Monday, September 7, 2015
In its opinion in Munroe v. Central Bucks School District, a divided panel of the Third Circuit found that a public school teacher's blog posts about students did not "rise to the level of constitutionally protected expression" under the First Amendment and thus they could be the basis of her termination. Agreeing with the district judge, the majority thus concluded that the balancing test of Pickering v. Board of Education (1968) was not satisfied.
The majority's opinion, authored by Judge Robert Cowen and joined by Judge Jane A. Restani of the United States Court of International Trade, sitting by designation, details the offending blog posts including one in which Munroe stated she was "blogging AT work," (capitalization in original), and offered alternative "canned" comments for student evaluations including: "Sneaking, complaining, jerkoff"; "Whiny, simpering grade-grubber with an unrealistically high perception of own ability level"; and "Am concerned that your kid is going to come in one day and open fire on the school. (Wish I was kidding.)"
Later posts were equally unflattering about students and teaching. And while the blog was originally subscribed to by a handful of people, some posts circulated and attracted the interest of the press. Termination was contemplated, Munroe took a scheduled maternity leave, and also did her own interviews with the press.
The majority's opinion "reluctantly" concludes that Munroe's speech implicated a matter of public concern, but then diminishes any public concern, and then reinstates it and states that:
Given our assessment of the interests of Munroe and the public in her speech, Defendants were not required to make an especially vigorous showing of actual or potential disruption in this case. However, even if we were to assume arguendo that her speech “possesses the highest value,” we would still conclude that Defendants met their burden. Simply put, “Plaintiff’s speech, in both effect and tone, was sufficiently disruptive so as to diminish any legitimate interest in its expression, and thus her expression was not protected.”
Interestingly, the majority also seems to hold teachers to a higher standard - - - despite the fact that Pickering itself involved a school teacher. While recognizing that the parents objecting to Munroe's speech cannot constitutionally be a "heckler's veto" to protected speech, the court states:
However, there is a special (perhaps even unique) relationship that exists between a public school teacher (or other educators, like a guidance counselor), on the one hand, and his or her students and their parents, on the other hand. Simply put, neither parents nor students could be considered as outsiders seeking to “heckle” an educator into silence—“‘rather they are participants in public education, without whose cooperation public education as a practical matter cannot function.’”
This notion could seriously erode teachers' First Amendment rights.
The dissent of Judge Thomas Ambro from the affirmance of summary judgment in favor of the defendant school district concludes:
A petition for en banc review is presumably forthcoming.
In short, I have no doubt the School District was well aware that firing Munroe for her blog posts and media tour would land it in constitutional hot water. More than enough evidence suggests that firing her on performance grounds was a pretext for its real reason—she had spoken out to friends on a blog, it became public, School District officials were upset and proposed her termination, they decided to wait, the once- sterling evaluations of Munroe immediately became negative, and she was fired. The bottom line: too many signs suggest this was all a set-up that a jury needs to sort out.
Late Friday before the long Labor Day weekend, the Washington Supreme Court found Initiative 1240, known as the Charter School Act (codified at chapter 28A.7 10 RCW) unconstitutional in its divided opinion, League of Women Voters of Washington v. State of Washington, affirming a King County Superior Court decision.
The Washington Supreme Court majority found that the Charter School Act violated Article IX §2 of the state constitution which provides:
PUBLIC SCHOOL SYSTEM. The legislature shall provide for a general and uniform system of public schools. The public school system shall include common schools, and such high schools, normal schools, and technical schools as may hereafter be established. But the entire revenue derived from the common school fund and the state tax for common schools shall be exclusively applied to the support of the common schools.
In essence because the charter schools were decidedly not "common schools" as that phrase has been defined under state law since 1909 and because the funding for charter schools was from the "common school fund," the Charter School Act's funding provision violated the state constitution. The court, in its opinion by Chief Justice Barbara Madsen (pictured center front below), rejected the state's argument that notwithstanding the constitutional provision funding should follow the student.
The dissenting and concurring opinion by Justice Mary E. Fairhurst, joined by Justices Steven C. González and Sheryl Gordon McCloud, agreed that charter schools are not "common schools," but disagreed that the Charter School Act required charter schools to be funded by monies intended for common schools.
The court's majority eschewed a political interpretation of the case:
Our inquiry is not concerned with the merits or demerits of charter schools. Whether charter schools would enhance our state’s public school system or appropriately address perceived shortcomings of that system are issues for the legislature and the voters. The issue for this court is what are the requirements of the constitution.
Nevertheless, the case will most certainly be interpreted in political terms. Proponents of charter schools will undoubtedly continue their efforts. Importantly, however, the case is not reviewable by the United States Supreme Court since it rests exclusively on a matter of state law. The funding of charter schools from sources not meant for public education - - - which the dissenting Justices believed a reality - - - could be clarified. And the possibility of an amendment of the state constitution, of course, remains an option.
Thursday, September 3, 2015
The full Tenth Circuit today declined to grant an en banc rehearing of the panel's July 2015 ruling that HHS's religious accommodation to the ACA's contraception mandate violated statutory and First Amendment rights of Little Sisters of the Poor. We posted on the panel decision here.
No party called for an en banc rehearing; instead, the court decided sua sponte to consider it. But a majority voted no.
Judge Hartz wrote a dissent, joined by four other judges, arguing that the panel wrongly recast Little Sisters's religious beliefs. In particular, the dissent argued that the panel wrongly interpreted Little Sisters's belief "as being only opposition to facilitating the use and delivery of certain contraceptives to which they object." According to the dissent, "Under this reframing, the plaintiffs have no religious objection to executing the forms; it is just that executing the forms burdens their religious opposition to contraceptives."
