Friday, July 1, 2016

Federal Judge Issues Preliminary Injunction Against Mississippi Law Seeking to Protect LGBT Discrimination

In a 60 page opinion in Barber v. Bryant, United States District Judge Carlton Reeves (pictured below) found Mississippi HB 1523, set to become effective July 1, constitutionally problematical under both the Establishment Clause and the Equal Protection Clause, and thus preliminary enjoined its enforcement.

The bill, Protecting Freedom of Conscience from Government Discrimination Act," sought to insulate the specific "sincerely held religious beliefs or moral convictions" that:
(a)  Marriage is or should be recognized as the union of one man and one woman;
(b)  Sexual relations are properly reserved to such a marriage; and
(c)  Male (man) or female (woman) refer to an individual's immutable biological sex as objectively determined by anatomy and genetics at time of birth.

Judge Reeves characterized HB 1523 as a predictable overreaction to the Court's same-sex marriage opinion in Obergefell v. Hodges a year ago.  In discussing the debates around the HB 152 and its texts, Judge Reeves also noted that the challenges to HB 1523 were also predictable, providing his rationale for consolidating the four cases.

Judge Reeves then considered standing of the various plaintiffs as well as Eleventh Amendment immunity, followed by the established preliminary injunction standards which have at their heart the "substantial likelihood of success on the merits."

On the Equal Protection claim, Judge Reeves relied on Romer v. Evans, and found that the legislative history established animus in intent:

The title, text, and history of HB 1523 indicate that the bill was the State’s attempt to put LGBT citizens back in their place after Obergefell. The majority of Mississippians were granted special rights to not serve LGBT citizens, and were immunized from the consequences of their actions. LGBT Mississippians, in turn, were “put in a solitary class with respect to transactions and relations in both the private and governmental spheres” to symbolize their second-class status.

CarltonReeves
Judge Carlton Reeves via

Judge Reeves also found that the law would have a discriminatory effect.  Judge Reeves applied the lowest level of scrutiny, but found that even "under this generous standard, HB 1523 fails." He agreed  with the State's contention that HB 1523 furthers its “legitimate governmental interest in protecting religious beliefs and expression and preventing citizens from being forced to act against those beliefs by their government" is a "legitimate governmental interest."  But concluded that the interest is "not one with any rational relationship to HB 1523."  Indeed, the court declared that "deprivation of equal protection of the laws is HB 1523’s very essence."

On the Establishment Clause claim, Judge Reeves rehearsed the history of the Clause before focusing on two conclusions: HB 1523 "establishes an official preference for certain religious beliefs over others" and "its broad religious exemption comes at the expense of other citizens."For this latter point, Judge Reeves interestingly relied on and distinguished the recent controversial Burwell v. Hobby Lobby construing RFRA to confer a religious conscience accommodation to closely-held corporations:

The difference is that the Hobby Lobby Court found that the religious accommodation in question would have “precisely zero” effect on women seeking contraceptive coverage, and emphasized that corporations do not “have free rein to take steps that impose disadvantages on others.” The critical lesson is that religious accommodations must be considered in the context of their impact on others.

Unlike Hobby Lobby, HB 1523 disadvantages recusing employees’ coworkers and results in LGBT citizens being personally and immediately confronted with a denial of service.

[citations omitted].

 Judge Reeves opinion is careful and well-reasoned, but is nevertheless sure to be appealed by Mississippi officials unless they alter their litigation posture.

 

July 1, 2016 in Cases and Case Materials, Courts and Judging, Current Affairs, Equal Protection, Establishment Clause, Federalism, First Amendment, Fourteenth Amendment, Fundamental Rights, Gender, Opinion Analysis, Recent Cases, Reconstruction Era Amendments, Religion, Sexual Orientation, Sexuality, Standing, Supreme Court (US) | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, June 28, 2016

Judge Says Timber Company is Likely, but not Substantially Likely, to Have Standing to Challenge BLM Timber Sales

Judge Richard J. Leon (D.D.C.) ruled today that a timber company has a sufficient likelihood of showing standing to withstand a motion to dismiss, but not sufficient to get a preliminary injunction, in just the latest order in this six-year litigation thicket challenging the government's timber sales in the Pacific Northwest and the habitat for the northern spotted owl.

The ruling means that the company's case against the Bureau of Land Management can continue (because it has a sufficient likelihood of showing standing to withstand the government's motion to dismiss), but that it will not now get a preliminary injunction ordering the government to sell more timber (because it doesn't have a sufficient likelihood of showing standing to satisfy the "substantial likelihood of success" test for a preliminary injunction).

The six-year old case--or, really, series of cases--involves timber companies' and individuals' challenges to BLM's failure to offer for sale a declared amount of timber from two western Oregon districts in violation of the Oregon and California Railroad and Coos Way Wagon Road Grant Lands Act of 1937. (The government declined to sell a full quota in order to protect the spotted owl.)

In earlier phases of litigation, the government successfully moved to dismiss based on lack of standing. The corporations and individual officers came back with new allegations supporting standing, which formed the basis of today's ruling.

Judge Leon said that only one timber corporation, Rough & Ready, likely satisfied standing requirements to survive the government's motion to dismiss. That's because Rough & Ready, alone among the plaintiffs, alleged with particularity that the BLM's failure to sell timber caused it to close its doors and that its requested relief (an order requiring BLM to sell more timber) would redress that harm (and allow it to re-open).

But Judge Leon went on to say that Rough & Ready didn't show a "substantial likelihood" of standing (a higher standard than a mere likelihood of standing), and thus couldn't show a "substantial likelihood on the merits" in order to get a preliminary injunction that would require the government to sell more timber. Here's Judge Leon:

While the allegations supporting Rough & Ready's standing suffice to satisfy the lower "likely" standard required at [the] motion-to-dismiss phase, they fail to rise to the level of the "substantial likelihood" required at the preliminary injunction phase. In particular, although Rough & Read plausibly claims that its injuries are likely redressable as described above, its "hope to be able to reopen the mill and resume operations" if and when the BLM offers its full ASQ of timber sales is insufficient to establish substantial likelihood of redressability. That is, while the various allegations taken as a whole establish Rough & Ready's injuries are likely redressable, they simply fail to provide the basis necessary to establish the requisite substantial likelihood.

Judge Leon seemed to leave open the possibility that Rough & Ready could later establish this substantial likelihood, however, and perhaps successfully reapply for a preliminary injunction at a later time.

In the meantime, the case can proceed on the merits, though without a preliminary injunction.

Judge Leon dismissed the other plaintiffs' claims for lack of standing--mostly because (unlike Rough & Ready's claims) they weren't specific enough.

June 28, 2016 in Cases and Case Materials, Jurisdiction of Federal Courts, News, Opinion Analysis, Standing | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, June 27, 2016

United States Supreme Court Reaffirms Abortion Access in Whole Woman's Health

The United States Supreme Court's opinion in Whole Woman's Health v. Hellerstdet (previously Cole), declares unconstitutional both the admitting privileges and surgical center requirements of the controversial Texas HB2 statute passed in 2013 (despite the famous filibuster by Wendy Davis).  Justice Breyer, writing for the five Justice majority found that the regulations place a substantial obstacle and constitute an undue burden on the abortion right.

In the first case to address abortion since 2008, the Court clearly reaffirmed the substantial obstacle/undue burden test and found that the Texas' statutory scheme was too restrictive. The divisions amongst the Justices was clear in oral arguments and previous proceedings (a divided Supreme Court previously vacated the Fifth Circuit stay of the district judge's injunction against portions of the law, thus reinstating the district judge's injunction at least in part).

