Friday, January 15, 2016

New York State Appellate Court Rejects First Amendment Claim in Same-Sex Wedding Discrimination Case

In its opinion in Gifford v. McCarthy, an appellate court in New York upheld the decision of the State Division of Human Rights that the owners of Liberty Ridge Farm, a wedding venue, were guilty of an unlawful discriminatory practice based upon sexual orientation when they refused to provide services for a same-sex wedding.  Writing for the unanimous five judge panel, Presiding Justice Karen Peters concluded that the venue was clearly a place of public accommodation within the anti-discrimination law and that discrimination based upon sexual orientation clearly occurred. 

16yr-logo-2015-revOn the constitutional issues, Justice Peters found the arguments under both the First Amendment and New York's similar provisions without merit.  Regarding the First Amendment Free Exercise of religion claim, Justice Peters concluded that "the right of free exercise does not relieve an individual of the obligation to comply with a 'valid and neutral law of general applicability on the ground that the law proscribes (or prescribes) conduct that his [or her] religion prescribes (or proscribes)," citing  Employment Div., Dept. of Human Resources of Ore. v Smith (1990). She noted that the "fact that some religious organizations and educational facilities are exempt from the [state] statute's public accommodation provision does not, as petitioners claim, demonstrate that it is not neutral or generally applicable." 

Applying New York's Free Exercise provision under which the infringement is balanced against the state interests, and Justice Peters wrote:

While we recognize that the burden placed on the Giffords' right to freely exercise their religion is not inconsequential, it cannot be overlooked that SDHR's determination does not require them to participate in the marriage of a same-sex couple. Indeed, the Giffords are free to adhere to and profess their religious beliefs that same-sex couples should not marry, but they must permit same-sex couples to marry on the premises if they choose to allow opposite-sex couples to do so. To be weighed against the Giffords' interests in adhering to the tenets of their faith is New York's long-recognized, substantial interest in eradicating discrimination."

Thus the court rejected the free exercise claims.  Similarly, the court rejected the free speech claims of compelled speech and free association.  On compelled speech, Justice Peters' opinion for the court concluded that the provision of a wedding venue was not expressive: 

Despite the Giffords' assertion that their direct participation in same-sex wedding ceremonies would "broadcast to all who pass by the Farm" their support for same-sex marriage, reasonable observers would not perceive the Giffords' provision of a venue and services for a same-sex wedding ceremony as an endorsement of same-sex marriage. Like all other owners of public accommodations who provide services to the general public, the Giffords must comply with the statutory mandate prohibiting discrimination against customers on the basis of sexual orientation or any other protected characteristic. Under such circumstances, there is no real likelihood that the Giffords would be perceived as endorsing the values or lifestyle of the individuals renting their facilities as opposed to merely complying with anti-discrimination laws.

The court also held that Liberty Farms was not an "expressive association" but a business with the "purpose of making a profit through service contracts with customers." However, the court added that even if Liberty Ridge were to be deemed an expressive enterprise, "a customer's association with a business for the limited purposes of obtaining goods and services – as opposed to becoming part of the business itself – does not trigger" expressive association.

In upholding the application of the anti-discrimination law against First Amendment challenges, the New York appellate opinion joins other courts that have reached the same conclusion: the New Mexico courts in Elane Photography to which the United States Supreme Court denied certiorar and the Colorado courts in Masterpiece Cakeshop.  The UK Supreme Court's decision in Bull v. Hall is also consistent with this trend.  Nevertheless, the issue is far from settled and more decisions likely.

January 15, 2016 in Association, Cases and Case Materials, Current Affairs, Family, First Amendment, Fundamental Rights, Opinion Analysis, Recent Cases, Religion, Speech, State Constitutional Law, Supreme Court (US) | Permalink | Comments (0)

En Banc Ninth Circuit Finds "Stolen Valor" Falsely Wearing Medal Provision Violates First Amendment

In its opinion in United States v. Swisher authored by Judge Sandra Ikuta, the en banc Ninth Circuit found that the provision in 18 USC §704(a) that criminalized the unauthorized wearing of any military medal violates the First Amendment.  Swisher was photographed wearing "the Silver Star, Navy and Marine Corps Ribbon, Purple Heart, Navy and Marine Corps Commendation Medal with a Bronze “V,” and UMC Expeditionary Medal," none of which he ever received.

The Court's opinion occurs in the shadow of the United States Supreme Court's 2012 decision in United States v. Alvarez which held that 18 USC §704(b) - - - prohibiting false statements about military medals - - - violated the First Amendment.  A panel of the Ninth Circuit had previously held in United States v. Perelman that Alvarez was not dispositive regarding §704(a) because wearing the medal was conduct rather than speech, akin to "impersonation" rather than expression.  The en banc opinion in Swisher explicitly overruled Perelman "to the extent inconsistent with this opinion."  

1024px-Purple_Heart_caseThe en banc opinion in Swisher held that while wearing the medal may have been expressive conduct, the government's purpose in regulating that conduct was aimed at regulating the message conveyed by the expressive conduct rather than the conduct itself.  Judge Ikuta's opinion interestingly relied upon the Court's decision last Term in Reed v. Town of Gilbert as "authoritative direction for differentiating between content-neutral and content-based enactments." 

Thus, Judge Ikuta's opinion determined that the lenient standard of United States v. O'Brien for expressive conduct was not the correct analysis and instead the standard as articulated in Alvarez should apply.  But what is the Alvarez standard, given that Justice Kennedy's opinion for a plurality applied an exacting scrutiny standard and Justice Breyer's concurring opinion applied more of an intermediate scrutiny test?  The en banc Ninth Circuit adroitly circumvented the need to decide the United States Supreme Court's holding by beginning with Justice Breyer's "less demanding standard": consideration of the seriousness of the speech related harm the provision will likely cause; evaluating the nature and importance of the provision's countervailing objectives; and the extent to which the provision will tend to achieve those objectives and whether there are other, less restrictive means, of doing so."  The en banc Ninth Circuit found that the criminalizing of inappropriately wearing military medals failed the intermediate Breyer standard and thus would obviously fail the stricter more exacting scrutiny standard of the plurality.

Not surprisingly Judge Bybee, who wrote a vigorous dissent in 2010 when a panel of the Ninth Circuit held the provision in Alvarez unconstitutional, dissented in Swisher, joined by Judges N.R. Smith and Watford.

The practical consequences of the Ninth Circuit's en banc opinion are marginal: the statute has already been amended and Swisher was also convicted on other provisions including fraud.  However, the doctrinal consequences of the opinion include an important demonstration of an application of Alvarez and the even more important holding clarifying that "wearing" is not always mere conduct evaluated at the lowest levels of First Amendment scrutiny.

[image via]

January 15, 2016 in Cases and Case Materials, Courts and Judging, First Amendment, Recent Cases, Speech | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Abbott's Amendments

Texas Governor Greg Abbott revealed his plan this week for a constitutional convention. Writing in a lengthy diatribe against what he terms federal overreach, Abbott, in his report Restoring the Rule of Law with States Leading the Way, proposes these amendments:

I.    Prohibit Congress from regulating activity that occurs wholly within one State.

II.    Require Congress to balance its budget.

III.    Prohibit administrative agencies--and the unelected bureaucrats that staff them--from creating federal law.

IV.     Prohibit administrative agencies--and the unelected bureaucrats that staff them--from preempting state law.

V.    Allow a two-thirds majority of the States to override a U.S. Supreme Court decision.

VI.    Require a seven-justice super-majority vote for U.S. Supreme Court decisions that invalidate a democratically enacted law.

VII.    Restore the balance of power between the federal and state governments by limiting the former to the powers expressly delegated to it in the Constitution.

VIII.    Give state officials the power to sue in federal court when federal officials overstep their bounds.

IX.    Allow a two-thirds majority of the States to override a federal law or regulation.

Even with these pretty significant proposed changes, Abbott insists that "the Constitution already does all of this . . . [and] the Constitution itself is not broken." Instead, according to Abbot, "[w]hat is broken is our Nation's willingness to obey the Constitution and to hold our leaders accountable to it."

January 13, 2016 in News | Permalink | Comments (1)

Brennan Center on Campaign Finance

Check out this new Brennan Center report on the recent spate of sharply divided Supreme Court rulings that opened the spigot on money in politics.

In Five to Four, Brennan Center attorneys Lawrence Norden, Brent Ferguson, and Douglas Keith show how "six closely divided Supreme Court decisions in the last decade contributed to some of the most disturbing trends in American elections"--things like super PACs, dark money, unlimited corporate and union spending, and radically increased total contributions to candidates and parties. (Each of these gets its own chapter.)

Four of the nine justices strongly disagreed with these decisions, and if one more justice had joined them, our ability to regulate big money in politics, and to give ordinary Americans more of a voice in the political process, would be very different today.

In other words, the last few years of campaign financing are not "normal," or "inevitable," or "just the way things are." To the contrary, in the modern era, they are the aberrant result of a single swing vote on the Supreme Court, which upended decades of carefully crafted campaign finance laws, and they can be reversed.