Put another way, the panel majority may be saying that it is the court's prerogative to determine whether requiring the plaintiffs to execute the documents substantially burdens their core religious belief, regardless of whether the plaintiffs have a "derivative" religious belief that executing the documents is sinful. This is a dangerous approach to religious liberty.
Judge Hartz argued that "the doctrine of the panel majority will not long survive," because "[i]t is contrary to all precedent concerning the free exercise of religion."
If you're wondering how, under Judge Hartz's approach, an organization like Little Sisters might tell the government that it has a religious objection to the contraception mandate without violating its own religious beliefs (a question that stumped other courts: how can a religious accommodation itself violate free exercise?), Judge Hartz says that the dissent only goes to the "substantial burden" on religion (and thus triggers strict scrutiny). The certification might still satisfy strict scrutiny--a question that Judge Hartz would send back to the lower court on remand.
Tuesday, September 1, 2015
A divided panel of the Ninth Circuit today upheld a U.S. Forest Service decision to renew a permit for the Knights of Columbus's Jesus statute on public land. The ruling means that Jesus stays on the USFS's Big Mountain.
Judge Owens wrote that the statute didn't violate the Establishment Clause, because the USFS's decision to renew the statute's permit reflected a primarily secular purpose (despite its portrayal of Jesus), and because USFS's permit didn't endorse religion. (According to Judge Owens, several factors suggest that the permit didn't endorse religion, including "the flippant interactions of locals and tourists with the statute [including] decorating it in mardi gras beads, adorning it in ski gear, taking pictures with it, high-fiving it as [mountain-goers] ski by, and posing in Facebook pictures.") Judge Owens also distinguished Trunk v. City of San Diego, where the court ruled that a giant cross violated the Establishment Clause.
Judge N.R. Smith concurred, but argued that the case should be analyzed as private speech in a public forum. Judge Smith wrote that the permit should be upheld so long as the government didn't discriminate in granting it, and it didn't. Moreover, the Knights (not the government) maintains the statute.
Judge Pregerson dissented, arguing that "a twelve-foot tall statute of Jesus situated on government-leased land cannot realistically be looked upon as 'predominantly secular in nature,'" and that "a 'reasonable observer would perceive' the statute situated on government land 'as projecting a message of religious endorsement.'"
District Judge Finds "Obamacare" Contraception Mandate Unconstitutional as applied to "March for Life"
In an opinion that essentially extends religious protections to a nonreligious organization, Judge Richard Leon has ruled in March for Life v. Burwell that the so-called contraceptive mandate in the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (ACA or "Obamacare") cannot constitutionally be applied to a nonprofit anti-abortion employer. While portions of Judge Leon's opinion predictably relied upon the Supreme Court's closely divided 2014 decision in Burwell v. Hobby Lobby, Inc. under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), Judge Leon notably found that the contraception mandate's exclusion of religious organizations - - - but not other organizations - - - violated the equal protection component of the Fifth Amendment.
Judge Leon applied rational basis review, but declared that
Were defendants to have their way here, rational basis review would have all the bite of a rubber stamp!
Defendants contend that March for Life is not “similarly situated” to the exempted organizations because it “is not religious and is not a church.” Rational basis review is met, they argue, because the purpose served, “accommodating religious exercise by religious institutions,” is “permissible and legitimate.” This not only oversimpliﬁes the issue—it misses the point entirely! The threshold question is not whether March for Life is “generally” similar to churches and their integrated auxiliaries. It is whether March for Life is similarly situated with regard to the precise attribute selected for accommodation. For the following reasons, I conclude that it most assuredly is.
In short, Judge Leon found that "March for Life" was similarly situated to religious organizations given the HHS rationale for excluding religious organizations from the contraception mandate:
HHS has chosen to protect a class of individuals that, it believes, are less likely than other individuals to avail themselves of contraceptives. It has consequently moored this accommodation not in the language of conscientious objection, but in the vernacular of religious protection. This, of course, is puzzling. In HHS’s own view, it is not the belief or non-belief in God that warrants safe harbor from the Mandate. The characteristic that warrants protection——an employment relationship based in part on a shared objection to abortifacients—is altogether separate from theism. Stated differently, what HHS claims to be protecting is religious beliefs, when it actually is protecting a moral philosophy about the sanctity of human life. HHS may be correct that this objection is common among religiously-affiliated employers. Where HHS has erred, however, is in assuming that this trait is unique to such organizations. It is not.
In other words, the HHS's rationale - - - the government interest - - - was not specifically religious and thus should not be limited to religious organizations in keeping with principles of equal protection. Some of this reasoning is reminiscent of Hobby Lobby, of course, but there the level of scrutiny under RFRA was strict (or perhaps even stricter than strict) scrutiny, while Judge Leon is applying rational basis scrutiny.
Interestingly, Judge Leon states that "'religion' is not a talisman that sweeps aside all constitutional concerns," and quotes the classic conscientious objector case of Welsh v. United States (1970) for the "long recognized" principle that “[i]f an individual deeply and sincerely holds beliefs that are purely ethical or moral in source and content . . . those beliefs certainly occupy in the life of that individual a place parallel to that filled by God in traditionally religious persons.” Taken to its logical conclusion, this reasoning has the potential to eliminate - - - or at least ameliorate - - - the "special" protection of religious freedom.
In his application of RFRA, Judge Leon's opinion is on more well-plowed ground. He notes that while "March for Life is avowedly non—religious, the employee plaintiffs do oppose the Mandate on religious grounds." This brings the case within the purview of Hobby Lobby. As Judge Leon phrases it:
The ﬁnal question the Court must ask under RFRA is whether the current Mandate is the least restrictive means of serving this governmental interest. Assuredly, it is not!
