Thursday, March 26, 2015

Fifth Circuit Rejects FMLA Claims

The Fifth Circuit dismissed most of the plaintiff's Family and Medical Leave Act case in Bryant v. Texas Dep't of Aging and Disability Services, holding that most claims were barred by state sovereign immunity and qualified immunity. But the court remanded the question whether the plaintiff's claim for monetary damages against her supervisor is barred by state sovereign immunity.

The plaintiff, Tammy Bryant, sued her employer, Texas Department of Aging and Disability Services, and her direct supervisor, Kim Littleton, for interfering with her self-care FMLA leave and for retaliating against her for taking FMLA leave. She sought reinstatement and monetary damages.

The Fifth Circuit dismissed most of Bryant's case. The court ruled that while Congress validly abrogated states' Eleventh Amendment immunity with respect to the FMLA's family-care provision, Nev. Dep't of Human Resources v. Hibbs, Congress did not validly abrogate with respect to the self-care provision. Coleman v. Court of Appeals of Maryland. As a result, the department had Eleventh Amendment immunity against Brant's self-care claims for monetary damages.

As to Bryant's claim for reinstatement, the court said that the Ex Parte Young exception (allowing plaintiffs to sue a state for prospective relief) did not apply to suits against state agencies; it only applies against state employees acting in their official capacities.

The court ruled further that Littleton enjoyed qualified immunity from Bryant's interference claims, because Bryant failed to show that Littleton violated clearly established law.

Finally, the court remanded Bryant's claim for monetary damages against Littleton. The court recognized that this "depends on the state's being the real party in interest" and left it to the lower court to work that out.

March 26, 2015 in Cases and Case Materials, Congressional Authority, Courts and Judging, Eleventh Amendment, Jurisdiction of Federal Courts, News, Opinion Analysis | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

In Victory for Plaintiffs, Court Vacates, Remands Alabama Redistricting Case

The Supreme Court ruled today (5-4, with Justice Kennedy joining the four progressives in the majority) that the district court erred in its analysis of the plaintiffs' racial gerrymandering claims against the State of Alabama in the wake of the state's redistricting after the 2010 census. The ruling, a victory for the plaintiffs, sends the case back to the district court and allows the parties to introduce additional evidence to support their cases. It also gives the momentum to the plaintiffs on the merits. We previously posted on the case here.

The case now goes back to the district court for reconsideration in light of the four points below. Today's ruling also allows the plaintiffs to submit additional evidence in support of their claims, thus strengthening their district-specific discrimination claims, their claims that race was a predominate factor in drawing certain districts, and their argument that the state's use of race wasn't sufficiently tailored to comply with Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act.

Thus while today's ruling isn't an outright victory for the plaintiffs, it gives them the clear momentum on remand.

The case, Alabama Legislative Black Caucus v. Alabama, arose after Alabama redrew its legislative districts in a way that packed black voters into existing majority-minority districts. The state said it did this in order to avoid retrogression under Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act. (The state was then covered by Section 5, pre-Shelby County.) The plaintiffs challenged the move as a racial gerrymander. The three-judge district court rejected the challenge and ruled in favor of the state.

The Court (by Justice Breyer) vacated that ruling and remanded the case. Justice Breyer wrote that the district court made four legal mistakes:

1. The district court treated the plaintiffs' challenge to the redistricting as a whole, when it should have treated the challenge in specific electoral districts. The Court said that the district court concluded that because racial criteria had not predominated in redrawing some districts, racial criteria did not predominate "with respect to the State as an undifferentiated whole." This was in error. Moreover, the Court held that the plaintiffs didn't pitch their case only against the State as an undifferentiated whole (as the dissent argued); instead, the plaintiffs presented evidence to support a district-specific approach (even if they could have made this case "more clearly")--the approach that the district court should have used.

The Court ordered the district court to consider a district-specific approach on remand and allowed the plaintiffs to produce additional evidence to support their claims.

2. The district court erroneously held that the Alabama Democratic Conference lacked standing to make its claims against redistricting as a whole and as to four individual Senate districts. The district court said that the Conference lacked associational standing, because the record didn't clearly identify the districts where individual Conference members resided. The Court said this was wrong--and that the district court should have given the Conference an opportunity to show standing. The Court held that the recorded supported the fact that the Conference was state-wide, and had members in each of the state's majority-minority districts. The Court ordered the district court on remand to "reconsider the Conference's standing by permitting the Conference to file its list of members and permitting the State to respond, as appropriate."

3. The district court erred by holding in the alternative that the race was not a predominant factor in the creation of any individual district. The Court held that the district court "did not properly calculate 'predominance,'" because it concluded that the state considered race along with other race-neutral factors, so that the other factors outweighed the consideration of race. Justice Breyer explained:

In our view, however, an equal protection goal is not one factor among others to be weighed against the use of race to determine whether race "predominates." Rather, it is part of the redistricting background, taken as a given, when determining whether race, or other factors, predominate in a legislator's determination as to how equal population objections will be met."

In other words, the question whether race predominates compares a state's consideration of race with its consideration of race-neutral factors like compactness, contiguity, respect for political subdivisions or communities, incumbency protection, and political affiliation. But that comparison list does not include equal population. Equal population is different, because it's constitutionally required. "It is not a factor to be treated like other nonracial factors when a court determines whether race predominates over other, 'traditional' factors in the drawing of district boundaries." Instead, it's a "background rule against which redistricting takes place." And the district court was wrong to say otherwise.

Treating equal population as a background rule (and not one of the nonracial factors), the Court said that race might well have predominated in the drawing of certain districts. It remanded for reconsideration.

4. The district court wrongly concluded that even if race predominated, the gerrmandering claims failed because the redrawn districts satisfied strict scrutiny--that is, they are drawn to comply with Section 5 of the VRA. The Court said that the district court misperceived Section 5: It "does not require a covered jurisdiction to maintain a particular numerical minority" (as the district court held), but rather "requires the jurisdiction to maintain a minority's ability to elect a preferred candidate of choice."

Justice Scalia wrote the principal dissent, joined by Chief Justice Roberts and Justices Thomas and Alito. Justice Scalia said that the plaintiffs screwed up their case by alleging a state-wide violation--a claim the law doesn't allow--and that the majority wrongly gave them a do-over.

[A]llowing appellants a second bite at the apple invites lower courts similarly to depart from the premise that our is an adversarial system whenever they deem the stakes sufficiently high. Because I do not believe that Article III empowers this Court to act as standby counsel for sympathetic litigants, I dissent.