January 13, 2016 in Campaign Finance, First Amendment, News, Speech | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Sullivan and Canty on Interruptions at the Court

Check out Prof. Barry Sullivan (LUC) and Prof. Megan M. Canty (LUC, now Wayne State)'s outstanding and just-posted piece on oral arguments at the Supreme Court: Interruptions in Search of a Purpose: Oral Argument in the Supreme Court, October Terms 1958-60 and 2010-12.

Sullivan and Canty undertook their study after then-Judge John G. Roberts, Jr., suggested soon before his appointment as Chief that "one thing that has remained fairly constant [since 1980] has been the level of questioning" at oral argument.

That's wrong, according to Sullivan and Canty. They say that lots of things have changed at the Supreme Court over time, and questioning is certainly one of them. And not in a good way.

Their results paint an all-too-familiar picture (check out our review of Monday's oral arguments in the fair-share case), and it's not particularly flattering to the Court. "In the older cases, the nature and shape of oral argument reflected what might be taken to be the traditional purposes of oral argument, but the more recent cases suggest a different dynamic." This new dynamic includes justices using "an advocate's limited time to state their own views and to joke or argue with each other," more personally invested justices, and justices "act[ing] as if oral argument were simply an opportunity for them to say what they would like to say about a case."

In any event, the "new oral argument" is not about the lawyers, who may often seem to be props, bystanders, or straight-men in the well of the Court. Nor is it about the parties, whose interests are at stake, or about the public. Oral argument seems to be for the Justices, and only for the Justices--time to be used in whatever ways they may find appealing at the moment. Indeed, one might say that it seems to be "all about them." But what the Court hopes to achieve through oral argument remains unclear.

January 12, 2016 in News, Scholarship | Permalink | Comments (0)

Court Strikes Florida's Capital Sentencing Scheme

The Supreme Court ruled today that Florida's capital sentencing scheme violates the Sixth Amendment, because it puts in the hands of the judge, not the jury, the critical findings necessary to impose the death penalty.

Florida law provides that a capital felon can only get a life sentence based on his or her conviction. But under an additional sentencing procedure, a capital felon can get death. It works like this: the judge in the additional sentencing proceeding conducts an evidentiary hearing before a jury; the jury, by majority vote, renders an "advisory sentence"; the judge then independently finds and weighs the aggravating and mitigating circumstances and enters a sentence of life or death. (The judge has to give the jury recommendation "great weight," but need not follow it.)

The Court held that this process violates the Sixth Amendment in light of Ring v. Arizona. In that case, an Arizona judge's independent factfinding exposed the defendant to a punishment greater than the jury's guilty verdict authorized. The Court struck the scheme, because under the Sixth Amendment (and Apprendi) any fact that "expose[s] the defendant to a greater punishment than that authorized by the jury's guilty verdict" is an "element" that must be submitted to a jury.

Justice Sotomayor wrote for the Court, including all but Justices Breyer and Alito. Justice Breyer wrote a separate concurrence; Justice Alito wrote the lone dissent.

January 12, 2016 in Cases and Case Materials, Criminal Procedure, News, Opinion Analysis, Sixth Amendment | Permalink | Comments (1)

The Demise of Public-Sector Fair Share

The Supreme Court heard oral arguments yesterday in Friedrichs v. California Teachers Ass'n, the case testing whether a state's public-sector union fair-share requirement violates the First Amendment.

Answer: Almost certainly yes.

Few cases are predictable as this one, given the Court's lead-ups in Harris and Knox (both sharply criticizing Abood, the 40-year-old case upholding fair-share requirements against a First Amendment challenge). And few oral arguments foretell the Court's and the dissent's analyses and split so clearly as yesterday's argument.

The conservative justices, including Kennedy, have made up their minds against fair share (and in favor of overruling Abood). The progressives have made up their minds in favor of fair share (and keeping Abood on the books). Both sides rehearsed the arguments that we'll see when the opinion comes out later this year.

All this made the oral arguments seem unnecessary. And maybe they were. After all, those opposing fair-share didn't seem at all troubled by the absence of a factual record in this case--even though some amici briefed significant practical labor-relations problems that arose without fair share. Instead, those opposing fair share seemed perfectly willing to rely on their own intuition about how public-sector labor relations work.

The facts don't really matter, so why should the legal arguments, when everybody's minds are made up, anyway?

Some of the early discussion focused on the extent of fair-share opponents' First Amendment claim: does it apply only to public-sector unions, or also to private-sector unions? Michael Carvin, attorney for the fair-share opponents, was clear: it only applies to public-sector unions. That's because collective bargaining for public-sector unions inevitably involves public issues--so a fair-share requirement compels non-union-members to pay for public advocacy (with which they disagree). (Private-sector collective bargaining, in contrast, involves only private employment issues.) Moreover, Carvin said that it's not always so easy to sort out what union speech goes to collective bargaining issues, and what goes to other public advocacy--a problem administering Abood that goes to its stare decisis staying power (see below).

And that leads to Carvin's next point, a clever twist on the concern about free-riders: fair-share requirements don't serve the interest of avoiding free-riders (as conventional wisdom and Abood would have it); instead, fair-share requirements let the union free ride on non-members' fair-share contributions. Carvin turned the traditional free-rider concern on its head.

And the conservatives, including Justice Kennedy, accepted all this. (Chief Justice Roberts even added at one point that if unions are so popular, the traditional concern about free riders is "insignificant.") Indeed, Justice Kennedy stated the opponents' case as clearly (and certainly as concisely) as anyone yesterday:

But it's almost axiomatic. When you are dealing with a governmental agency, many critical points are matters of public concern. And is it not true that many teachers are -- strongly, strongly disagree with the union position on teacher tenure, on merit pay, on merit promotion, on classroom size?

And you -- the term is free rider. The union basically is making these teachers compelled riders for issues on which they strongly disagree.

Many teachers think that they are devoted to the future of America, to the future of our young people, and that the union is equally devoted to that but that the union is absolutely wrong in some of its positions. And agency fees require, as I understand it -- correct me if I'm wrong -- agency fees require that employees and teachers who disagree with those positions must nevertheless subsidize the union on those very points.

The progressives pushed back with stare decisis: shouldn't the Court give some weight to Abood? Carvin said that overruling Abood would actually better square the jurisprudence. But that didn't sit well with Justice Kagan:

So really what your argument comes down to is two very recent cases, which is Harris and Knox. And there you might say that Harris and Knox gave indications that the Court was not friendly to Abood. But those were two extremely recent cases, and they were both cases that actually were decided within the Abood framework. . . .

So taking two extremely recent cases, which admittedly expressed some frustration with Abood, but also specifically decided not to overrule Abood, I mean, just seems like it's nothing of the kind that we usually say when we usually say that a precedent has to be overturned because it's come into conflict with an entire body of case law.

Some on the left also wondered whether striking Abood also mean striking mandatory bar fees and mandatory student fees (previously upheld by the Court), and whether it would disrupt reliance interests (in the form of the thousands of public-sector union contracts that rely on it).

Look for all these points in the opinion, when it comes down. And look for the conventional 5-4, conservative-progressive split. If the result in this case wasn't clear going into arguments yesterday (though it was), then arguments yesterday certainly clarified it.

(The second question in the case--whether non-chargeable expenses need to follow an opt-in rule, instead of an opt-out rule, got very little attention. This issue, too, is all but decided, by the same split: the Court will almost certainly require opt-in.)

January 12, 2016 in Cases and Case Materials, First Amendment, News, Oral Argument Analysis, Speech | Permalink | Comments (1)

Friday, January 8, 2016

Daily Read: The Late Judge Judith Kaye's Dissenting Opinion in New York's Same-Sex Marriage Challenge

In Memoriam:

Former Chief Judge of New York's highest court, the New York Court of Appeals, Judith Kaye.

Judith_S.KayeThe New York Times obituary notes the highlights of her amazing career, including her dissenting opinion in Hernandez v. Robles, the New York same-sex marriage case, in 2006.  Today's "Daily Read" reproduces that opinion, notable for its lucid reasoning as well as its excellent analytic structure.  It is in sharp contrast to the majority's opinion which became the subject of derisive comments, including most notably John Mitchell's  terrific send-up Chatting with the Lady in the Grocery Store about Hernandez V. Robles, the New York Same-Sex Marriage Case (available on srrn).

 

Here is Chief Judge Kaye's opinion in full:

 

Chief Judge Kaye (dissenting).

Plaintiffs (including petitioners) are 44 same-sex couples who wish to marry. They include a doctor, a police officer, a public school teacher, a nurse, an artist and a state legislator. Ranging in age from under 30 to 68, plaintiffs reflect a diversity of races, religions and ethnicities. They come from upstate and down, from rural, urban and suburban settings. Many have been together in committed relationships for decades, and many are raising children—from toddlers to teenagers. Many are active in their communities, serving on their local school board, for example, or their cooperative apartment building board. In short, plaintiffs represent a cross-section of New Yorkers who want only to live full lives, raise their children, better their communities and be good neighbors.

