Monday, January 13, 2014
The Supreme Court heard oral arguments today in NLRB v. Noel Canning, the case testing whether the President may make recess appointments to positions already vacant during an intra-session recess of the Senate. Our argument preview is here.
The Court today was especially sensitive to the many thorny doctrinal, practical, and political issues in the case, and seemed to be looking for a simple solution that would dodge them. The ordinary appointments process (with advice and consent of the Senate), as suggested by Chief Justice Roberts and Justice Ginsburg (see below), may well be that solution. If so, the Court might read the Recess Appointments Clause more restrictively in this case, limiting the President's recess-appointments authority, and giving more power to the Senate to hold up executive appointments by declining to recess.
The case presents three questions about the Recess Appointments Clause:
1. Does "the Recess of the Senate" include intra-session breaks, or recesses?
2. Do "Vacancies that may happen during the Recess" include vacancies that already existed?
3. Can the President exercise the recess-appoitnment power when the Senate convenes only every three days in pro forma sessions?
The arguments included the predictable points on text and history--interpretations of "the Recess," the clause "may happen," and historical practices and understandings. (If anything, these arguments only revealed how indeterminate and contestable these sources can be. See, e.g., the discussion on the OED's definitions of "happen" starting at about page 60 or so of the transcript, and the points over practices running throughout the arguments.) The particular concern with the words "may happen" suggest one possible outcome: the Court could rule that while "the Recess" includes intra-session recesses, "may happen" extends only to vacancies that occur (not already exist) during a recess.
But the more interesting--and probably more important--points were on balance-of-powers principles and practical implications--against the obvious backdrop of partisan politics.
Indeed, what started in the briefing as a debate principally about the meaning and practice of the Recess Appointment Clause turned quickly today into a debate about executive power and whether the Senate encroached on executive recess-appointment power by meeting in pro forma sessions and thus denying the President a recess in which to make recess appointments. General Verrilli pushed the argument on executive authority beyond a mere point on when the Senate is in "recess," claiming broadly that the President should get to fill all vacancies. Justice Alito put a fine point on it:
But you are making a very, very aggressive argument in favor of executive power now and it has nothing whatsoever to do with whether the Senate is in session or not. You're just saying when the Senate acts, in your view, irresponsibly and refuses to confirm nominations, then the President must be able to fill those--fill those positions. That's what you're arguing. I don't see what that has to do with whether the Senate is in session.
But Noel Canning and the Senate Minority Leader both took aggressive positions the other way, saying that the Senate gets to decide when it's on recess--even saying that it's never on recess--thus severely limiting the President's recess appoitment power. Respondents argued that the President has come to use the recess appointment power to deal with Senate intransigence, not emergencies--an argument that seemed to resonate with the Court.
Chief Justice Roberts and Justice Kagan both seemed concerned that such an important balance-of-powers issue could turn on magic language in a Senate resolution, for example, as here, that says "No business shall be conducted." Chief Justice Roberts said that this maybe made the point not so important. Justice Kagan said that focusing on the phrasing of a Senate resolution could just land the case back at the Court, and that focusing on this kind of formalism suggests that it really is the Senate's responsibility to determine when it's in session or not. But General Verrilli responded that the recess appointment power is an executive authority, "[a]nd the President has got to make a determination of when there's a recess"--that the Senate's use of pro forma sessions to stay in session (and not on recess) is an encroachment on Article II Recess Appointment power.
The Court was also concerned about how to balance text against practice. Justice Scalia posed this question:
What do you do when there is a practice that--that flatly contradicts a clear text of the Constitution? Which--which of the two prevails?
General Verrilli responded:
The answer is I think, given this--a practice going back to the founding of the Republic, the practice should be--the practice should govern, but we don't have that here. This provision has been subject to contention as to its meaning since the first days of the Republic.
Justices Alito and Kagan asked the same question to Noel Canning, and got the exact opposite answer.
The Court was also concerned about a related problem: If the government gets its way, it appears that the Senate violated the 20th Amendment and the Adjournment Clause. Justices Breyer and Alito both suggested that the Court would rather avoid that conclusion.
These more theoretical issues are serious, to be sure, but they may not be necessary to resolve the case. The Court was equally, or more, concerned about the practical implications of the case--in particular, how a ruling could affect already-made decisions by the NLRB, other government agencies, and even the courts (because of recess-appointed judges). Chief Justice Roberts and Justices Sotomayor and Ginsburg asked about this; Justice Scalia suggested a way out of this problem, the de facto officer doctrine; still General Verrilli said that "it certainly casts a serious cloud over the legitimacy of all those actions."
Also focusing on the practical aspects of the case, Chief Justice Roberts and Justice Ginsburg both wondered why the President couldn't just use the ordinary appointment process (and why the Senate couldn't decline to confirm)--in other words, why the government says that the pro forma sessions and lack of intra-session recess appointment power is a problem. Justice Scalia pointed out that the President can convene Congress (under Article II, Section 3, "He may, on extraordinary occasions, convene both houses"), and that Congress can get back within a day or so to deal with appointments.
Finally, Justice Breyer and Justice Kagan both asked about the politics--the shifting positions of the parties, depending on who is in the White House, and the President's use of the recess appointment power to deal with congressional intrasingence, not emergencies. General Verrilli responded that the Senate's advice-and-consent role is much larger today than the framers anticipated, and that today it encroaches on the President's appointment power--trying to take the case out of ordinary politics and place it back in larger balance-of-powers issues.
January 13, 2014 in Appointment and Removal Powers, Cases and Case Materials, Congressional Authority, Executive Authority, News, Oral Argument Analysis, Separation of Powers | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)
Wednesday, December 4, 2013
Oral Arguments in United States v. Apel: The Military Facility Protest Case as Raising First Amendment Issues
The Court heard oral arguments today in United States v. Apel, an application and First Amendment challenge to 18 U.S.C. § 1382 regarding trespassing on a military base, in light of a pre-existing order barring Apel from Vandenberg Air Force Base in California. There is a dispute whether the property in question is actually part of the military base and the Ninth Circuit reversed the conviction against Apel, as we discussed in our preview here.
Assistant Solicitor General Benjamin Horwich began by arguing that the statute clearly makes it a crime for a person to "reenter a military base after having been ordered not to do so by the commanding officer" and that the Ninth Circuit erred by adding a requirement that the defendant "must be found in a place that, as a matter of real property law, is within the exclusive possession of the United States." Justice Ginsburg quickly noted that the Air Force manual and a JAG opinion had added those criteria, but Horwich argued those sources were advisory rather than binding. The entirety of Horwich's initial argument was directed towards the characteristics of the properties in question, including a discussion of easements.
Indeed, only with Erwin Chemerinsky's argument on behalf of Apel is the subject of the First Amendment broached. Chemerinsky begins his argument making the constitutional link:
This is a case about the right to peacefully protest on a fully open public road, in a designated protest zone. For decades, every lower Federal court, and, for that matter, the United States itself, interpreted 18 United States Code Section 1382 to apply only if there's exclusive Federal possession. Any other interpretation would raise grave First Amendment issues.
While the specter of unconstitutionality to direct statutory interpretation is not rare - - - think of the use of equal protection in the oral argument in last term's Baby Veronica case for example - - - Chemerinsky struggled to direct some Justices attention to the First Amendment. When Chemerinksy echoed Justice Ginsburg's previous mention of Flower v. United States (1972), Justice Kennedy injected that Flower was a First Amendment case and then repeated this observation, telling counsel to concentrate on the statutory argument. Soon thereafter, Justice Kennedy admonished Chemerinsky ,"You're back on the First Amendment case." And then:
JUSTICE SCALIA: You keep sliding into the First Amendment issue, which is not the issue on which we granted certiorari. We're only interested in whether the statute applies.
MR. CHEMERINSKY: But, Your Honor, in interpreting the statute, it must be done so as to avoid constitutional doubts. That's why the First Amendment comes up. Also, of course, as this Court repeatedly has held, Respondent can raise any issue that was raised below to defend the judgment, which is also why the First Amendment is here.
But Your Honor -
JUSTICE SCALIA: You can raise it, but we don't have to listen to it.
Arguments continued about easements, functional possession, and exclusive possession, and a question from Justice Breyer including the fact that he had "looked at the Google maps."
But then a similar colloquy about the relevance of the First Amendment occurred:
MR. CHEMERINSKY: And this goes to Justice Kennedy's question earlier if we are talking about an easement. An easement that is created for a public road inherently has free speech rights attached to it. In fact, many lower court cases have always said an easement for a public road includes the right to use it for speech purposes. That is very different than an easement that exists for purposes of a utility.
JUSTICE SCALIA: It seems to me a First Amendment argument and not an argument that goes to the scope of Section 1382.
MR. CHEMERINSKY: No, Your Honor, because you need to interpret the statute to avoid the constitutional issues. If you interpret the statute to allow excluding speech on this public road easement in the designated protest zone, then interpreting the statute that way would raise grave First Amendment issues.