While Judge Leon dismissed the free exercise claim, based upon the DC Circuit's opinion and denial of en banc review in Priests for Life v HHS, the judge granted summary judgment in favor of plaintiffs on the Equal Protection and RFRA claims (as well as a claim under the Administrative Procedure Act).
When this case reaches the DC Circuit, it will be interesting to see how the court - - - as well as religious organizations and scholars - - - views Judge Leon's potentially destabilizing equal protection analysis.
September 1, 2015 in Abortion, Courts and Judging, Current Affairs, Equal Protection, First Amendment, Free Exercise Clause, Medical Decisions, Opinion Analysis, Privacy, Religion, Reproductive Rights | Permalink | Comments (0)
Friday, August 28, 2015
In its substantial opinion in Hodge v. Talkin, a panel of the United States Court of Appeals for the DC Circuit upheld the constitutionality of statutory prohibitions of assembly and display of flags or signs on the United States Supreme Court plaza.
40 USC §6135 provides:
It is unlawful to parade, stand, or move in processions or assemblages in the Supreme Court Building or grounds, or to display in the Building and grounds a flag, banner, or device designed or adapted to bring into public notice a party, organization, or movement.
Recall that almost two years ago, district judge Beryl Howell had found the statute unconstitutional in a well-reasoned and extensive opinion. Judge Howell's ruling prompted the United States Supreme Court to swiftly respond by promulgating a new regulation that seemingly responded to at least some of the more problematical examples that Judge Howell identified such as preschoolers wearing a tee-shirt. However, the DC Circuit's opinion reverses Judge Howell's decision without reliance on the limitations in the new policy.
Writing for a unanimous panel, Judge Sri Srinivasan notes that the United States Supreme Court's decision in United States v. Grace (1983) left the constitutional status of the plaza, when it decided that the sidewalks surrounding the perimeter of the Supreme Court building are public forums. However, Srinivasan relies on Grace for the distinction between the plaza and the sidewalks to conclude that the plaza is a nonpublic forum:
In marked contrast to the perimeter sidewalks considered in Grace, the Supreme Court plaza distinctively “indicate[s] to the public”—by its materials, design, and demarcation from the surrounding area—that it is very much a “part of the Supreme Court grounds.” [Grace.; Id. at 183.]. The plaza has been described as the opening stage of “a carefully choreographed, climbing path that ultimately ends at the courtroom itself.” Statement Concerning the Supreme Court’s Front Entrance, 2009 J. Sup. Ct. U.S. 831, 831 (2010) (Breyer, J.). For that reason, the Court’s plaza—unlike the surrounding public sidewalks, but like the courthouse it fronts—is a “nonpublic forum,” an area not traditionally kept open for expressive activity by the public. The government retains substantially greater leeway to limit expressive conduct in such an area and to preserve the property for its intended purposes: here, as the actual and symbolic entryway to the nation’s highest court and the judicial business conducted within it.
The opinion devotes attention to architectural description, which it admits in one case has "perhaps" a "degree of romanticism," and also likens the public forum characterization of the Supreme Court plaza to "the treatment of courthouses more generally" and to the controversial Lincoln Center plaza case; interestingly now-Justice Sotomayor was a judge on that panel.
As a nonpublic forum subject to the "lenient" First Amendment standard of reasonableness, the DC Circuit has little difficult in finding that the statute is "reasonable." Interestingly, the United States Supreme Court's closely divided opinion last Term in Williams-Yulee v. The Florida Bar occupies a prominent role in this reasoning. The opinion is discussed numerous times to support a conclusion that the government interests put forward here - - - "the decorum and order befitting courthouses generally and the nation’s highest court in particular" and "the appearance and actuality of a Court whose deliberations are immune to public opinion and invulnerable to public pressure" - - - are both valid and being appropriately served. Essentially, the DC Circuit's opinion embraces the "judiciary is special" sentiment and correctly notes that this prevailed in the strict scrutiny context of Williams-Yulee, so should suffice under the reasonableness standard.
The DC Circuit's opinion similarly rejects the overbreadth and vagueness arguments that the statute is unconstitutional.
In essence, the DC Circuit finds the inclusion of the "grounds" in the statute as a place where assembly or "display" of opinion can be prohibited is appropriate line-drawing:
In the end, unless demonstrations are to be freely allowed inside the Supreme Court building itself, a line must be drawn somewhere along the route from the street to the Court’s front entrance. But where? At the front doors themselves? At the edge of the portico? At the bottom of the stairs ascending from the plaza to the portico? Or perhaps somewhere in the middle of the plaza? Among the options, it is fully reasonable for that line to be fixed at the point one leaves the concrete public sidewalk and enters the marble steps to the Court’s plaza, where the “physical and symbolic pathway to [the] chamber begins.” [citation to architectural work]
While the odds are increasingly low that the United States Supreme Court will accept any case on certiorari, the odds seem to approach nil that the Court will exercise its discretion to review this opinion.
The Ninth Circuit yesterday upheld federal laws criminalizing sexual assaults in facilities where federal inmates are held by agreement with state and local governments. The ruling is a baby-step extension of United States v. Comstock, the Court's 2010 case holding that Congress had authority under the Necessary and Proper Clause to authorize civil detention of "sexually dangerous" federal prisoners beyond their term of imprisonment. It's a baby-step beyond Comstock, because these laws have the added feature that they operate within state and local detention facilities--where the federal government contracts to hold federal inmates.