For most of us, leading a full life includes establishing a family. Indeed, most New Yorkers can look back on, or forward to, their wedding as among the most significant events of their lives. They, like plaintiffs, grew up hoping to find that one person with whom they would share their future, eager to express their mutual lifetime pledge through civil marriage. Solely because of their sexual orientation, however—that is, because of who they love—plaintiffs are denied the rights and responsibilities of civil marriage. This State has a proud tradition of affording equal rights to all New Yorkers. Sadly, the Court today retreats from that proud tradition.

  1. Due Process

Under both the state and federal constitutions, the right to due process of law protects certain fundamental liberty interests, including the right to marry. Central to the right to marry is the right to marry the person of one's choice (see e.g. Crosby v State of N.Y., Workers' Compensation Bd., 57 NY2d 305, 312 [1982] ["clearly falling within (the right of privacy) are matters relating to the decision of whom one will marry"]; People v Shepard, 50 NY2d 640, 644 [1980] ["the government has been prevented from interfering with an individual's decision about whom to marry"]). The deprivation of a fundamental right is subject to strict scrutiny and requires that the infringement be narrowly tailored to achieve a compelling state interest (see e.g. Carey v Population Services Int'l, 431 US 678, 686 [1977]).

Fundamental rights are those "which are, objectively, deeply rooted in this Nation's history and tradition . . . and implicit in the concept of ordered liberty, such that neither liberty nor justice would exist if they were sacrificed" (Washington v Glucksberg, 521 US 702, 720-721 [1997] [internal quotation marks and citations omitted]). Again and again, the Supreme Court and this Court have made clear that the right to marry is fundamental (see e.g. Loving v Virginia, 388 US 1 [1967]; Zablocki v Redhail, 434 US 374 [1978]; Turner v Safley, 482 US 78 [1987]; Matter of Doe v Coughlin, 71 NY2d 48, 52 [1987]; Cooper v Morin, 49 NY2d 69, 80 [1979]; Levin v Yeshiva Univ., 96 NY2d 484, 500 [2001] [G.B. Smith, J., concurring] ["marriage is a fundamental constitutional right"]).

The Court concludes, however, that same-sex marriage is not deeply rooted in tradition, and thus cannot implicate any fundamental liberty. But fundamental rights, once recognized, cannot be denied to particular groups on the ground that these groups have historically been denied those rights. Indeed, in recasting plaintiffs' invocation of their fundamental right to marry as a request for recognition of a "new" right to same-sex marriage, the Court misapprehends the nature of the liberty interest at stake. In Lawrence v Texas (539 US 558 [2003]), the Supreme Court warned against such error.

Lawrence overruled Bowers v Hardwick (478 US 186 [1986]), which had upheld a Georgia statute criminalizing sodomy. In so doing, the Lawrence court criticized Bowers for framing the issue presented too narrowly. Declaring that "Bowers was not correct when it was decided, and it is not correct today" (539 US at 578), Lawrence explained that Bowers purported to analyze—erroneously—whether the Constitution conferred a "fundamental right upon homosexuals to engage in sodomy" (539 US at 566 [citation omitted]). This was, however, the wrong question. The fundamental right at issue, properly framed, was the right to engage in private consensual sexual conduct—a right that applied to both homosexuals and heterosexuals alike. In narrowing the claimed liberty interest to embody the very exclusion being challenged, Bowers "disclose[d] the Court's own failure to appreciate the extent of the liberty at stake" (Lawrence, 539 US at 567).

The same failure is evident here. An asserted liberty interest is not to be characterized so narrowly as to make inevitable the conclusion that the claimed right could not be fundamental because historically it has been denied to those who now seek to exercise it (see Planned Parenthood of Southeastern Pa. v Casey, 505 US 833, 847 [1992] [it is "tempting . . . to suppose that the Due Process Clause protects only those practices, defined at the most specific level, that were protected against government interference by other rules of law when the Fourteenth Amendment was ratified. . . . But such a view would be inconsistent with our law"]).

Notably, the result in Lawrence was not affected by the fact, acknowledged by the Court, that there had been no long history of tolerance for homosexuality. Rather, in holding that "[p]ersons in a homosexual relationship may seek autonomy for the[ ] purpose[ of making intimate and personal choices], just as heterosexual persons do" (539 US at 574), Lawrence rejected the notion that fundamental rights it had already identified could be restricted based on traditional assumptions about who should be permitted their protection. As the Court noted, "times can blind us to certain truths and later generations can see that laws once thought necessary and proper in fact serve only to oppress. As the Constitution endures, persons in every generation can invoke its principles in their own search for greater freedom" (Lawrence, 539 US at 579; see also id. at 572 ["(h)istory and tradition are the starting point but not in all cases the ending point of the substantive due process inquiry" (internal quotation marks and citation omitted)]; Cleburne v Cleburne Living Center, Inc., 473 US 432, 466 [1985] [Marshall, J., concurring in the judgment in part and dissenting in part] ["what once was a 'natural' and 'self-evident' ordering later comes to be seen as an artificial and invidious constraint on human potential and freedom"]).

Simply put, fundamental rights are fundamental rights. They are not defined in terms of who is entitled to exercise them.

Instead, the Supreme Court has repeatedly held that the fundamental right to marry must be afforded even to those who have previously been excluded from its scope—that is, to those whose exclusion from the right was "deeply rooted."[FN1]Well into the twentieth century, the sheer weight of precedent accepting the constitutionality of bans on interracial marriage was deemed sufficient justification in and of itself to perpetuate these discriminatory laws (see e.g. Jones v Lorenzen, 441 P2d 986, 989{**7 NY3d at 383} [Okla 1965] [upholding antimiscegenation law since the "great weight of authority holds such statutes constitutional"])—much as defendants now contend that same-sex couples should be prohibited from marrying because historically they always have been.

Just 10 years before Loving declared unconstitutional state laws banning marriage between persons of different races, 96% of Americans were opposed to interracial marriage (see brief of NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc., as amicus curiae in support of plaintiffs, at 5). Sadly, many of the arguments then raised in support of the antimiscegenation laws were identical to those made today in opposition to same-sex marriage (see e.g. Kinney v Commonwealth, 71 Va [30 Gratt] 858, 869 [1878] [marriage between the races is "unnatural" and a violation of God's will]; Pace v State, 69 Ala 231, 232 [1881] ["amalgamation" of the races would produce a "degraded civilization"]; see also Lonas v State, 50 Tenn [3 Heisk] 287, 310 [1871] ["(t)he laws of civilization demand that the races be kept apart"]).

To those who appealed to history as a basis for prohibiting interracial marriage, it was simply inconceivable that the right of interracial couples to marry could be deemed "fundamental." Incredible as it may seem today, during the lifetime of every Judge on this Court, interracial marriage was forbidden in at least a third of American jurisdictions. In 1948, New York was one of only 18 states in the nation that did not have such a ban. By 1967, when Loving was decided, 16 states still outlawed marriages between persons of different races. Nevertheless, even though it was the ban on interracial marriage—not interracial marriage itself—that had a long and shameful national tradition, the Supreme Court determined that interracial couples could not be deprived of their fundamental right to marry. [*21]

Unconstitutional infringements on the right to marry are not limited to impermissible racial restrictions. Inasmuch as the fundamental right to marry is shared by "all the State's citizens" (Loving, 388 US at 12), the State may not, for example, require individuals with child support obligations to obtain court approval before getting married (see Zablocki, 434 US 374 [1978]). Calling Loving the "leading decision of this Court on the right to marry," Justice Marshall made clear in Zablocki that Loving

"could have rested solely on the ground that the{**7 NY3d at 384} statutes discriminated on the basis of race in violation of the Equal Protection Clause. But the Court went on to hold that laws arbitrarily deprived the couple of a fundamental liberty protected by the Due Process Clause, the freedom to marry. . . .

"Although Loving arose in the context of racial discrimination, prior and subsequent decisions of this Court confirm that the right to marry is of fundamental importance for all individuals" (434 US at 383-384 [citation omitted]).

Similarly, in Turner (482 US 78 [1987]), the Supreme Court determined that the right to marry was so fundamental that it could not be denied to prison inmates (see also Boddie v Connecticut, 401 US 371 [1971] [state requirement that indigent individuals pay court fees to obtain divorce unconstitutionally burdened fundamental right to marry]).

