minister.  They ruling means that the plaintiff's case against Singh for acts he took while Finance Minister can move forward, but that Singh is immune from suit for acts he took while Prime Minister.

Plaintiffs Sikhs for Justice alleged that Singh tortured and killed Indian Sikhs during his time as Prime Minister and before, when he was Finance Minister.  The group filed suit in the D.C. District while Singh was Prime Minister, but Singh then left office (or, rather, got voted out).  The government filed a Suggestion of Immunity, arguing that Singh enjoyed head-of-state immunity for acts he committed as Prime Minister.  But it didn't state a position on immunity for acts before Singh became Prime Minister, when he was Finance Minister.

Judge Boasberg ruled that Singh wasn't immune for those acts.  In a case of apparent first impression, Judge Boasberg said that "[w]hile Singh's alleged acts as Finance Minister are not 'private' per se, they did not occur in the course of his official duties as head of state; accordingly they are not encompassed within the purview of head-of-state immunity."

Judge Boasberg, however, adopted the government's position and granted immunity for acts taken while Singh was Prime Minister.  Judge Boasberg also ruled that Singh enjoyed risidual immunity for those acts after he left office.

The upshot is that the plaintiff's case can proceed against Singh for acts he took as Finance Minister, but not for acts he took as Prime Minister, even after he left office.

August 20, 2014 in Cases and Case Materials, Courts and Judging, Foreign Affairs, International, Jurisdiction of Federal Courts, News, Opinion Analysis | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Third Circuit Holds Philadelphia Police Campaign Contribution Rule Violates First Amendment

Can a city prohibit police officers from making monetary contributions to political campaigns, including contributions to their union's political action committee?  The Third Circuit, in its opinion in Lodge No. 3, Fraternal Order of Police v. City of Philadelphia concludes that such a rule violates the First Amendment.

465px-Whistle_Cop_Sept_1920The history behind the prohibition is a fascinating one, which the court's opinion by Judge Thomas Hardiman discusses as great length because one "cannot understand" the prohibition without "reference to Philadelphia's efforts to combat patronage" given its unsavory history.   As the court explains:

The nefarious relationship between Philadelphia’s Republican machine and its police force culminated in September 1917 with the scandal of the “Bloody Fifth” Ward, where officers beat an opposition candidate, terrorized his supporters, and killed a detective who attempted to intervene. The incident led to the arrest of the mayor and the conviction of six police officers, as well as public outcry for the insulation of the civic bureaucracy from politics. Amidst these calls for reform, in 1919 the Pennsylvania Assembly granted Philadelphia a new Charter, which enacted a series of reforms aimed at reducing corruption within government and the police department.

 The present rule, adopted in 1951, prohibits political contributions by police officers as a method of combating corruption and promoting public confidence.  The court analyzed the prohibition under United States v. National Treasury Employees Union (NTEU), 513 U.S. 454 (1995), requiring the government "demonstrate that the recited harms are real, not merely conjectural, and that the regulation will in fact alleviate these harms in a direct and material way."  The Third Circuit agreed with the district court, although not with much enthusiasm, that the recited harms were real.  However, the Third Circuit disagreed with the district judge that the second prong was satisfied, holding that the regulation did not alleviate the harms in a sufficiently direct and material manner.

In part, the direct and material failure was based on the exclusive application to police officers:

The City also fails to persuade us why the contribution ban should apply only to the police, and not to the approximately 20,000 other individuals in its employ. The record shows that the Republican machine historically extracted political assessments from all civic employees: the practice was so pervasive that, in the early 20th century, the machine collected contributions from 94 percent of the city’s workforce. If the Charter ban’s purpose was to end such compulsory wage contributions, it is unclear why the City would enforce the ban only against the police. Moreover, the City has made no attempt to show that the Democratic Party’s recent dominance in Philadelphia politics was achieved through corruption.

As the court notes, the regulation also applied to firefighters, but the Philadelphia firefighters’ union "in a case remarkably similar to this one, successfully challenged the ban as an unconstitutional infringement on its members’ First Amendment rights" in 2003 and the city did not appeal.  Moreover, the court notes that the city is "simultaneously condoning political activities by the police that have similar, if not more pernicious, implications" than the contribution bar.

The Third Circuit also relies on recent United States Supreme Court cases on campaign finance such as McCutcheon v. FEC and Citizens United v. FEC, gaining support for its conclusion that the regulation violates the First Amendment.

The opinion notes that the city has other ways to achieve its goals: "for example, the prohibition of automatic paycheck deductions, or greater enforcement of existing anti-solicitation measures."  Even as it says it is "loath to disturb" a rule that has been in effect for decades given Philadelphia's history of corruption, the court makes clear that the rule has outlived its usefulness - - - and its constitutionality.

[image via]

August 19, 2014 in Campaign Finance, First Amendment, Opinion Analysis, Speech | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Monday, August 18, 2014

Second Circuit Orders Compliance Reports on Erie County Prisons Unsealed

The Second Circuit ruled today in U.S. v. Erie County, New York that a lower court's order sealing compliance reports on the treatment of prisoners in Erie County violated the First Amendment.  The ruling means that intervenor New York Civil Liberties Union will have access to the compliance reports.

This First Amendment dispute arose out of an earlier case brought by the United States against Erie County, New York, over the County's treatment of its prisoners.  In particular, the government alleged that Erie County failed to protect inmates from harm, failed to provide them adequate mental health care or medical care, and failed to engage in adequate suicide prevention.