Sabil Mujahid brought the facial claim against the federal statutes, arguing that they exceeded Congress's authority and ran afoul of the Tenth Amendment. The provisions criminalized sexual assault "in any prison, institution, or facility in which persons are held in custody by direction of or pursuant to a contract or agreement with the Attorney General." By its plain terms, the provision outlaws sexual assault by non-federal inmates in these facilities, too, but Mujahid is a federal inmate, and the court limited its ruling to federal inmates.
The court, applying Comstock, flatly rejected Mujahid's claims. In short:
Like the civil commitment statute in Comstock, [these statutes] are not facially unconstitutional; they are "a 'necessary and proper' means of exercising the federal authority that permits Congress to create federal criminal laws, to punish their violation, to imprison violators, to provide appropriately for those imprisoned, and to maintain the security of those who are not imprisoned but who may be affected by the federal imprisonment of others. See Comstock.
As I said, the court specifically did not rule on the statutes as applied to state inmates in these same facilities. That question may raise more complicated issues (but just slightly).
Thursday, August 27, 2015
The Sixth Circuit's brief Order in Miller v. Davis refused to stay the district court's preliminary injunction mandating that a court clerk in Kentucky issue same-sex marriage licenses (or any marriage licenses) despite her claim of free exercise of religion.
Here's the essence of the Sixth Circuit panel opinion:
The request for a stay pending appeal relates solely to an injunction against Davis in her official capacity. The injunction operates not against Davis personally, but against the holder of her office of Rowan County Clerk. In light of the binding holding of Obergefell, it cannot be defensibly argued that the holder of the Rowan County Clerk’s office, apart from who personally occupies that office, may decline to act in conformity with the United States Constitution as interpreted by a dispositive holding of the United States Supreme Court. There is thus little or no likelihood that the Clerk in her official capacity will prevail on appeal.
This should be the end of this litigation?
Monday, August 24, 2015
Affirming the district court's grant of summary judgment in favor of the schools, the Seventh Circuit's brief opinion today in D.S. v. East Porter County Schools Corporation is an illustration of the difficulty of succeeding with constitutional claims based on bullying, even when claims of school officials participation are included.
In considering the Due Process claim, the unanimous Seventh Circuit panel began with the principle that the Due Process Clause "generally does not impose upon the state a duty to protect individuals from harm by private actors," predictably citing DeShaney v. Winnebago Cty. Dep’t of Soc. Servs.(1989). The court noted that there are two exceptions: special relationship and state-created danger. The plaintiff argued that the school officials created the risk - - - or increased the risk - - - that she would be bullied, but the court found that the record did not support a finding that the school officials' conduct met the "requisite level of egregiousness" to satisfy the claim.
In considering the Equal Protection Clause claim, the court stated that the plaintiff must show that the schools "acted with a nefarious discriminatory purpose and discriminated against her based on her membership in a definable class." Unlike the landmark Seventh Circuit case of Nabozny v. Podlesny (7th Cir. 1996), which the court cites here, the plaintiff does not rely on sexual orientation or any other "protected class," but proceeded on a "class-of-one" theory. The court found the plaintiff "failed to identify any similarly situated individuals who were treated differently."
Without a valid Due Process Clause or Equal Protection Clause claim under the Fourteenth Amendment, the court found there was no underlying constitutional violation on which the plaintiff could proceed.
Sunday, August 23, 2015
Judge Amit Mehta (D.D.C.) on Friday granted a reporter's motion to quash a subpoena by a drug manufacturer for non-confidential information related to the reporter's article recounting a critical study on one of the manufacturer's cancer drugs. (This was a bit piece of a larger shareholder class-action against the manufacturer, Amgen.)
The ruling applied the reporter's privilege under the First Amendment to non-confidential information in a civil suit. That part of the ruling aligns with other circuits that have ruled on the issue, even though the D.C. Circuit has yet to rule on it.
Judge Mehta also concluded that Amgen did not sufficiently seek the information through other sources before it issued its subpoena to reporter Paul Goldberg.
Wednesday, August 19, 2015
The Missouri Supreme Court ruled this week that the state's ban on felon gun possession did not violate the state constitutional right to bear arms. The ruling is notable, because it applied strict scrutiny, but nevertheless upheld the gun possession restriction.
The Missouri Constitution, article I, section 23, read as follows (at the time of the defendant's conviction for possessing a gun in violation of the state's ban on felon possession):
That the right of every citizen to keep and bear arms in defense of his home, person, and property, or when lawfully summoned in aid of the civil power, shall not be questions; but this shall not justify the wearing of concealed weapons.
But the provision was amended during the appeal. The amended provision added "ammunition, and accessories typical to the normal functioning of such arms" to the right to keep and bear arms; it added "family" to the list of things that a citizen can bear arms to protect; it struck the limitation on concealed carry; and it added language strengthening the right (explicitly subjecting it to strict scrutiny), but permitting restrictions on felons and individuals adjudicated by a court to be a danger to self or others because of a "mental disorder or mental infirmity."
Still, the court said that the previous provision applied, because the defendant was convicted before the amendment took force.
The court held that under article I, section 23, strict scrutiny applied to restrictions on gun possession. But the state's ban on felon possession satisfied even that highest level of constitutional review:
The State has a compelling interest in ensuring public safety and reducing firearm-related crime. Prohibiting felons from possessing firearms is narrowly tailored to that interest because "[i]t is well-established that felons are more likely to commit crimes than are other law abiding citizens."
The ruling means that there are possession restrictions that satisfy strict scrutiny under Missouri state con law--at least the old Missouri state con law. It's not clear how far this might extend, however, given that the new version of article I, section 23, goes to lengths to specify that strict scrutiny applies to possession restrictions and lists just two specific exceptions.