JUSTICE SCALIA: So you are saying we should read the statute to say it only applies when it doesn't violate the First Amendment. Of course we'd read it that way.
MR. CHEMERINSKY: Of course, you should read it that way.
JUSTICE SCALIA: But not because it has anything to do with the scope of authority of the government. It's what the government can do. I -- I don't know how to read that, that text, in such a way that it will avoid all First Amendment problems. There is no way to do that.
MR. CHEMERINSKY: I disagree, Your Honor. I think that the reason that every lower court and the United States government itself have read "military installation" as exclusive possession is that otherwise it would raise First Amendment problems.
It was on Horwich's rebuttal that the fact that there is a designated protest area, from which Apel's ban is at issue, became clarified. Justice Kagan asked Horwich to explain the "history of this First Amendment area," to which he replied that it was pursuant to litigation settlement, although he was unable to answer Kagan's follow up question about the type of litigation.
On the whole, it's doubtful that the Court will render an opinion in Apel destined for First Amendment treatises or casebooks. On the other hand, any opinion will surely be written in the shadow of First Amendment doctrine and theory.
Tuesday, December 3, 2013
The Supreme Court heard arguments today in Northwest, Inc. v. Ginsberg, the case testing whether the Airline Deregulation Act preempts a state-law claim for breach of implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing arising out of an airline's termination of a customer's membership in its frequent flyer program. Our argument preview is here.
Given that the Court has ruled in Wolens that the ADA does not preempt an ordinary breach-of-contract claim, arguments today turned on whether the claim for breach of implied covenant of good faith and fair dealing is simply an incorporated contract requirement or a rule of contract interpretation (so that it's actually part of the contract, and thus not preempted), or whether it's an additional state-imposed obligation on top of the plain terms of the contract (and thus preempted). This question is informed by the deregulatory purpose of the ADA. Justice Breyer framed the issue this way:
I absolutely agree wtih you that--that a free market in price is at the heart of the Deregulation Act. Given.
I also think frequent flyer programs are simply price discounts. Given.
I also think that if you don't have contracts, you can't have free markets. Given.
But I also think the State cannot, under the guise of contract law, regulate the prices of airlines. If you allow that, you're going to have worse than we ever had. It'll be 50 different systems, all right?
Justice Kagan framed it this way, suggesting a solution that would preserve the implied covenant claim:
I guess what I'm suggesting is that the implied covenant here, it's just an interpretive tool. It says that there are certain kinds of provisions that are written very broadly or very vaguely, and an implied covenant comes in to help us interpret those kinds of provisions. And viewed in that way, it's just a contractual device that in light of Wolens ought to be permitted.
Justice Sotomayor said it this way, and proposed a standard for distinguishing between ordinary breach-of-contract claims and implied covenant claims:
My simpler standard comes from quoting Hennepin: "Does the implied covenant claim extend to actions beyond the scope of the underlying contract, or can it override the express terms of the agreement? If the answer is no, it's not preempted."
The question is complicated by the fact that the frequent flyer program in this case gave Northwest the "sole discretion" to terminate. So: Is an implied covenant part of that contract, or is it an additional state-law requirement? And what's the standard for sorting that out?
As an initial matter, any standard may not answer the preemption question categorically. That's because different states interpret their implied covenant laws differently. This gave the Court another problem: Does it have to sort out the particular state law on implied covenants in order to determine whether a claim in a particular state is preempted? And might the answer change depending on the state, leading to inconsistent results and undermining the deregulatory purpose of the ADA? Justice Scalia put this point on it:
Wow, somebody's really been given a raw deal. You know, that's still going to be possible even if we rule for [Ginsberg] here. It depends on what State he's from, right?
Complicating things yet more, the answer may turn on the implied covenant's waivability. Justice Kagan made this point:
But if it can't be waived, it sure seems as though it is operating independently of the parties' reasonable expectations.
It may also turn on the fact that frequent flyer programs work for airline miles, but also for other goods and services--and thus state regulation of them may not amount to a regulation of airline price, in violation of the ADA. Justice Alito put it this way:
I don't want to take up your rebuttal time, but if the facts were that under a particular program 90 percent of the miles were earned by purchasing things other than flying and 90 percent of the miles were spent on things other than flying, wouldn't that be very different?
This could give the Court a way out of the problem, by ruling that state implied-covenant claims based on frequent flyer programs aren't preempted because they don't regulate the price of airline tickets. This seems unlikely, though: even if frequent flyer programs work for other goods and services, they still also work for airline tickets.
Finally, there's the presumption against preemption--and whether it has any bearing on this case. Chief Justice Roberts seemed to think so:
I do agree, it seems pretty inconsistent with the normal presumption against preemption that we apply out of respect for the State legal regimes to say we're going to adopt a broad prophylactic rule.
But Justice Scalia thought not:
But the whole purpose of the ADA was to preempt State laws. I mean, I can understand applying that presumption to other statutes which say nothing about preemption. The whole purpose of the ADA was to deregulate airlines, was to say there was going to be no Federal regulation. Let the free market handle it and there will be no State regulation.
On the one hand, a narrow ruling in this case--one that address Ginsberg's particular claim, under Minnesota law, recognizing that this particular program gave the airline "sole discretion" to terminate--seems both likely and appropriate, especially given the particularities of this case. But on the other hand, as at least some on the Court suggested, an overly narrow ruling, without a broader standard, leaves open the possibility (or even probability) that this very same issue, or one like it, could give the lower courts a headache in the 49 other states (where implied covenant claims might work differently).
If Ginsberg loses, and his claim is preempted, the U.S. Department of Transportation can still investigate Northwest's frequent flyer program. But that remedy doesn't do anything for Ginsberg.
Wednesday, November 6, 2013
Oral Arguments in Town of Greece v Galloway: Can the Town Council Ask Those Attending to Bow Their Heads and Pray?
The Court today heard oral arguments in Town of Greece v. Galloway regarding a New York town's practice of opening its council meetings with prayers, the large majority of which have been Christian.
unanimous panel opinion of the Second Circuit held that the town meetings practice of legislative prayer since 1999 "impermissibly affiliated the town with a single creed, Christianity" and violated the First Amendment's Establishment Clause. The case has attracted much attention - - - a great PBS video is here - - - and in a move that surprised some, the Obama Administration filed a brief in support of the town.
Doctrinally, the arguments centered on an application of Marsh v. Chambers (1983), in which the Court upheld the constitutionality of the Nebraska legislature's employment of a chaplain to lead a legislative prayer. The majority opinion, authored by Chief Justice Burger, was seemingly not worried that the same chaplain had been employed for almost two decades, and relied upon the historical practice of legislative prayer. Among the many references to Marsh in the argument and its reliance on history is this one with (ConLawProf) Douglas Laycock, representing the challengers to the prayer, after some laughter:
JUSTICE KENNEDY: I mean, I'm serious about this. This involves government very heavily in religion.
MR. LAYCOCK: Well, government became very heavily involved in religion when we decided there could be prayers to open legislative sessions. Marsh is the source of government involvement in religion. And now the question is how to manage the problems that arise from that.
JUSTICE ALITO: Well, Marsh is not the source of government involvement religion in this respect. The First Congress is the source.
MR. LAYCOCK: Fair enough. The tradition to which Marsh points.
JUSTICE ALITO: The First Congress that also adopted the First Amendment.
Yet another possible distinction from Marsh is the Town of Greece town council is a "hybrid" body which has administrative function and persons appearing before it who are seeking specific relief, as well as being local. Justice Ginsburg complimented the Deputy Solicitor General, who argued as amicus curiae, supporting the Town of Greece, for being "quite candid" about this quality and stating that it would be proper to have "certain checks" in that setting. But the nature of those checks preoccupied the arguments. Does it matter how far the prayer and the "hearing" are separated in time? Should there be guidelines for those giving the prayers - - - and how much does this involve (entangle) the government in religious matters? Does it matter if the attendees are asked to show their hands if they personally feel in need of prayer? (To which Justice Scalia interjected, "That's not a prayer.") Additionally, there was little satisfaction with either the coercion or endorsement tests, and the (in)famous Lemon test made no appearance at all.
For some Justices, prayer as practiced in the Town of Greece council meetings seemed deeply troubling. For example, Justice Kagan quickly interrupted Thomas Hungar, arguing on behalf of the town:
JUSTICE KAGAN: Mr. Hungar, I'm wondering what you would think of the following: Suppose that as we began this session of the Court, the Chief Justice had called a minister up to the front of the courtroom, facing the lawyers, maybe the parties, maybe the spectators. And the minister had asked everyone to stand and to bow their heads in prayer and the minister said the following: He said, we acknowledge the saving sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the cross. We draw strength from His resurrection. Blessed are you who has raised up the Lord Jesus. You who will raise us in our turn and put us by His side. The members of the Court who had stood responded amen, made the sign of the cross, and the Chief Justice then called your case.