The district court approved a settlement in that earlier case that included the appointment of compliance consultants.  Pursuant to the settlement, the consultants would file written reports with the court every six months on the County's progress, or not, in remedying the issues that led to the suit and settlement.  The court dismissed the suit but retained jurisdiction until the terms of the settlement were fulfilled.  The settlement agreement allowed either party to move to reopen the case at any time ("should issues requring [the] Court's intervention arise"), and either party could move for relief, or the court could issue relief itself.  The County moved, and the court ordered, that the reports be sealed.

The NYCLU moved to intervene and unseal the compliance reports.  The district court granted the motion to intervene, but denied the motion to unseal the reports, ruling that they were akin to settlement negotiation documents and therefore not subject to the First Amendment right of access to judicial documents.  The NYCLU appealed.

The Second Circuit reversed and ruled that the reports were covered by the First Amendment right of access.  The court held that both experience and logic suggest that the reports ought to be available to the public, and that the County's only reason for maintaining the seal--that they are part of a settlement agreement--didn't have any relevance here, because, after all, the case already settled. 

Here's the court:

Erie County wishes to keep the reports which measure its progress, or regress, under seal and, therefore, out of public view.  Yet every aspect of this litigation is public.  The United States Department of Justice is a public agency, which brought a claim before a public court . . . arguing that a public government, Erie County, failed to meet constitutional requirements in operating two public institutions, the Erie County correctional facilities.  And, critically, although a settlement is now in place, the public court retains jurisdiction over the dispute, and indeed may be moved, or move itself, to reinstate civil proceedings.  In a case where every aspect and angle is public, Erie County seeks, nonetheless, to keep the compliance reports under the darkness of a seal.  But the First Amendment does not countenance Erie County's position.  Neither experience nor logic supports sealing the documents, and the District Court erred in concluding otherwise.

August 18, 2014 in Cases and Case Materials, Courts and Judging, First Amendment, Fundamental Rights, News, Opinion Analysis | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Second Circuit Finds NYC's MBP Circumcision Regulation Merits Strict Scrutiny

Reversing the district judge's decision rendered more than 18 months ago which we discussed here, the Second Circuit's  opinion in Central Rabbinical Congress v. NYC Department of Health & Mental Hygiene holds that the NYC regulation targeted at a certain circumcision practice is essentially one that as targeted at a certain religion and thus merits strict scrutiny under the First Amendment's Free Exercise Clause.

The NYC regulation, §181.21, amended the NYC Health Code, by requiring specific consent and a warning for "oral suction" circumcision.   The Second Circuit's unanimous panel, in an opinion authored by Judge Debra Ann Livingston, disagreed with the district judge and found that the regulation was not a neutral and generally applicable law. [*]

The opening of the court's opinion is telling:

In Judaism, the “bris milah,” or ritual circumcision of infants, which has been practiced for millennia, celebrates a covenant with God and“derives explicitly from a commandment . . . in the Hebrew Bible.” 11 Encyclopedia of Religion, “Rites of Passage: Jewish Rites,” at 7818 (2d ed. 2005). As part of this ritual circumcision, some Orthodox Jews, particularly Satmar, Bobov, Lubavitch, and other Hasidic groups, perform direct oral suction of the circumcision wound in a ritual act known as metzitzah b’peh (“metzitzah b’peh” or “MBP”).

Relying on  Church of the Lukumi Babalu Aye, Inc. v. City of Hialeah, 508 U.S. 520 (1993), the court reaches the conclusion that the

Regulation is not neutral because it purposefully and exclusively targets a religious practice for special burdens. And at least at this preliminary stage, the Regulation is not generally applicable either, because it is underinclusive in relation to its asserted secular goals: the Regulation pertains to religious conduct associated with a small percentage of HSV infection cases among infants, while leaving secular conduct associated with a larger percentage of such infection unaddressed.

Indeed, the court held that the question of whether the NYC Regulation singles out a specific religious practice is "simpler to address" than was true in Lukumi "in light of the Department’s own admission that metzitzah b’peh 'prompted' § 181.21 and that metzitzah b’peh is 'the only presently known conduct' covered by the Regulation."

 The court notes that "the conclusion that the Regulation is subject to strict scrutiny does not mean that § 181.21 is constitutionally deficient, for strict scrutiny is not invariably fatal in the context of free exercise claims." 

The Department has asserted interests that are substantial and may prove, on analysis, to be compelling. And the means it has chosen to address these interests (means that fall short of outright prohibition of MBP and that may further the goal of informed parental consent) may be appropriately tailored, albeit intrusive on a longstanding religious ritual. Mindful of the serious interests at stake on both sides, we express no view as to whether the plaintiffs have borne their burden of establishing a likelihood of success on the merits.

The court remanded, but denied the request for a stay of the enforcement of the regulation.  The district judge's original 93 page order and opinion was largely devoted to the empirical evidence regarding the health effects of the practice; it looks as if she will be hearing the evidence on those very issues, but applying a heightened standard.

[*] updated: The Second Circuit did not reach the compelled speech argument; h/t Josh Blackman.

August 18, 2014 in First Amendment, Free Exercise Clause, Medical Decisions, Opinion Analysis, Religion | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack (0)

Tuesday, August 12, 2014

Third Circuit: Attorney Advertising Rule Regarding Excerpts from Judicial Opinions Violates First Amendment

The New Jersey Supreme Court's Guideline 3 governing attorney advertising provides:

An attorney or law firm may not include, on a website or other advertisement, a quotation or excerpt from a court opinion (oral or written) about the attorney’s abilities or legal services. An attorney may, however, present the full text of opinions, including those that discuss the attorney’s legal abilities, on a website or other advertisement.