Justice Thomas wrote a separate dissent for himself alone to say how "our jurisprudence in this area continues to be infected with error." "We have somehow arrived at a place where the parties agree that Alabama's legislative districts should be fine-tuned to achieve some 'optimal' result with respect to black voting power; the only disagreement is about what percentage of blacks should be placed in those optimized districts. This is nothing more than a fight over the 'best' racial quota.'"

 

March 25, 2015 in Cases and Case Materials, Elections and Voting, Equal Protection, News, Opinion Analysis | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Court Dismisses Defamation Case on Government State Secret Assertion

Judge Edgardo Ramos (SDNY) dismissed a private defamation case this week after the government moved to intervene and asserted the state secrets privilege. Judge Ramos ruled that moving forward with the case at all (even excluding privileged evidence) would "impose an unjustifiable risk of disclosing state secrets." The ruling thus puts an end to the case, unless and until appealed. It is not a ruling on the merits, however.

The case, Restis v. American Coalition Against Nuclear Iran, involves Greek shipping magnate Victor Restis's defamation claim against the group United Against Nuclear Iran for claiming, as part of its "name and shame" campaign, that Restis was involved in the illegal exportation of Iranian oil in violation of international sanctions. Restis sued UANI, and the government intervened and moved to dismiss on state secrets grounds, filing a classified declaration by the head of the government department that has control over the matter in support. (The government asserted, and the court apparently accepted, that the government couldn't even reveal "the department that has control over the matter" without risking the disclosure of secret information.)

Judge Ramos reviewed the declaration in camera and held two ex parte, in camera meetings with the government before determining that the state secrets privilege applied. "Having carefully reviewed the classified declarations and documents submitted by the Government ex parte, and being cognizant of a district court's obligation to grant 'utmost deference' to the executive's determination of the likely import of disclosure of the information on military or diplomatic security, the Court is satisfied that there is a reasonable danger that disclosure of the facts underlying the Government's assertion would in fact jeopardize national security."

Judge Ramos went on to say that "further litigation of this action would impose an unjustifiable risk of disclosing state secrets" and dismissed the case entirely. (Under the state secrets privilege, Judge Ramos might have allowed the case to move forward without the privileged evidence. But here, he said, any further litigation would risk disclosure.)

Notably absent from the ruling was any discussion of the state secrets privilege as a separation-of-powers principle. (Treating the privilege as a separation-of-powers principle has in the past led to a much more robust privilege, as in the Fourth Circuit's ruling in El-Masri.) Instead, Judge Ramos treated the privilege as it was designed and as the government apparently asserted it--as an evidentiary privilege. Even so, the government's assertion of the privilege resulted in the dismissal of the entire case.

Judge Ramos rejected the plaintiff's arguments that the government shouldn't be able to rely only on ex parte submissions for its assertion and that the case could be litigated in an in camera trial--because the evidence was apparently too secret even to tell the lawyers. Judge Ramos wrote, "The nature of the information here requires that counsel not be granted access."

Judge Ramos gave a hat tip--but only a hat tip--to the plaintiff's interest in access to justice:

The Court recognizes that dismissal is a "harsh sanction." It is particularly so in this case because Plaintiffs not only do not get their day in court, but cannot be told why.

Still, he said that "dismissal is nonetheless appropriate," because "there is no intermediate solution that would allow this litigation to proceed while also safeguarding the secrets at issue."

March 25, 2015 in Cases and Case Materials, Courts and Judging, Executive Privilege, Jurisdiction of Federal Courts, News, Opinion Analysis, Separation of Powers, State Secrets | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Sierra Club Has Standing, Defeats EPA Redesignation of Cincinnati Area

The Sixth Circuit ruled last week in Sierra Club v. EPA that the Sierra Club had standing to challenge EPA's redesignation of the Ohio and Indiana portions of the Cincinnati area from "nonattainment" to "attainment" of the area's national air quality standards for particulate matter. The court went on to rule that the EPA's redesignation violated the Clean Air Act.

The ruling is notable, because it's the first time the Sixth Circuit had a chance to address a petitioner's burden of production on standing in a direct appeal of a final agency action. The court said that the petitioner bears a burden of production similar to that required at summary judgment (and not like the lower standard required on a motion to dismiss), that is: "the petitioner has to present specific facts supporting standing through citations to the administrative record or 'affidavits or other evidence' attached to its opening brief, unless standing is self-evident." This standard aligns the Sixth Circuit with the Seventh, Eighth, Tenth, and D.C. Circuits.

Here, the Sierra Club attached to its brief a declaration by Sierra Club members who claimed that the redesignation would cause aesthetic, recreational, and physical injuries. As to causation and redressability, the court noted "that many courts have apparently found it so obvious that redesignation would lead to higher emissions that they did not even need to discuss the standing of environmental litigants." Still, the court looked to "reasonable inferences" about redesignation's impact and concluded that "[w]e find it reasonable to infer actual and imminent aesthetic and physical injuries to an identified member of the Club from redesignation of the Cincinnati area."

After concluded that the Sierra Club had standing, the court went on to rule against the EPA on the merits--that the redesignation violated the Clean Air Act.

March 24, 2015 in Cases and Case Materials, Courts and Judging, Jurisdiction of Federal Courts, News, Opinion Analysis, Standing | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Monday, March 23, 2015

No Absolute Immunity for Officers Who Falsified Evidence

The Ninth Circuit ruled last week that officers who falsely testified against a defendant based on shoddy investigation reports did not enjoy the traditional absolute immunity that witnesses enjoy against a civil suit. The ruling means that the defendant's case against the officers can go forward.

The case, Lisker v. City of Los Angeles, grew out of a wrongful conviction for second-degree murder based upon two police officers' false testimony that was based on shoddy investigation reports. The defendant, Lisker, who served over twenty-six years in custody, sued the officers for civil rights violations under Section 1983. The officers claimed they enjoyed absolute immunity because they were witnesses against him at trial.

But the Ninth Circuit rejected that claim. The court ruled that the officers' testimony was based upon their investigation reports, and, as such, looked more like a non-testimonial act (like "tampering with documentary or physical evidence or preventing witnesses from coming forward," which is not a basis for absolute immunity) than testimony (which is). The court also said that the policy reasons behind absolute immunity didn't apply to the investigative materials here:

Absolute witness immunity is motivated by the recognition that "[a] witness who knows that he might be forced to pay damages, might be inclined to shade his testimony in favor of the potential plaintiff, to magnify uncertainties, and thus to deprive the finder of fact of candid, objective, and undistorted evidence." That immunity extends to conspiracies to testify falsely for practical reasons, as a plaintiff could otherwise easily undermine the interest in witness candor by challenging the conspiracy rather than the testimony itself. But when defendants have "dual roles as witness and fabricator," extending protection from the testimony to the fabricated evidence "would transform the immunity from a shield to ensure" candor into "a sword allowing them to trample the statutory and constitutional rights of others." The detectives' ultimate testimony "does not serve to cloak these actions with absolute testimonial immunity"; if it did, they would be rewarded for "compound[ing] a constitutional wrong."