During his rebuttal argument, Mr. Hungar's attempt to demonstrate the town was not sectarian in its prayer was less than successful for Justice Sotomayor:
MR. HUNGAR: Thank you, Mr. Chief Justice.
First I would like to correct one factual misimpression, the assertion that only non-Christian prayer-givers delivered the prayer after 2008. It's not in the record, but the official web site of the Town of Greece shows that at least four non-Christian prayer-givers delivered prayers thereafter in 2009, '10, '11 and '13.
JUSTICE SOTOMAYOR: Counsel.
MR. HUNGAR: I'm sorry?
JUSTICE SOTOMAYOR: One a year.
MR. HUNGAR: I'm sorry, Your Honor?
JUSTICE SOTOMAYOR: Four additional people after the suit was filed.
MR. HUNGAR: Yes, Your Honor.
JUSTICE SOTOMAYOR: One a year.
MR. HUNGAR: Approximately.
JUSTICE SOTOMAYOR: How often does the legislature meet?
HUNGAR: Once a month.
And on the sectarian line . . . . .
Tuesday, November 5, 2013
The oral arguments in Bond v. United States today evoked both the use of chemical weapons in the ongoing conflict in Syria and the understandings of the farmers of the Constitution regarding the power given to the Executive, with "Advice and Consent of the Senate, to make Treaties, provided two thirds of the Senators present concur." The treaty at issue is the Chemical Weapons Convention, but also at issue is the Chemical Weapons Implementation Act.
Carol Anne Bond was convicted of a crime in violation of the Act, 18 U.S.C. § 229(a). But the fact that she is not a "terrorist," but rather a venegful woman in a love triangle, has caused much consternation. While the international arms-control agreement prohibits nation-states from producing, stockpiling, or using chemical weapons, Bond, a biologist, used her expertise to spread injurious chemicals on the property of her former best friend, after learning that the friend was pregnant by Bond’s husband. Although Bond was prosecuted in state court, she continued her campaign against her former friend and she was eventually prosecuted in federal court.
It's not the first time that Carol Anne Bond has been before the United States Supreme Court. Recall that in 2011, the Court unanimously held that Bond could raise a Tenth Amendment claim in her prosecution, reversing the Third Circuit.
On remand, the Third Circuit rejected Bond's argument to "set aside as inapplicable the landmark decision Missouri v. Holland, 252 U.S. 416 (1920), which is sometimes cited for the proposition that the Tenth Amendment has no bearing on Congress‟s ability to legislate in furtherance of the Treaty Power in Article II, § 2 of the Constitution." Bond argued that "legal trends since the Supreme Court‟s 1920 decision in Holland make it clear that the Tenth Amendment should not be treated as irrelevant when examining the validity of treaty-implementing legislation." The Third Circuit found that the Chemical Weapons Convention "falls comfortably within the Treaty Power's traditional subject matter limitation" and thus the implementing Act is "within the constitutional powers of the federal government under the Necessary and Proper Clause and the Treaty Power, unless it somehow goes beyond the Convention." The Supreme Court (again) granted the petition for certiorari.
In a nutshell, Bond's prosecution under a federal law for what seems a state (local) crime raises issues of federalism not unlike the issues the Court has confronted regarding the power of Congress to criminalize guns in school zones (Lopez) or marijuana (Raich). But the invocation of these cases at the beginning of Paul Clement's argument on behalf of Carol Anne Bond brought a clarification from Justice Scalia that the Court did not take the case to decide any Commerce Clause question. Instead, the focus must be on the Treaty power and whether a treaty can alter constitutional structures, namely federalism.
Later, Justice Alito returned to these cases as well as Section 5 (of the Fourteenth Amendment) to pose a question to the Solicitor General about the Treaty power as circumventing the Court's limitations, and interestingly demonstrating a familiarity with scholarly articles:
JUSTICE ALITO: Whenever -- when this Court has issued decisions in recent years holding that there are some limits on Congress's power, cases like Lopez and Morrison and City of Boerne, there have been legal commentators who have written articles saying that could be circumvented to -- through the use of the treaty power. Do you agree with that?
The Solicitor General eventually answered that it depended on "whether the treaty is a valid exercise of the treaty power."
The limiting construction of the statute proposed by Paul Clement - - - war-like use of the chemicals as includable within federal power - - - proved problematic at times. The Solicitor General argued that this was "one of the very things we are trying to sort out right now in Syria under the Chemical Weapons Convention is where the line is between peaceful and warlike uses." On the other hand, the lack of a line other than valid treaty also proved problematical.
The Solicitor General often summoned originalist principles to support the primacy of a ratified treaty. Justice Kagan in her questioning of Paul Clement suggested that all properly ratified treaties must be constitutional:
Because there's clearly a treaty power that does not have subject matter limitations. And, indeed, if you go back to the founding history, it's very clear that they thought about all kinds of subject matter limitations and James Madison and others decided, quite self-consciously, not to impose them. So where would you find that limitation in the Constitution?
MR. CLEMENT: I would find that limitation in the structural provisions of the Constitution and the enumerated powers of Congress. And I would say that it would be very -
JUSTICE KAGAN: But this isn't an enumerated power. The enumerated power is the treaty power. So you have to find a constraint on the treaty power. Where does it come from?
MR. CLEMENT: Well, I think where that it would come from, again, is the structural provisions of the Constitution.
Monday, November 4, 2013
The United States Supreme Court today heard oral argument in Sandifer v. United States Steel Corporation centered on the meaning of “changing clothes” in section 203(o) of the Fair Labor Standards Act. The Seventh Circuit's opinion by Judge Richard Posner found in favor of U.S. Steel that donning and doffing the safety gear was not necessarily changing clothes, because
He included an image in the opinion (at right) and stated
not everything a person wears is clothing. We say that a person “wears” glasses, or a watch, or his heart on his sleeve, but this just shows that “wear” is a word of many meanings.
Almost any English speaker would say that the model in our photo is wearing work clothes.
And indeed, Justice Ginsburg, during the oral argument at the Supreme Court did just that, but the discussion continued:
JUSTICE GINSBURG: But we're dealing with here, from the picture, that looks like clothes to me.
MR. SCHNAPPER: Your Honor, I think that your question raises an excellent point. One of the problems with the picture is that it withholds from you other information that you would use to assess whether to describe it as clothes. You don't know what -
JUSTICE KENNEDY: Except you would look and say, those clothes probably have something special underneath them. I mean, in ordinary parlance I think that would be a proper use of diction.
MR. SCHNAPPER: If you saw an airbag jacket, you would probably call it clothes unless you are an equestrian. It looks like a jacket. If you saw a compression torsion -- a torso compression bandage in a photograph, you would call it clothes, because you don't have all the relevant information.
JUSTICE ALITO: Why is it that the jacket and the pants in that picture are not clothes?
MR. SCHNAPPER: In our view -- well, let me -- part of it -- first of all, they are designed for a protective function, to protect you from catching fire.
In addition to the ruminations on the meaning of clothes, perhaps leading to a definitional rule, there were attempts to understand why it mattered in this interpretation of the statute. The statute excludes from “hours worked”
any time spent in changing clothes or washing at the beginning or end of each workday which was excluded from measured working time during the week involved by the express terms of or by custom or practice under a bona fide collective-bargaining agreement applicable to the particular employee.
Thus an employee would need to be paid for putting on "gear."
But if the Court can't tell by simply looking, then what? As Justice Kagan noted toward the end of the argument, the distinction between clothes and gear "seems the quintessential question of statutory interpretation to which we would normally defer to the agency," but in this case, the agency hasn't issued a regulation. Justice Scalia offered his own explanation for the administrative failure to address the matter with a rule: "Too complicated is why."
Thus, while Judge Posner's opinion did raise some constitutional considerations about agency and executive power regarding differing meanings driven by politics, the constitutional question implicit in the Supreme Court arguments involve the separation of powers and the role of the Court in statutory interpretation.
So it is up to the Court to "fashion a standard," as Eric Schnapper, representing Clifton Sandifer, phrased it during oral argument.
Tuesday, October 15, 2013
Today's oral arguments before the United States Supreme Court in Schuette v. Coalition to Defend Affirmative Action, Integration and Immigrant Rights and Fight for Equality By Any Means Necessary (BAMN) raised a raft of interesting hypotheticals, including this question: Is the Michigan's state constitution's equal protection clause, which mirrors the federal one, itself unconstitutional under the Fourteenth Amendment's Equal Protection Clause.
Of course, the issue before the Court involves a different provision of Michigan's Constitution: Prop 2, adopted by voter referendum in 2006, and now Art I §26 of the state constitution.
The referendum occurred subsequent to the Court's upholding of Michigan University School of Law's affirmative action policy in Grutter v. Bollinger, even as the Court held unconstitutional the plan of the large undergraduate university as not sufficiently narrowly tailored.