The Third Circuit's opinion in Dwyer v. Cappell found this guideline violated the First Amendment's protection of commercial speech in a rather straightforward application of Zauderer v. Office of Disciplinary Counsel of Supreme Court of Ohio, 471 U.S. 626 (1985).  The court chose to analyze the regulation as one of mandated disclosure - - - the entire opinion must be provided - - - rather than one of prohibition, although the Guideline

bears characteristics of both categories. Yet we need not decide whether it is a restriction on speech or a disclosure requirement. This is because the Guideline is not reasonably related to preventing consumer deception and is unduly burdensome. Hence it is unconstitutional under even the less-stringent Zauderer standard of scrutiny.

800px-Advertisement_of_the_United_States_Employment_Service,_8d16963vThe case arose because New Jersey attorney Andrew Dwyer, specializing in employee representation, ran afoul of Guideline 3  - - - which may have been specifically targeted at him - - - by using on his website language from judicial opinions in attorney fee award matters that duly assessed his competency.   At bottom is the general concept of professional responsibility prohibiting judicial endorsement of attorneys, but in the context of fee award decisions, such assessment is explicitly required.  One judge objected to the use of his comments in an opinion and Guideline 3 eventually resulted.

The Third Circuit implicitly rejected the notion that such excerpts were inherently misleading and noted that even if the excerpts were "potentially misleading to some persons," there is no explanation of how "Dwyer’s providing a complete judicial opinion somehow dispels this assumed threat of deception."  Moreover, the Third Circuit found under Zauderer that the disclosure requirement was burdensome: accurately quoted material is not acceptable absent the full-length judicial opinion and even "a hyperlink to unquoted portions of the opinion fails the Guideline." 

The Third Circuit's conclusion is well-founded in established First Amendment doctrine that robustly protects advertising, even by attorneys. 

Templeton-lindsay-templeton-ad
Lawyer advert circa 1900 via

August 12, 2014 in Courts and Judging, First Amendment, Opinion Analysis, Speech | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Thursday, August 7, 2014

Eleventh Circuit: No Preliminary Injunction for Ordinance Aimed at Curbing Loud Sounds Outside Abortion Clinics

In its opinion in Pine v. City of West Palm Beach, a unanimous Eleventh Circuit panel affirmed the district judge's refusal to enjoin the enforcement of § 34-38 of the Code of the City of West Palm Beach which bans amplified sound within 100 feet of the property line of any health care facility.

Thomas_H_Ince_-_Megaphone_1922The court held that the Sound Ordinance survived the First Amendment challenge as a valid time, place, or manner restriction on speech that is content-neutral, is narrowly tailored to advance the City’s substantial interest in protecting patients, and leaves open ample alternative avenues of communication, and further that it was not unconstitutional as applied to the abortion protesters.

The court relied upon Ward v. Rock Against Racism, which upheld a sound amplification regulation.  It distinguished the Court's recent declaration of unconstitutionality of an abortion clinic buffer zone in McCullen v. Coakley:

This case raises issues sharply different from those addressed recently by the Supreme Court in McCullen. There, the Supreme Court struck down a Massachusetts law that prohibited activists from standing within thirty-five feet of the driveway or entrance of a reproductive health care facility.  For a number of reasons, the Court held that the restriction was not narrowly tailored to the government’s interest in preventing obstructions and congestion outside of abortion clinics. The Court explained that the Massachusetts law “unnecessarily swe[pt] in innocent individuals and their speech” by “categorically exclud[ing] non-exempt individuals from the buffer zones.” Notably, Massachusetts had failed to pursue a variety of available, less-restrictive solutions for congestion problems. Finally, the law barred access to public sidewalks and ways, “areas historically open for speech and debate.”  Massachusetts had taken “the extreme step of closing a substantial portion of a traditional public forum to all speakers.”

These considerations cut the other way in this case. Instead of casting a wide net that captures innocent speech, the Sound Ordinance targets only actions near health care facilities that produce types of noise that can endanger patients. In addition, here there are no less restrictive means: because the heart of the problem is loud, raucous, or disturbing noise, a restriction on that sound is narrowly tailored. Unlike in McCullen, the record here contains no evidence of feasible alternatives that protect patient health from such sound. Finally, the Sound Ordinance in no way prevents Petitioners from accessing public ways and sidewalks near the Center. They simply cannot create loud, raucous, or unreasonably disturbing noise while there.

[citations omitted].  The court had made clear that "the City’s noise control regulations indicate that the Sound Ordinance restriction on amplified sound applies only to 'loud and raucous noise, or any noise which unreasonably disturbs, injures, or endangers the comfort, repose, health, peace, or safety' of others within a health care facility quiet zone."   The court stated it the Sound Ordinance was not intended to have the "absurd" result that would prohibit "any electronic equipment that uses or produces amplified sound, from paging systems to administrators’ telephones to patient monitoring devices."

Thus construed, the court found that the Ordinance was not being enforced based on viewpoint when it was not enforced against "drive-through loudspeakers within the quiet zone by quick-service restaurants Wendy’s and Pollo Tropical."  Instead, the protestors use of bullhorns was directly within the "loud and raucous noise" prohibition.

The court ended by emphasizing that the opinion was limited to the "extraordinary" remedy of a preliminary injunction and they plaintiffs were free to pursue a permanent injunction.  But given that the court found that the plaintiffs did not demonstrate they had a likelihood of success on the First Amendment merits, the prospects for prevailing on those same First Amendment arguments are slight.