In its opinion on rehearing, a divided panel of the DC Circuit in National Association of Manufacturers v. Securities and Exchange Comm'n has held that 15 U.S.C. § 78m(p)(1)(A)(ii) & (E), part of the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act, requiring a company to disclose if its products were not "DRC conflict free" violated the First Amendment.
In its previous decision more than a year ago in National Association of Manufacturers (NAM), a majority of the same panel, in an opinion authored by Senior Judge Raymond Randolph and joined by Senior Judge David Sentelle, found the conflict mineral disclosure was a First Amendment violation. In that 2014 opinion, Judge Srinivasan dissented on the First Amendment issue and contended that this opinion should be held in abeyance "pending the en banc court’s decision" in American Meat Institute v. United States Dep't of Agriculture, regarding a First Amendment challenge to requiring country of origin labeling (COOL) of meat and meat products. In the DC Circuit's en banc opinion a year ago, a divided court upheld the constitutionality of the COOL requirements. The rehearing of the conflict minerals disclosure was prompted by that intervening en banc decision in American Meat Institute (AMI). The panel majority essentially concluded that its mind was not changed by en banc opinion. [Neither of the senior judges in the panel majority participated in the en banc opinion in AMI].
Central to the controversies in both NAM and AMI is a choice of precedent: should the constitutionality of the labeling requirements be analyzed under Zauderer v. Office of Disciplinary Counsel or under the more demanding standard of Central Hudson v. Gas & Electric Corp. v. Public Service Commission of New York. The DC Circuit's divided en banc opinion in AMI found that Zauderer should be applied. In this rehearing in NAM, the panel majority (again) found that Zauderer had no applicability, but, as the opinion states, "for a different reason." However, in sum this panel majority found that Zauderer is limited to "advertisements" at point of sale and seemed to contradict AMI.
The panel majority did "hedge its bets":
But given the flux and uncertainty of the First Amendment doctrine of commercial speech,15 and the conflict in the circuits regarding the reach of Zauderer, we think it prudent to add an alternative ground for our decision. It is this. Even if the compelled disclosures here are commercial speech and even if AMI’s view of Zauderer governed the analysis, we still believe that the statute and the regulations violate the First Amendment.
In applying Central Hudson, the panel majority found that the disclosure of conflict minerals has a merely speculative relationship to addressing the interest of the government in ameliorating conflict in the Democratic Republic of the Congo as a source of such minerals. Instead, the disclosure is akin to political propaganda. The majority interestingly cites George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four for its passages regarding government redefinition ("WAR IS PEACE"), and concludes that the disclosure is not only not factual but also controversial: it compels "an issuer to confess blood on its hands."
In dissent, Judge Srinivasan argues that any Scarlet Letter comparison is inapt: "requiring a company to disclose product information in the commercial marketplace is not the same as requiring Hester Prynne to “show [her] scarlet letter in the [town] market- place.” He asserts that the majority is misreading Zauderer and that the en banc opinion in AMI controls. Interestingly, he also contends that to the extent the court is requiring "proof" that disclosure of conflict minerals be linked to amelioration of the DRC conflict, the court should be deferring to executive judgments in this commercial context at least as much as the Court did in the political speech context involved in Holder v. Humanitarian Law Project.
It seems likely that government attorneys are preparing its en banc petition.
Tuesday, August 18, 2015
The D.C. Circuit today upheld the district court's award of over a million dollars in attorneys fees to three intervenors in Texas's lawsuit seeking preclearance for its re-drawn legislative maps under Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act.
The ruling is a significant victory for the intervenors in this complicated case that involved challenges to Texas's redistricting maps in two simultaneous lawsuits under two different provisions of the VRA, Supreme Court intervention, and the Shelby County case itself.
Recall that the Fifth Circuit rejected claims for attorneys' fees in the companion case out of San Antonio just last spring.
The case started when Texas re-drew its congressional and state legislative districts after the 2010 census. Texas sought preclearance in the D.C. District, while opponents of the new maps filed their own Section 2 claim in the Western District of Texas (the San Antonio case).
Because the preclearance suit was not resolved in time for the 2012 primaries and general election, the San Antonio court imposed interim maps. The D.C. district court then denied preclearance (to all three maps--congressional, and both state house maps), and Texas appealed to the Supreme Court. Meanwhile, the Texas legislature adopted maps largely mirroring the San Antonio court's maps, and an intervenor moved the Supreme Court to dismiss the appeal as moot.
The Supreme Court then issued Shelby County, striking the VRA's Section 4, the coverage formula, but preserving Section 5's preclearance requirement (although it had (and has) no effect without Section 4's coverage formula).
One day later, Governor Perry signed the legislature's plans into law.
The Supreme Court then vacated the D.C. district court's order denying preclearance and "remanded for further consideration in light of Shelby County v. Holder * * * and the suggestion of mootness" of one of the intervenor groups.
The district court dismissed the case, concluding that Texas's "claims were mooted by Shelby County and the adoption of superseding redistricting plans."
The internors filed for attorneys' fees, arguing that they were "prevailing parties," because the original district court denied preclearance and Texas re-drew its maps. Texas filed a three-page "Advisory" declaring that it was the prevailing party based on Shelby County and that it wouldn't respond to the intervenors' motions for attorneys' fees "unless directed to do so by the Court."