March 23, 2015 in Cases and Case Materials, Courts and Judging, News, Opinion Analysis | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Friday, March 20, 2015

Families of Hostages Lack Standing to Halt Government No-Ransom Policy

The Ninth Circuit ruled today in Munns v. Kerry that families of a government contractor taken hostage in Iraq lacked standing to challenge the alleged government policy prohibiting families from offering a reward or negotiating with terrorist kidnappers. The ruling dismisses the case.

The case was brought by former employees of a private firm (and their families) that contracted with the government for security services in Iraq. Former employees of the company claim, through their next of kin, that they were issued substandard military equipment and were ill-prepared for a mission (because of the negligence of their employer, sanctioned by the State Department), that as a result they were taken hostage and held for over a year, and that government policy prohibited the families from negotiating with the kidnappers. Kidnappers brutally executed the employees in 2008.

One plaintiff, Bjorlin, not taken hostage, alleges that he wishes to return to Iraq but wants to be sure that government policies will not prevent his employer from properly equipping him for security missions.

The families of the kidnapped and executed employees argued that an alleged government policy prohibiting them from seeking information on the kidnapped employees, and offering a reward, violated the First Amendment; they sought declaratory and injunctive relief against such a policy. They also argued that the government withheld money that belongs to them as survivors of their deceased contractor relatives, in violation of the Due Process and Takings Clauses; they sought monetary damages.

The Ninth Circuit ruled that the plaintiffs lacked standing for their claims for declaratory and injunctive relief. As to the families of executed employees, the court said that they didn't allege how any government policies would affect them in the future (even if they alleged that those policies affected them in the past). As to Bjorlin, the court said that the chain of events required before he would be affected by any policies was simply too attenuated.

Because the court affirmed the dismissal based on lack of standing, it didn't address the political question doctrine as an alternative basis for dismissal.

The court also rejected the plaintiffs' claims for monetary damages based on sovereign immunity.

March 20, 2015 in Cases and Case Materials, Courts and Judging, Jurisdiction of Federal Courts, News, Opinion Analysis, Standing | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Thursday, March 19, 2015

Ninth Circuit Upholds Rejection of Anti-Israel Ad on Metro Bus

The Ninth Circuit this week upheld a county's decision to reject an ad critical of Israel (and U.S. support for Israel) on the side of a Metro bus against a First Amendment challenge. The ruling says that the bus side is a limited public forum, subject to a lower level of scrutiny--a holding at odds with holdings in other circuits in similar cases--and concluded that the county's rejection of the ad met that lower standard.

We posted just last week on SEPTA's (Southeastern Pennsylvania) rejection of an anti-Muslim ad--and a district judge's ruling that the rejection violated the First Amendment. Here's our post on a federal case out of New York going the same way; and here's our post on the Sixth Circuit, moving in the opposite direction.

King County, Washington, which runs Metro's bus advertising program through a contract with a private company, has a policy that prohibits ads with certain content (ads for alcohol and tobacco, adult movies, video games for mature audiences, and the like). The policy also has two catch-all "civility clauses" that prohibit material that would foreseebly result in disruption of the transportation system or incite a response that threatens public safety.

SeaMAC, a non-profit opposed to U.S. support for Israel, proposed a Metro ad that read:

ISRAELI WAR CRIMES

YOUR TAX DOLLARS AT WORK

www.Stop30Billion-Seattle.org

The county initially approved the ad. But a local television report on the ad provoked a massive hostile, even threatening, response, which overwhelmed the Metro call center and employees' e-mails and caused many customers to express safety concerns.

Soon after the story ran, but before Metro ran SeaMAC's ad, two pro-Israeli groups submitted their own ads:

PALESTINIAN WAR CRIMES

YOUR TAX DOLLARS AT WORK

And (with a picture of Hitler):

IN ANY WAR BETWEEN THE CIVILIZED MAN AND THE SAVAGE,

SUPPORT THE CIVILIZED MAN

Given the hostile reaction to SeaMAC's ad, the county rejected both groups' ads under one of the civility clauses, and SeaMAC sued.

The Ninth Circuit ruled that the side of Metro buses was a limited public forum (not a public forum or designated public forum), based on the pre-screening process for ads, the county's prior implementation (it had not categorically accepted ads, and it had rejected some), and the nature of the side of a bus (the purpose of which was to raise revenue through ad sales).

The court recognized that this put it at odds with other circuits that have held that bus sides were a designated public forum (subject to strict scrutiny). But it said that those courts made a mistake:

Some of those courts, in our view, mistakenly concluded that if the government opens a forum and is willing to accept political speech, it has necessarily signaled an intent to create a designated public forum. Neither the First Amendment nor the Supreme Court's public forum precedent impose that categorical rule.

The court went on to rule that the county's decision was reasonable and viewpoint neutral, and therefore valid.

The dissent argued that the sides of Metro's buses were a designated public forum, subject to strict scrutiny, that the civility clause gave the county too much discretion, and that the county's decision (in light of the hostile reaction to SeaMAC's ad) raised heckler veto problems. The dissent would have remanded the case for determination whether the county's decision satisfied strict scrutiny.

March 19, 2015 in Cases and Case Materials, First Amendment, News, Opinion Analysis, Speech | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

New Jersey Supreme Court Finds Portion of Bias Intimidation Statute Unconstitutional

The Supreme Court of New Jersey has found a section of the state's "bias intimidation" statute, NJ 2C:16-1, unconstitutional in its opinion in State v. Pomianeck.  Subsection a (3) of the statute provides that bias intimidation includes an offense committed:

under circumstances that caused any victim of the underlying offense to be intimidated and the victim, considering the manner in which the offense was committed, reasonably believed either that (a) the offense was committed with a purpose to intimidate the victim or any person or entity in whose welfare the victim is interested because of race, color, religion, gender, disability, sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, national origin, or ethnicity, or (b) the victim or the victim's property was selected to be the target of the offense because of the victim's race, color, religion, gender, disability, sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, national origin, or ethnicity.

Justices
New Jersey Supreme Court Justices

The defendant was convicted of violating subsection 3.  He and another public employee, both white, tricked another employee, who was black, into going into a wide steel storage cage, then locked the door, made a "banana" remark and laughed, and after a few minutes opened the cage door.  The defendant was convicted of official misconduct as well as petty disorderly persons’ offenses of harassment by alarming conduct and harassment by communication, in addition to subsection (a)(3) of the bias intimidation statute.