The bulk of the 107 page opinions is Justice Alito's dissent, joined by Chief Justice Roberts and Justice Thomas.  (Note that even if Justice Scalia was still on the bench, the result would have been the same).  Justice Thomas also wrote separately.

Justice Breyer's opinion for the Court rebuked the Fifth Circuit for incorrect doctrine.  

The Court of Appeals’ articulation of the relevant standard is incorrect. The first part of the Court of Appeals’ test may be read to imply that a district court should not consider the existence or nonexistence of medical benefits when considering whether a regulation of abortion constitutes an undue burden. The rule announced in Casey, however, requires that courts consider the burdens a law imposes on abortion access together with the benefits those laws confer. And the second part of the test is wrong to equate the judicial review applicable to the regulation of a constitutionally protected personal liberty with the less strict review applicable where, for example, economic legislation is at issue. The Court of Appeals’ approach simply does not match the standard that this Court laid out in Casey, which asks courts to consider whether any burden imposed on abortion access is “undue.”

The statement that legislatures, and not courts, must resolve questions of medical uncertainty is also inconsistent with this Court’s case law.

[citations omitted].

With the correct standard (re)articulated, the Court then carefully considered the "record evidence" in this extensive litigation and agreed with the district judge that the Texas regulations placed substantial obstacles in the path of women seeking abortions, thus meeting the undue burden test.  The Court also found that the Texas restrictions did little to serve the state's articulated interests in protecting women's health and may actually have undermined the state's interests.

On the admitting privileges requirement, the Court rehearsed the expert evidence at trial and also pointed to amicus briefs, both to explain the context of admitting privileges and the effect of the requirement (including clinic closures). As to the relation to the state's articulated interest in women's health, the Court added:

when directly asked at oral argument whether Texas knew of a single instance in which the new requirement would have helped even one woman obtain better treatment, Texas admitted that there was no evidence in the record of such a case.

The Court also specifically refuted the dissenting opinion's reliance on a well-known Pennsylvania scandal involving Gosnell:

Gosnell’s deplorable crimes could escape detection only because his facility went uninspected for more than 15 years.  Pre-existing Texas law already contained numerous detailed regulations covering abortion facilities, including a requirement that facilities be inspected at least annually.

 Justice Breyer's opinion for the Court engaged in a similar analysis as to the surgical center requirement.  Again, the Court stated that the mandate does not serve the stated interests in women's health" "many surgical-center requirements are inappropriate as applied to surgical abortions."  And again, the Court found that the record evidence as well as "common sense" meant that the (unnecessary) requirements would result in clinic closures which would result in a substantial obstacle to women's reproductive access.

While the Court's opinion is often very specific, Ginsburg's separate but very brief concurrence briefly strikes a broader note:

When a State severely limits access to safe and legal procedures, women in desperate circumstances may resort to unlicensed rogue practitioners, faute de mieux, at great risk to their health and safety.

But whether one takes the specific or broader view, Whole Women's Health is a clear message to lower courts that their judicial function is to apply the current rule in a rigorous manner to preserve abortion access.

June 27, 2016 in Abortion, Due Process (Substantive), Fundamental Rights, Gender, Opinion Analysis | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, June 23, 2016

Court Deadlocks on President's Immigration Plan

The Supreme Court today deadlocked 4-4 in the case challenging President Obama's deferred action plan for certain unauthorized immigrants, or DAPA. The Court's ruling in United States v. Texas affirms the Fifth Circuit's ruling in the case. (Our preview of the case is here.)

While the Court's non-decision today has no precedential value, as a practical matter it upholds a nationwide preliminary injunction against enforcement of DAPA issued by district Judge Hanen. The ruling thus effectively halts enforcement of DAPA and sends the case back to Judge Hanen for proceedings on the merits. Here's the Fifth Circuit's summary of its ruling (which, again, is upheld under today's 4-4 split):

Reviewing the district court's order for abuse of discretion, we affirm the preliminary injunction because the states have standing; they have established a substantial likelihood of success on the merits of their procedural and substantive APA claims; and they have satisfied the other elements required for an injunction.

Note that the Fifth Circuit ruling doesn't touch the Take Care Clause issue--an issue that the Supreme Court asked the parties to brief and argue, even though the government didn't seek review on this issue. Note, too, that the Fifth Circuit upholds a district judge's preliminary injunction that applies nationwide (and not, as would ordinarily be the case, in the judge's district only).

We don't know the justices' positions on particular issues in the case--standing, APA--because the per curiam order (as is customary for a 4-4 split) simply says that "[t]he judgment is affirmed by an equally divided Court." Still, this appears to be one of those cases where Justice Scalia's absence matters: he would have likely voted with the four (likely the conservatives, although we don't know for sure) to uphold the Fifth Circuit, creating a five Justice majority opinion that would have created precedential law.

The government may petition the Court (now) for rehearing (after a ninth justice is confirmed).

June 23, 2016 in Cases and Case Materials, Congressional Authority, Jurisdiction of Federal Courts, News, Opinion Analysis, Separation of Powers, Standing | Permalink | Comments (2)

Thursday, June 9, 2016

Divided Ninth Circuit Says Second Amendment Doesn't Protect Concealed Carry

A sharply divided en banc Ninth Circuit ruled today that the Second Amendment does not protect concealed carry. The ruling, a win for the state and for local regulation of concealed carry, upholds two California local restrictions on obtaining a concealed carry permit.

The case is a significant victory for supporters of gun regulations, and a significant defeat for gun-rights advocates.

It seems unlikely that the Supreme Court will grant review quite yet, however, unless there are five justices who would vote to affirm. That's because a 4-4 split on the Court would have no effect and simply leave today's Ninth Circuit ruling in place. (The Court split 5-4 in both Heller and McDonald. In McDonald, the more recent of the two, all of the current conservatives were in the majority, and all the current progressives were in dissent (except Justice Kagan, who replaced Justice Stevens).

The case involved California's concealed carry permitting law. In general, California does not allow concealed carry. But individuals can apply for a permit if they can show "good cause." California law authorizes county sheriffs to establish and publish policies defining good cause.

The plaintiffs in the case said the good cause standards in San Diego and Yolo Counties violated the Second Amendment, because those standards prohibited them from obtaining a concealed carry permit (and thus from carrying a concealed weapon).

The en banc Ninth Circuit disagreed. Drawing on the historical approach in Heller and McDonald, the court held that the Second Amendment doesn't even protect concealed carry. The court traced the history (starting with a directive issued by Edward I in 1299 through rulings in the nineteenth century) and concluded that "[t]he right of a member of the general public to carry a concealed firearm in public is not, and never has been, protected by the Second Amendment." And because concealed carry isn't protect, the court said, "any prohibition or restriction a state may choose to impose on concealed carry--including a requirement of 'good cause,' however defined--is necessarily allowed by the Amendment."

The court went on to say that if it had to address whether the "good cause" requirements satisfied the Second Amendment (which it didn't, because it held that concealed carry wasn't protected at all by the Second Amendment), then it would uphold those requirements under intermediate scrutiny because they "promote[] a substantial government interest that would be achieved less effectively absent the regulation." Judge Graber, joined by Chief Judge Thomas and Judge McKeown, made this point in concurrence.

The court did not say whether the Second Amendment protects some right to carry firearms in public (i.e., open carry); it only said that the Second Amendment didn't protect concealed carry.