Recall that the en banc Sixth Circuit majority in Coalition to Defend Affirmative Action v. Regents of the University of Michigan relied upon the so-called "political process" aspect of the Equal Protection Clause which asks whether a majority may vote to amend its constitution to limit the rights of a minority to seek relief, relying on Washington v. Seattle Sch. Dist. No. 1, 458 U.S. 457 (1982) and Hunter v. Erickson, 393 U.S. 385 (1969).
The oral argument reflected a deep suspicion of the political process rationale, with the most serious questioning being directed at what the limits to such a doctrine might be. Justice Alito returned to the issue several times, posing various hypotheticals about faculty admissions plans that might be overruled by a dean or president of the university. Or maybe, he continued,
it's overruled by the regents. Maybe, if State laws allowed, it's -- it's overruled by an executive department of the State. Maybe it's overruled by the legislature through ordinary legislation. Maybe it's overruled through a constitutional amendment. At what point does the political restructuring doctrine kick in?
Later in the rebuttal argument of the Petitioner, Justice Alito suggested an answer to his own question:
Seattle and this case both involve constitutional amendments. So why can't the law -- the law be drawn -- the line be drawn there? If you change the allocation of power in one of these less substantial ways, that's one thing; but when you require a constitutional amendment that's really a big deal.
Indeed, this was exactly the rationale of the en banc Sixth Circuit's majority opinion, as the opening passages to that opinion illustrated.
And Justice Kennedy, seemingly in his role as a "swing vote" - - - although Justice Kagan is recused - - - seemed to share the specific concerns of how to draw a line in the cases.
Justice Scalia certainly did not seem inclined to worry about drawing lines or allocations of power. Indeed, he rejected the notion that Prop 2, now Article I §26 of the Michigan Constitution - - - despite its textual "on its face" use of a race - - - made a racial classification. He chastised Mark Rosenblum, arguing on behalf of some of the respondents, for referring to Prop 2 as including a "facial racial classification":
JUSTICE SCALIA: It's not a racial classification. You should not refer to it that way.
MR. ROSENBAUM: It is a racial -
JUSTICE SCALIA: It's the prohibition of racial classifications.
MR. ROSENBAUM: No, Your Honor.JUSTICE SCALIA: Every prohibition of racial classification is itself a racial classification?
After further discussion, Justice Scalia asked,
In that sense, the 14th Amendment itself is a racial classification, right?
To which Rosenbaum replied that he was using the Fourteenth Amendment itself as measurement. Yet this theme recurred, and had been part of the Petitioner's opening argument, including references to Michigan's equal protection clause.
Scalia also outright dismissed an appeal to originalism. When Shanta Driver (pictured right) on behalf of Coalition to Defend Affirmative Action, Integration, and Immigrant Rights and Fight for Equality by Any Means Necessary (and who is its National Chair), began her argument asking the Court to affirm the Sixth Circuit and "to bring the 14th Amendment back to its original purpose and meaning, which is to protect minority rights against a white majority, which did not occur in this case," Scalia interjected:
JUSTICE SCALIA: My goodness, I thought we've -- we've held that the 14th Amendment protects all races. I mean, that was the argument in the early years, that it protected only -- only the blacks. But I thought we rejected that. You -- you say now that we have to proceed as though its purpose is not to protect whites, only to protect minorities?
And Justice Roberts surfaced the position that affirmative action was actually a detriment to those it sought to benefit, echoing some of the arguments in Thomas's dissent in Fisher, such as the so-called "mismatch theory."
Thus, while the arguments sometimes sought to distance themselves from the affirmative action battles that the Court re-engaged last term in Fisher v. UT, certainly Schuette v. Coalition to Defend Affirmative Action is another such battle, albeit on slightly different doctrinal terrain. It seems unlikely that it will have a different ultimate outcome.
Federalism and state constitutionalism took center stage today, as Judge Steven Rhodes opened hearings on Detroit's eligibility for bankruptcy. Detroit's filing, on July 18, is the largest municipal bankruptcy petition in U.S. history.
According to the Free Press, attorneys for the creditors objecting to bankruptcy argued that federal bankruptcy law "allows the U.S. government to infringe on state rights and gives 'political cover' to Detroit emergency manager Kevyn Orr to pursue pension cuts":
I'd ask your honor to come back with me to elementary and high school when we first talked about what the Constitution means. By turning over Chapter 9 to the federal government and being able to hide behind the bankruptcy process, we lose that accountability that's a cornerstone of what our constitution requires of us.
Creditor attorneys also argued that bankruptcy violates the Michigan Constitution's protection of public pension benefits. Article IX, Section 24 says,
The accrued financial benefits of each pension plan and retirement system of the state and its political subdivisions shall be a contractual obligation thereof which shall not be diminished or impaired thereby.
The hearing on eligibility is slated to go through Wednesday; Judge Rhodes will start an eligibility trial on October 23.
Tuesday, October 8, 2013
The Supreme Court today heard oral arguments in McCutcheon v. FEC, the case testing whether aggregate campaign contribution limits violate the First Amendment.
Aggregate limits, established under the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act, or BCRA, cap the total amount that a contributor can give to candidates, political parties, and political committees. Aggregate limits supplement base limits, also in the BCRA, which cap the amount that a contributor can give to a particular candidate. Aggregate limits are designed to prevent a contributor from circumventing the base limits (and thus to prevent corruption and the appearance of corruption) by funneling total contributions in excess of the base limits through a variety of different recipients and to a particular candidate.
Here's how it would work: Suppose Congress capped campaign contributions at $5,000 per candidate per cycle, so that a contributor could give only $5,000 to his or her preferred candidate. Without more, that contributor could easily bypass that base limit by simply contributing $5,000 to a number of different organizations that could, in turn, support or contribute to the contributor's preferred candidate. The contributor could thus effectively circumvent the base limit and corrupt his or her preferred candidate by funneling contributions through intermediaries.
Congress recognized this circumvention problem and imposed a cap on aggregate contributions in order to avoid it. The Court in Buckley v. Valeo (1976) upheld both the base contribution limit and an aggregate contribution limit, holding that they work to prevent actual and apparent corruption and circumvention. Later, in BCRA, Congress restructured and increased previous base and aggregate contribution limits and provided for automatic adjustments for inflation.
McCutcheon, a wealthy contributor, challenged the aggregate limits as violating the First Amendment. (For more on the background, my ABA Preview piece is here.)
The arguments today focused on whether the current aggregate contribution limits continue to do any work with regard to corruption or circumvention. The RNC and McCutcheon argued that they don't. They said that other features of the law already prevent circumvention and corruption, and that the aggregate limits therefore only serve to limit free speech and association. The FEC, on the other hand, said that they do--that they are necessary to close circumvention opportunities even with the other protective features of federal law, and that they prevent corruption.
The right answer, of course, turns on how money can flow in politics. There were plenty of hypotheticals today (and in the briefing) designed to illustrate how aggregate limits work to prevent corruption and circumvention (and counter-points on why they don't). Justices Breyer and Kagan led the charge with hypos showing why aggregate limits were necessary; Justice Kennedy expressed interest, as well. But for every hypo, the petitioners had an explanation why current law already solved the corruption and circumvention problem, even without aggregate limits. The lack of context and record on this point led Justices Breyer and Sotomayor to wonder whether the case might benefit from further development at the lower court. (Don't bet on this outcome.)
Justice Alito turned this line of questions on the government and asked SG Verrilli why other features of federal law don't already solve the corruption and circumvention problems. SG Verrilli seemed to back away from the circumvention interest and answered that a single contributor's very large contribution, dispersed across like-minded candidates and organizations, is itself a corruption problem, and that aggregate limits address this. The answer didn't seem to satisfy.
Chief Justice Roberts had a different concern: how the aggregate limits affect a contributor's ability to give the maximum amount to as many candidates as he or she wants--and how this limits a contributor's speech and association rights with regard to, say, the tenth candidate that the contributor wants to support. He also wondered whether there weren't less speech- and association-infringing ways to prevent corruption and circumvention.
In short, both the Chief Justice and Justice Alito, who together may well control the outcome of this case, seemed accutely concerned that the aggregate limits weren't the best-tailored way for the government to achieve its interests in preventing corruption and circumvention. At the same time, though, neither Chief Justice nor Justice Alito (nor anybody else today) directly took on Buckley's holding on base and aggregate contribution limits. (Justices Kennedy, Scalia, and Thomas are all on record against Buckley's holding that the government can regulate contributions in the interest of preventing corruption.) Instead, the arguments focused on whether the non-aggregate-limiting features of BCRA can do the work of preventing corruption and circumvention--and therefore whether the aggregate limits only serve to infringe the First Amendment. So if the arguments today are any indication, we may see a 5-4 Court striking the aggregate limits because they're not sufficiently tailored to prevent corruption or circumvention--and because they limit too much speech and association.