[image via]

August 7, 2014 in Abortion, First Amendment, Opinion Analysis, Supreme Court (US) | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

NJ Supreme Court: Rap Lyrics Not Admissible in Criminal Case

In a closely watched case with First Amendment implications, the New Jersey Supreme Court in State v. Skinner held in an unanimous opinion that violent rap lyrics, written by a defendant before the events that led to his indictment, may not be admitted at his criminal trial as evidence of motive and intent.

The court's opinion takes the opportunity to explicitly outline the First Amendment issue:

The New Jersey Chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) appears in this case as amicus curiae on behalf of defendant.  The ACLU asserts that defendant’s rap lyrics are a form of artistic expression and thus are entitled to heightened protection under the First Amendment of the United States Constitution and Article I, Paragraph 6 of the New Jersey Constitution.  The ACLU emphasizes that defendant’s lyrics are not akin to a diary and therefore contain limited probative value.  Moreover, because rap lyrics are often a vehicle for social and political commentary, the ALCU argues that admitting defendant’s lyrics would run the risk of chilling otherwise valuable speech.  Accordingly, the ACLU urges the establishment of a strict guideline against the admissibility of expressive works in a criminal trial, in light of the First Amendment protections ordinarily afforded to such works.  It urges that their admissibility should be limited to situations clearly indicating that the author engaged in the crimes about which he or she has written.  In the ACLU’s view, to hold otherwise would unduly discourage, or even punish, lawful expression. 

[p. 22].

However, the remainder of the opinion does not explicitly engage with the First Amendment or free speech doctrine.  Nevertheless, the court's ruling is infused with free speech perspectives.  After articulating its holding under the NJ rules of evidence that "violent, profane, and disturbing rap lyrics that defendant wrote constituted highly prejudicial evidence against him that bore little or no probative value on any motive or intent behind the attempted murder offense with which he was charged," the court notes that the "use of the inflammatory contents of a person’s form of artistic self-expression as proof of the writer’s character, motive, or intent must be approached with caution." 

800px-Bob_Marley
Elsewhere in the opinion, the court reasons:

The difficulty in identifying probative value in fictional or other forms of artistic self-expressive endeavors is that one cannot presume that, simply because an author has chosen to write about certain topics, he or she has acted in accordance with those views. One would not presume that Bob Marley, who wrote the well-known song “I Shot the Sheriff,” actually shot a sheriff, or that Edgar Allan Poe buried a man beneath his floorboards, as depicted in his short story “The Tell-Tale Heart,” simply because of their respective artistic endeavors on those subjects. Defendant’s lyrics should receive no different treatment. In sum, we reject the proposition that probative evidence about a charged offense can be found in an individual’s artistic endeavors absent a strong nexus between specific details of the artistic composition and the circumstances of the offense for which the evidence is being adduced.

Again, while the rationale is firmly embedded in the evidentiary rules, the First Amendment perspectives are evident.

[image: Bob Marley via]

August 7, 2014 in Criminal Procedure, First Amendment, Music, Opinion Analysis | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack (0)

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

D.C. Circuit Upholds Restrictions on Corporate PACs, but it Doesn't Really Matter

The D.C. Circuit ruled yesterday in Stop This Insanity, Inc., Employee Leadership Fund v. FEC that the federal restrictions on corporate PACs do not violate the First Amendment.  But in the wake of Citizens United, which held that corporations didn't have to establish separate PACs to engage in political speech in the first place, the ruling probably won't much matter.

The case arose when Stop This Insanity, Inc., or "STII," a corporation, sought to establish a separate PAC to solicit and spend funds on political speech.  But when STII realized that its PAC would be subject to federal regulations--in particular, restrictions on whom and when the PAC could solicit--it filed suit, arguing that the restrictions violated the First Amendment.  On the other hand, STII did not complain (obviously) about the benefit its PAC received under federal regulations, that it did not have to disclose its fundraising expenses.  The court summed up its claim:

Simply put, Stop This Insanity would like to use its segregated fund [its PAC] to solicit the entire public while concealing its expenses for such solicitation.

STII argued that Citizens United compelled this result.  In particular, STII said that Citizens United prohibits restrictions based on distinctions between different organizational entities, and the regulations single out corporate PACs for restrictions on solicitation.  STII claimed that the restrictions were therefore subject to the highest scrutiny, and failed.

The court disagreed.  It said that the solicitation restrictions did not prevent a PAC from speaking (the way a corporation was prevented from speaking before Citizens United); instead, they simply regulated the speech in the nature of a disclosure.  Moreover, the court noted that after Citizens United corporate PACs are functionally obsolete: they remain on the books, but they serve no particular purpose, because corporations can now spend on their own.  Given that reality, restrictions on corporate PACs (which a corporation, like STII, voluntarily established) don't unduly restrict a corporation's speech, because the corporation itself can speak (with restrictions that "are less burdensome" than those on a corporate PAC).  As the court said,

Despite the availability of a more robust option--at least, when it comes to independent expenditures--[STII] has decided to do things the hard way.  And now, trapped in a snare it has fashioned for itself, STII decries its inability to use the [PAC] in the way it sees fit--without the limits Congress attached to the operation of these funds.

The ruling means that federal solicitation restrictions on corporate PACs stay on the books, at least unless and until the case is appealed.

But in practical terms the ruling probably won't mean much.  That's because a corporation that wants to solicit and spend money for political speech today probably would opt for the more "robust option"--simply solicit and spend the money itself, the "less burdensome" way to do it--and not "do things the hard way" by establishing a corporate PAC.  In other words, while corporate PACs and the restrictions on them stay on the books, it seems doubtful that any corporation today would use them for its political speech.