Under our Constitution, discriminatory views about proper marriage partners can no more prevent same-sex couples from marrying than they could different-race couples. Nor can "deeply rooted" prejudices uphold the infringement of a fundamental right (see People v Onofre, 51 NY2d 476, 490 [1980] ["disapproval by a majority of the populace . . . may not substitute for the required demonstration of a valid basis for intrusion by the State in an area of important personal decision"]). For these reasons, the NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, as amicus, contends that

"[a]lthough the historical experiences in this country of African Americans, on the one hand, and gay men and lesbians, on the other, are in many important ways quite different, the legal questions raised here and in Loving are analogous. The state law at issue here, like the law struck down in Loving, restricts an individual's right to marry the person of his or her choice. We respectfully submit that the decisions below must be reversed if this Court follows the reasoning of the United States Supreme Court's decision in Loving" (brief of NAACP Legal Defense and Educational Fund, Inc., as amicus curiae in support of plaintiffs, at 3-4; see also brief of New York County Lawyers' Association and National Black Justice Coalition, as amici curiae in support of plaintiffs [detailing history of antimiscegenation laws and public attitudes toward interracial marriage]).{**7 NY3d at 385}

It is no answer that same-sex couples can be excluded from marriage because "marriage," by definition, does not include them. In the end, "an argument that marriage is heterosexual because it 'just is' amounts to circular reasoning" (Halpern v Attorney Gen. of Can., 65 OR3d 161, 172 OAC 276, ¶ 71 [2003]). "To define the institution of marriage by the characteristics of those to whom it always has been accessible, in order to justify the exclusion of those to whom it never has been accessible, is conclusory and bypasses the core question we are asked to decide" (Goodridge v Department of Pub. Health, 440 Mass 309, 348, 798 NE2d 941, 972-973 [2003] [Greaney, J., concurring]). [*22]

The claim that marriage has always had a single and unalterable meaning is a plain distortion of history. In truth, the common understanding of "marriage" has changed dramatically over the centuries (see brief of Professors of History and Family Law, as amici curiae in support of plaintiffs). Until well into the nineteenth century, for example, marriage was defined by the doctrine of coverture, according to which the wife's legal identity was merged into that of her husband, whose property she became. A married woman, by definition, could not own property and could not enter into contracts.[FN2] Such was the very "meaning" of marriage. Only since the mid-twentieth century has the institution of marriage come to be understood as a relationship between two equal partners, founded upon shared intimacy and mutual financial and emotional support. Indeed, as amici professors note, "The historical record shows that, through adjudication and legislation, all of New York's sex-specific rules for marriage have been invalidated save for the one at issue here."

That restrictions on same-sex marriage are prevalent cannot in itself justify their retention. After all, widespread public opposition to interracial marriage in the years before Loving could not sustain the antimiscegenation laws. "[T]he fact that the governing majority in a State has traditionally viewed a particular practice as immoral is not a sufficient reason for upholding a law prohibiting the practice" (Lawrence, 539 US at 577-578 [internal quotation marks and citation omitted]; see also id. at 571 [fundamental right to engage in private consensual sexual conduct extends to homosexuals, notwithstanding that "for centuries there have been powerful voices to condemn homosexual{**7 NY3d at 386} conduct as immoral"]). The long duration of a constitutional wrong cannot justify its perpetuation, no matter how strongly tradition or public sentiment might support it.

  1. Equal Protection

By virtue of their being denied entry into civil marriage, plaintiff couples are deprived of a number of statutory benefits and protections extended to married couples under New York law. Unlike married spouses, same-sex partners may be denied hospital visitation of their critically ill life partners. They must spend more of their joint income to obtain equivalent levels of health care coverage. They may, upon the death of their partners, find themselves at risk of losing the family home. The record is replete with examples of the hundreds of ways in which committed same-sex couples and their children are deprived of equal benefits under New York law. Same-sex families are, among other things, denied equal treatment with respect to intestacy, inheritance, tenancy by the entirety, taxes, insurance, health benefits, medical decisionmaking, workers' compensation, the right to sue for wrongful death and spousal privilege. Each of these statutory inequities, as well as the discriminatory exclusion of same-sex couples from the benefits and protections of civil marriage as a whole, violates their constitutional right to equal protection of the laws.

Correctly framed, the question before us is not whether the marriage statutes properly benefit those they are intended to benefit—any discriminatory classification does that—but whether there exists any legitimate basis for excluding those who are not covered by the law. [*23]That the language of the licensing statute does not expressly reference the implicit exclusion of same-sex couples is of no moment (see Domestic Relations Law § 13 ["persons intended to be married" must obtain a marriage license]). The Court has, properly, construed the statutory scheme as prohibiting same-sex marriage. That being so, the statute, in practical effect, becomes identical to—and, for purposes of equal protection analysis, must be analyzed as if it were—one explicitly providing that "civil marriage is hereby established for couples consisting of a man and a woman," or, synonymously, "marriage between persons of the same sex is prohibited."

On three independent grounds, this discriminatory classification is subject to heightened scrutiny, a test that defendants concede it cannot pass.{**7 NY3d at 387}

  1. Heightened Scrutiny
  2. Sexual Orientation Discrimination

Homosexuals meet the constitutional definition of a suspect class, that is, a group whose defining characteristic is "so seldom relevant to the achievement of any legitimate state interest that laws grounded in such considerations are deemed to reflect prejudice and antipathy—a view that those in the burdened class are not as worthy or deserving as others" (Cleburne, 473 US at 440). Accordingly, any classification discriminating on the basis of sexual orientation must be narrowly tailored to meet a compelling state interest (see e.g. Alevy v Downstate Med. Ctr. of State of N.Y., 39 NY2d 326, 332 [1976]; Matter of Aliessa v Novello, 96 NY2d 418, 431 [2001]).

"No single talisman can define those groups likely to be the target of classifications offensive to the Fourteenth Amendment and therefore warranting heightened or strict scrutiny" (Cleburne, 473 US at 472 n 24 [Marshall, J., concurring in the judgment in part and dissenting in part]). Rather, such scrutiny is to be applied when analyzing legislative classifications involving groups who "may well be the target of the sort of prejudiced, thoughtless, or stereotyped action that offends principles of equality found in" the Constitution (id. at 472).

Although no single factor is dispositive, the Supreme Court has generally looked to three criteria in determining whether a group subject to legislative classification must be considered "suspect." First, the Court has considered whether the group has historically been subjected to purposeful discrimination. Homosexuals plainly have been, as the Legislature expressly found when it recently enacted the Sexual Orientation Non-Discrimination Act (SONDA), barring discrimination against homosexuals in employment, housing, public accommodations, education, credit and the exercise of civil rights. Specifically, the Legislature found

"that many residents of this state have encountered prejudice on account of their sexual orientation, and that this prejudice has severely limited or actually prevented access to employment, housing and other basic necessities of life, leading to deprivation and suffering. The legislature further recognizes that this prejudice has fostered a general climate of hostility and distrust, leading in some instances to{**7 NY3d at 388} physical violence against those perceived to be homosexual or bisexual" (L 2002, ch 2, § 1; see also brief of Parents, Families & Friends of Lesbians and Gays, Inc., et al., as amici curiae in support of plaintiffs, at 22-49 [detailing history of state-sanctioned discrimination against gays and lesbians]).

[*24]

Second, the Court has considered whether the trait used to define the class is unrelated to the ability to perform and participate in society. When the State differentiates among its citizens "on the basis of stereotyped characteristics not truly indicative of their abilities" (Massachusetts Bd. of Retirement v Murgia, 427 US 307, 313 [1976]), the legislative classification must be closely scrutinized. Obviously, sexual orientation is irrelevant to one's ability to perform or contribute.

Third, the Court has taken into account the group's relative political powerlessness. Defendants contend that classifications based on sexual orientation should not be afforded heightened scrutiny because, they claim, homosexuals are sufficiently able to achieve protection from discrimination through the political process, as evidenced by the Legislature's passage of SONDA in 2002. SONDA, however, was first introduced in 1971. It failed repeatedly for 31 years, until it was finally enacted just four years ago. Further, during the Senate debate on the Hate Crimes Act of 2000, one Senator noted that "[i]t's no secret that for years we could have passed a hate-crimes bill if we were willing to take out gay people, if we were willing to take out sexual orientation" (New York State Senate Debate on Senate Bill S 4691-A, June 7, 2000, at 4609 [statement of Senator Schneiderman]; accord id. at 4548-4549 [statement of Senator Connor]). The simple fact is that New York has not enacted anything approaching comprehensive statewide domestic partnership protections for same-sex couples, much less marriage or even civil unions.

In any event, the Supreme Court has never suggested that racial or sexual classifications are not (or are no longer) subject to heightened scrutiny because of the passage of even comprehensive civil rights laws (see Cleburne, 473 US at 467 [Marshall, J., concurring in the judgment in part and dissenting in part]). Indeed, sex discrimination was first held to deserve heightened scrutiny in 1973—after passage of title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Equal Pay Act of 1963, federal laws prohibiting sex discrimination. Such measures acknowledge—rather {**7 NY3d at 389}than mark the end of—a history of purposeful discrimination (see Frontiero v Richardson, 411 US 677, 687-688 [1973] [citing antidiscrimination legislation to support conclusion that classifications based on sex merit heightened scrutiny]).