Judge Callahan wrote a principal dissent, joined by Judges Silverman, Bea, and N.R. Smith. Judges Silverman and N.R. Smith also wrote their own dissents. Judge Callahan argued in part that the majority erred by defining the scope of the claimed right to narrowly--as the "right to carry a concealed firearm," as opposed to a more general "right to carry a firearm in self-defense outside the home." Judge Callahan cited Obergefell, Lawrence, and Griswold in support of the argument that "[t]he Court has defined other constitutional rights broadly as well."

June 9, 2016 in Cases and Case Materials, News, Opinion Analysis, Second Amendment | Permalink | Comments (1)

Supreme Court Finds Due Process Violated When Prosecutor-Turned-Judge Did Not Recuse

In its highly anticipated opinion in Williams v. Pennsylvania, the United States Supreme Court found that the failure of Chief Justice of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court Ronald Castille to recuse himself in the death penalty review of Williams' postconviction appeal constituted a violation of the Due Process Clause.

Recall that Chief Justice Castille, who retired from the court when he reached the state mandatory retirement age, was elected in 1993, and retained in elections in 2003 and 2013.  Importantly, before his election to the bench, Castille worked in the district attorney's office for over 20 years, including being twice elected to the District Attorney position; he reportedly claimed to have "sent 45 people to death row." One of those people on death row is Terrance Williams, convicted at age 18 and whose story has attracted much interest. Williams claims that it was a violation of due process and the Eighth Amendment for Justice Castille to deny the motion to recuse himself from consideration of Williams' petition for post conviction relief.  Williams contends that Castille, as a prosecutor, was personally involved in the case and the decision to seek the death penalty.  Williams' post-conviction claim, moreover, is based on prosecutorial misconduct. 

Writing for the five Justice majority, Justice Kennedy relied on the Court's previous decision in Caperton v. A.T. Massey Coal. Co. in 2009 - - - which Kennedy also authored - - - to articulate the applicable "objective standard" of recusal when the "likelihood of bias on the part of the judge 'is too high to be constitutionally tolerable.'" While Kennedy noted that the "due process precedents do not set forth a specific test governing recusal when, as here, a judge had prior involvement in a case as a prosecutor," the Court articulated a clear rule:

The Court now holds that under the Due Process Clause there is an impermissible risk of actual bias when a judge earlier had significant, personal involvement as a prosecutor in a critical decision regarding the defendant’s case.

This rule, the Court reasoned, is based upon the due process guarantee that “no man can be a judge in his own case,” which would have little substance if it did not disqualify a former prosecutor from sitting in judgment of a prosecution in which he or she had made a critical decision."

Justice Kennedy's relatively brief opinion for the Court specifically rejected each of Pennsylvania's arguments. 

As to the passage of time between the prosecutorial and judicial events, the Court reasoned that

A prosecutor may bear responsibility for any number of critical decisions, including what charges to bring, whether to extend a plea bargain, and which witnesses to call. Even if decades intervene before the former prosecutor revisits the matter as a jurist, the case may implicate the effects and continuing force of his or her original decision. In these circumstances, there remains a serious risk that a judge would be influenced by an improper, if inadvertent, motive to validate and preserve the result obtained through the adversary process. The involvement of multiple actors and the passage of time do not relieve the former prosecutor of the duty to withdraw in order to ensure the neutrality of the judicial process in determining the consequences that his or her own earlier, critical decision may have set in motion.

As to the argument that Castille's authorization to seek the death penalty against Williams was insignificant in a large office, the Court specifically found that "characterization cannot be credited." First, the Court stated that it would not assume that the District Attorney treated so major a decision as whether or not to pursue the death penalty as a "perfunctory task requiring little time, judgment, or reflection."  Second, the Court noted that "Chief Justice Castille's own comments while running for judicial office" refute any claim that he believed he did not play a major role in seeking death sentences.  And third, the Court noted that claim and finding that the trial prosecutor had engaged in multiple and intentional Brady violations, it would be difficult for "a judge in his position" not to view this as a "criticism of his former office, and, to some extent, of his own leadership and supervision as district attorney."

As to the argument that Castille did not cast the "deciding vote" - - - unlike the situation in Caperton - - - and so any error was harmless, the Court stressed the role of the court as a unit:

A multimember court must not have its guarantee of neutrality undermined, for the appearance of bias de- means the reputation and integrity not just of one jurist, but of the larger institution of which he or she is a part. An insistence on the appearance of neutrality is not some artificial attempt to mask imperfection in the judicial process, but rather an essential means of ensuring the reality of a fair adjudication. Both the appearance and reality of impartial justice are necessary to the public legitimacy of judicial pronouncements and thus to the rule of law itself. When the objective risk of actual bias on the part of a judge rises to an unconstitutional level, the failure to recuse cannot be deemed harmless.

Chief Justice Roberts, joined by Justice Alito, and Justice Thomas writing separately, dissented - - - not surprising given that they have also dissented in Caperton.  Roberts's opinion draws the line between due process and judicial ethics: just because it was an ethics violation, does not mean it is a due process violation.  Roberts states that it is "up to state authorities" to determine whether recusal is required. 

In sum, this extension of Caperton to judicial decisions by former prosecutors and the Court's articulation of a clear rule should result in a new regime of uniform recusal mandated by the Due Process Clause.

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 [image NYPL digital collection, "A Murder Trial in the Court of General Sessions, circa 1901, via]

June 9, 2016 in Courts and Judging, Criminal Procedure, Due Process (Substantive), Federalism, Fourteenth Amendment, Opinion Analysis, Supreme Court (US) | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, June 8, 2016

Second Circuit Holds No First Amendment Claim for Prisoner's Journalistic Publication

Daniel McGowan was incarcerated in the federal Bureau of Prisons (BOP), but had been transferred to the Brooklyn House Residential Reentry Center (“RRC”) near the end of his sentence with work passes and other privileges.  McGowan is well known as an environmental activist and featured prominently in the 2011 documentary, If a Tree Falls: A Story of the Earth Liberation Front. 

While at RCC in April 2013, McGowan published an article on Huffington Post entitled "Court Documents Prove I was Sent to Communication Management Units (CMU) for my Political Speech."  This article caused the RCC manager to essentially revoke the RRC status and remand McGowan back to the Bureau of Prisons - - - in solitary confinement -  - - for an infraction of a regulation that provided “an inmate currently confined in an institution may not be employed or act as a reporter or publish under a byline.”

Danielmcgowan
Daniel McGowan via

But this "byline regulation" had been declared unconstitutional by a federal district court, Jordan v. Pugh, 504 F. Supp. 2d 1109, 1124 (D. Colo. 2007).  Soon thereafter, the BOP had instructed staff not to enforce it.  In 2010, the BOP issued an interim regulation rescinding the byline regulation; in 2012 it issued the final rule.

McGowan's lawyers soon figured out the byline regulation under which he had been charged was no longer in force and McGowan was returned to the RRC.

McGowan sued the RCC personnel for a violation of the First Amendment, but the Second Circuit, affirming the district judge, rejected the claim in its opinion in McGowan v. United States, concluding that the BOP was insulated by qualified immunity.  Qualified immunity protects the government from liability for violation of a constitutional right unless that right was "clearly established" at the time of the violation.  Here, despite the conclusion of a district judge six years prior that the byline regulation was unconstitutional and the rescission of the byline regulation by the BOP, the Second Circuit held that the right the byline regulation infringed was not clearly established:

We conclude that, at the time the alleged violation occurred, our case law did not clearly establish that McGowan had a First Amendment right to publish his article. The Supreme Court has held that “when a prison regulation impinges on inmates’ constitutional rights, the regulation is valid if it is reasonably related to legitimate penological interests.” Turner v. Safley, 482 U.S. 78, 89 (1987)). This test is “particularly deferential to the informed discretion of corrections officials” where “accommodation of an asserted right will have a significant ‘ripple effect’ on fellow inmates or on prison staff.” Id. at 90. For example, the Supreme Court has upheld “proscriptions of media interviews with individual inmates, prohibitions on the activities of a prisoners’ labor union, and restrictions on inmate‐to‐inmate written correspondence.” Shaw v. Murphy, 532 U.S. 223, 229 (2001) (citations omitted).