August 6, 2014 in Campaign Finance, Cases and Case Materials, First Amendment, News, Opinion Analysis, Speech | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Monday, August 4, 2014

Alabama District Judge Declares State's Restrictive Abortion Law Unconstitutional as Applied

United States District Judge Myron Thompson, in a lengthy opinion in Planned Parenthood Southeast v. Strange, concluded that the staff-privileges requirement of Alabama’s Women’s Health and Safety Act of 2013, 1975 Ala. Code § 26-23E-4(c), is unconstitutional as applied to the plaintiffs.

In considering whether the hospital admitting privileges requirement, especially given that hospitals were not deeming physicians eligible to apply, Judge Thompson found it constituted an undue burden.  He did note and rely on last week's Fifth Circuit decision in Jackson Women's Health Organization v. Currier in which the appellate court concluded that the admitting privileges requirement that would operate to close the only abortion clinic in Mississippi was an undue burden, in part because a state could not shift its responsibilities to other states.  

The Alabama situation, however, was different as Judge Thompson noted:

This court does not need to resolve the legal issue of whether to consider out-of state clinics because, even if this court were to consider those clinics, it would reach the same conclusion. The out-of-state clinic nearest to any of the three cities at issue in this case is in Pensacola, Florida, approximately 50 miles away from Mobile. The Columbus, Georgia clinic is approximately 80 miles away from Montgomery. A woman in Mobile traveling to Pensacola or in Montgomery traveling to Columbus would still face the same threshold difficulties related to losing an abortion clinic in her home city; she would still have to overcome the challenges of the first 50 miles. Furthermore, the record does not support the conclusion that the Pensacola and Columbus clinics could actually accommodate an influx of patients from Alabama, and, in fact, the evidence from the Huntsville and Tuscaloosa clinics, discussed below, shows that it is not always easy for a clinic to increase capacity and suggests that the out-of-state clinics may not be able to treat large numbers of new women from Alabama.

The court also observed that if it looked outside the state's borders, it should not only look south and east but west as well.  West of Alabama is Mississippi, and the court duly cites Jackson Women's Health Organization.

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[image via]

As the judge clarifies, he "reaches no conclusions on these matters, but hastens to point out that an out-of- state analysis is both much more complicated than the State suggests and potentially harmful, on balance, to the State’s case."

 Moreover, the judge refused to deem the Fifth Circuit's decision in Abbott (on Texas's HB 2) as setting a per se rule that 150 miles of travel was not an undue burden.  Instead, he found that the consideration of undue burden should be very specific and focused on the undue burden that the Alabama regulation would have on urban women rather than rural women.

The court carefully considered the state's two proffered interests, the relationship of those interests, and then considered the undue burden, and anchored the conclusions in the testimony that is extensively discussed.
 
The judge is seeking additional "input" from the parties before fashioning final relief, but it will remain to be seen whether the Eleventh Circuit finds either of the approaches of the Fifth Circuit - - - Abbott or Jackson Women's Health Organization - - - when the Alabama case is appealed.

August 4, 2014 in Abortion, Due Process (Substantive), Fundamental Rights, Gender, Opinion Analysis | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Friday, August 1, 2014

Second Circuit: No Establishment Clause Violation for Cross at the Ground Zero Museum

Affirming the opinion of United States District Judge Deborah Batts, the Second Circuit's opinion in American Atheists v. Port of Authority of NY and NJ held that there is no Establishment Clause violation when the National Museum at the former World Trade Center towers destroyed on September 11, often colloquially known as the "Ground Zero" Museum or the September 11 Museum, chose to display a large Latin cross.

Importantly, the cross is placed in the museum's Historical Exhibition in the section, “Finding Meaning at Ground Zero,” as part of the September 11 historical narrative.   On appeal, the American Atheists seemingly narrowed the original challenge and argued that the defendants  "impermissibly promote Christianity in violation of the Establishment Clause and deny atheists equal protection of the laws by displaying The Cross at Ground Zero in the Museum unaccompanied by some item acknowledging that atheists were among the victims and rescuers on September 11."

The unanimous panel's 42 page opinion applies Lemon v. Kurtzman to the Establishment Clause issue and much more briefly considers the equal protection argument. 

Here's the court's summary of its conclusion:

1. Displaying The Cross at Ground Zero in the National September 11 Museum does not violate the Establishment Clause because:

a. the stated purpose of displaying The Cross at Ground Zero to tell the story of how some people used faith to cope with the tragedy is genuine, and an objective observer would understand the purpose of the display to be secular;

b. an objective observer would not view the display as endorsing religion generally, or Christianity specifically, because it is part of an exhibit entitled “Finding Meaning at Ground Zero”; the exhibit includes various nonreligious as well as religious artifacts that people at Ground Zero used for solace; and the textual displays accompanying the cross communicate its historical significance within this larger context; and

c. there is no evidence that the static display of this genuine historic artifact excessively entangles the government with religion.


2. In the absence of any Establishment Clause violation or any evidence of discriminatory animus toward atheists, the Museum did not deny equal protection by displaying The Cross at Ground Zero and refusing plaintiffs’ request to fund an accompanying symbol commemorating atheists.

 It would be doubtful if this case goes any further; the cross at the museum looks as if it is there to stay.

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image via

August 1, 2014 in Equal Protection, Establishment Clause, First Amendment, Opinion Analysis, Religion | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Divided Fifth Circuit Upholds Preliminary Injunction Against Mississippi's Restrictive Abortion Law HB 1390

A panel of the Fifth Circuit in its opinion today in Jackson Women's Health Organization v. Currier upheld the district judge's injunction against the enforcement of a restrictive abortion statute known as  Mississippi HB 1390.