On appeal challenging the constitutionality of subsection (a)(3) , the New Jersey appellate court found that the subsection's focus on the victim's reasonable belief - - - rather than the defendant's actual state of mind - - - was a violation of the First Amendment, relying on cases such as Virginia v. Black and R.A.V. v. St. Paul.  The appellate court therefore found the statute should be construed to include a mens rea and remanded the case.

New Jersey's highest court unanimously found that the appellate court exceeded its bounds by interpreting the statute to include a mens rea.  It then proceeded to the constitutional issues, noting that the first inquiry was "whether the line separating lawful from criminal conduct in subsection (a)(3) is so vague that a reasonable person would not have fair notice when that line is crossed," and thus would not meet the "due process demands of the Fourteenth Amendment.":

The answer raises interrelated First Amendment concerns. Nevertheless, only if subsection (a)(3) can survive due process scrutiny is it necessary to engage in a First Amendment analysis.

The New Jersey Supreme Court concluded that subsection (a)(3) could not survive due process because it hinged on the victim's reasonable belief:

Of course, a victim’s reasonable belief about whether he has been subjected to bias may well depend on the victim’s personal experiences, cultural or religious upbringing and heritage, and reaction to language that is a flashpoint to persons of his race, religion, or nationality. A tone-deaf defendant may intend no bias in the use of crude or insensitive language, and yet a victim may reasonably perceive animus. The defendant may be wholly unaware of the victim’s perspective, due to a lack of understanding of the emotional triggers to which a reasonable person of that race, religion, or nationality would react. Nothing in the history of the bias-intimidation statute suggests that the Legislature intended to criminalize conduct through the imposition of an amorphous code of civility or criminalize speech that was not intended to intimidate on the basis of bias. It bears repeating that no other bias-intimidation statute in the nation imposes criminal liability based on the victim’s reasonable perceptions.

The court thus found subsection (a)(3) unconstitutional under due process doctrine requiring adequate notice and lack of vagueness:  the defendant "was convicted not based on what he was thinking but rather on his failure to appreciate what the victim was thinking"  The court therefore did not reach the First Amendment issue.  The court emphasized that the "twin pillars of the bias- intimidation statute -- subsections (a)(1) and (a)(2) of N.J.S.A. 2C:16-1 -- still stand."

The ruling could also be relevant to a more famous New Jersey bias intimidation conviction of Dharun Ravi of the victim, his Rutgers roommate Tyler Clementi, as the NYT reports.

March 18, 2015 in Courts and Judging, Due Process (Substantive), First Amendment, Opinion Analysis, Race | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

California Supreme Court on Citizenship and Bar Admission

In its opinion in In re Hong Yen Chang on Admission, the California Supreme Court granted posthumous admission to the bar and reversed its more than a century-old decision in In re Hong Yen Chang 84 Cal. 163 (1890). The case was brought by LawProf Gabriel "Jack" Chin and students at UC-Davis College of Law.

Although Chang had been naturalized and was a lawyer in New York, a combination of the notorious Chinese Exclusion Act, upheld by the United States Supreme Court in Chae Chan Ping v. United States (1889), which prohibited naturalization of Chinese persons and the California requirement that members of the bar be citizens, the 1890 California Supreme Court held that Chang was not a "bona fide" citizen and could thus not be a member of the bar.  In discussing the decision, the 2015 California Supreme Court stated:

Understanding the significance of our two-page decision denying Chang admission to the bar requires a candid reckoning with a sordid chapter of our state and national history.

Yet the court's opinion is not only of historic note.  In discussing the repudiation of the sordid chapter, the California Supreme Court wrote:

More than a century later, the legal and policy underpinnings of our 1890 decision have been discredited. In 1972, this court unanimously held it was “constitutionally indefensible” to forbid noncitizens to practice law, calling such a ban “the lingering vestige of a xenophobic attitude” that “should now be allowed to join those anachronistic classifications among the crumbled pedestals of history.” (Raffaelli v. Committee of Bar Examiners (1972) 7 Cal.3d 288, 291.) One year later, the high court reached the same conclusion. (In re Griffiths (1973) 413 U.S. 717.) In 2013, our Legislature passed a law making undocumented immigrants eligible for admission to the State Bar. (Bus. & Prof. Code, § 6064, subd. (b).) We thereafter granted admission to an undocumented immigrant who had been brought to the United States as a child, put himself through college and law school, passed the California bar exam, and met the requirement of good moral character. (In re Garcia (2014) 58 Cal.4th 440, 466.) We said “the fact that an undocumented immigrant is present in the United States without lawful authorization does not itself involve moral turpitude or demonstrate moral unfitness so as to justify exclusion from the State Bar, or prevent the individual from taking an oath promising faithfully to discharge the duty to support the Constitution and laws of the United States and California.” (Id. at p. 460.)

While California has allowed noncitizens to be attorneys as the court notes, the issue is pending in other states, including - - - perhaps paradoxically - - - New York.

Hong-yen-chang-portrait
portrait of Hong Yen Chang via UC Davis School of Law

 

March 18, 2015 in Courts and Judging, Current Affairs, International, Opinion Analysis, Profiles in Con Law Teaching, Race, Supreme Court (US), Theory | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

No Attorney Fees in Long-Running Texas Redistricting Case

The Fifth Circuit denied the plaintiffs' claims for attorneys fees in the 2012 case out of San Antonio over Texas redistricting. The ruling marks a bitter end for the plaintiffs in this long-running and complicated dispute that put the plaintiffs between two district courts, two different sections of the Voting Rights Act, the Texas legislature, and the Supreme Court--and stuck them with a $360,000 bill for . . . a victory. The ruling rewards Texas's foot-dragging through the preclearance process as two cases simultaneously worked their ways through the courts.

Recall that the plaintiffs sued Texas in the Western District of Texas over the legislature's redistricting plan. The plaintiffs argued that the plan violated Section 2 of the Voting Rights Act and the Equal Protection Clause, and that it hadn't been precleared under Section 5. (The preclearance case was pending before a three-judge court in D.C.) The San Antonio court enjoined the legislature's redistricting plan because it hadn't been precleared and drew its own district maps.

The Supreme Court then stepped in and rejected the San Antonio court's maps, but gave the court another shot at drawing them. The San Antonio court redrew the maps according to the Supreme Court's new standard. Following the Supreme Court, the San Antonio court issued its new maps as "a result of preliminary determinations regarding the merits of the Section 2 and constitutional claims presented in this case, and application of the 'not insubstantial' standard for the Section 5 claims." (That "not insubstantial" standard said that the San Antonio court could only consider the Section 5 preclearance claim insofar as the plaintiffs' challenges in the D.C. court were "not insubstantial." But the merits of the Section 5 claim were reserved to the D.C. court (and not the San Antonio court).)