Nor is plaintiffs' claim legitimately answered by the argument that the licensing statute does not discriminate on the basis of sexual orientation since it permits homosexuals to marry persons of the opposite sex and forbids heterosexuals to marry persons of the same sex. The purported "right" of gays and lesbians to enter into marriages with different-sex partners to whom they have no innate attraction cannot possibly cure the constitutional violation actually at issue here. "The right to marry is the right of individuals, not of . . . groups" (Perez v Sharp, 32 Cal 2d 711, 716, 198 P2d 17, 20 [1948]). "Human beings are bereft of worth and dignity by a doctrine that would make them as interchangeable as trains" (32 Cal 2d at 725, 198 P2d at 25). Limiting marriage to opposite-sex couples undeniably restricts gays and lesbians from marrying their chosen same-sex partners whom "to [them] may be irreplaceable" (id.)—and thus constitutes discrimination based on sexual orientation.[FN3]

[*25]2. Sex Discrimination

The exclusion of same-sex couples from civil marriage also discriminates on the basis of sex, which provides a further basis for requiring heightened scrutiny. Classifications based on sex must be substantially related to the achievement of important governmental objectives (see e.g. Craig v Boren, 429 US 190, 197 [1976]), and must have an "exceedingly persuasive justification" (Mississippi Univ. for Women v Hogan, 458 US 718, 724 [1982] [citations omitted]).

Under the Domestic Relations Law, a woman who seeks to marry another woman is prevented from doing so on account of her sex—that is, because she is not a man. If she were, she would be given a marriage license to marry that woman. That{**7 NY3d at 390} the statutory scheme applies equally to both sexes does not alter the conclusion that the classification here is based on sex. The "equal application" approach to equal protection analysis was expressly rejected by the Supreme Court in Loving: "[W]e reject the notion that the mere 'equal application' of a statute containing [discriminatory] classifications is enough to remove the classifications from the [constitutional] proscription of all invidious . . . discriminations" (388 US at 8). Instead, the Loving court held that "[t]here can be no question but that Virginia's miscegenation statutes rest solely upon distinctions drawn according to race [where the] statutes proscribe generally accepted conduct if engaged in by members of different races" (id. at 11; see also Johnson v California, 543 US 499, 506 [2005]; McLaughlin v Florida, 379 US 184, 191 [1964]; Anderson v Martin, 375 US 399, 403-404 [1964]; Shelley v Kraemer, 334 US 1, 21-22 [1948]; J. E. B. v Alabama ex rel. T. B., 511 US 127, 141-142 [1994] [government exercise of peremptory challenges on the basis of gender constitutes impermissible sex discrimination even though based on gender stereotyping of both men and women]).

  1. Fundamental Right

"Equality of treatment and the due process right to demand respect for conduct protected by the substantive guarantee of liberty are linked in important respects, and a decision on the latter point advances both interests" (Lawrence, 539 US at 575). Because, as already discussed, the legislative classification here infringes on the exercise of the fundamental right to marry, the classification cannot be upheld unless it is necessary to the achievement of a compelling state interest (see Onofre, 51 NY2d at 492 n 6; Alevy, 39 NY2d at 332; Eisenstadt v Baird, 405 US 438, 447 n 7 [1972]). "[C]ritical examination of the state interests advanced in support of the classification is required" (Zablocki, 434 US at 383 [internal quotation marks and citations omitted]). And if "the means selected by the State for achieving" even "legitimate and substantial interests" unnecessarily impinge on the right to marry, the statutory distinction "cannot be sustained" (id. at 388).

  1. Rational-Basis Analysis

Although the classification challenged here should be analyzed using heightened scrutiny, it does not satisfy even rational-basis review, which requires that the classification "rationally further{**7 NY3d at 391} a legitimate state interest" (Affronti v Crosson, 95 NY2d 713, 718 [2001], cert [*26]denied sub nom. Affronti v Lippman, 534 US 826 [2001]). Rational-basis review requires both the existence of a legitimate interest and that the classification rationally advance that interest. Although a number of interests have been proffered in support of the challenged classification at issue, none is rationally furthered by the exclusion of same-sex couples from marriage. Some fail even to meet the threshold test of legitimacy.

Properly analyzed, equal protection requires that it be the legislated distinction that furthers a legitimate state interest, not the discriminatory law itself (see e.g. Cooper, 49 NY2d at 78; Romer v Evans, 517 US 620, 633 [1996]). Were it otherwise, an irrational or invidious exclusion of a particular group would be permitted so long as there was an identifiable group that benefitted from the challenged legislation. In other words, it is not enough that the State have a legitimate interest in recognizing or supporting opposite-sex marriages. The relevant question here is whether there exists a rational basis for excluding same-sex couples from marriage, and, in fact, whether the State's interests in recognizing or supporting opposite-sex marriages are rationally furthered by the exclusion.

  1. Children

Defendants primarily assert an interest in encouraging procreation within marriage. But while encouraging opposite-sex couples to marry before they have children is certainly a legitimate interest of the State, the exclusion of gay men and lesbians from marriage in no way furthers this interest. There are enough marriage licenses to go around for everyone.

Nor does this exclusion rationally further the State's legitimate interest in encouraging heterosexual married couples to procreate. Plainly, the ability or desire to procreate is not a prerequisite for marriage. The elderly are permitted to marry, and many same-sex couples do indeed have children. Thus, the statutory classification here—which prohibits only same-sex couples, and no one else, from marrying—is so grossly underinclusive and overinclusive as to make the asserted rationale in promoting procreation "impossible to credit" (Romer, 517 US at 635).[FN4] Indeed, even the Lawrence dissenters observed that "encouragement of procreation" could not "possibly" be a justification for {**7 NY3d at 392}denying marriage to gay and lesbian couples, "since the sterile and the elderly are allowed to marry" (539 US at 605 [Scalia, J., dissenting]; see also Lapides v Lapides, 254 NY 73, 80 [1930] ["inability to bear children" does not justify an annulment under the Domestic Relations Law]).

Of course, there are many ways in which the government could rationally promote procreation—for example, by giving tax breaks to couples who have children, subsidizing child care for those couples, or mandating generous family leave for parents. Any of these benefits—and many more—might convince people who would not otherwise have children [*27]to do so. But no one rationally decides to have children because gays and lesbians are excluded from marriage.

In holding that prison inmates have a fundamental right to marry—even though they cannot procreate—the Supreme Court has made it clear that procreation is not the sine qua non of marriage. "Many important attributes of marriage remain . . . after taking into account the limitations imposed by prison life. . . . [I]nmate marriages, like others, are expressions of emotional support and public commitment. These elements are an important and significant aspect of the marital relationship" (Turner, 482 US at 95-96). Nor is there any conceivable rational basis for allowing prison inmates to marry, but not homosexuals. It is, of course, no answer that inmates could potentially procreate once they are released—that is, once they are no longer prisoners—since, as nonprisoners, they would then undeniably have a right to marry even in the absence of Turner.

Marriage is about much more than producing children, yet same-sex couples are excluded from the entire spectrum of protections that come with civil marriage—purportedly to encourage other people to procreate. Indeed, the protections that the State gives to couples who do marry—such as the right to own property as a unit or to make medical decisions for each other—are focused largely on the adult relationship, rather than on the couple's possible role as parents. Nor does the{**7 NY3d at 393} plurality even attempt to explain how offering only heterosexuals the right to visit a sick loved one in the hospital, for example, conceivably furthers the State's interest in encouraging opposite-sex couples to have children, or indeed how excluding same-sex couples from each of the specific legal benefits of civil marriage—even apart from the totality of marriage itself—does not independently violate plaintiffs' rights to equal protection of the laws. The breadth of protections that the marriage laws make unavailable to gays and lesbians is "so far removed" from the State's asserted goal of promoting procreation that the justification is, again, "impossible to credit" (Romer, 517 US at 635).

The State plainly has a legitimate interest in the welfare of children, but excluding same-sex couples from marriage in no way furthers this interest. In fact, it undermines it. Civil marriage provides tangible legal protections and economic benefits to married couples and their children, and tens of thousands of children are currently being raised by same-sex couples in New York. Depriving these children of the benefits and protections available to the children of opposite-sex couples is antithetical to their welfare, as defendants do not dispute (see e.g. Baker v State, 170 Vt 194, 219, 744 A2d 864, 882 [1999] ["(i)f anything, the exclusion of same-sex couples from the legal protections incident to marriage exposes their children to the precise risks that the State argues the marriage laws are designed to secure against"]; cf. Matter of Jacob, 86 NY2d 651, 656 [1995] ["(t)o rule otherwise would mean that the thousands of New York children actually being raised in homes headed by two unmarried persons could have only one legal parent, not the two who want them"]). The State's interest in a stable society is rationally advanced when families are established and remain intact irrespective of the gender of the spouses.