The statute required physicians performing abortions to have admitting privileges to a nearby hospital.   As the court noted, a similar provision in Texas (HB 2) was recently upheld by the Fifth Circuit in Planned Parenthood of Texas Surgical Providers v. Abbott. As to the rational basis of such a law, the panel stated it was "bound" by Abbott as precedent to accept that the Mississippi statute survives a constitutional challenge.

1024px-Welcometomississippi_i-20Regarding undue burden, however, the panel majority, in an opinion by Judge E. Grady Jolly  (who interestingly hails from Mississippi) and joined by Judge Stephen Higginson, the effects of HB 1390 were relevant in this as-applied challenge.   In assessing the undue burden, the court found it highly relevant that “if enforced, the admitting privileges requirement would likely require JWHO, the only currently licensed abortion facility in Mississippi, to lose its license.”   The panel rejected the State's attempt to "walk back" this statement - - - which is actually a quote from the State's opening brief - - - as "too little, too late."  Additionally, the majority found it important that the hospitals had rejected the physicians' applications for admitting privileges based on the fact that the physicians performed abortions.

 The central - - - and exceedingly interesting - - - question of the undue burden analysis is the relevance of the clinic's status as the only abortion clinic remaining in Mississippi.  The State argued that there is no undue burden because women could travel to another state and many of these distances would not be unduly burdensome in and of themselves.  Recall that in Planned Parenthood of S.E. Penn. v. Casey, 505 U.S. 833 (1992) the plurality opinion rejected the contention that traveling long distances constituted an undue burden.  But, as Judge Jolly notes, there was no suggestion that women should have to go to neighboring states in Casey or in any other opinion, and there is at least one circuit court opinion that finds it "dispositive" that women had to leave the state to exercise their constitutional right. 

Additionally - - - and this is the interesting part - - - the court relies upon State of Missouri ex rel. Gaines v. Canada, 305 U.S. 337 (1938) in the United States Supreme Court rejected Missouri's argument that its failure to admit an African-American man to its law school was essentially cured by its offer of a tuition stipend to allow Mr. Gaines to attend law school in another state.  Here's the passage from Gaines that Judge Jolly finds worthy of quoting at length:

[T]he obligation of the State to give the protection of equal laws can be performed only where its laws operate, that is, within its own jurisdiction. . . . That obligation is imposed by the Constitution upon the States severally as governmental entities, —each responsible for its own laws establishing the rights and duties of persons within its borders. It is an obligation the burden of which cannot be cast by one State upon another, and no State can be excused from performance by what another State may do or fail to do. That separate responsibility of each State within its own sphere is of the essence of statehood maintained under our dual system.

Id. at 350.  Judge Jolly admits that Gaines can be distinguished, but finds Gaines nevertheless determinative: " a state cannot lean on its sovereign neighbors to provide protection of its citizens’ federal constitutional rights." 

In a lengthy and somewhat vehement dissent - - - complete with quotations from Albert Camus - - - Senior Judge Emilio Garza finds many things to criticize in the majority's opinion, including the majority's failure to recognize there is not sufficient state action for a constitutional claim (it is the hospitals denying admitting privileges rather than the statute that are the cause); the majority's failure to honor the distinction between equal protection (as in Gaines) and due process (in the abortion context); the majority's belief that there is relevance to crossing state lines (given the constitutional right to travel across state lines articulated in Saenz v. Roe); the majority's failure to recognize that Casey is nothing more than a "verbal shell game" (quoting Justice Scalia's dissent in Casey); the majority's recognition of the "liberty" interest (quotes in original) in the Due Process Clause; and the majority's participation in "aggrandizement of judicial power."   

But the central issue of federalism including not only states' rights but states' responsibilities raised by this opinion and litigation is one that merits close consideration.

July 29, 2014 in Abortion, Courts and Judging, Due Process (Substantive), Equal Protection, Federalism, Fourteenth Amendment, Fundamental Rights, Gender, Medical Decisions, Opinion Analysis, Race, Reconstruction Era Amendments, Supreme Court (US) | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Individual Mandate Survives Origination Clause Challenge

The D.C. Circuit today rejected an Origination Clause challenge to the so-called individual mandate under the Affordable Care Act.  The court also rejected a Commerce Clause challenge to the individual mandate.  The ruling means that this long-shot case is dismissed.

The plaintiff in the case, Matt Sissel, argued that the individual mandate violated the Origination Clause.  That Clause requires revenue-raising bills to originate in the House; it says,

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.

Sissel argued that the ACA's individual mandate really originated in the Senate, not the House, and therefore violated the Clause.

The court summarily rejected that argument.  The court said that the Supreme Court has given a narrow reading to the Origination Clause, applying it only to bills that "levy taxes in the strict sense of the word."  But the court said that the taxing feature (or the revenue-raising feature) of the individual mandate was merely a by-product of the mandate, not the principal goal of the mandate--and therefore not a tax in the strict sence.  Instead, the court said, the mandate was designed to help achieve universal health care coverage, not principally to raise revenue: 

The purposive approach embodied in Supreme Court precedent necessarily leads to the conclusion that [the individual mandate] is not a "Bill[] for raising Revenue" under the Origination Clause. . . .  And after the Supreme Court's decision in NFIB, it is beyond dispute that the paramount aim of the Affordable Care Act is "to increase the number of Americans covered by health insurance and decrease the cost of health care," not to raise revenue by means of the shared responsibility payment.