If so, we'll likely see more total money going directly to candidates, political parties, and committees. But remember that under Citizens United individuals can already spend as much as they want on "independent" electioneering. This case won't change that, even if it directs some of that "independent" money to candidates, political parties, and committees for better coordinated expenditures. (Justice Scalia argued today that the anti-corruption purpose of aggregate limits seems as weak as, or weaker than, an anti-corruption purpose for the independent expenditure restrictions that the Court struck in Citizens United.) At the same time, this case probably won't upset Buckley's holding that the government can cap base contributions in the interest of preventing actual or apparent corruption. Indeed, it may not even upset Buckley's holding on aggregate contributions. Instead, it may only say that under BCRA aggregate limits aren't doing the anti-corruption and anti-circumvention work that they were designed to do, and that they're unduly infringing on the First Amendment.
Monday, October 7, 2013
The facts of Madigan v. Levin argued today seem simple: Levin, an attorney working for the state of Illinois as an assistant state attorney was terminated in 2006 when he was 61 years old, being replaced by a younger attorney. At least two other older attorneys were also terminated, replaced by younger attorneys.
Whether these facts, and the further facts to be determined, would substantiate a claim of age discrimination is the question to be decided on the merits. But before any consideration of the merits, there is the thorny question of the grounding of the claim. Can it be the Age Discrimination in Employment Act, ADEA, 29 U.S.C. §§ 621? What about the Court's decision in Kimel v. Florida Board of Regents, holding that Congress had no power to abrogate a state's Eleventh Amendment immunity when it used its Fourteenth Amendment §5 power to pass ADEA? And is Levin even an "employee" within the ADEA? And what about GERA, the Government Employee Rights Act of 1991 (Title III of the Civil Rights Act of 1991), which has also run into abrogation of state immunity problems? Which is why, perhaps, Mr.Levin, even after exhausting his administrative remedies with the EEOC, sought to bring a claim under the Equal Protection Clause, using the jurisdictional statute 42 USC §1983. But the state argued that Levin's constitutional claims were precluded by the comprehensive scheme Congress had enacted to address age discrimination, the ADEA.
Affirming the district judge, the Seventh Circuit held that the ADEA did not bar a constitutional claim, with extensive analysis of the legislative history, but also reasoning in part that as a practical matter, this would mean that employees of state employers would be left without a federal damages claim because of the reasoning of Kimel. The Seveneth Circuit then ruled that the individual defendants did not enjoy qualified immunity, age discrimination being "clearly established" as a right under the Equal Protection Clause, with age classifications being scrutinized under the rational basis standard. The Seventh Circuit's opinion seemed well-reasoned, but it conflicted with the decisions of the other circuits - - - Fourth, Fifth, Ninth, and Tenth - - - that had decided that ADEA precluded equal protection claims based on age.
But while the attorney for the state of Illinois, Michael Scordo, did have a chance to articulate his finely crafted opening issue statement, Justice Ginsburg asked the first question, and the complex case became even more complex:
Mr. Scodro, there's a preliminary question before we get to the question you presented, and that is: What authority did the Seventh Circuit have to deal with the question under the Age Discrimination Act? I mean, it was -- it went to the Seventh Circuit on interlocutory review.
The procedural problem - - - did the Seventh Circuit have jurisdiction and thus does the Supreme Court have jurisdiction - - - had been flagged by an amicus brief of Law Professors, including Stephen Vladeck as counsel of record, who argued that
the Seventh Circuit lacked “pendent appellate jurisdiction” on an interlocutory qualified immunity appeal to decide the question on which certiorari was granted, i.e., whether the remedial scheme created by Congress in the Age Discrimination in Employment Act (ADEA), 29 U.S.C. §§ 621 et seq., displaces age-discrimination suits by state employees under the Equal Protection Clause and 42 U.S.C. § 1983.
As for the United States Supreme Court? The law professors brief argued:
To be sure, as this Court’s prior decisions attest, because the Seventh Circuit had jurisdiction over the qualified immunity issue, the Supreme Court still has the power to proceed to the merits notwithstanding the pendent jurisdictional defect below. But compelling reasons of prudence, practice, and policy all favor vacating the decision below and returning this case to the district court, rather than rewarding the Court of Appeals’ jurisdictional bootstrapping.
As Justice Scalia noted, most of the oral argument was taken up with these procedural matters - - - what he labeled the "other stuff" - - - with limited discussion of the merits.
But there was some discussion of the merits. In a colloquy with Justices Alito and later Kagan, the problem with the Equal Protection Clause claim got some attention. The attorney for Levin, Edward Theobald, was pressed on whether Levin could possibly prevail given the rational basis standard. Here's a snippet:
JUSTICE ALITO: And what if the Illinois legislature passed a statute that said: Now, forget about the ADEA. There is no ADEA. There is no state anti-discrimination law involved here. All we are talking about is equal protection. And they passed a law that said: All attorneys working for the State of Illinois must retire at the age of 60, because everybody knows, you know, once a lawyer passes 60, there's nothing left.
MR. THEOBALD: We're all in trouble.
JUSTICE ALITO: Would that be -- would that survive a rational basis review?
MR. THEOBALD: I don't believe so.
Of course, the Justices would not be in trouble if Illinois passed such a law; they are not only federal employees, they have life tenure, a benefit that is not universally applauded.
And they also have the power not only to decide the case, but also to decide that they do not - - - or should not - - - have the power to do so.
[image from Vanity Fair, 1903, via]
Monday, April 22, 2013
The Court heard oral arguments today, sans Justice Kagan, in United States Agency for International Development v. Alliance for Open Society International, Inc., involving a First Amendment challenge to a provision of federal funding statute requiring some (but not other) organizations to have an explicit policy opposing sex work.
In other words, a NGO must have a "prostitution pledge" - - - actually, an anti-prostitution pledge - - - as a condition of receiving funds, unless it is one of the "grandfathered" NGOs. The question is whether this pledge is compelled speech and whether any compelled speech is sufficient to distinguish the situation from Rust v. Sullivan. The Second Circuit had held the provision unconstitutional.
Arguing as Deputy Solicitor General in support of the provision's constitutionality, Sri Srinivasan stressed that the Congressional requirement was "germane" to the government's goal in "partnering" with private organizations. Justice Scalia, in addition to finding the term "partnering" a "terrible verb," seemed to voice sentiments consistent with his previous conclusions in funding cases that the government can choose to spend its money as it wished. Interestingly, Justice Alito was more troubled, as he expressed in his first comment and question to the Deputy Solicitor General:
JUSTICE ALITO: I'm not aware of any case in which this Court has held that it is permissible for Congress to condition Federal funding on the recipient's expression of agreement with ideas with which the recipient disagrees. I'm not aware of any case in which that kind of compelled speech has been permitted. And I would be interested in -- and it seems to me like quite a -- a dangerous proposition. I would be interested in whatever limitations you think there might be on that rule, which seems to be the general rule that you're advocating. Other than the requirement of germaneness, is there anything else.
Alito soon thereafter posed an example mentioned in an amicus brief about the ability of government funding schools, and again, Srinivasan repeated the requirement of "germaneness." Later, Alito mentioned another example, mixing advocacy of guns and receiving health care, and Srinivasan again answered similarly.
Justice Ginsburg's concerns were similar, with an addition of the question of the recipients as foreign NGOs as a distinguishing feature from precedent as well as a practical issue.
David Bowker, arguing for Alliance for Open Society and other organizations, attempted to distinguish a funding criteria from mandated speech once the fnding decision had been made, although this led into a discussion of viewpoint discrimination rather than compelled speech. Later, Bowker brought it back to the distinction based upon Rust v. Sullivan, in a colloquy with Justice Sotomayor:
MR. BOWKER: And what Rust says, and I – I think we fall back on Rust, which we think is just on all fours with where we are here, and that is what the government cannot do -- and I think this answers your question -- is outside the government program the government cannot control private speech. And it was critical in that case -- Justice Rehnquist, at pages 196 and 197, said, "The doctors there and the public health organizations there are free to engage in their own private speech and their own activities, and they are not required to endorse any viewpoint they don't, in fact, hold." And here -
It was not until the Government's rebutal that one of the oddest features of the statute was raised, when Sotomayor stated,
JUSTICE SOTOMAYOR: I would have less problem accepting your message if there weren't four major organizations who were exempted from the policy requirement . . .
There seems to be a bit of selection on the government in terms of who it wants to work with. It would seem to me that if you really wanted to protect the U.S., you wouldn't exempt anybody from this.
In his last moments of argument, Srinivasan, responding to Justice Ginsburg, argued that the exemptions made "good sense" given that three of the four have members that are sovereign entities. Unfortunately, the rationale supporting that fourth entity was not explored.
The hypotheticals and examples raised by the Justices in oral argument showed some concern about just how far Congress could extend a provision similar to the one about prostitution in the Leadership Act. The distinction between funding and compelled speech doctrines was often obscured, making the outcome uncertain. More certain is that Justice Kagan's perspective will be sorely missed.