In short, the state said that Shelby County (a different case entirely, litigated by different parties, and involving issues (the constitutionality of the VRA, which was not at issue in the Texas preclearance case) alone meant that Texas prevailed in its preclearance case. But Texas did not respond to the intervenors' argument that Texas's repeal of its original maps, and the mootness it caused before the Supreme Court vacated the denial of preclearance, rendered them prevailing parties.
Texas's move was a gamble, especially in light of district rules saying that an opponent to a motion has to file an opposition and that the court could treat any argument not made as conceded.
The district court rejected Texas's "Advisory" and ordered attorneys' fees. The D.C. Circuit today affirmed.
The D.C. Circuit held that Texas was wrong on its Shelby County claim--that Shelby County alone couldn't make Texas a prevailing party in its Section 5 case--and that under district rules Texas waived any argument that the intervenors didn't prevail by virtue of the district court's denial of preclearance and Texas altering its maps.
In other words, Texas's gamble in filing its "Advisory," and then again in not addressing the arguments in its opening brief on appeal, backfired.
The ruling upholds the district court's award of attorneys' fees to the Davis Intervenors ($466,680.36), the Gonzales Intervenors ($597,715.60) and the Texas State Conference of NAACP Branches ($32,374.05).
A few months after the United States Supreme Court issued its decision in Obergefell v. Hodges, reversing the Sixth Circuit's opinion, and declaring that the Fourteenth Amendment requires states to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples, the issue of same-sex marriage is again reaching the Sixth Circuit.
This time, however, the issue is whether a government employee, a court clerk in Kentucky, can refuse to issue same-sex marriage licenses - - - or any marriage licenses - - - based upon a claim of free exercise of religion. The claim of religious exemptions from state clerks is not new (consider events in New York in 2011); neither are objections to implementing the Court's decision in Obergefell (consider events in Alabama this summer). Nevertheless, this controversy has become particularly focused.
United States District Judge David Bunning's Opinion and Order last week in Miller v. Davis issued a preliminary injunction in favor of April Miller and Karen Roberts, enjoining Rowan County Clerk Kim Davis from applying the "no marriage licenses" policy. The Judge rejected Davis' First Amendment claims. First, Judge Bunning found that Governor Beshear's directive to county clerks to issue same-sex marriage licenses was a general law of neutral applicability that "likely does not infringe on Davis' free exercise rights." Second, Judge Bunning further found that the issuance of the marriage license did not implicate Davis' free speech rights: the issuance of the license, even with the clerk's certification, is not an endorsement and furthermore is quite possibly government rather than individual speech, citing the Court's decision in Walker v. Sons of Confederate Veterans from last Term. Judge Bunning also rejected Davis' third - and perhaps the most interesting - claim based upon Article VI §3 prohibiting a "religious Test" as a qualification for public office. Davis argued that this prohibition meant that her religious beliefs must be accommodated. Even as he rejected this interpretation, Judge Bunning drew attention to the "first half" of Article VI §3 requiring state officials to take an oath to defend the United States Constitution.
Davis predictably sought a stay of the preliminary injunction. In an Order late yesterday, Judge Bunning denied the stay, including in his 7 page opinion an extensive quote from Obergefell regarding the relationship of religious freedom to same-sex marriage. Yet Judge Bunning did stay the order denying the stay:
in recognition of the constitutional issues involved, and realizing that emotions are running high on both sides of the debate, the Court finds it appropriate to temporarily stay this Order pending review of Defendant Davis’ Motion to Stay (Doc. # 45) by the Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals.
While decisions to stay and to issue preliminary injunctions involve equitable and other factors, of central prominence is the probable outcome on the merits. Thus, the Sixth Circuit is again poised to consider, albeit less directly, the issue of same-sex marriage.
Wednesday, August 12, 2015
The D.C. Circuit ruled this week in PETA v. USDA that the animal-rights organization had standing to challenge the USDA's decade-long foot-dragging in regulating birds under the Animal Welfare Act. But at the same time, the court ruled against PETA on the merits. The case means that PETA's claim is dismissed; it's a significant set-back in the effort to get the USDA to regulate birds under the AWA.
PETA alleged that the USDA violated the Administrative Procedure Act by failing to write avian-specific animal welfare regulations under the AWA. PETA argued that the agency "unlawfully withheld" action in violation of section 706(1) of the APA. The USDA moved to dismiss for lack of standing and on the merits.
The D.C. Circuit ruled that PETA had organizational standing, because the USDA's inaction prevented PETA from protecting birds. The court explained:
Because PETA's alleged injuries--denial of access to bird-related AWA information including, in particular, investigatory information, and a means by which to seek redress for bird abuse--are "concrete and specific to the work in which they are engaged," we find that PETA has alleged a cognizable injury sufficient to support standing. In other words, the USDA's allegedly unlawful failure to apply the AWA's general animal welfare regulations to birds has "perceptibly impaired [PETA's] ability" to both bring AWA violations to the attention of the agency charged with preventing avian cruelty and continue to educate the public. Because PETA has expended resources to counter these injuries, it has established Article III organizational standing.
But even as the court said that PETA had standing, it ruled in favor of the USDA on the merits. The ruling means that PETA's complaint against the agency is dismissed.
Tuesday, August 11, 2015
The D.C. Circuit ruled that the new Copyright Royalty Board, reconstituted after the court previously held that the old Board violated the Appointments Clause, did not itself violate the Appointments Clause after it came to the same decision as the old Board using the same record. The ruling upholds the new Board's decision to impose a $500 per station or per channel annual minimum fee for collegiate Internet radio stations.