In short, the " only authority that McGowan has identified that involved expression similar to that at issue in this case is a district court opinion, which, of course, is not binding."

The court also rejected claims sounding in tort regarding the BOP's failure to follow its own regulations.

Thus, McGowan has no remedy for the BOP enforcing a rescinded and it seems unconstitutional regulation that caused his removal from a work program to solitary confinement.

June 8, 2016 in Courts and Judging, Criminal Procedure, First Amendment, Opinion Analysis, Speech, Web/Tech | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, June 6, 2016

Federal Civil Rights Ruling Keeps Claim Alive

The Supreme Court ruled today in Simmons v. Himmelreich that a federal prison can maintain his Bivens claim against individual prison officials for Eighth Amendment violations, even though the district court threw out his earlier Federal Tort Claims Act case for the same incident under the FTCA's "discretionary function" exception.

The ruling is a win for Himmelreich and similarly situated federal civil rights plaintiffs. It means that the FTCA doesn't foreclose this kind of claim, and that Himmelreich will have his day in federal court, after all.

The unanimous ruling turned on a very plain, and very simple, reading of the FTCA exceptions provision. In short, the exceptions provision says that the FTCA judgment bar (which ordinarily would have foreclosed Himmelreich's suit against the individual officers, because the district court threw his FTCA claim out) doesn't apply to claims claims dismissed under the exceptions. And because the district court threw his first case out under the exceptions clause, the judgment bar didn't foreclose his subsequent Bivens claim.

Here's my post on the case at SCOTUSblog, with permission:

Prisoner-rights litigation can often raise some tricky issues. Navigating them can mean the difference between keeping a claim alive in federal court, and losing it – and thus the difference between enforcing federal civil rights, and not.

One of these tricky issues was on full display in Simmons v. Himmelreich. But despite the potentially complicated questions in the case, a unanimous Supreme Court held today that one of the rules for prisoner-rights suits simply means exactly what it says: A prisoner can bring a constitutional tort claim against individual prison officials even after a court dismissed his earlier Federal Tort Claims Act suit because the officials acted in a “discretionary” capacity.

The ruling, penned by Justice Sonia Sotomayor, is a decisive win for prisoner-rights advocates. It means that Walter Himmelreich and other, similarly situated civil rights litigants retain a critical tool – the constitutional tort claim against individual officers – in enforcing civil rights and deterring their abuses. More generally, it means that there is now one less tricky issue in prisoner-rights litigation, and it is just a little bit easier, at least in the narrow circumstances of this case, to retain a claim and enforce federal civil rights.

The case involved Himmelreich’s suit against federal prison officials for violations of his Eighth Amendment rights. Himmelreich was serving time for producing child pornography when prison officials transferred another prisoner from special housing into the general population. The transferred prisoner had previously threatened to “smash a pedophile” if given the chance, so it was hardly a surprise when the transferred prisoner severely beat Himmelreich.

Himmelreich sued the government under the Federal Tort Claims Act, which waives sovereign immunity for tort claims against the federal government for the acts of its employees. It also gives federal district courts exclusive jurisdiction over those claims, subject to certain procedural requirements in Chapter 171 (which becomes relevant below, in Himmelreich’s second suit). But the FTCA also contains a list of exceptions, in particular, a “discretionary function” exception that exempts “[a]ny claim based upon . . . the exercise or performance . . . [of] a discretionary function” from the FTCA. This means that someone (like Himmelreich) who has been injured has no FTCA claim against the government for injuries that result from a discretionary act of a government employee. The district court thus dismissed Himmelreich’s FTCA claim under this exception, ruling that the prison officials’ decision as to where to house inmates was a discretionary function. The parties did not challenge this ruling.

While Himmelreich’s FTCA case was still pending, he filed a second suit against the individual prison officials for violating his Eighth Amendment rights. After the district court dismissed Himmelreich’s first suit, the officials then moved to dismiss this second suit under yet a different part of the FTCA. In particular, the officials argued that the FTCA’s “judgment bar” foreclosed this second case. The judgment bar, in Section 2676, says that once a plaintiff receives a judgment in an FTCA suit, he generally cannot bring another suit against an individual employee based on the same incident. It reads:

The judgment in any action [under the FTCA] shall constitute a complete bar to any action by the claimant, by reason of the same subject matter, against the employee of the government whose act or omission gave rise to the claim.

In other words, the government argued that the district court’s dismissal of Himmelreich’s FTCA case amounted to a “judgment,” and that the FTCA judgment bar therefore foreclosed Himmelreich’s second case against the individual officers.

This is where things get a little complicated. Himmelreich countered that the judgment bar did not apply to cases dismissed under the FTCA exceptions provision (the same one that the district court used to dismiss Himmelreich’s first case). That’s because the exceptions provision says that “[t]he provisions of this chapter” shall not apply to claims dismissed under the exceptions (including the discretionary function exception). “The provisions of this chapter,” in turn, refer to Chapter 171, the list of procedural requirements (mentioned above). And Chapter 171, in turn, includes the judgment bar. The upshot is that a case dismissed on the judgment bar (like Himmelreich’s first case) does not foreclose a case against individual officers arising out of the same incident (like Himmelreich’s second case).

The Supreme Court agreed. In a statutory analysis that required all of two paragraphs, the Court said that Himmelreich’s plain reading of the FTCA was correct, and that the FTCA created no bar to his second case against the individual officers. The Court noted that result made sense:

If the District Court in this case had issued a judgment dismissing Himmelreich’s first suit because the prison employees were not negligent, because Himmelreich was not harmed, or because Himmelreich simply failed to prove his claim, it would make little sense to give Himmelreich a second bite at the money-damages apple . . . .

Where an FTCA claim is dismissed because it falls within one of the “Exceptions,” by contrast, the judgment bar provision makes much less sense. The dismissal of a claim in the “Exceptions” section signals merely that the United States cannot be held liable for a particular claim; it has no logical bearing on whether an employee can be held liable instead.

The Court also roundly rejected the government’s non-textual arguments. It said that United States v. Smith, in which the Court held that another provision of Chapter 171 (the exclusive remedies provision) foreclosed a suit against an individual employee, did not control. That’s because Smith didn’t even discuss the “shall not apply” language in the exceptions provision. Moreover, the exclusive-remedies provision in Smith (unlike the judgment bar) was specifically designed to apply to the exceptions in the FTCA. The Court also said that it didn’t need to address the government’s parade of horribles that would result if every provision of Chapter 171 “shall not apply” to the FTCA’s exceptions. “If the Government is right about the other provisions of Chapter 171, the Court may hold so in the appropriate case.”

At the end of the day, the ruling means that Himmelreich can pursue his civil rights claim against the individual officers, even after the district court dismissed his earlier FTCA claim based on the “discretionary function” exception. More generally, it probably also means that a plaintiff can similarly pursue a civil rights claim against individual officials, even after a district court dismissed an FTCA claim based on other procedural grounds that have nothing to do with “whether an employee can be held liable instead.”