Nor may the State legitimately seek either to promote heterosexual parents over homosexual parents, as the plurality posits, or to discourage same-sex parenting. First, granting such a preference to heterosexuals would be an acknowledgment of purposeful discrimination against homosexuals, thus constituting a flagrant equal protection violation. Second, such a preference would be contrary to the stated public policy of New York, and therefore irrational (see 18 NYCRR 421.16 [h] [2] [applicants to be adoptive parents "shall not be rejected solely on the basis of homosexuality"]; see also Jacob, 86 NY2d at 668 [same-sex partner of a legal parent may adopt that parent's child; "(a)ny proffered justification for rejecting (adoptions) based on a governmental policy disapproving of homosexuality or encouraging marriage would not apply"]; brief of American Psychological Association et al., as amici curiae in support of plaintiffs, at 34-43 [collecting the results of social scientific research studies which conclude that children raised by same-sex parents fare no differently from, and do as well as, those raised by opposite-sex parents in terms of the quality of the parent-child relationship and the mental health, development and social adjustment of the child]; brief of Association to Benefit Children et al., as amici curiae in support of plaintiffs, at 31-35 [same conclusion]).[FN5]

  1. Moral Disapproval

The government cannot legitimately justify discrimination against one group of persons as a mere desire to preference another group (see Metropolitan Life Ins. Co. v Ward, 470 US 869, 882 and n 10 [1985]). Further, the Supreme Court has held that classifications "drawn for the purpose of disadvantaging the group burdened by the law" can never be legitimate (Romer, 517 US at 633), and that "a bare . . . desire to harm a politically unpopular group cannot constitute a legitimate governmental interest" (Department of Agriculture v Moreno, 413 US 528, 534 [1973]; see also Onofre, 51 NY2d at 490 ["disapproval by a majority of the populace . . . may not substitute for the required demonstration of a valid basis for intrusion by the State in an area of important personal decision"]; Palmore v Sidoti, 466 US 429, 433 [1984] ["(p)rivate biases may be outside the reach of the law, but the law cannot, directly or indirectly, give them effect"]; Lawrence, 539 US at 571 [no legitimate basis to penalize gay and lesbian relationships notwithstanding that "for centuries there have been powerful voices to condemn homosexual conduct as immoral"]; id. at 583 [O'Connor, J., concurring in the judgment] ["(m)oral disapproval" of homosexuals cannot be a legitimate state interest]).

  1. Tradition

That civil marriage has traditionally excluded same-sex couples—i.e., that the "historic and cultural understanding of marriage" has been between a man and a woman—cannot in itself provide a rational basis for the challenged exclusion. To say that discrimination is "traditional" is to say only that the discrimination has existed for a long time. A classification, however, cannot be maintained merely "for its own sake" (Romer, 517 US at 635). Instead, the classification (here, the exclusion of gay men and lesbians from civil marriage) must advance a state interest that is separate from the classification itself (see Romer, 517 US at 633, 635). Because the "tradition" of excluding gay men and lesbians from civil marriage is no different from the classification itself, the exclusion cannot be justified on the basis of "history." Indeed, the justification of "tradition" does not explain the classification; it merely repeats it. Simply put, a history or tradition of discrimination—no matter how entrenched—does not make the discrimination constitutional (see also Goodridge, 440 Mass at 332 n 23, 798 NE2d at 961 n 23 ["it is circular reasoning, not analysis, to maintain that marriage must remain a heterosexual institution because that is what it historically has been"]).[FN6]

  1. Uniformity

The State asserts an interest in maintaining uniformity with the marriage laws of other states. But our marriage laws currently are not uniform with those of other states. For example, New York—unlike most other states in the nation—permits first cousins to marry (see Domestic Relations Law § 5). This disparity has caused no trouble, however, because well-settled principles of comity resolve any conflicts. The same well-settled principles of comity would resolve any conflicts arising from any disparity involving the recognition of same-sex marriages.

It is, additionally, already impossible to maintain uniformity among all the states, inasmuch as Massachusetts has now legalized same-sex marriage. Indeed, of the seven jurisdictions that border New York State, only Pennsylvania currently affords no legal status to same-sex relationships. Massachusetts, Ontario and Quebec all authorize same-sex marriage; Vermont and Connecticut provide for civil unions (see Vt Stat Ann, tit 15, § 1204 [a]; Conn Gen Stat § 46b-38nn); and New Jersey has a statewide domestic partnership law (see NJ Stat Ann § 26:8A-1 et seq.). Moreover, insofar as a number of localities within New York offer domestic partnership registration, even the law within the state is not uniform. Finally, and most fundamentally, to justify the exclusion of gay men and lesbians from civil marriage because "others do it too" is no more a justification for the discriminatory classification than the contention that the discrimination is rational because it has existed for a long time. As history has well taught us, separate is inherently unequal.

III. The Legislature

The Court ultimately concludes that the issue of same-sex marriage should be addressed by the Legislature. If the Legislature were to amend the statutory scheme by making it gender neutral, obviously the instant controversy would disappear. But this Court cannot avoid its obligation to remedy constitutional violations in the hope that the Legislature might some day render the question presented academic. After all, by the time the Court decided Loving in 1967, many states had already repealed their antimiscegenation laws. Despite this trend, however, the Supreme Court did not refrain from fulfilling its constitutional obligation.

The fact remains that although a number of bills to authorize same-sex marriage have been introduced in the Legislature over the past several years, none has ever made it out of committee (see 2005 NY Senate-Assembly Bill S 5156, A 7463; 2005 NY Assembly Bill A 1823; 2003 NY Senate Bill S 3816; 2003 NY Assembly Bill A 7392; 2001 NY Senate Bill S 1205; see also 2005 NY Senate-Assembly Bill S 1887-A, A 3693-A [proposing establishment of domestic partnerships]; 2004 NY Senate-Assembly Bill S 3393-A, A 7304-A [same]).

It is uniquely the function of the Judicial Branch to safeguard individual liberties guaranteed by the New York State Constitution, and to order redress for their violation. The Court's duty to protect constitutional rights is an imperative of the separation of powers, not its enemy.

I am confident that future generations will look back on today's decision as an unfortunate misstep

footnotes:

Footnote 1: In other contexts, this Court has also recognized that due process rights must be afforded to all, even as against a history of exclusion of one group or another from past exercise of these rights (see e.g. Matter of Raquel Marie X., 76 NY2d 387, 397 [1990] [affording the right to custody of one's children to unwed fathers, despite a long history of excluding unwed fathers from that right]; Rivers v Katz, 67 NY2d 485, 495-496 [1986] [affording the right to refuse medical treatment to the mentally disabled, despite a long history of excluding the mentally ill from that right]).
Footnote 2: Moreover, until as recently as 1984, a husband could not be prosecuted for raping his wife (see People v Liberta, 64 NY2d 152 [1984]).
Footnote 3: Indeed, the true nature and extent of the discrimination suffered by gays and lesbians in this regard is perhaps best illustrated by the simple truth that each one of the plaintiffs here could lawfully enter into a marriage of convenience with a complete stranger of the opposite sex tomorrow, and thereby immediately obtain all of the myriad benefits and protections incident to marriage. Plaintiffs are, however, denied these rights because they each desire instead to marry the person they love and with whom they have created their family.
Footnote 4: Although the plurality asserts that the Legislature could not possibly exclude from marriage opposite-sex couples unable to have children because to do so would require "grossly intrusive inquiries" (plurality op at 365), no explanation is given as to why the Legislature could not easily remedy the irrationality inherent in allowing all childless couples to marry—if, as the plurality believes, the sole purpose of marriage is procreation—by simply barring from civil marriage all couples in which both spouses are older than, say, 55. In that event, the State would have no need to undertake intrusive inquiries of any kind.
Footnote 5: Nor could the State have a legitimate interest in privileging some children over others depending on the manner in which they were conceived or whether or not their parents were married (see Jacob, 86 NY2d at 667 [depriving children of legal relationship with de facto parents "based solely on their biological mother's sexual orientation or marital status . . . raise(s) constitutional concerns"]; Levy v Louisiana, 391 US 68, 71 [1968] [child born out of wedlock may not be denied rights enjoyed by other citizens]).
Footnote 6: Ultimately, as the Lawrence dissenters recognized, " 'preserving the traditional institution of marriage' is just a kinder way of describing the State's moral disapproval of same-sex couples" (539 US at 601 [Scalia, J., dissenting]), an illegitimate basis for depriving gay and lesbian couples of the equal protection of the laws.


January 8, 2016 in Courts and Judging, Current Affairs, Due Process (Substantive), Equal Protection, Family, Federalism, Fundamental Rights, Gender, News, Recent Cases, Reconstruction Era Amendments, Sexual Orientation | Permalink | Comments (0)

Thursday, January 7, 2016

Opposing Obama's Gun EO (and all else federal), Arizona Style

Here's one way to oppose President Obama's recent executive actions to reduce gun violence (or any other federal action you don't like): Exempt your state from them.

That's just what Arizona HB 2024 does. It prohibits the use of any state funds or resources "to enforce, administer or cooperate with an executive order issued by the President of the United States that is not in pursuance of the Constitution of the United States and that has not been affirmed by a vote of the Congress of the United States and signed into law as prescribed by the Constitution of the United States." HB 2024 also prohibits the use of state funds and resources to enforce any federal administrative action not "affirmed by a vote of the Congress," and any Supreme Court ruling not "affirmed by a vote of Congress."