The D.C. court denied preclearance to the Texas legislature's maps. Texas appealed, but used the San Antonio court's plan as an interim plan for its 2012 elections.

In 2013, the Supreme Court struck the preclearance coverage formula in Shelby County and later vacated the D.C. court's judgment denying preclearance to the legislature's plan. At the same time, Governor Perry signed a bill repealing the legislature's plan and adopting the court's plan. The San Antonio district court dismissed the case (or what remained of it, the plaintiffs' Section 2 and constitutional claims).

This seems like a win for the plaintiffs. So why no attorney fees?

The Fifth Circuit held that the plaintiffs weren't "prevailing parties" under the fee-shifting statute. The court said that the plaintiffs couldn't have won their Section 5 claim at the San Antonio court, because only the D.C. court can rule on the merits of a Section 5 claim. And the Fifth Circuit said that the plaintiffs didn't win their Section 2 and constitutional claims at the San Antonio court, because the San Antonio court never evaluated them.

The Fifth Circuit suggested that the plaintiffs might have been "prevailing parties" under a "catalyst theory," by merely demonstrating that their lawsuit caused Texas to alter its conduct. But the Fifth Circuit noted that the Supreme Court rejected this approach in Buckhannon.

 

March 18, 2015 in Cases and Case Materials, Elections and Voting, Equal Protection, News, Opinion Analysis | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Fourth Circuit Dismisses Challenges to Muni Election Law

The Fourth Circuit ruled in Greenville County Republican Party v. Greenville County Election Commission that various challenges to South Carolina's municipal election procedures lacked justiciability and dismissed the case.

South Carolina law required municipalities to adopt by ordinance either a partisan or nonpartisan way of nominating candidates for public office in municipal elections. If a municipality selected the partisan method, South Carolina law allowed a certified political party to select one of three procedures: a party primary, a party convention, or a petition. Nomination by party primary required an open primary. Nomination by convention required a 3/4 super-majority vote of the party membership.

The Greenville County Republican Party Executive Committee, an affiliate of the state Republican party but not itself a certified political party, challenged these procedures under the First, Fifth, and Fourteenth Amendments. The Committee sought declaratory and injunctive relief, and monetary damages for having to implement the procedures in prior elections.

As the case worked its way up and down, Greenville changed its ordinance to nominate candidates using a nonpartisan procedure.

The Fourth Circuit ruled that this mooted the Committee's claims for prospective relief. In particular, the court said that the County's decision was not capable of repetition but evading review, because the Committee didn't satisfy its burden of establishing "a reasonable expectation" that it wouldn't go back to the partisan method of nominating candidates for future elections.

As to the surviving claims, the court held that the Committee lacked standing. The court said that the Committee didn't suffer any harm from the super-majority requirement for convention-nominated candidates; instead, the state party suffered that harm--making the Committee's claim a nonjusticiable third-party claim. The court also held that the Committee couldn't satisfy the traceability prong of standing, because it was the state party, not Greenville, that elected to use the open primary system. (The state Republican Party was at one time party to the suit, but withdrew.)

The ruling ends this suit, and, in the wake of Greenville's decision to use a nonpartisan nominating process, almost certainly ends any challenges to Greenville's old partisan process.

March 18, 2015 in Association, Cases and Case Materials, Elections and Voting, Equal Protection, Fifth Amendment, First Amendment, Fourteenth Amendment, News, Opinion Analysis | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Friday, March 13, 2015

Federal Judge Grants Preliminary Injunction for Anti-Muslim Bus Advertisement

 In his decision in American Freedom Defense Initiative (“AFDI”) v.  Southeastern Pennsylvania Transportation Authority (“SEPTA”),  federal district judge Mitchell Goldberg has granted a preliminary injunction in favor of AFDI and found SEPTA's anti-disparagement  standard for advertising on its buses, and its rejection of the proffered AFDI advertisement, violates the First Amendment.

LogoAFDI is a controversial organization that seeks to place anti-Islamic advertisements in a variety of public venues.  In New York City, a federal judge found the Metropolitan Transit Authority's initial rejection of the advertisements under its (since amended) "civilty standard" to be unconstitutional and the advertisements appeared, causing some NYC residents to engage in "more speech" in reaction to the advertisements.  On the contrary, the Sixth Circuit found the rejection of similar advertisements in southern Michigan buses by the governmental authority SMART to be constitutional under its policy prohibiting several categories of advertising including "political or political campaign advertising."

In Philadelphia, SEPTA's policy prohibited "Advertising that tends to disparage or ridicule any person or group of persons on the basis of race, religious belief, age, sex, alienage, national origin, sickness or disability."  The rejected advertisement read “Islamic Jew-Hatred: It’s in the Quran. Two Thirds of All US Aid Goes to Islamic Countries. Stop the Hate. End All Aid to Islamic Countries” and contained a relevant image captioned "Adolf Hitler and his staunch ally, the leader of the Muslim world, Haj Amin al-Husseini.”  (The opinion also contains an image of the advertisement).

Importantly, the parties stipulated that "over the past four years, SEPTA has accepted a number of concededly public issue advertisements on such topics as teacher seniority, fracking and contraceptive use."

Judge Goldberg found that the advertising space on the buses constituted a designated public forum, rejecting SEPTA's rather weak argument that it was a nonpublic forum.  The central issue, however, was whether the rejection of the advertisement was content (and perhaps viewpoint) based.  The judge found that it was, analogizing predictably to R.A.V. v. City of St. Paul (1992): 

In light of the Supreme Court’s holding in R.A.V., I find that SEPTA’s anti- disparagement standard is a content-based restriction. Like the ordinance in R.A.V., the anti- disparagement standard permits disparaging advertisements so long as they are not addressed to one of the disfavored topics which are specifically enumerated. In fact, outside of these specified topics, SEPTA’s standards could permit advertisements which disparage, for example, political affiliation or union membership. Thus, in selectively prohibiting speech based upon the subject addressed, SEPTA’s anti-disparagement standard constitutes a content-based restriction.

The judge then easily found that SEPTA's policy and its application could not survive strict scrutiny.

Whether or not SEPTA will appeal - - - or chose to revise its policy as NYC's MTA did - - - remains to be seen.

 

March 13, 2015 in First Amendment, Opinion Analysis, Speech | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack (0)

Monday, March 9, 2015

Eighth Circuit Holds Missouri's "Disrupting a House of Worship" Crime Violates First Amendment

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In its opinion today in Survivors Network of Those Abused by Priests, Inc. v. Joyce,  the Eighth Circuit found that Missouri's "House of Worship Protection Act,"  Mo. Rev. Stat. § 574.035, violates the First Amendment.