The Copyright Royalty Board was originally composed of three Copyright Royalty Judges who were appointed by the Librarian of Congress and could only be removed for cause. The Board imposed the $500 fee on webcasters in 2011. Intercollegiate Broadcasting System, a nonprofit that represents college and high school radio stations, challenged the fee, arguing that the Board violated the Appointments Clause. The D.C. Circuit agreed, ruling that the judges had sufficient authority and independence to qualify as principal officers, thus requiring Presidential appointment and Senate confirmation. The court cured the defect by severing the statutory provision that barred the Librarian of Congress from removing the judges without cause.
The Librarian then replaced the Board with new members. The new Board decided to re-determine the copyright terms based on the existing record (the one that the parties established with the original Board) and to review the record de novo. The new Board issued the same $500 fee, and Intercollegiate again appealed.
This time Intercollegiate argued that the new Board was tainted by the old Board's decision, and thus the new Board also violated the Appointments Clause. The court flatly rejected this argument. Among other things, the court noted that the parties themselves set the record with the old Board, and the new Board re-decided the case on its own terms, without taint from the original Board.
The ruling is consistent with circuit law that a body reconstituted to comply with the Appointments Clause does violate the Appointments Clause simply because the original body did.
Saturday, August 8, 2015
The Second Circuit this week became the latest court to reject religious organizations' challenge to the religious accommodation to the ACA's contraception mandate. The Second Circuit joined six other circuits in rejecting the surprising claim that a barely burdensome religious accommodation itself violates the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.
With seven circuits now rejecting the novel claim (with no circuit accepting it), and with the accommodation designed around a Supreme Court order, one might reasonably wonder why plaintiffs keep bringing and appealing these cases. Surely they have better things to do with their time and money than to bring such transparently harassing and abusive claims. (Indeed, one might wonder: At what point should a court consider Rule 11 sanctions?) Still . . . .
The Second Circuit ruling is comprehensive and well analyzed, concluding that the accommodation (to simply notify HHS, either by form, or by letter) isn't substantially burdensome. But after 47 pages, here's the gist:
The burden that the accommodation places on Plaintiffs is merely one notification, equivalent to the burden historically placed on draft registrants to indicate their conscientious objections to military service. Once Plaintiffs avail themselves of the simple, non-burdensome means of opting out, the regulations do not require them to play any role in the provision of contraceptive coverage or to suffer punishments for not doing so. To the contrary, the accommodation relieves them of providing contraceptive coverage, and instead enlists third-party administrators to provide such coverage. If a regulatory scheme that might otherwise violate an objecting individual's rights under RFRA allows the objector to exempt himself from compliance via a simple, non-burdensome act of notification, there is no substantial burden. Furthermore, subsequent regulation of non-objecting parties in a manner that an objecting party finds offensive does not transform the act of opting out into a cognizable substantial burden. The rights conferred by the First Amendment and RFRA do not include a right to have the government or third parties behave in a manner that comports with an individual's religious beliefs.
Wednesday, August 5, 2015
The D.C. Circuit ruled in Dodge of Naperville v. NLRB that the NLRB's finding of an unfair labor practice against the petitioner was valid, and that the Board didn't lack quorum to act in the waning days of Member Craig Becker's recess appointment.
The ruling means that the NLRB's finding stands.
The petitioners challenged the NLRB finding on the merits and based on the NLRB's lack of quorum at the time it issued its finding. As to the latter, the petitioners argued that the NLRB had only two members (one shy of quorum) when it issued its opinion on January 3, 2012, because the appointment of Member Becker (who was recess appointed in the second session of the 111th Congress) expired on December 17, 2011. That's the date when the Senate agree to adjourn and convene for pro forma sessions only every Tuesday and Friday until January 23, 2012.
But the court flatly rejected this argument. The court said that Member Becker's appoint was valid until "the end of their next session"--that is, until noon on January 2, 2012. The court, citing Noel Canning, said that "the end of an annual session is triggered by a recess only if the Senate adjourns sine die--that is, without specifying a date to return." But under the Senate's adjournment plan, the body convened every few days after December 17, making the short breaks between meetings intra-session recesses--and not end-points for the prior session.
The court rejected the petitioners' argument that maybe the Board's opinion issued after noon on January 3, because the petitioner only raised this point for the first time on reply.
Monday, August 3, 2015
Chief Judge B. Lynn Winmill for the United States District of Idaho today held Idaho's so-called "Ag-Gag" law, Idaho Code § 18-7042, unconstitutional in his opinion in Animal Defense League v. Otter. Judge Winmill found that the law violated both the First Amendment and the Equal Protection Clause.
The Idaho statute creates a new crime, “interference with agricultural production.” I.C. 18-7042. A person commits the crime of interference with agricultural production if the person knowingly:
(a) is not employed by an agricultural production facility and enters an agricultural production facility by force, threat, misrepresentation or trespass;
(b) obtains records of an agricultural production facility by force, threat, misrepresentation or trespass;
(c) obtains employment with an agricultural production facility by force, threat, or misrepresentation with the intent to cause economic or other injury to the facility's operations . . .
(d) Enters an agricultural production facility that is not open to the public and, without the facility owner's express consent or pursuant to judicial
process or statutory authorization, makes audio or video recordings of the conduct of an agricultural production facility's operations; or
(e) Intentionally causes physical damage or injury to the agricultural production facility's operations, livestock, crops, personnel, equipment, buildings or premises.