Saturday, April 20, 2013
The Supreme Court heard oral arguments this week in United States v. Kebodeaux, the case testing whether Congress can require a federal sex offender to register, when the offender served out his full sentence before Congress enacted the Sex Offender Registration Act.
The arguments centered on just how far congressional authority extends under Congress's power to regulate the military (because Kebodeaux was convicted under the UCMJ) and the Necessary and Proper Clause (because he was required to register under SORNA only after he served out his full sentence). That latter point, the key here, in turn largely centered on the reach and understanding of United States v. Comstock, the OT 2009 case holding that Congress could authorize a federal judge to order the civil commitment of a "sexually dangerous" person in federal custody even beyond the term of his sentence.
Comstock was a 7-2 ruling, with Chief Justice Roberts joining Justice Breyer's majority opinion. Justices Kennedy and Alito concurred separately. Justices Scalia and Thomas dissented.
Chief Justice Roberts sent strong signals during arguments in Kebodeaux that he sees this application of SORNA as beyond the pale. Justices Kennedy and Alito were also critical of the government's position, but seemed slightly less firm in their positions, slightly more open. Justice Sotomayor, too, pressed for limits on government authority. If three of these switch from their positions in Comstock, Kebodeaux will go the other way.
My argument review at SCOTUSblog is here.
Tuesday, April 16, 2013
Today's oral arguments in Adoptive Couple v. Baby Girl, which we previewed yesterday, were indeed a mix of statutory interpretation and application of the Indian Child Welfare Act (ICWA) and constitutional issues, with a dose of family law.
Arguing for the adoptive couple, Lisa Blatt described the biological father as equivalent to "a sperm donor," causing Justice Scalia to counter with an assertion of fatherhood ("He's the father. He's the father.") to which Blatt replied, "And so is a sperm donor under your definition. He's a biological father and nothing else in the eyes of State law." By this description, Blatt not only argued that the biological father was not a parent under ICWA, but also tended to erode any constitutional rights that the father might have. Blatt also took on the constitutional argument more directly, arguing that ICWA would "raise grave constitutional concerns" if "Congress presumptively presumed that a non-Indian parent was unfit to raise any child with any amount of Indian blood."
The "amount of Indian blood" was an issue that attracted the attention of Chief Justice Roberts, who has been attentive racial identities in the affirmative action cases, including Fisher argued earlier this Term. During Charles Rothfeld's argument on behalf of the biological father, Roberts posed a "hypothetical" about an Indian tribe that had a "zero percent blood requirement" and enrolled members who "think culturally they're a Cherokee." Justice Ginsburg objected that this was not the ICWA definition and Justice Scalia agreed that Roberts' hypothetical would be a "null set," but Roberts posed the query again. Rothfeld replied that such "wild hypotheticals" would "present political questions to be addressed by Congress or addressed by the executive branch."
Arguing between Blatt and Rothfeld, Paul Clement, on behalf of the child's law guardian - - - asserting the child's best interests as assumed by the guardian - - - also contended that ICWA was constitutionally suspect. The "Indian child" is a racial classification:
And as a result of that her whole world changes and this whole inquiry changes. It goes from an inquiry focused on her best interests and it changes to a focus on the birth father and whether or not beyond a reasonable doubt there is a clear and present danger.
Clement's characterization of ICWA's standard was somewhat hyperbolic, although the statute does require the high standard and does have a "substantial and immediate danger or threat of such danger" exemption. This resonated with Blatt's rebuttal, expressing the dangers of a Court affirmance of the South Carolina Supreme Court's opinion in favor of the biological father:
And you're basically relegating the child, the child to a piece of property with a sign that says, "Indian, keep off. Do not disturb." This case is going to affect any interracial adoption of children.It is highly unlikely that the Court will address the lurking equal protection racial classification issue, however its importance was revealed in Paul Clement's colloquy with Justice Kennedy about "constitutional avoidance." Justice Breyer essentially asked Clement how to remedy the situation and Clement responded that because ICWA provides "extraordinary" protections that "it only makes sense to prove something more than bare paternity."
It is more likely that the Court's usual conservative/liberal dichotomy will not be apparent in the ultimate opinions.
Monday, April 8, 2013
Greenhouse has this reminder about federalism and family law:
There is much that’s questionable about this assertion of implicitly boundless state authority over family affairs. A famous pair of Supreme Court decisions from the 1920s armed parents with rights under the Due Process Clause to educate their children as they see fit, in resistance to state laws. Pierce v. Society of Sisters gave parents the right to choose private or religious schools despite an Oregon law that required public school education for all. Meyer v. Nebraska struck down a state law that barred the teaching of modern foreign language (the law’s post-World War I target was German.)
Nor is this ancient history. In 2000, the court struck down a state law in Washington that gave grandparents the right to visit their grandchildren over the parents’ objection. Justice O’Connor wrote the court’s opinion, Troxel v. Granville, which was joined by Chief Justice Rehnquist.
Substitute “marriage” for “criminal procedure” and you time-travel into last week’s argument. But you will listen in vain for the voice of Justice William O. Douglas, who brushed away concerns about what he dismissively called “this federalism” to ask: “Has any member of this court come out and said in so many terms it’s the constitutional right of a state to provide a system whereby people get unfair trials?”
As usual, Linda Greenhouse is worth a read, for ConLaw Profs and ConLaw students.
April 8, 2013 in Criminal Procedure, Current Affairs, Due Process (Substantive), Equal Protection, Federalism, Fifth Amendment, Fourteenth Amendment, Fundamental Rights, Gender, Interpretation, Oral Argument Analysis, Sexual Orientation, Sexuality, Sixth Amendment, Supreme Court (US), Theory | Permalink | Comments (2) | TrackBack (0)
Wednesday, March 27, 2013
In the second of the same-sex marriage cases, after yesterday's Proposition 8 argument, the Court heard oral argument today in United States v. Windsor, a grant of certiorari to the Second Circuit opinion holding DOMA unconstitutional and applying intermediate scrutiny to sexual orientation classifications.
Edith Windsor (pictured) argues that DOMA - - - the Defense of Marriage Act - - -violates the equal protection component of the Fifth Amendment. Recall DOMA is not being defended by the Obama Administration, but by BLAG - the Bipartisan Legal Advisory Group - - - at taxpayer expense which reportedly topped $3 million even before today's arguments.
The extended two hour session had several attorneys arguing: LawProf Vicki Jackson, Court-appointed as amicus on the standing issue; Sri Srinivasan, Deputy Solictor General (supporting Windsor on the standing issue); Paul D. Clement on behalf of BLAG; Solicitor General Donald B. Verrilli (supporting Windsor); and Roberta A. Kaplan on Behalf of Windsor.
On the standing issue:
Similar to the Proposition 8 case argued yesterday, the fact that the government is not defending the constitutionality of the law raises a quetions about the Court's power under Article III to decide the issues.
Justice Kagan asked one of the most trenchant questions regarding standing and injury, especially given the Obama Administration's stated belief that DOMA is unconstitutional:
The Government is willing to pay that $300,000, would be happy to pay that $300,000, but whether the Government is happy or sad to pay that $300,000, the Government is still paying the $300,000, which in the usual set of circumstances is the classic Article III injury. Why isn't it here?
But Jackson answered that the federal government had not asked the Court to remedy that injury and that the Article III "case or controversy" requirement is "nested in an adversarial system."Throughout the arguments on standing there was a search for the most controlling precedent - - - with Justice Roberts' asking "is there any case where all the parties agreed with the decision below and we upheld appellate jurisdiction? Any case?" The general consensus seemed to be that Windsor was distinct from the most similar case, INS v.Chadha decided in 1983. (Chadha involved the legislative veto and produced a very fractured set of opinions on the merits). Justice Scalia had some barbs to throw at the present administration, contrasting it to when he was at the Office of Legal Counsel.
On the merits:
The challenge to DOMA is under the equal protection component of the Fifth Amendment, with the Solicitor General arguing that the standard to be applied is intermediate scrutiny and Kaplan arguing that DOMA failed even rational basis scrutiny. Yet the equal protection arguments were embroiled with the federalism and Congressional power to pass DOMA; Justice Kennedy stated that the federalism and equal protection issues were "intertwined." [A good example this intertwinement occurred in the First Circuit opinion that held DOMA unconstitutional.]
For Solicitor General Verrilli, the intertwinement aspect was a cause of consternation and undercut his argument yesterday in the Proposition 8 case that even a state law denying same-sex marriage violated equal protection and that the correct standard was intermediate scrutiny as the Second Circuit held.
The consistency principle of equal protection doctrine - - - that the same standard should apply no matter what classification was benefitted or burdened - - - was also a focus, with hypotheticals about the standard should Congress decide that it would provide federal benefits to same-sex couples even if the state did not recognize their marriages. [The question of who would have standing to challenge such a law did not arise].