This is a clear win for Himmelreich and other, similarly situated civil rights plaintiffs, because it preserves their constitutional claims against individual officers. This is no small thing: These individual claims, more than any FTCA claim, help enforce civil rights by holding individual officers accountable and by creating a strong deterrent against civil rights abuses by other officers. Thus, today’s ruling, while dealing with just a narrow statutory issue under the FTCA, is nevertheless an important victory for Himmelreich, an important victory for access to justice, and an important victory for civil rights enforcement.

June 6, 2016 in Cases and Case Materials, Courts and Judging, News, Opinion Analysis | Permalink | Comments (0)

Mixed Result in State Prisoner-Rights Case

The Supreme Court ruled today in Ross v. Blake that a state prisoner wasn't excused from exhausting administrative remedies under the Prisoner Litigation Reform Act because of "special circumstances," but that he may be excused if administrative remedies are unavailable.

The ruling walks back a lower-court-created exception to the PLRA exhaustion requirement, but at the same time recognizes that PLRA statutory exhaustion only applies to "available" remedies. This is probably a net loss for state prisoners (because they can no longer excuse failure to exhaust based on "special circumstances"), but it means that the plaintiff's claim in this case will stay alive, at least through remand to the lower courts, on the question whether remedies were actually "available" to him. The ruling also gives some good language on what it means to be "available" under the PLRA--fodder, no doubt, for future prisoners defending against PLRA-failure-to-exhaust claims.

While the case is not directly constitutional, it certainly has implications for prisoner civil rights and access-to-justice.

Our argument preview is here.

In short, the plaintiff in the case, Shaidon Blake, brought a civil rights claim against a state prison official. The official moved to dismiss for failure to exhaust administrative remedies under the PLRA. Blake countered that he did exhaust. As the case moved to the Supreme Court, it became clear that the administrative remedial scheme itself was, well, confused, and nobody could really say whether Blake exhausted or not.

The Fourth Circuit ruled in favor of Blake, saying that court-created "special circumstances" excused any failure to exhaust, especially where an inmate, as here, reasonably believed that he had sufficiently exhausted his remedies.

But a unanimous Supreme Court rejected the Fourth Circuit's "special circumstances" approach. Justice Kagan, writing for the Court, said that the PLRA contained no "special circumstances" exception, and that the courts couldn't make it up.

But at the same time, the Court said that the PLRA itself required that a plaintiff exhaust only "available" remedies, and that there were serious questions in this case whether the remedies were, in fact, available. Indeed, the Court went on at some length describing why remedies may not have been available--providing a strong prompt to the lower court on remand to hold that they were not available (and therefore to excuse Blake's failure to exhaust).

The Court said that "special circumstances" and "availability" were two different questions. Because it's probably harder to show that a remedy is unavailable than that "special circumstances" excuse exhaustion, the ruling is probably a net loss for prisoners. But at the same time, the Court remanded Blake's case with pretty specific instructions and guidance for the lower court to determine that remedies were not available, and therefore that Blake's failure to exhaust (if any) was excused. In other words, Blake may well end up at the same place he was before his case went to the Court: Exhaustion excused, but this time for lack of available administrative remedies.

June 6, 2016 in Cases and Case Materials, News, Opinion Analysis | Permalink | Comments (0)

Saturday, June 4, 2016

Daily Read: Clay v. United States (1971)

With the reported death of Muhammad Ali, f/k/a Cassius Clay, a look back at Clay v. United States (1971) seems appropriate. 

In Clay, the Court reversed Ali's conviction for "willful refusal to submit to induction into the armed forces." 

Muhammad_Ali_NYWTS
Bust photographic portrait of Muhammad Ali in 1967. World Journal Tribune photo by Ira Rosenberg via

The Department of Justice had asserted that Ali's claim for conscientious objector status did not meet the "religious" requirement, even as it had previously been expanded in the now-classic cases of United States v. Seeger (1965) and Welsh v. United States (1970).  The Department of Justice had stated:

‘It seems clear that the teachings of the Nation of Islam preclude fighting for the United States not because of objections to participation in war in any form but rather because of political and racial objections to policies of the United States as interpreted by Elijah Muhammad. * * * It is therefore our conclusion that registrant's claimed objections to participation in war insofar as they are based upon the teachings of the Nation of Islam, rest on grounds which primarily are political and racial.’

However, the Department of Justice abandoned that argument before the United States Supreme Court:

In this Court the Government has now fully conceded that the petitioner's beliefs are based upon ‘religious training and belief,’ as defined in United States v. Seeger,  ‘There is no dispute that petitioner's professed beliefs were founded on basic tenets of the Muslim religion, as he understood them, and derived in substantial part from his devotion to Allah as the Supreme Being. Thus, under this Court's decision in United States v. Seeger, his claim unquestionably was within the ‘religious training and belief’ clause of the exemption provision.' [quoting the DOJ Brief].  This concession is clearly correct. For the record shows that the petitioner's beliefs are founded on tenets of the Muslim religion as he understands them. They are surely no less religiously based than those of the three registrants before this Court in Seeger. See also Welsh v. United States.

[citations and footnote omitted]

A unanimous Supreme Court thus reversed the conviction in a per curiam opinion. (Thurgood Marshall, who had been Solicitor General, recused himself).

Justice William Douglas, in his inimitable style, concurred separately with a discourse on the Koran and the meaning of “jihad.” Douglas concluded:"What Clay's testimony adds up to is that he believes only in war as sanctioned by the Koran, that is to say, a religious war against nonbelievers. All other wars are unjust."

Muhammad Ali's Greatest Fight: Cassius Clay vs. the United States of America, the 2000 book by Howard Bingham and Max Wallace and subsequent 2013 HBO televised drama center on the litigation.

 

 

June 4, 2016 in Books, Courts and Judging, Current Affairs, First Amendment, Opinion Analysis, Race, Religion, Sports, Supreme Court (US), Television | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, June 3, 2016

No Separation of Powers Problem With Captive-Bred Exemption under Endangered Species Act

The D.C. Circuit ruled today in Friends of Animals v. Jewell that Congress did not violate separation of powers when it enacted legislation ordering the Fish and Wildlife Service to reinstate a categorical exemption for captive-bred animals under the Endangered Species Act.

The ruling is a blow to endangered-species advocates, because it permits the FWS to grant an exemption to the ESA's prohibition on taking or possessing an endangered species without going through the previous individualized-exemption application process. In other words, FWS can now grant a blanket exemption to all holders of captive-bred endangered species without publicizing individual applications and individual exemptions--and also without allowing interested parties to weigh in.

The case arose when the FWS issued the Captive-Bred Exemption to the ESA's general prohibition on taking or possessing an endangered species. The Exemption meant that all captive-bred herds of three antelope species got an automatic pass, without having to go through the individual-application process in Section 10(c) of the ESA.

But Friends sued, arguing that the Exemption violated Section 10(c) of the ESA. The district court agreed, citing the plain language of Section 10(c), which says, "[t]he Secretary shall publish notice in the Federal Register of each application for an exemption or permit which is made under this section." (Emphasis added.)

After the district court struck the Exemption, the FWS backed off and withdrew the Exemption. But then Congress passed "Section 127," which ordered the FWS to "reissue the final rule published on September 2005," that is, the Exemption.

Friends sued again, this time arguing that Section 127 violated separation of powers--in particular, the rules in Plaut v. Spendthrift Farm, Inc. and United States v. Klein. (These cases were on full view in the Court's recent ruling in Bank Markazi.) The lower court dismissed the case, and the D.C. Circuit today affirmed (although on slightly different grounds).