The statute provides that a person commits the crime of disrupting a house of worship if he or she "[i]ntentionally and unreasonably disturbs, interrupts, or disquiets any house of worship by using profane discourse, rude or indecent behavior, or making noise either within the house of worship or so near it as to disturb the order and solemnity of the worship services."

The panel's unanimous and relatively brief opinion, reversing the district judge, found fault with the statute as a content-based regulation, focusing as it does on "profane discourse, rude or indecent behavior."  The panel rejected the state's argument that it was a mere time, place, or manner regulation subject to a lower level of scrutiny.  Instead, the Eighth Circuit quoted the Court's decision in McCullen v. Coakley last Term that a statute "would not be content neutral if it were concerned with undesirable effects that arise from 'the direct impact of speech on its audience' or '[l]isteners' reactions to speech.'"

The Eighth Circuit then easily found that the content based statute did not survive strict scrutiny: "Even if the government interest in protecting the free exercise of religion were viewed as compelling, however, the content based prohibitions the Act places on profane or rude speech are not necessary to protect that freedom."  There were content neutral alternatives to protect houses of worship from disruption, such as noise regulations and there was nothing in the record showing that any worship services have been disrupted in Missouri.

Thus, the facial challenge to the statute, brought by SNAP - - - a non profit organization which advocates for victims of sexual abuse by clergy and members who "regularly communicate their messages outside of a Catholic friary in St. Louis where a priest accused of child molestation resides" - - - was successful. 

It does seem as if Missouri could amend the statute to pass constitutional scrutiny by excising the content-based language and leaving the noise related language.

[image via]

March 9, 2015 in First Amendment, Opinion Analysis, Sexuality, Speech | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Ninth Circuit Upholds Constitutionality of Ammunition Regulation

In its opinion in Fyock v. City of Sunnyvale, the Ninth Circuit upheld the constitutionality of a voter initiative, Measure C, prohibiting possession of "a large-capacity magazine," whether  "assembled or disassembled" and as defined as "any detachable ammunition feeding device with the capacity to accept more than ten (10) rounds."   The panel affirmed the district judge's denial of a motion for preliminary injunction agreeing that the plaintiff did not demonstrate a likelihood of prevailing on the merits.

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image via

Judge Michael Daly Hawkins, writing for the unanimous panel, employed a series of tests to conclude that the restriction survived the Second Amendment.  He articulated the now-common  overarching Second Amendment two-prong test, first asking  "whether the challenged law burdens conduct protected by the Second Amendment”; and second, if so, what level of scrutiny should be applied.  The Ninth Circuit agreed with the district judge that on the record before it, the large capacity magazine restriction burdened conduct within the ambit of the Second Amendment. 

As to the level of scrutiny, the panel relied on Ninth Circuit precedent stating that "to determine the appropriate level of scrutiny, the court must consider (1) how closely the law comes to the core of the Second Amendment right; and (2) how severely, if at all, the law burdens that right." Here, the court found that while the magazine restriction "likely reaches the core Second Amendment right" given that it prohibits such magazines in the home, "its resulting impact" on the core right of self defense in the home is not severe.  Thus, intermediate scrutiny was appropriate.

Finally, the court noted that in the context of Second Amendment challenges, intermediate scrutiny requires: “(1) the government’s stated objective to be significant, substantial, or important; and (2) a reasonable fit between the challenged regulation and the asserted objective.”  The court found that Sunnyvale's stated interests - - -to promote public safety by reducing the harm of intentional and accidental gun use; to reduce violent crime and reduce the danger of gun violence, particularly in the context of mass shootings and crimes against law enforcement - - - were undoubtedly substantial and important.  It also stated that there was a reasonable fit: Sunnyvale “submitted pages of credible evidence, from study data to expert testimony to the opinions of Sunnyvale public officials."  The court held that Sunnyvale was entitled to rely on such evidence and that the district judge was not required to find that the ordinance is the least restrictive means of achieving Sunnyvale’s interest.

The opinion is a concise and excellent example of the general state of Second Amendment analysis after District of Columbia v. Heller (2008) and McDonald v. Chicago (2010), especially relevant given increasing efforts to ban large capacity magazines.  

March 4, 2015 in Opinion Analysis, Second Amendment | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Court Clears Path to Internet Tax Reporting Challenge

The Supreme Court ruled today in Direct Marketing Ass'n v. Brohl that out-of-state retailers can move forward with their challenge to Colorado's requirement that the retailers notify Colorado customers of their Colorado sales and use tax burden and report tax-related information to those customers and to the Colorado Department of Revenue.

The case tests a state's best efforts at collecting sales and use taxes for out-of-state and internet purchases by its residents, given the long-standing rule that a state cannot tax out-of-state and internet retailers directly.

The underlying issue goes back to 1967, when the Court ruled in National Bellas Hess, Inc. v. Department of Revenue of Illinois that states cannot require a business to collect use taxes (the equivalent of sales taxes for out-of-state purchases) if the business does not have a physical presence in the state. That rule was based on the Dormant Commerce Clause. The Court reaffirmed that rule in 1992 in Quill Corp. v. North Dakota.

But that rule has created a significant loss of revenue for states, now that so many (and dramatically increasing) sales go through the internet, to out-of-state online retailers. The rule means that states cannot collect use taxes from those retailers.

So some states, like Colorado, implemented information and reporting requirements. For example, Colorado's law requires out-of-state retailers to inform its in-state customers of their use tax burden and to report tax-related information to Colorado tax authorities.

Out-of-state retailers sued, arguing that Colorado's requirements violated the Dormant Commerce Clause. The district court ruled in their favor, but the Tenth Circuit reversed, holding that the suit was barred by the Tax Injunction Act. In a relatively short and simple opinion today, the unanimous Court reversed, holding that the Tax Injunction Act did not bar the suit (because the Act only bars suits against a tax "assessment, levy or collection," and not information and reporting requirements).

The Court's ruling opens the door to the out-of-state retailers' challenge to Colorado's information and reporting requirements. If the district court is right, even these modest efforts violate the Dormant Commerce Clause--and create an even bigger headache for states trying to collect use taxes on their citizens' out-of-state and internet purchases.

On the other hand, Justice Kennedy signaled today in concurrence that the Court may be willing to reassess its Bellas Hess and Quill Corp. rule (or at least that the Court should reassess the rule) in light of the technological changes we've seen in the last 25 years (and the proliferation of online retailers) and the fact that the Dormant Commerce Clause changed enough between the two cases to render the Quill ruling questionable. (Justice Kennedy reminds us that three Justices upheld Bellas Hess in Quill on stare decisis grounds alone, and that the majority recognized that Bellas Hess stood on weak ground.)