Justice Roberts repeatedly brought up the question of animus as part of a rationality with bite inquiry, asking at least twice whether the 84 Senators who voted for DOMA and the President [Clinton] were motivated by animus. Justice Roberts also raised the question of political powerlessness, often an inquiry in determining the level of equal protection scrutiny. Roberts echoed an opinion expressed by Justice Scalia in earlier cases that sexual minorities were anything but politically powerless when he told Roberta Kaplan, representing Edith Windsor, "As far as I can tell, political figures are falling over themselves to endorse your side of the case."
Justice Ginsburg probably uttered the most memorable quote of the day's arguments. In her questioning of Paul Clement, who represented BLAG, she condensed his argument as saying that in granting same-sex marriages, states were nevertheless saying there were really "two kinds of marriage; the full marriage, and then this sort of skim milk marriage." Her remark would be even more noteworthy for people who recall that the scrutiny standard is often traced to the famous footnote 4 in Carolene Products, a case about - - - milk.
Thursday, March 21, 2013
The Supreme Court heard oral arguments earlier this week in Mutual Pharmaceutical v. Bartlett, a case testing whether the federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act (and in particular the Hatch-Waxman Act) preempts a state design-defect claim against a generic drug manufacturer.
The case is important because of the large and increasing role that more affordable generics play in the prescription drug market. But as Justice Kagan pointed out early in the argument, the case may also affect branded drugs. That's because both branded and generics need to get FDA approval for new or changed formulas, and yet they both could be subject to state-law design-defect claims, as in this case. If so, depending on the nature of the state law claim, the state court ruling could set a different standard than the FDA standard--making it impossible for a manufacturer, branded or generic, to comply with both. But again: that depends on the nature of the state-law claim.
Recall that the Court just two years ago ruled in PLIVA v. Mensing that the FDCA did preempt a state failure-to-warn claim against a generic manufacturer. The reason: Under the FDA's process for generic approval (under Hatch-Waxman), a generic has to bear the same label as its branded counterpart. Under the federal FDCA, the generic has no control over the label, and so the Court said that it can't be held to a higher labeling requirement under state tort law. In other words, the requirement under federal law (to bear the same label as its branded counterpart) conflicted with duties set by the state tort suit (to include different warnings).
But that was a failure-to-warn claim. Bartlett involves a design-defect claim, going to the generic's design, not (or maybe not) its label.
Still, the label was one sticking point, maybe the most important sticking point, at argument this week. The justices struggled to figure out whether the plaintiff's design-defect claim turned at all on faulty labeling. (If it did, the case would more likely be governed by Mensing, and the claim more likely to be preempted.) The plaintiff argued that the trial court judge carefully distinguished between considering the label for its adequacy as opposed to its effectiveness. According to the plaintiff, the judge ruled out the former consideration, because the defendants waived a defense that would have turned on adequacy. Moreover, according to the plaintiff, the label's effectiveness goes to limiting the danger of an inherently dangerous drug--and is therefore not a consideration of labeling in its own right, but rather a consideration of labeling as related to a pure design-defect claim. It's not clear that the Court bought this distinction, however, and the defendant argued strenuously against it.
Another and related sticking point was the nature of the state design-defect claim. Was it a pure strict liability claim, in which the plaintiff simply received compensation for injuries resulting from an inherently dangerous drug? If so, the claim operated more like a drug compensation fund, and even the defendant said there was no preemption. That's because the defendant could comply with both the federal requirements for generics and the state duty to pay. Stated differently, the state tort suit wouldn't set a new standard of care; instead, it would simply require compensation. But if the label was relevant to the design-defect claim--and if, as the Court held in Mensing, the defendant had no control over the label--the state tort suit could be understood as setting a new standard (in the same way the failure-to-warn claim did in Mensing)--and the FDCA would preempt.
Yet another sticking point was the FDA approval process as opposed to the process of state-court juries. The FDA puts new drugs through a rigorous ringer to weigh the costs and benefits before approval. But state court juries grant damage awards based on the judgments of a handful of lay individuals. The question is: If the FDA approves a drug and thus its counterpart generic--based on thorough and expert cost-benefits analyses--why should a state court lay jury be able to second-guess and even overrule it?
The Court divided 5-4, along conventional ideological lines, in Mensing. That seems like a plausible, even likely, result here, too.
Monday, March 18, 2013
The Supreme Court heard oral arguments today in Arizona v. Inter Tribal Council of Arizona, the case testing whether the federal National Voter Registration Act preempts Arizona's requirement that voter applicants show additional proof of citizenship in order to register to vote. We posted a preview here.
If the questions from the bench are any indication, this could be a very close one. Justice Sotomayor and Kagan seemed to line up squarely behind the respondents (and against Arizona's proof-of-citizenship requirement). Justices Ginsburg and Breyer did too, but perhaps a little less forcefully. On the other side, Justice Scalia seemed set with Arizona on the merits (focusing on the NVRA text), but he wondered why the state didn't challenge the EAC's rejection of its state-specific proof-of-citizenship requirements earlier, right after the EAC rejected them. Chief Justice Roberts and Justice Alito seemed to lean toward Arizona, too, largely for pragmatic reasons, suggesting that the NVRA scheme wouldn't make a lot of sense by the respondent's reading. Justice Kennedy seemed concerned that Arizona's position could destroy the "utility of the single form" (on the one hand), but also that the Ninth Circuit applied a preemption test under the Elections Clause that was too federal friendly (on the other).
The Justices were concerned about everything from legislative purpose behind the NVRA, to legislative language, to the role of the EAC (the administrative agency that approves the federal form and state-specific additions to it), to Arizona's failure to challenge the EAC's rejection of its state-specific citizenship requirements. The standard for Elections Clause preemption (as opposed to more ordinary Supremacy Clause preemption) got very little attention (notably just from Justice Kennedy).
Justices Sotomayor and Kagan seemed to be the most active and skeptical in questioning Arizona's attorney. They asked whether Arizona's additional citizenship requirements wouldn't undermine the purpose of the NVRA, to ease and simplify voter registration; whether Arizona is actually accepting and using the federal form (as required by the NVRA), especially when it apparently rejects mail-in ballots that don't satisfy Arizona's extra citizenship requirements; and whether Arizona's position would make the federal form "just another hoop to jump through." (Those were Justice Kagan's words. Justice Kennedy earlier suggested a similar sentiment--"But otherwise, the whole utility of the single form is missing--is gone"--but framed it as a question about what opposing counsel would argue.)
Justice Breyer wanted to know how Arizona accepted and used the federal form's attestation-under-perjury requirement, again, as required by the NVRA, suggesting that Arizona wasn't accepting and using it, and therefore not complying with the NVRA.
Justice Scalia asked why Arizona didn't challenge the EAC's rejection of its state-specific citizenship requirements earlier--after the EAC rejection, and not now, only after voters challenged Arizona's requirements.
On the other side, Justice Alito wondered how the federal form alone could ensure that an applicant was qualified--giving an example of a minor who completed and signed the form--suggesting that the federal form alone wasn't sufficient. Justice Scalia looked to the language of the NVRA--states "may require only"--and argued that the "may" made it permissive--and that state's therefore could add requirements. Chief Justice Roberts and Justice Alito wondered whether under the respondent's reading and the government's reading the NVRA wouldn't create an unworkable system, with the possibility of a state-form voter registration list and a federal-form voter registration list in each state.
Chief Justice Roberts asked whether the respondent's reliance on the EAC's decision to reject Arizona's request to include its citizenship requirement wasn't undermined by the EAC's bad decision (according to respondent) allowing Louisiana to supplement the requirements on the federal form. (Arizona first raised Louisiana's state-specific requirement, approved by the EAC, to include a driver's license number or Social Security number or, if neither is available, to attach certain other documents as an argument that a requirement for additional documents does not violate the NVRA. The Court spent some time trying to figure out if the parties thought this was a good decision, and, if so, why Louisiana's requirement is the same or different than Arizona's.)
Wednesday, February 27, 2013
The Supreme Court today heard oral arguments in Shelby County v. Holder, the case testing the constitutionality of the preclearance provision and related coverage formula of the Voting Rights Act. If the questions at arguments are any indication of the Court's leaning--and it's always dicey to predict based on arguments, but here perhaps less so than in a more ordinary case--it looks like preclearance or the coverage formula or both will go down by a close vote.
Section 5 of the VRA, the preclearance provision, provides that "covered jurisdictions" (defined under Section 4(b)), have to get permission from the Justice Department or a federal court in the District of Columbia before making changes to their election laws. This means that jurisdictions need to show that proposed changes to their election laws aren't motivated by race and won't result in disenfranchising voters or dilluting votes by race. This extraordinary remedy is justified in part because the more usual way of enforcing voting rights--individual suits against offending jurisdictions--is not an effective way to address voting discrimination. (Individual suits, by a voter or by the Department of Justice, are authorized by Section 2 of the VRA. Section 2 is not at issue in this case.)