The court also rejected Sissel's Commerce Clause argument, ruling that the this argument was foreclosed by the Supreme Court's decision in NFIB, which upheld the individual mandate as a valid measure under Congress's taxing power.  The court rejected Sissel's argument that his election not to purchase insurance was a violation of federal law (and therefore the federal requirement violated the Commerce Clause).  Instead, the court said that under NFIB Sissel had a choice: buy insurance, or pay a tax.  That's a valid exercise of the taxing power (even if it has a regulatory effect), and Sissel's argument under the Commerce Clause misses the mark.

The ruling is just the latest in a line of cases challenging different aspects of the Affordable Care Act.  It's an important victory for the ACA, even if not a particularly surprising one.

July 29, 2014 in Cases and Case Materials, Commerce Clause, Congressional Authority, News, Opinion Analysis | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Monday, July 28, 2014

Fourth Circuit: Virginia's Same-Sex Marriage Ban is Unconstitutional

Affirming the federal district judge's decision in February, a panel of the Fourth Circuit in a divided opinion has held in Bostic v. Schaefer that Virginia's same-sex marriage prohibitions are unconstitutional.

The majority opinion, authored by Judge Henry Floyd and joined by Judge Roger Gregory, notably finds marriage to be a fundamental right that encompasses same-sex marriage and applies strict scrutiny. 

Fourth Circuit map
The court's conclusion is that the "Virginia Marriage Laws" (including statutes and a state constitutional amendment)

violate the Due Process and Equal Protection Clauses of the Fourteenth Amendment to the extent that they prevent same-sex couples from marrying and prohibit Virginia from recognizing same-sex couples’ lawful out-of-state marriages.

At various times, the court blends Due Process and Equal Protection analysis and precedent, but both spring from its conclusion that "marriage" is a fundamental right and that "marriage" includes same-sex marriage.    After discussing Loving v. Virginia, Zablocki v. Redhail, and Turner v. Safley, the court notes:

These cases do not define the rights in question as “the right to interracial marriage,” “the right of people owing child support to marry,” and “the right of prison inmates to marry.” Instead, they speak of a broad right to marry that is not circumscribed based on the characteristics of the individuals seeking to exercise that right. The Supreme Court’s unwillingness to constrain the right to marry to certain subspecies of marriage meshes with its conclusion that the right to marry is a matter of “freedom of choice,” Zablocki, 434 U.S. at 387, that “resides with the individual,” Loving, 388 U.S. at 12. If courts limited the right to marry to certain couplings, they would effectively create a list of legally preferred spouses, rendering the choice of whom to marry a hollow choice indeed.

The court's use of "couplings" implicitly addresses a portion of the oft-called slippery slope argument that is raised by Judge Paul Niemeyer in his dissent: what would prevent this rationale from extending to polygamy?  The dissent also invokes incest, accusing the majority of "dictionary jurisprudence" when it (re)defines marriage to include same-sex marriage.  But of course, the definitional conundrum plagues the dissent as well, when it argues that certain qualities are "foundational" to marriage and other qualities are "irrelevant."  For the dissent, this is the "biological link between procreation and marriage," a link that does exist in the polygamous and incestuous marriages the dissent disapproves.

For the majority, after finding marriage a fundamental right deserving of strict scrutiny, the five governmental interests argued as supporting the marriage laws not surprisingly fail to pass constitutional muster:

  • (1) Virginia’s federalism-based interest in maintaining control over the definition of marriage within its borders,
  • (2) the history and tradition of opposite-sex marriage,
  • (3) protecting the institution of marriage,
  • (4) encouraging responsible procreation, and
  • (5) promoting the optimal childrearing environment.

 More surprising is that although these interests are raised by the parties the court calls the  "Proponents" of the Virginia marriage laws, there is little in the court's opinion that analyzes their standing to appeal.  The court does analyze the standing of the plaintiffs to sue the defendants George Schaefer III (in his official capacity as Clerk of Court for Norfolk Circuit Court) and Janet Rainey (in her official capacity as State Registrar of Vital Records).  And since these parties were indeed defendants, there may be little need for an extensive analysis of appellate standing as was necessary in the same-sex marriage cases decided by the United States Supreme Court in June 2013. Nevertheless, recall that the (new) Virginia Attorney General had decided during the district court litigation that the Virginia laws were unconstitutional and filed a notice of change of position; however the laws continued to be enforced. 

The Fourth Circuit thus joins the Tenth Circuit in holding that a state's same-sex marriage ban violates the Fourteenth Amendment.   While these circuit court opinions are divided, the dozen or so federal district judges who have considered the issue have been unanimous in reaching the same conclusion.

 

July 28, 2014 in Courts and Judging, Due Process (Substantive), Equal Protection, Family, Fourteenth Amendment, Fundamental Rights, Opinion Analysis, State Constitutional Law, Tenth Amendment | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Wednesday, July 23, 2014

Colorado Federal Judge on Same-Sex Marriage Ban: Unconstitutional and Not Quite a Stay

In his relatively brief opinion today in Burns v. Hickenlooper, Judge Raymond Moore enjoined Colorado officials from enforcing or applying Article II, Section 31 of the Colorado Constitution and C.R.S. §§ 14-2-104(1)(b) and 14-2-104(2) as a basis to deny marriage to same-sex couples or to deny recognition of otherwise valid same-sex marriages entered in other states.

The injunction is supported by little Due Process or Equal Protection analysis; instead its determination is more than aptly supported by the mandatory precedent of the Tenth Circuit's decision in Kitchen v. Herbert.