But HB 2024 (obviously) runs head-on into the Supremacy Clause. So it's only a political statement. But even so, it's an awfully weak one: It fundamentally misunderstands the separation of powers, in particular the President's role in enforcing the law and the Supreme Court's role in interpreting and applying the law.

January 7, 2016 in Courts and Judging, Executive Authority, News, Separation of Powers | Permalink | Comments (0)

Daily Read: Attorneys, Abortions, and the Amicus Brief in Whole Women's Health

The amicus brief of Anice MacAvoy, Janie Schulman, and Over 110 Other Women in the Legal Profession Who Have Exercised their Constitutional Right to an Abortion filed in Whole Woman's Health v. Cole, the abortion case before the United States Supreme Court regarding Texas's controversial HB2 statute, puts the emotions and stories of legal professionals whose abortions have played a positive role in their lives and careers.

Although the amicus does not cite the Court's most recent abortion decision, Gonzales v. Carhart (Carhart II), the import of the amicus is a challenge to some of the reasoning in that case.  Specifically, Justice Kennedy writing for the majority in Carhart II stated that:

Respect for human life finds an ultimate expression in the bond of love the mother has for her child. The Act recognizes this reality as well. Whether to have an abortion requires a difficult and painful moral decision. Casey, supra, at 852–853 (opinion of the Court). While we find no reliable data to measure the phenomenon, it seems unexceptionable to conclude some women come to regret their choice to abort the infant life they once created and sustained. See Brief for Sandra Cano et al. as Amici Curiae in No. 05–380, pp. 22–24. Severe depression and loss of esteem can follow. See ibid.

The dissenting opinion of four Justices, authored by Justice Ginsburg, responded to this passage at length:

Revealing in this regard, the Court invokes an antiabortion shibboleth for which it concededly has no reliable evidence: Women who have abortions come to regret their choices, and consequently suffer from “[s]evere depression and loss of esteem.” Ante, at 29. Because of women’s fragile emotional state and because of the “bond of love the mother has for her child,” the Court worries, doctors may withhold information about the nature of the intact D&E procedure. Ante, at 28–29. The solution the Court approves, then, is not to require doctors to inform women, accurately and adequately, of the different procedures and their attendant risks. Cf. Casey, 505 U. S., at 873 (plurality opinion) (“States are free to enact laws to provide a reasonable framework for a woman to make a decision that has such profound and lasting meaning.”). Instead, the Court deprives women of the right to make an autonomous choice, even at the expense of their safety.

 

Myra_Bradwell_1870
Myra Bradwell, attorney, circa 1870

This way of thinking reflects ancient notions about women’s place in the family and under the Constitution—ideas that have long since been discredited. Compare, e.g., Muller v. Oregon, 208 U. S. 412, 422–423 (1908) (“protective” legislation imposing hours-of-work limitations on women only held permissible in view of women’s “physical structure and a proper discharge of her maternal funct[ion]”); Bradwell v. State, 16Wall. 130, 141 (1873) (Bradley, J., concurring) (“Man is, or should be, woman’s protector and defender. The natural and proper timidity and delicacy which belongs to the female sex evidently unfits it for many of the occupations of civil life. … The paramount destiny and mission of woman are to fulfil[l] the noble and benign offices of wife and mother.”), with United States v. Virginia, 518 U. S. 515 , n. 12 (1996) (State may not rely on “overbroad generalizations” about the “talents, capacities, or preferences” of women; “[s]uch judgments have … impeded … women’s progress toward full citizenship stature throughout our Nation’s history”); Califano v. Goldfarb, 430 U. S. 199, 207 (1977) (gender-based Social Security classification rejected because it rested on “archaic and overbroad generalizations” “such as assumptions as to [women’s] dependency” (internal quotation marks omitted)).

Though today’s majority may regard women’s feelings on the matter as “self-evident,” ante, at 29, this Court has repeatedly confirmed that “[t]he destiny of the woman must be shaped … on her own conception of her spiritual imperatives and her place in society.” Casey, 505 U. S., at 852. See also id., at 877 (plurality opinion) (“[M]eans chosen by the State to further the interest in potential life must be calculated to inform the woman’s free choice, not hinder it.”); supra, at 3–4.

[footnotes omitted].

The brief of the attorneys who have had abortions and are legal professionals clearly supports the view that women must be able to exercise reproductive free choice.  The stories of the women attorneys gathered in the amicus brief is a testament to the positive aspects of abortions - - - rather than the regrets - - - that women attorneys have experienced. 

 

 

 

 


January 7, 2016 in Abortion, Courts and Judging, Current Affairs, Equal Protection, Family, Fourteenth Amendment, Gender, Medical Decisions, Privacy, Recent Cases, Reproductive Rights, Scholarship | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Yes, Ted Cruz Can Be President

Even as Donald Trump continues to raise "questions" about Ted Cruz's eligibility to serve as president, most experts agree that he is eligible, according to ABC News.

Neal Katyal and Paul Clement explain why the senator, born in Calgary to an American mother, satisfies the "natural born citizen" requirement in an article last spring in the Harvard Law Review. It's easy: that phrase simply means "a citizen from birth with no need to go through naturalization proceedings." A person born to a U.S. citizen overseas clearly satisfies this test.

Still, there are (less conventional) opinions on the other side (in addition to Donald Trump's). Repeat plaintiff Montgomery Blair Sibley responded to Katyal and Clement in a short piece here; attorney Mario Apuzzo responded here.

January 6, 2016 in News | Permalink | Comments (2)

More on President Obama's Gun EO and Separation of Powers

Amy Goodman hosted a debate between John Velleco, director of federal affairs for Gun Owners of America, and Caroline Fredrickson, president of the American Constitution Society, on the separation-of-powers issues in President Obama's executive actions to control gun violence:

 

January 6, 2016 in Executive Authority, News, Second Amendment, Separation of Powers | Permalink | Comments (0)

The California Legislature Can Ask What Californians Think About Citizens United

The California Supreme Court ruled earlier this week that the California legislature had authority to put on the general election ballot the nonbinding, advisory question whether Congress should propose, and the legislature ratify, a federal constitutional amendment overturning Citizens United.

The court said that the measure fell within the state legislative authority:

We conclude: (1) as a matter of state law, the Legislature has authority to conduct investigations by reasonable means to inform the exercise of its other powers; (2) among those other powers are the power to petition for national constitutional conventions, ratify federal constitutional amendments, and call on Congress and other states to exercise their own federal article V powers; (3) although neither constitutional text nor judicial precedent provide definitive answers to the question, long-standing historical practice among the states demonstrates a common understanding that legislatures may formally consult with and seek nonbinding input from their constituents on matters relevant to the federal constitutional amendment process; (4) nothing in the state Constitution prohibits the use of advisory questions to inform the Legislature's exercise of its article V-related powers; and (5) applying deferential review, Proposition 49 is reasonably related to the exercise of those powers and thus constitutional.

Still, there are no actual plans to put the measure on the 2016 ballot--at least not yet. The legislature previously directed that the measure go on the 2014 ballot; that decision was before the court. Now that 2014 is over, you might think the case was moot. But if so, you'd be wrong: the court said it should address the question, notwithstanding the lack of plans to put the measure on the ballot, because the legislature might direct that the measure go on a future ballot (apparently in the spirit of capable-of-repetition-but-evading-review).

January 6, 2016 in Campaign Finance, Cases and Case Materials, First Amendment, News, Opinion Analysis, State Constitutional Law | Permalink | Comments (0)

Alabama's CJ Roy Moore Issues Administrative Order on Same-Sex Marriage

Despite the United States Supreme Court's holding last Term in Obergefell v. Hodges holding that the Fourteenth Amendment requires states to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples, the controversial Chief Judge of the Alabama Supreme Court Roy Moore issued an " Adminstrative Order" forbidding probate judges from issuing same-sex marriage licenses "contrary to the Alabama Sanctity of Marriage Amendment or the Alabama Marriage Protection Act" since those laws "remain in full force and effect."

Alabama5Today's administrative opinion is part of Moore's ongoing reaction to constitutional issues surrounding same-sex marriage.  After an Alabama federal judge issued an opinion finding the denial of same-sex marriage unconstitutional, Judge Moore argued that the Alabama was not bound by the federal courts on the same-sex marriage issue.  Recall that the United States Supreme Court declined to stay the federal judge's judgment.  Despite these direct orders, seemingly Moore's current argument in today's Administrative Order is that Obergfell does not apply to Alabama but only the states involved in the Sixth Circuit opinion to which the Court granted certiorari.