Shelby County, which sits within fully covered Alabama, brought the facial challenge against Section 5, the preclearance provision, and Section 4(b), the coverage formula, as reauthorized by Congress in 2006, arguing that Congress exceeded its authority under the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments. In particular, Shelby County claimed that Congress didn't have sufficient evidence in its 2006 reauthorization to require the covered jurisdictions to seek permission (or preclearance) from the Justice Department or the District Court in the District of Columbia before making any change to its election laws. Shelby County also said that preclearance for the covered jurisdictions violated principles of federalism and equal sovereignty among the states.
The arguments were lively, to say the least. The justices seemed to be arguing with each other more than questioning the attorneys, who often seemed more like bystanders in a debate among the nine. And they all seemed to have their minds made up, more or less. If there are swing votes, look to Chief Justice Roberts or Justice Kennedy. Although they seemed set in their positions, they seemed perhaps the least set.
Substantively, there were few surprises. Remember, we've heard these arguments before--in the NAMUDNO case, which the Court ultimately resolved by allowing the jurisdiction to bail out (and thus avoided the constitutional question, although the parties briefed it and it got attention at oral argument). So these points that came up today are familiar:
- Whether Congress had sufficient evidence to warrant preclearance for selected covered jurisdictions;
- Whether the Section 4(b) coverage formula, which dates back 40 years or so, is sufficiently tailored to the realities of voting discrimination in 2013--that is, whether some covered jurisdictions under this formula really ought not to be covered, and whether others should be covered, given contemporary disparities in registration and offices held and other indicia of voting discrimination;
- Whether Congress violated principles of equal state sovereignty by designating only selected jurisdictions as covered (rather than designating the whole country);
- Whether Section 2 individual suits are a sufficient way to enforce non-discrimination in voting (and therefore whether Section 5 is really necessary); and
- Whether with a string of reauthorizations preclearance will ever not be necessary.
On this last point, it was clear that for some justices the government was in a tough spot. On the one hand, the government argued that Section 5 deters voting discrimination: Sure, things have gotten a little better since 1965, it said, but Section 5 is still justified because it deters against a back-slide. But on the other hand, some on the Court wondered whether under this theory Section 5 would ever not be necessary. (By this reckoning, the government would be justifying Section 5 even when there's no evidence of continued discrimination.)
All this is to say that a majority seemed unpersuaded that this preclearance requirement and this coverage formula were sufficiently tailored--proportionate and congruent, the Court's test--to meet the constitutional evil of voting discrimination that Congress identified.
This doesn't mean, necessarily, that the whole scheme will go down. There is an intermediate position: The Court could uphold Section 5 preclearance in theory, but reject the coverage formula in Section 4(b). But this result would likely doom the whole scheme, in fact. That's because it seems unlikely that Congress could pass a different coverage formula or that Congress would extend preclearance to the whole country. Without specifying coverage in a new Section 4(b), Section 5 would be meaningless.
There was a low point. Justice Scalia went on a tear toward the end of SG Verrilli's argument, opining on why Congress passed each reathorization with increased majorities:
Now, I don't think that's attributable to the fact that it is so much clearer now that we need this. I think it is attributable, very likely attributable, to a phenomenon that is called perpetuation of racial entitlement. It's been written about. Whenever a society adopts racial entitlements, it is very difficult to get out of them through the normal political processes.
It's not exactly clear what's the "racial entitlement" in Section 5. Section 5 is simply not an entitlement provision. But if we have to identify an entitlement: Maybe the right to vote, without being discriminated against by race? If so, we can only hope that it's "very difficult to get out of [it] through the normal political processes." As much as anything else in the arguments today, this comment may tell us exactly why we continue to need preclearance, sadly, even in 2013.
February 27, 2013 in Cases and Case Materials, Congressional Authority, Elections and Voting, Federalism, Fifteenth Amendment, Fourteenth Amendment, Fundamental Rights, News, Oral Argument Analysis, Reconstruction Era Amendments | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)
Monday, December 10, 2012
Judge Emmet G. Sullivan (D.D.C.) heard oral arguments on Monday on the defendant's motion to dismiss in Common Cause v. Biden, the case challenging the Senate's filibuster rule. We posted on the case back in May, when it was filed. Roll Call summarized the arguments here. Common Cause has a case resource page here.
Recall that Common Cause filed the case along with four Democratic House members arguing that the Senate's cloture rule, Rule XXII, which requires 60 votes to end debate on a matter, violates the constitutional background principle of majority rule. Common Cause argued that the Senate filibustered the DREAM Act, harming certain aliens. See our May post for more on the particular arguments and for background on the filibuster.
According to Roll Call, the arguments today focused on standing: whether the House Dems had it (based on the Senate holding up their favored legislation on filibusters), and whether Common Cause's clients had it (based on their claim that the Senate would have passed the DREAM Act but for the filibuster). Roll Call reports that Judge Sullivan was deeply engaged and asked for further briefing because the lawsuit raised "complicated issues." But even if the plaintiffs get past standing, they'll certainly face other hurdles before Judge Sullivan will ever rule on the merits--the political question doctrine and the Senate's authority to determine its own rules, just to name a couple. (Anticipating these objections, Common Cause says that if a court can review an Act passed by the Senate, it can certainly review a Senate rule.)
The oral arguments come in the midst of increasing talk of filibuster reform in the 113th Congress. We covered the issues and linked to resources when there was similar talk at the beginning of the 112th Congress.
Monday, October 29, 2012
The Supreme Court heard oral arguments today in Clapper v. Amnesty International, the case testing the plaintiffs' standing to challenge the government's vastly expanded surveillance authority under the FISA Amendments Act, or the FAA. We posted on the lower court ruling that a group of attorneys, journalists, and human rights organizations had standing to challenge the FAA here.
The plaintiffs always faced a unique standing problem in challenging the FAA: The very nature of government surveillance says that those surveilled cannot know that they've been surveilled, or harmed, especially when the real targets of the surveillance are the plaintiffs' overseas clients and contacts (and not immediately the plaintiffs themselves). As a result, the plaintiffs had to argue two kinds of harm to satisfy standing requirements: (1) that they've had to take current measures to ensure against FAA surveillance and (2) that their communications are imminently going to be surveilled (given the nature of them).
The government, on the other hand, argued that any harm is purely speculative and the result of the plaintiffs' own doing (and not the authority under the FAA), and that any harm could have occurred, anyway, but under a different surveillance authority. (This last argument says that the plaintiffs' harm isn't sufficiently traceable to the FAA, and that a judgment on the FAA wouldn't redress the plaintiffs' harm. Causation and redressibility are two other requirements for standing, in addition to harm.)
The Court seemed skeptical of the government's claims at arguments today. Justices Ginsburg, Breyer, Sotomayor, and Kagan grilled SG Verrilli on his arguments, and Justices Sotomayor and Kagan seemed especially troubled that the government's position would leave the plaintiffs without any effective way to challenge surveillance under the FAA. Chief Justice Roberts and Justice Scalia chimed in with concerns about the government's argument that it might conduct surveillance of the plaintiffs' communications under a different authority, leaving the plaintiffs unable to show causation or redressibility. (It wasn't clear that their concerns with the government's position extended beyond that particular argument, though.) And finally Justice Kennedy seemed especially troubled with the government's position on the attorney-plaintiffs: the government said that any decision by the attorney-plaintiffs not to communicate with overseas clients for fear of surveillance was caused by rules of professional responsibility, and not by the threat of FAA surveillance. (Justice Kennedy's concern is one to watch. This harm--attorney-plaintiffs curtailing communication with clients for fear of surveillance--is the most acute and well defined harm in the case. It's also one that will resonate best with this group of nine lawyers. And it's important that Justice Kennedy raised it: He may provide the key vote.)
In all, the government's argument came across as overly formalistic, especially considering the very high stakes for the plaintiffs. The Court's questions seemed to highlight that.
On the other side, there was some back-and-forth on just how certain government surveillance must be to create a sufficiently likely harm--"certainly impending," or "substantial risk." Chief Justice Roberts pushed for the former (and higher) standard, while Justice Kennedy pointed out that in those cases where we knew the government act was occurring (as here) the standard was the lower "substantial risk." Justice Alito asked whether the plaintiffs might manufacture their own standing (and thus work an end-run around a higher "certainly impending" standard) by alleging current preventative measures as the harm--just as the plaintiffs did here. As to the threat of surveillance and the plaintiffs' precautions against that threat, Chief Justice Roberts wondered whether that wasn't a harm in every case, e.g., in an ordinary criminal case when a criminal defense attorney seeks to get information from his or her client. (The attorney wouldn't use e-mail or phone; he or she would talk in person.) Finally, Justice Scalia asked whether the FISA court didn't serve as a check on Fourth Amendment violations.
If the government's argument was overly formalistic, the plaintiffs' claimed harms might have seemed too vague to some on the Court, especially if the Court adopts the higher "certainly impending" standard for the plaintiffs' claimed future harms.
Arguments today revealed what we already knew about this case: It'll be close. But on balance, the Court seemed to favor standing.