More difficult than the merits issue was the procedural stay issue.  Judge Moore decided to issue only a temporary stay until Monday, August 25, 2014, to allow the parties to seek relief from the Tenth Circuit or the United States Supreme Court.  The judge noted that the Tenth Circuit had already spoken, but given the United States Supreme Court's stay regarding the Utah same-sex marriage case last week in Evans v. Herbert,  the directives regarding the appropriateness of a stay were less than clear.

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Etruscan inscriptions on a bronze sheep's liver as might be consulted by a haruspex via

As Judge Moore wrote:

Based on the most recent stay [in Evans v. Herbert], it appears to the Court that it may well be that a message is being sent by the Supreme Court. But this Court is not some modern day haruspex skilled in the art of divination. This Court cannot – and, more importantly, it will not – tell the people of Colorado that the access to this or any other fundamental right will be delayed because it “thinks” or “perceives” the subtle – or not so subtle – content of a message not directed to this case. The rule of law demands more.

For further analysis of the problem on stays in the same-sex marriage litigation, take a look at LawProf Nancy Leong's great discussion of the stay factors and how they apply in same-sex marriage litigation.

July 23, 2014 in Fourteenth Amendment, Fundamental Rights, Opinion Analysis, Sexual Orientation, Supreme Court (US) | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Court Vacates Injunction Against Execution

The Supreme Court yesterday vacated the Ninth Circuit ruling over the weekend that ordered the delay of a scheduled execution until the condemned prisoner received details from the state about the method of execution. 

Recall that the condemned prisoner, Joseph Rudolph Wood III, argued that the state's failure to provide him information violated his First Amendment right to receive information about the method of execution.  The Ninth Circuit agreed--or at least agreed that he had a likelihood of success on the merits, or that he raised a "serious question" on the merits--and granted a preliminary injunction.

The Supreme Court's order vacates that ruling.  It means that the execution can go forward without the information.

The order was short and unsigned, with no real legal analysis:

The application to vacate the judgment of the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit granting a conditional preliminary injunction, presented to Justice Kennedy and by him referred to the Court, is granted.  The district judge did not abuse his discretion in denying Wood's motion for a preliminary injunction.  The judgment of the United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit reversing the district court and granting a conditional preliminary injunction is vacated.

July 23, 2014 in Cases and Case Materials, Courts and Judging, First Amendment, Fundamental Rights, News, Opinion Analysis | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Appeals Courts Issue Opposing Rulings on Obamacare Exchange Tax Credits

Two federal appeals courts today issued dueling rulings on the legality of an IRS rule that offers tax credits to purchasers of health insurance on a federally operated exchange who meet certain income guidelines (100 to 400 percent of the federal poverty level).  A sharply divided D.C. Circuit panel ruled in Halbig v. Burwell that the IRS exceeded its authority under the Affordable Care Act in offering these credits, and ordered the IRS rule vacated.  In contrast, a unanimous panel of the Fourth Circuit ruled in King v. Burwell that the IRS did not exceed its authority.

The split makes it all the more certain (if ever there were ever any doubt) that this issue is heading to the Supreme Court for yet another judicial showdown between Obamacare opponents and the administration.  If the high court upholds the D.C. Circuit ruling, that could mark the end of Obamacare.  That's because health insurance for those in states with a federally operated exchange (and with incomes between 100 and 400 percent of the poverty line) could be cost prohibitive without tax credits (that's the whole purpose of tax credits, to make insurance affordable); and if as a result those individuals don't purchase insurance, that significant portion of the population would fall outside the broader insurance pool, undermining the key structural assumption of Obamacare, that everyone's covered. 

Remember: We only have federally operated exchanges because many states declined to establish their own exchanges (often for political reasons--to register dissent or lack of cooperation with the ACA in general).  All indications are that Congress passed, and the president signed, the ACA on the assumption that states would establish their own exchanges, and that the federal government wouldn't have to. That turned out to be wrong.  That, in combination with some less-than-perfect legislative language, led to the D.C. court's ruling.

The crux of the case involves the administration's authority to offer tax credits to purchasers on federally operated exchanges, and not just state operated exchanges.  Opponents of the credit argue that the plain language of the ACA allows credits only for purchasers on state operated exchanges.  The administration says that a broader, contextual reading of the ACA, along with an understanding of congressional intent, allows credits for purchasers on federally operated exchanges, as well.

We posted more details on the D.C. case (in the lower court) here.

The ACA authorizes the tax credit to subsidize the purchase of insurance on an "Exchange established by the State under section 1131 of the [ACA]."  But other sections of the Act treat an "Exchange" as only a state-created exchange.  And yet a different portion requires the federal government to establish an operate an "Exchange" if a state declines to do so.  (Other portions of the Act are relevant, too, but these are the key portions.)

In short, the D.C. Circuit said that the ACA's language was plain and unambiguous, and that it authorized tax credits only for state-established exchanges. It also said that the scant legislative history on this point did not change that result.

The Fourth Circuit, and the dissent in the D.C. Circuit, said that when read together these portions of the ACA could mean that the federal government stands in the shoes of a state when the federal government establishes an exchange, and that the federally established exchanges are therefore also "Exchange[s] established by the State" for the purpose of the Act.  They also said that the legislative purpose of the ACA supports this reading.  Because of the ambiguous language, the IRS could interpret it in any way that's reasonable.  And its interpretation was reasonable.

July 22, 2014 in Congressional Authority, Courts and Judging, Executive Authority, News, Opinion Analysis, Separation of Powers | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack (0)