Bellas Hess and Quill Corp. go to state use taxes, not information and reporting requirements like Colorado's. Still, the retailers' challenge to Colorado's information and reporting requirements could put Quill on the chopping block. (At least the district court decision striking the requirements relied on Quill.)

If so, this case (in its next round) could give the Supreme Court a chance to reassess the Quill rule and give states more latitude in collecting use taxes from out-of-state and internet retailers.

March 3, 2015 in Cases and Case Materials, Commerce Clause, Dormant Commerce Clause, Federalism, Jurisdiction of Federal Courts, News, Opinion Analysis, Recent Cases | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Monday, March 2, 2015

Nebraska Federal Judge Declares Same-Sex Marriage Ban Unconstitutional

Senior United States District Judge Joseph Bataillon has enjoined Nebraska's same-sex marriage ban in its state constitution and found it violates the Fourteenth Amendment in his  Memorandum and Order today in Waters v. Ricketts.

Recall that the United States Supreme Court will be hearing the issue this Term, having granted certiorari to the Sixth Circuit's divided opinion in the consolidated cases of DeBoer v. Snyder. The Court previously denied certiorari to opinions from the Fourth, Seventh, and Tenth Circuits all finding that same-sex marriage bans were unconstitutional, and the Ninth Circuit has ruled similarly.  The Eighth Circuit, in which Nebraska is located, has not issued a definitive opinion on the constitutionality of same-sex marriage. 

NebraskaJudge Joseph Bataillon's ruling sounds in both the Due Process and Equal Protection Clauses of the Fourteenth Amendment. He finds that marriage is a "fundamental liberty" and that the same-sex marriage ban is a facial classification based on gender. He also finds that Nebraska's state interests, including opposite sex parenting  and protecting tradition, are insufficient.  Throughout his analysis, he relies heavily on the Seventh Circuit's opinion in Baskin and the Ninth Circuit's opinion in Latta. 

 Interestingly, Judge Bataillon offers a prediction of the Court's conclusion:

The court finds the plaintiffs have demonstrated they will likely prevail on the merits of their claim. The court is persuaded that the Supreme Court will ultimately endorse, for one reason or another, the results obtained in the Fourth, Seventh, Ninth and Tenth Circuit challenges to same sex marriage bans.

Judge Bataillon supports this statement with an interesting footnote [15]:

This conclusion is supported by the Supreme Court's recent denial of a stay of an Alabama district court decision invalidating a same-sex marriage ban. See Strange v. Searcy, 2015 WL 505563 (U.S. Feb. 9, 2015) (denying of application for stay of an injunction preventing Attorney General of Alabama from enforcing Alabama laws as defining marriage as a legal union of one man and one woman) (Justice Thomas noting in dissent that the failure to stay the injunction “may well be seen as a signal of the Court's intended resolution [of the constitutional question it left open in Windsor]."); see also Armstrong v. Brenner, No. 14A650, 2014 WL 7210190 (U.S. Dec. 19, 2014) (denying stay of preliminary injunction barring enforcement of Florida’s marriage exclusion); Wilson v. Condon, 14A533, 2014 WL 6474220 (U.S. Nov. 20, 2014) (denying stay of judgment finding South Carolina’s marriage exclusion laws unconstitutional); Moser v. Marie, 14A503, 2014 WL 5847590 (U.S. Nov. 12, 2014) (denying stay of preliminary injunction preventing enforcement of Kansas’ marriage exclusion); Parnell v. Hamby, No 14A413, 2014 WL 5311581 (U.S. Oct. 17, 2014) (denying stay of district court decision declaring Alaska’s marriage exclusion unconstitutional); Otter v. Latta, No. 14A374, 2014 WL 5094190 (U.S. Oct. 10, 2014) (denying application for stay of Ninth Circuit’s judgment finding Idaho’s marriage exclusion laws unconstitutional)

Also, the Supreme Court itself has telegraphed its leanings. See Lawrence [v. Texas] 539 U.S. at 605 (Scalia, J., dissenting) (stating that “principle and logic” would require the Court, given its decision in Lawrence, to hold that there is a constitutional right to same-sex marriage); see also United States v. Windsor, 133 S. Ct. 2675, 2709 (2013) (Scalia, J., dissenting) (essentially stating that the majority opinion in Windsor makes a finding of unconstitutionality regarding state same-sex marriage bans "inevitable.")

The use of Scalia's dissenting opinions is yet another example of the Scalia's "petard" phenomenon.

Also interesting is Judge Bataillon's rejection of injury to Nebraska should there be a preliminary injunction: 

All but one of the plaintiff couples are married in a state that recognizes same-sex marriage. All of the couples have been in committed relationships for many years. Those that have resided in Nebraska have not caused damage to society at large or to the institution of marriage.

The preliminary injunction is effective March 9, at 8:00 am.  Nebraska is reportedly appealing and seeking an emergency stay.

 

March 2, 2015 in Courts and Judging, Due Process (Substantive), Equal Protection, Family, Gender, Interpretation, Opinion Analysis, Sexuality, Supreme Court (US) | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Saturday, February 28, 2015

Second Circuit Allows Police Officer's First Amendment Claim

In its opinion in Matthews v. City of New York, the Second Circuit upheld the First Amendment rights of a police officer in a unanimous panel opinion, authored by Judge Walker.

The court reversed the district judge's grant of summary judgment in favor of the City that had concluded that the police officer, Craig Matthews spoke as a public employee, not as a citizen, and that his speech was thus not protected by the First Amendment. 

At issue is the application of the closely divided Garcetti v. Ceballos  and its "clarification" in the United States Supreme Court's 2014 decision in Lane v. Franks ,regarding the "scope of employment" exclusion for First Amendment protection. Matthews alleged that he was retaliated against for speaking about an alleged quota system mandating the number of arrests, summons, and stop‐and‐frisks that police officers must conduct.  These are the same policies that have been so controversial in NYC and have been considered by the Second Circuit.

NYPD_Special_PatrolmanThe court detailed Matthews' speech:

In February 2009, Matthews, believing that the quota system was damaging to the NYPD’s core mission, reported its existence to then‐Captain Timothy Bugge, the Precinct’s commanding officer at that time. In March and April of 2009, Matthews again reported the quota system’s existence to Captain Bugge, and, in May 2009, Matthews reported the same to an unnamed Precinct executive officer.

In January 2011, Matthews met with then‐Captain Jon Bloch, the Precinct’s new commanding officer, and two other officers in Captain Bloch’s office. Matthews told them about the quota system and stated that it was “causing unjustified stops, arrests, and summonses because police officers felt forced to abandon their discretion in order to meet their numbers,” and that it “was having an adverse effect on the precinct’s relationship with the community.”