The court rejected Friends' argument that Section 127 violated Plaut, because Section 127 is prospective legislation (and not a retroactive revival of a dismissed case, in violation of Plaut):

Section 127 is not retroactive legislation because it does not establish what the law was at an earlier time. Likewise, Section 127 does not apply to a case already decided and does not overturn the court's determination in [the earlier case]--it simply alters the prospective effect of [the ESA's prohibition on taking or possessing an endangered species without an individual exemption] by exempting U.S. captive-bred herds of the three antelope species from the Act's . . . prohibitions going forward.

The court rejected Friends' argument that Section 27 violate Klein, because Section 127 simply "amends applicable law":

On the record before us, we have no trouble in concluding that Section 127 amended the applicable law and thus does not run afoul of Klein. Section 127 directed the Secretary of the Interior to reissue the Captive-Bred Exemption "without regard to any other provision of statute or regulation that applies to issuance of such rule." By issuing this legislative directive, Congress made it clear that, with respect to U.S. captive-bred herds of the three antelope species, individual permits are no longer required to engage in activities otherwise prohibited by [the ESA].

The court also held that Friends had informational standing, based on the language of the ESA, which says that "[i]nformation received by the Secretary as part of any application [for an exemption] shall be available to the public as a matter of public record at every stage of the proceeding." According to the court, this was enough for Friends, an endangered-species advocacy organization, to assert informational standing.

June 3, 2016 in Cases and Case Materials, Congressional Authority, News, Opinion Analysis, Separation of Powers, Standing | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, June 2, 2016

Ninth Circuit Revives Student Group's First Amendment Claim

The Ninth Circuit yesterday revived a student group's First Amendment retaliation complaint against the Arizona Board of Regents for pulling the plug on the group's funding in response to the group's public advocacy.

The ruling keeps this free speech case alive and sends it back to the district court.

The case arose when the Arizona Students' Association used its student-generated fees to push a ballot initiative that would increase funding for public education. In response, the state Board of Regents, which collected the fees and distributed them to the ASA, decided to withhold the fees that it already collected for the Spring 2013 semester and to make it harder for the ASA to collect future fees.

The ASA sued, but the district court dismissed the case. The court said that the Board enjoyed immunity under the Eleventh Amendment and, in any event, the complaint failed to state a claim.

The Ninth Circuit reversed. The court ruled that the ASA could (and did) state a Young claim for injunctive relief, but that the group failed to name individual Board members, as required under Young. The court said that the lower court should have granted ASA's motion to amend its complaint in order to name individuals and to comply with Young.

As to the merits, the appeals court ruled that ASA stated a plausible First Amendment retaliation claim. The court rejected the arguments that the Board had no obligation to pay for ASA's speech in the first place and that the fees were not a valuable government benefit:

ABOR had no affirmative obligation to collect or remit the ASA fee, but having done so for fifteen years at no cost, ABOR could not deprive the ASA of the benefit of its fee collection and remittance services in retaliation for the ASA's exercise of its First Amendment rights. ABOR's fee collection falls within the range of government benefits we have previously recognized as sufficiently valuable to give rise to a retaliation claim. Indeed, the ASA alleged that its student fees were allocated to its efforts to exercise core political speech. As we have previously held in other First Amendment retaliation cases, and as we now hold in this case, the collection and remittance of funds is a valuable government benefit, and a change in policy undertaken for retaliatory purposes that results in the deprivation of those funds implicates the First Amendment.

June 2, 2016 in Cases and Case Materials, First Amendment, News, Opinion Analysis, Speech | Permalink | Comments (1)

Monday, May 23, 2016

Congressional Reps Lack Standing to Challenge Districting Plan

A unanimous Supreme Court ruled today in Wittman v. Personhubalah that three members of Congress from Virginia lacked standing to appeal a federal court's rejection of the state's districting plan. The ruling means that the district court's decision stays in place, and that districting plan designed by a court-appointed special master and approved by the court now sets the lines for Virginia's congressional districts.

In this up-and-down, politically charged case, the Court not only avoided a thorny underlying question of race-based districting (and all the politics that go with it), but it also avoided the hardest standing issues in favor of resolving the case unanimously on narrower standing grounds.

The case involves the state's 2012 redistricting plan, which packed black voters into a certain congressional district. Sponsors of the measure said that they did this in order to comply with the one-person-one-vote principle and to comply with nonretrogression under Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act. A district court struck the plan (twice) as a racial gerrymander, and the state declined to appeal. But Republican members of Congress, who intervened on the side of the state, tried to take the case to the Supreme Court. (In the meantime, a court-appointed special master drew a new district map, and the court approved it.)

The Supreme Court rejected the appeal for lack of standing. The Court said that one member of Congress, who challenged the district court's ruling because it would have made it harder for him to get elected in his current district, lacked standing because he was already running, and would continue to run (irrespective of the Court's ruling), in another district. In other words, that member failed to show that a Court ruling would redress his harm. The Court said that two other members of Congress, who challenged the district court's ruling for the same reason, "have not identified record evidence establishing their alleged harm."

The Court dodged the harder standing issue--whether a representative has been sufficiently harmed based on district lines that would make it less likely that he or she could get elected.

The Court also dodged the underlying issue, whether a race impermissibly dominated when a state's redistricting plan packed black voters into a district for the stated reasons to comply with one-person-one-vote and non-retrogression. The last time the Court took up a similar question, almost exactly a year ago, in Alabama Legislative Black Caucus v. Alabama, the Court also avoided ruling squarely on the merits. Instead, the Court outlined some guiding principles and remanded the case for further proceedings.

Justice Breyer wrote the opinion for the unanimous Court.

May 23, 2016 in Cases and Case Materials, Equal Protection, Jurisdiction of Federal Courts, News, Opinion Analysis, Standing | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Court Puts a Halt on Kobach's Latest Effort to Restrict Voter Registration in Kansas

Judge Julie A. Robinson (D. Kansas) granted a preliminary injunction and halted Kansas's requirement that motor-voter applicants provide proof of citizenship when they register to vote (along with their driver's license application) in federal elections.

The ruling halts Kansas Secretary of State Chris Kobach's latest effort to restrict voter registration in that state. It also requires the state to register about 18,000 voters whose registrations were cancelled or put on hold for failure to provide proof of citizenship. At the same time, it allows the state to use a proof-of-citizenship requirement for registration for state elections. Kobach will appeal.

The Kansas law requires applicants for a driver's license and for voter registration to submit proof of citizenship. But the National Voter Registration Act, Section 5, says that every application for a driver's license "shall serve as an application for voter registration with respect to elections for Federal office." It goes on to say that a state "may require only the minimum amount of information necessary to . . . enable State election officials to assess the eligibility of that applicant and to administer voter registration and other parts of the election process."

Judge Robinson focused on the "minimum amount" language and ruled that Kansas's requirement didn't meet it. In particular, she said that the evidence didn't support that Kansas needed proof of citizenship, because the registration form already required an applicant to attest to citizenship and to sign the form. She said that the attestation requirement was plenty sufficient for the state to ensure that an applicant was qualified. (She noted that there wasn't really a problem with noncitizens registering, anyway, and that the proof-of-citizenship requirement was applied in a pretty sloppily.)

Judge Robinson rejected the state's argument that this would lead to two different registration forms--one for state elections (which would require proof of citizenship) and another for federal elections (which would not). She said that this wouldn't result in two different sets of electors, just two different sets of requirements that would lead to the same result. And in any event it was a problem of the state's own creation.

The upshot is that Judge Robinson held that the NVRA preempted Kansas's proof-of-citizenship requirement under the Elections Clause and temporarily enjoined enforcement of the proof-of-citizenship requirement for motor-voter applicants for federal elections.