Chief Judge Winmill described the legislative history including statements that compared animal rights investigators to “marauding invaders centuries ago who swarmed into foreign territory and destroyed crops to starve foes into submission.” However, for Winmill, there is a better comparison:
The story of Upton Sinclair provides a clear illustration of how the First Amendment is implicated by the statute. Sinclair, in order to gather material for his novel, The Jungle, misrepresented his identity so he could get a job at a meat-packing plant in Chicago. William A. Bloodworth, Jr., UPTON SINCLAIR 45–48 (1977). Sinclair’s novel, a devastating exposé of the meat-packing industry that revealed the intolerable labor conditions and unsanitary working conditions in the Chicago stockyards in the early 20th century, “sparked an uproar” and led to the passage of the Federal Meat Inspection Act, as well as the Pure Food and Drug Act. National Meat Ass'n v. Harris, 132 S.Ct. 965 (2012). Today, however, Upton Sinclair’s conduct would expose him to criminal prosecution under § 18-7042.
On the First Amendment challenge, the judge found that Idaho's ag-gag statute is content based and merits strict scrutiny. The opinion revisits an earlier ruling so concluding to reiterate that the United States Supreme Court's opinion in United States v. Alvarez ("the stolen valor case"). Judge Winmill notes that any deception involved in the ag-gag violation would be not be harmful: "the most likely harm that would stem from an undercover investigator using deception to gain access to an agricultural facility would arise, say, from the publication of a story about the facility, and not the misrepresentations made to gain access to the facility." And "harm caused by the publication of true story is not the type of direct material harm that Alvarez contemplates." The judge also held that the recording provision is content-based.
Moreover, Judge Winmill implicitly determines that the law is viewpoint-based:
a review of § 18-7042’s legislative history leads to the inevitable conclusion that the law’s primary purpose is to protect agricultural facility owners by, in effect, suppressing speech critical of animal-agriculture practices.
Not surprisingly, the statute does not survive strict scrutiny. The judge is skeptical that the "property and privacy interests of agricultural production facilities" are sufficiently compelling given that food production is a heavily regulated industry. Even if the interests were compelling, however, the statute was not narrowly tailored:
Criminal and civil laws already exist that adequately protect those interests without impinging on free-speech rights. It is already illegal to steal documents or to trespass on private property. In addition, laws against fraud and defamation already exist to protect against false statements made to injure or malign an agricultural production facility.
The judge thus concludes that the law restricts more speech than is necessary to achieve its goals.
On the Equal Protection Clause issue, the court's conclusion does not depend on a strict scrutiny analysis. The judge finds that the ag-gag statute cannot satisfy even rational basis review. First, Judge Winmill finds that that state's purported interest is not legitimate:
The State argues that agricultural production facilities deserve more protection because agriculture plays such a central role in Idaho’s economy and culture and because animal production facilities are more often targets of undercover investigations. The State’s logic is perverse—in essence the State says that (1) powerful industries deserve more government protection than smaller industries, and (2) the more attention and criticism an industry draws, the more the government should protect that industry from negative publicity or other harms. Protecting the private interests of a powerful industry, which produces the public’s food supply, against public scrutiny is not a legitimate government interest.
Second, the judge finds that the actual interest is a “a bare congressional desire to harm a politically unpopular group" and thus "cannot constitute a legitimate governmental interest if equal protection of the laws is to mean anything,” quoting and relying on U. S. Dept. of Agriculture v. Moreno (1973). "As a result, a purpose to discriminate and silence animal welfare groups in an effort to protect a powerful industry cannot justify the passage" of the statute.
Judge Winmill's decision is ground-breaking. So-called "ag-gag" laws have proliferated and are being challenged, usually on First Amendment grounds. Undoubtedly the state will appeal and the Ninth Circuit will have a chance to decide whether Judge Winmill was correct that the Idaho law is similar to the day labor solicitation prohibition in Arizona's SB1070 that the Ninth Circuit held unconstitutional in Valle Del Sol Inc. v.Whiting.
UPDATE: Check out this analysis by ConLawProf Shaakirrah Sanders over at casetext and her pre-decision discussion about the case with Idaho Public Radio.
Thursday, July 30, 2015
Judge Sidney Stein (SDNY) this week denied Citizens United's motion to preliminarily enjoin the New York Attorney General from enforcing his policy of requiring registered charities to disclose the names, addresses, and total contributions of their major donors.
The ruling, which follows a similar Ninth Circuit ruling this past spring, is a blow to the organization's efforts to keep their donors secret through the 501(c) form. But it does not mean that Citizen United's donors will be available to all of us: both the IRS and the state AG refuse to disclose the names of donors.
The case tests the AG's rule that charities registered in the state provide to the state AG their Schedule B to IRS Form 990. Schedule B includes names of persons who donate over $5,000 to a charity. Citizens United, a 501(c) organization, challenged the rule, arguing that it violated free speech, and due process, among other claims, and filed for a preliminary injunction.
Judge Stein rejected the motion, saying that Citizens United was unlikely to win on the merits. As to the free speech claim, Judge Stein wrote that the AG's rule bears a substantial relation to the sufficiently important government interest in enforcing charitable solicitation laws and protecting state residents from illegitimate charities, and that the strength of the state's interest justified the minimal burden on the organization. Judge Stein also concluded that the rule was not an unconstitutional prior restraint on speech, because the rule "sets forth 'narrow, objective, and definite standards' that cabin the Attorney General's exercise of discretion.'" Finally, Judge Stein rejected Citizens United's claim that the rule came without warning and thus violated due process, because in fact the rule did nothing new. (Judge Stein also rejected the non-constitutional claims.)
But while Judge Stein's ruling rejected Citizens United's motion to stop the state AG from enforcing the rule for now, nothing in the ruling compels the public release of the organization's major donors. Indeed, the ruling hinges on the fact that New York law and IRS regs both bar the public release of Schedule B. The ruling only allows the state AG to collect this information for the purpose of ferreting out charitable fraud and related crimes.