The Second Circuit panel held that "Matthews’s speech to the Precinct’s leadership in this case was not what he was “employed to do,” unlike the prosecutor’s speech in Garcetti."  Importantly, "Matthews’s speech addressed a precinct‐wide policy.  Such policy‐oriented speech was neither part of his job description nor part of the practical reality of his everyday work."

The court also considered whether the speech had a "civilian analogue," discussing its previous opinion in Jackler v. Byrne, a 2011 opinion in which the panel had also found the speech of a police officer protected by the First Amendment.  In part, the panel's conclusion rested on the fact that "Matthews reported his concerns about the arrest quota system to the same officers who regularly heard civilian complaints about Precinct policing issues."  

In holding that Matthews' speech is protected by the First Amendment, the opinion may be further indication that the grip of Garcetti on employee speech is loosening.  It is not only Lane v. Franks, in which the United States Supreme Court unanimously reversed the Eleventh Circuit's summary opinion and the Second Circuit's previous opinion in Jackler, but cases such as the Third Circuit's Flora v. Luzerne County decided last month.  This is not to say that Garcetti does not remain a formidable obstacle to any First Amendment claim by a public employee, but only that the obstacle is becoming less insurmountable. 

February 28, 2015 in Courts and Judging, Criminal Procedure, First Amendment, Opinion Analysis, Speech, Supreme Court (US), Theory | Permalink | Comments (1) | TrackBack (0)

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Second Circuit: Community College Not Entitled to Eleventh Amendment Sovereign Immunity

Does a community college stand in the shoes of the state for the purposes of Eleventh Amendment immunity from suit? 

In its opinion in Leitner v. Westchester Community College, a panel of the Second Circuit answered in the negative.

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Hartford Hall at WCC via

The court found that although Westchester Community College (WCC) is part of the state university system of New York (SUNY) that is entitled to Eleventh Amendment immunity, the community college is not similarly shielded.  Essentially, the question is whether the community college is more like the state or more like a local government ("community") which is not entitled to Eleventh Amendment immunity.  The court's rationale focused on the factor of the risk to the state treasury, finding it important that the state only contributes a fraction of WCC's budget, is not responsible for WCC's debts, and it is Westchester County that has the power to issue bonds and levy taxes to support WCC.  The court also considered the issue of state control. There are ten board members of WCC: the state Governor appointed four, while the county appointed five, with one board member elected by the student body. Further, the court considered the laws creating WCC, finding the statutory framework indicates its separation from SUNY.

The opinion seems straightforward even as it is acknowledges the curvatures of the landscape on which it is written. 

First, district courts have found that other SUNY community colleges are embraced by SUNY's sovereign immunity and the Second Circuit itself has found that the City University of New York is similarly entitled to sovereign immunity (even as the City of New York is not). 

Second, the court notes that other circuits examining the question whether a particular stateʹs community colleges are entitled to sovereign immunity have "unsurprisingly" reached disparate conclusions, given that the conclusions are based on state-specific inquiries into those collegesʹ fiscal and governance structures.  

Thus, having concluded that WCC is not entitled to Eleventh Amendment immunity, Carol Leitner's claim for a First Amendment violation can proceed directly against the community college, in addition to the WCC officials who are also defendants.

February 25, 2015 in Cases and Case Materials, Eleventh Amendment, Opinion Analysis | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Monday, February 23, 2015

NJ Trial Judge Overturns Christie's Pension Cuts

A New Jersey trial judge today ruled that Governor Chris Christie's cut to the state's public pension system violated the state and federal contracts clauses. Along the way, the judge also ruled that the state's contractual obligation to fund its public pension system did not violate the state constitutional Debt Limitations Clause and Appropriations Clause, and did not impermissibly infringe on the governor's line-item veto power. Oh, and she also ruled that the trial court had jurisdiction over the case, and that it didn't present a political question.

In a case that "implicate[s] the fragile balance at the heart of the legislative process . . . where political, constitutional, and judicial forces appear to collide," this ruling has a little something for everyone.

As a result of earlier litigation, the state has a statutory obligation to fund its public pension system. And the statute is written to create a contract right on the part of public employees--so that any decision not to fully fund the system immediately implicates the state and federal contract clauses. So when Governor Christie wielded his line-item veto pen to cut the state contribution out of the legislature's appropriation bill (because of unexpectedly low revenues), the plaintiffs were waiting in the wings with their contracts clause claims. And the judge agreed with them. That part of the ruling is unremarkable.

But the Governor's creative defenses--and the court's rejection of them--demand some attention. The governor argued that the statutory obligation to fund the public pension system violated the state constitutional Debt Limitations Clause (which limits state borrowing burdens) and the Appropriations Clause. Moreover, Governor Christie said that the statutory obligation intruded upon his executive power to veto legislation. The court reviewed the text, history, and cases on the relevant state constitutional provisions and concluded that they did not override the state's statutory obligation to fund its public pension system.

The ruling means that the state has to find $1.57 billion to fund the system. Governor Christie will likely appeal.

February 23, 2015 in Cases and Case Materials, Contract Clause, Executive Authority, News, Opinion Analysis, Separation of Powers, State Constitutional Law | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

Massachusetts Extends Right to Counsel in Private Guardianship

The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court ruled today that a parent in a private guardianship proceeding is entitled to counsel as a matter of due process. (The court previously ruled that a parent in a private adoption proceeding enjoyed that same right.) The case provides a categorical right to counsel under Massachusetts law, and thus stands in contrast to the case-by-case approach to a parent's federal due process right to counsel in Lassiter v. Department of Social Services.

The case, Guardianship of V.V., involved a guardianship proceeding between a minor's mother and great-grandmother. The mother was not initially represented by counsel when the lower courts awarded guardianship to the great-grandmother, although the mother obtained a lawyer later in the proceedings.

By the time the Supreme Judicial Court had a chance to rule, the case had become moot. That's because the minor was back with the mother. (The court said that the case was not moot on account of the mother obtaining a lawyer later in the proceeding. The court said the point was that the mother didn't have an attorney at the initial guardianship proceeding.) Still, the court said that the issue was capable of repetition but evading review--that it was an issue sure to come up again, and, because of the quick turn-around in guardianship cases, likely to evade appellate review.

The court held that the weighty interests and due process considerations in guardianship proceedings meant that parties to a guardianship proceeding had a categorical right to counsel. The court also noted that the state, by statute, provided counsel to parties to a guardianship proceeding where the state is a party, and that the same interests are at stake in a private guardianship proceeding.

February 10, 2015 in Cases and Case Materials, Comparative Constitutionalism, Fundamental Rights, News, Opinion Analysis, Procedural Due Process, State Constitutional Law | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)