If the case sounds familiar, that's because it is--or almost is. The Supreme Court ruled in 2013 in Arizona v. Inter Tribal Council of Arizona that the state couldn't require proof of citizenship for the federal mail-in form for the same reason: the NVRA preempted state law under the Elections Clause. The NVRA provision in that case--for the mail-in registration option, not the motor-voter option--was different than the provision in this case, so Arizona didn't direct the result here. Still, the NVRA provision at issue here--the "minimum amount" language--led to the same outcome.

May 18, 2016 in Cases and Case Materials, Elections and Voting, Music, Opinion Analysis, Preemption | Permalink | Comments (0)

Monday, May 16, 2016

Court Remands Spokeo, on Concrete Harm and Standing

The Supreme Court today vacated and remanded Spokeo v. Robins, the case testing whether Congress can create standing for a plaintiff who suffered no concrete harm. We last posted on the case here.

The Court said no. It held that "Article III standing requires a concrete injury even in the context of a statutory violation" (emphasis added), but then sent the case back for determination whether there was a concrete injury in this case.

The ruling makes clear that if Robins, the plaintiff, can show a concrete harm, he will have standing. But it makes equally clear that Congress cannot simply create standing by authorizing a new individual cause of action. A plaintiff still has to show a particularized and concrete injury.

The case involves the congressionally-created individual cause of action under the Fair Credit Reporting Act. Under the FCRA, Congress granted adversely affected individuals a right to sue reporting agencies for failure to "follow reasonable procedures to assure maximum possible accuracy of the information concerning the individual about whom the report relates." Robins sued Spokeo under the provision, arguing that Spokeo posted incorrect information about him on its website. The Ninth Circuit held that Robins had standing.

The Supreme Court today vacated that decision and remanded. Justice Alito wrote for the Court and held that standing requires both a "particularized" injury and a "concrete" injury. The Ninth Circuit analyzed whether Robins's injury was particularized, but not whether it was concrete. Justice Alito wrote that a procedural harm--like the one here, because the FCRA establishes a procedure for reporting agencies to follow--could create a concrete injury, but the Ninth Circuit didn't analyze this in Robins's case. Therefore, the Court remanded to the Ninth Circuit to determine whether Robins sufficiently alleged a concrete harm.

At the same time, Justice Alito made clear that Congress could "elevat[e] to the status of legally cognizable injuries concrete, de facto injuries that were previously inadequate in law." But if so, a plaintiff still has to sufficiently allege both particularized and concrete injuries to meet the Article III standing requirement. This means that a plaintiff alleging a procedural injury alone wouldn't have standing, but a plaintiff alleging a procedural injury with a concrete and particularized harm would.

Congress' role in identifying and elevating intangible harms does not mean that a plaintiff automatically satisfies the injury-in-fact requirement whenever a statute grants a person a statutory right and purports to authorize that person to vindicate that right. Article III standing requires a concrete injury even in the context of a statutory violation.

Justice Thomas concurred and reached the same result by drawing on the difference between suits vindicating private rights and suits vindicating public rights. (Justice Thomas's "public rights" are probably broader than procedural claims like Robins's, and so this approach is probably more restrictive on standing.)

Justice Ginsburg dissented, joined by Justice Sotomayor. She argued that Robins sufficiently alleged a concrete harm, and that remand wasn't necessary.

 

May 16, 2016 in Cases and Case Materials, Congressional Authority, Jurisdiction of Federal Courts, News, Opinion Analysis, Separation of Powers, Standing | Permalink | Comments (0)

Dodging Merits, Court Sends Contraception Mandate Cases Back to Circuits

The Supreme Court today issued a per curiam opinion in Zubik v. Burwell, dodging the question whether the government's accommodation to its contraception mandate under the ACA violates the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, and remanding the case to give the parties a chance to settle in a way that would satisfy everybody's interests. Here's our last post on the case.

The ruling means that religious nonprofits and the government will have a chance to work out their differences and arrive at an accommodation that would both (1) "accommodate[] petitioners' religious exercise" and (2) "ensur[e] that women covered by petitioners' health plans 'receive full and equal health coverage, including contraceptive coverage.'" But the parties will do this separately in the Third, Fifth, Tenth, and D.C. Circuits, leading to the possibility that the results will be different, and possibly come back to the Supreme Court next Term.

Whatever happens in the lower courts, however, today's ruling virtual ensures that the issue won't resurface for a ruling at the Supreme Court before the fall elections.

Today's result came about after the Court asked the parties, post-argument, to brief whether "contraceptive coverage could be provided to petitioners' employees, through petitioners' insurance companies, without any such notice from petitioners." Both parties said this could happen. In particular, the non-profits said that their religious freedom wouldn't be infringed if they didn't have to do anything "more than contract for a plan that does not include coverage for some or all forms of contraception," even if their employees would receive free contraception coverage from the same insurance company. The government, for its part, said that it could modify its accommodation and still ensure that women get seamless contraceptive coverage.

The Court was quite careful to say that this is not a ruling on the merits.

Justice Sotomayor, joined by Justice Ginsburg, concurred, underscoring that this isn't a ruling on the merits--or even a signal on the merits--and that lower courts would be wrong to interpret it as such. She also underscored the Court's statements that the parties could fashion an accommodation seamlessly--that is, without establishing a new, separate policy for contraception.

The ruling sends the cases back to the lower courts, gives everyone a chance to figure out how to accommodate everyone's interests, and puts the issue off until after the fall elections (at least).

May 16, 2016 in Cases and Case Materials, News, Opinion Analysis, Religion | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, May 12, 2016

District Judge Says Obamacare Reimbursements are Invalid

Judge Rosemary Collyer (D.D.C.) ruled today that the Obama Administration spent money on reimbursements to insurers on the ACA exchanges without a valid congressional appropriation. Judge Collyer enjoined any further reimbursements to insurers until a valid appropriation is in place, but she stayed that injunction pending appeal.

Because of the stay, the ruling will have no immediate effect on government subsidies to insurers (and thus no immediate effect on the overall ACA, reductions in cost-sharing for certain purchasers on exchanges, or any other feature of the Act). But if Judge Collyer's ruling is upheld on appeal, and if Congress fails to specifically appropriate funds for Section 1402 reimbursements, or if the stay is lifted, this could deal a significant blow to the ACA. That's because the Act would require exchange insurers to provide a cost-sharing break to certain purchasers on the exchange, but the government wouldn't be able to reimburse the insurers for those costs, as the Act assumes. This could drive up costs, or drive insurers off the exchanges, or both--in any event, undermining the goals of the ACA.

The case involves Section 1402 of the ACA, which provides reimbursements to insurers on the ACA exchanges. Those reimbursements are designed to off-set reductions in deductibles, co-pays, and other cost-sharing expenses that the ACA requires exchange insurers to provide to lower-income insurance purchasers on an exchange. In other words, the ACA requires exchange insurers to cut cost-sharing costs for certain purchasers; and Section 1402 authorizes the government to reimburse insurers for those cuts.

But Congress didn't specifically appropriate funding for Section 1402. The administration nevertheless provided reimbursements on the theories that 1402 reimbursements are part of the integrated package that makes the ACA work, and that 1402 appropriations are covered in appropriations for other provisions in the Act.

Judge Collyer rejected these arguments. In particular, she wrote that Section 1402 is separate and distinct from other portions of the Act and requires its own, specific appropriation--not an inferred appropriation, based on a holistic reading of the Act, or based on appropriations for other features of the Act. (Behind these legal arguments is the idea that everyone understood that spending for Section 1402 reimbursements would be covered by appropriations for other portions of the Act. But "everyone understood" doesn't get very far in court.)

Moreover, she said that the government's attempts to leverage King v. Burwell to argue that Section 1402 funding is a necessary part of an integrated ACA fall flat:

This case is fundamentally different from King v. Burwell. There, the phrase "established by the State" . . . became "not so clear" when it was "read in context." . . . Simply put, the statute could not function if interpreted literally; it had to be saved from itself. . . .

The problem the Secretaries have tried to solve here is very different: it is a failure to appropriate, not a failure in drafting. Congress's subsequent inaction, not the text of the ACA, is what prompts the Secretaries to force the elephant into the mousehole.

Judge Collyer's ruling is obvious not the end of this matter: the government will surely appeal. In the meantime, her stay (alone) should allow government continued spending on insurer reimbursements, and thus (alone) won't have any significant impact on the ACA.

Judge Collyer earlier ruled that the House of Representatives had standing to bring this case, but that it lacked standing to challenge another administration act, delay of time when employers had to provide minimum health insurance to employees.

 

May 12, 2016 in Cases and Case Materials, Congressional Authority, Executive Authority, News, Opinion Analysis, Separation of Powers | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

D.C. Circuit Rules Against Serbian PM Supporter in Defamation Suit

The D.C. Circuit ruled in Jankovic v. International Crisis Group that a supporter of former Serbian Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic failed to make out a defamation case against the International Crisis Group for critical statements in an ICG report.

The ruling means that plaintiff Milan Jankovic's case against the ICG is dismissed. (Jankovic is also known as Philip Zepter.)

Zepter, a prominent Serbian businessman, sued the ICG for defamation after the organization published a report that said that Zepter was a member of the "New Serbian Oligarchy" and that he was "associated with the Milosevic regime and benefited from it directly." The ICG report also said that individuals like Zepter continued to be in positions of power and to enjoy access to public resources, and that few of the "crony companies" had been subject to legal action, despite promises by post-Milosevic reformers. The district court concluded that a reasonable reader could construe the statements as saying that Zepter was a crony of Milosevic and supported the regime in exchange for favorable treatment.

As an initial matter, the D.C. Circuit applied its three-part rule and concluded that Zepter was a limited-purpose public figure. The court said that (1) the controversy was public, (2) Zepter played a significant role in it, and (3) the defamatory statement was germane to Zepter's participation. As to (2), the court said that "[t]he evidence . . . shows that [Zepter] was an outspoken supporter, financial backer, and advisor of Prime Minister Djindjic [who] paid over $100,000 to a lobbyist to support [Djindjic's] effort to improve relations between the United States and Serbia." "The evidence shows that Zepter had voluntarily thrust himself into ensuring that Serbia underwent reforms in the post-Milosevic era."

If there seems to be a disconnect between Zepter's role as a Djindjic supporter and a Milosevic crony, here's what the court said: "Yet even if Zepter was an important figure in the Serbian reform effort mainly due to his relationship with Prime Minister Djindjic, his relationship to Milosevic is relevant to Zepter's role in the controversy. Linking Zepter to Milosevic would be relevant to understanding Zepter's role and why he wanted to be involved in the reform effort led by Prime Minister Djindjic."

The court went on to say that Zepter failed to show evidence of actual malice. "What is still missing is evidence that ICG had 'serious doubts' about the truth of the defamatory statement or that it published the statement with a high degree of awareness of its probable falsity, such that ICG acted with reckless disregard for the statement's truth."

The ruling ends Zepter's case against the ICG.

May 10, 2016 in Cases and Case Materials, First Amendment, News, Opinion Analysis, Speech | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, May 6, 2016

Ninth Circuit Says Arizona Identity-Theft-in-Employment Law Not Preempted

The Ninth Circuit ruled earlier this week that the federal Immigration Reform and Control Act did not on its face preempt Arizona's laws banning the use of a false identity to obtain employment.

The ruling reverses a lower court's preliminary injunction against the Arizona laws (allowing them to go into effect), but leaves open the possibility that they could be preempted as applied in the next round of motions.

The case involves Arizona's efforts to regulate the use of identity theft to obtain employment. The state's bans were designed in part to clamp down on unauthorized aliens' use identity theft to obtain employment. But they were also designed to clamp down on U.S. citizens' use of identity theft to obtain employment.

The plaintiffs in the case--an advocacy organization and individual unauthorized aliens--sued, arguing that the federal IRCA preempted Arizona's laws, based on the Court's analysis striking much of S.B. 1070 in Arizona. (The Court in Arizona held that the state could not criminalize an unauthorized alien for working, because the state law would pose an obstacle to the federal objective, codified in the federal act, to criminalize only the employer (and not the employee).) The plaintiffs moved for a preliminary injunction based on their facial preemption claim, and the district court granted it.

The Ninth Circuit reversed. The court held that IRCA didn't likely facially preempt Arizona's laws, because even under Arizona the laws could be applied in a constitutional way. In particular, Arizona's laws applied to U.S. citizens using identity theft to obtain employment, too--and nothing in federal law prohibits that. This constitutional application of Arizona's laws meant that they couldn't be facially preempted by IRCA, even if an application of the laws to unauthorized aliens would be preempted under Arizona.

The court noted that the Supreme Court hasn't squarely decided whether the facial-challenge standard in Salerno applied to preemption claims, or if a lower standard applied. (Salerno says that in order to succeed on a facial challenge a plaintiff has to show that "no set of circumstances exists under which the Act would be invalid." That's a high bar.) Without guidance from the Court, the Ninth Circuit applied Salerno, consistent with circuit law.

The ruling is a setback for the plaintiffs. But it apparently leaves open the possibility that a court could hold that federal law preempts Arizona's laws as applied to unauthorized aliens. More to come . . . .

May 6, 2016 in Cases and Case Materials, Federalism, News, Opinion Analysis, Preemption | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, April 27, 2016

Base Campaign Contribution Limit Challenge Headed to Full D.C. Circuit

The D.C. Circuit ruled today in Holmes v. FEC that a lower court erred in not certifying a challenge to federal base contribution limits to the en banc D.C. Circuit.

The ruling means that the full D.C. Circuit will take up the question whether federal base contribution limits violate the First Amendment.

The case arose when the plaintiffs challenged the federal base contribution limit of $2,600 "per election" as violating free speech. They wanted to contribute $5,200 to a congressional candidate in the general election, but the "per election" limit prohibited this. (They could have contributed $2,600 in the primary, then another $2,600 in the general, but they didn't want to contribute in the primary.) They argued that language in the plurality opinion in McCutcheon supported their claim: "Congress's selection of a $5,200 base limit [the combined limit for a primary and general election, according to the plaintiffs] indicates its belief that contributions of that amount or less do not create a cognizable risk of corruption."

The district court declined to certify the question to the D.C. Circuit, because the plaintiffs' argument contradicted "settled law," that is, Supreme Court precedent.

The D.C. Circuit reversed. The court said,

We therefore do not think a district court may decline to certify a constitutional question simply because the plaintiff is arguing against Supreme Court precedent so long as the plaintiff mounts a non-frivolous argument in favor of overturning that precedent. That the plaintiff will be fighting a losing battle in the lower courts does not necessarily make the question "obviously frivolous," or "wholly insubstantial," or "obviously without merit." The plaintiff has to raise the question to ensure that it is preserved for Supreme Court review. And certifying the question fulfills Section 30110's evident purpose of accelerating potential Supreme Court review.

At the same time, the court declined to order certification for a related Fifth Amendment claim against base limits. The court said that this claim was based on regulations, not the Act, and therefore not subject to certification.

April 27, 2016 in Campaign Finance, Cases and Case Materials, First Amendment, News, Opinion Analysis, Speech | Permalink | Comments (0)