Judge Moore's "interesting" construction of constitutional law is not limited to the precedential value of United States Supreme Court opinions.  Several months ago - - - in a lesbian second-parent adoption case, E.L. - - - the Alabama Supreme held that Alabama need not accord full faith and credit to a Georgia decision because of a dissenting opinion. The United States Supreme Court stayed the decision in E.L. pending a decision on the petition for certiorari.

 

 

January 6, 2016 in Courts and Judging, Due Process (Substantive), Equal Protection, Family, Federalism, Fourteenth Amendment, Full Faith and Credit Clause, Fundamental Rights, Jurisdiction of Federal Courts, Opinion Analysis, Sexual Orientation, Sexuality | Permalink | Comments (0)

Justice Alito's Wild Hypothetical is Reality

Campaign finance transfers that Justice Alito called a "wild hypothetical" at oral arguments in McCutcheon v. FEC are the reality in today's presidential race, writes Paul Blumenthal at HuffPo. That means that a candidate's joint fundraising committee (which raises money for candidates and state and national parties) can bring in over a million dollars per donor in the 2016 election cycle. This is the maximum amount a donor can contribute to the candidate and the parties within base contribution limits. State parties can redistribute their take to benefit the candidate, circumventing the base limits.

Justice Alito called this a "wild hypothetical" at oral arguments in McCutcheon, at least as regards congressional elections. But Blumenthal says it's reality, and cites the Clinton campaign as an example. He describes it this way:

Donors are limited by how much they can give to campaign committees, national party committees and state party committees. A single donor can give $5,400 to a candidate's campaign to cover both a primary and general election, $33,400 annually to a national party committee's general fund and $10,000 annually to each state party. These limits are known as "base" contribution limits. (Additionally, donors can give $100,200 annually to each of the national party committee's convention, building and legal funds . . . .)

Since the Hillary Victory Fund links the Clinton campaign, the DNC and 33 state parties, the total amount a donor could give is $669,400 per year. Technically, a maximum contribution to the fund would include $330,000 to be split amount the 33 state parties. Since party committees are allowed to make unlimited transfers between each other, that money can easily be sent to the state parties most advantageous to the candidate's raising the money--in a swing state, for example. Or, as is happening with the Hillary Victory Fund, that money can be sent to the DNC, which redistributes it as they see fit.

Why does this matter? Well, the Court in McCutcheon said that aggregate contribution limits (designed to complement base limits and avoid corruption by effectively restricting the amount of money candidates could transfer between each other) violated the First Amendment. The Court said this in part because the FEC's rules on earmarking contributions and limits on transfers between candidates effectively prevented these kinds of shenanigans. In other words, the Court said that aggregate limits weren't necessary to avoid corruption, because other features of the regulatory scheme prevented donors from circumventing base limits and corrupting politicians.

But those features don't limit state political party transfers. So a joint fundraising committee can send donations to state parties, which can then strategically funnel those donations to other state parties or to the national party, directly benefiting the candidate. That's exactly what SG Verrilli raised--and what Justice Alito dismissed as a "wild hypothetical" in the context of congressional elections--at oral argument in McCutcheon. It's also what seems to be happening in the 2016 presidential election.

January 6, 2016 in Campaign Finance, First Amendment, News | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, January 5, 2016

President Obama's Gun EO and Separation of Powers

President Obama's executive actions to control gun violence are drawing predictable Second Amendment howls. But there's another constitutional claim against President Obama's actions--that President Obama overreached and violated the separation of powers.

The emerging separation-of-powers claim focuses on the President's attempt to clarify statutory language, in particular, which gun sellers are "engaged in the business of dealing firearms" under federal law. Sellers so engaged have to get a federal license and conduct background checks on purchasers.

Firearms dealers certainly qualify; individuals selling guns don't. But that leaves a big grey area and allows many sellers to avoid federal licensing and background checks, even if they sell a lot of guns. President Obama's actions are designed to give some guidance to federal regulators and law enforcement on who is "engaged in the business of dealing firearms," so that more sellers who sell many guns (but have previously flown under the regulatory radar) have to get a license and conduct background checks. 

So: the President's action is either validly enforcing the law, or it's invalidly rewriting the law, in violation of the separation of powers.

Phillip Bump at WaPo has a nice, short summary of the positions.

Bob Adelmann, writing in the New American, says that the measure invalidly rewrites the law, and surveys the emerging arguments that support that position.

On the other side, law professors who urged President Obama to take action last month say that this measure is valid enforcement of federal law.

The law professors surely have the better argument. But the courts will soon have their own say.

January 5, 2016 in Executive Authority, News, Second Amendment, Separation of Powers | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

En Banc Federal Circuit Holds "Disparaging" Trademarks Ban Violates First Amendment

In its more than 100 page opinion today in In Re Simon Shiao Tam, the en banc Federal Circuit held that the disparagement provision in Section 2(a) of the Lanham Act, 15 U.S.C. § 1052(a), barring the the Patent and Trademark Office from registering scandalous, immoral, or disparaging marks, is unconstitutional because it violates the First Amendment.  

The central issue was the denial of a trademark registration to "The Slants" by the applicant Simon Shiao Tam, on behalf of the Portland, Oregon "all Asian American dance rock band" (pictured below).

The United States Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit, established in 1982 by a the merger of the United States Court of Customs and Patent Appeals and the appellate division of the United States Court of Claims, was reviewing the denial of the trademark by the Patent and Trademark Office (PTO).  A panel of the Federal Circuit rejected Tam's First Amendment arguments, finding that it was bound by circuit precedent from 1981 that held that the First Amendment was not implicated by the denial of trademark registration. 

BoiseThe Circuit sua sponte ordered rehearing en banc.  The majority opinion, authored by Judge Kimberly Moore (who was formerly a law prof at George Mason School of Law), was joined by 8 other judges, including Chief Judge Sharon Prost, reasoned that much had changed since the 1981 circuit precedent - - - including the jurisprudence offering protections for commercial speech under the First Amendment - - - and that the First Amendment should apply.

Not only should the First Amendment apply, it is violated in the most egregious manner: viewpoint discrimination. Moore's opinion for the majority stresses that the "disparagement" provision "discriminates against speech because it disapproves of the message conveyed by the speech" and is therefore subject to strict scrutiny.  That the government might itself not disapprove but "claims that some part of the populace will disapprove of the message" is irrelevant.  When the PTO refuses to register a trademark under this provision,"it does so because it believes the mark conveys an expressive message—a message that is disparaging to certain groups."  Mr. Tam was undoubtedly engaging in expressive speech:

Mr. Tam explicitly selected his mark to create a dialogue on controversial political and social issues. With his band name, Mr. Tam makes a statement about racial and ethnic identity. He seeks to shift the meaning of, and thereby reclaim, an emotionally charged word. He advocates for social change and challenges perceptions of people of Asian descent. His band name pushes people. It offends. Despite this—indeed, because of it—Mr. Tam’s band name is expressive speech.

The court rejected the government's three arguments, including its argument that the First Amendment did not apply since no speech was prohibited.  The government's second argument - - - that trademark registration is government speech - - - was likewise rejected.  Here, the court distinguished last Term's decision in Walker v. Texas Sons of Confederate Veterans, the confederate flag license plate case, by distinguishing between the license plate (which the government continues to own and which the car driver must affix) and the trademark symbol (which the government does not "own" and the registrant can use or not).  As for public perception, the court used a copyright analogy: just as the public does not associate copyrighted works such as Fifty Shades of Grey with the government, "neither does the public associate individual trademarks such as THE SLANTS with the government."  

The court likewise rejected the government argument that § 2(a) merely withholds a government subsidy for Mr. Tam’s speech and is valid as a permissible definition of a government subsidy program: "Trademark registration does not implicate Congress’s power to spend or to control use of government property."  Further, the "benefits of trademark registration, while valuable, are not monetary, and are "unlike a subsidy consisting of, for example, HIV/AIDS funding," as in the Court's 2013 decision in USAID v. Alliance for an Open Society.

The majority's opinion clearly rests on its conclusion that the disparagement provision of § 2(a) is viewpoint discrimination that cannot survive strict scrutiny.  But it also provides the fall-back rationale of commercial speech.

Even if we were to treat § 2(a) as a regulation of commercial speech, it would fail to survive. In Central Hudson, the Supreme Court laid out the intermediate- scrutiny framework for determining the constitutionality of restrictions on commercial speech.  First, commercial speech “must concern lawful activity and not be misleading.”  If this is the case, we ask whether “the asserted governmental interest is substantial,” id., and whether the regulation “directly and materially advanc[es]” the government’s asserted interest and is narrowly tailored to achieve that objective.

[citations omitted].  But the court's rationale circles back.  The court finds that 2(a) fails at the second step: the government interest cannot be substantial because it is based on viewpoint discrimination.  This is certainly predictable in light of IMS v. Sorrell (2011).  The court finds that the government's asserted interest in "fostering racial tolerance" cannot support a speech regulation. "The case law does not recognize a substantial interest in discriminatorily regulating private speech to try to reduce racial intolerance."  The cases relied upon are outside the commercial speech realm.

This tension between commercial speech and non-commercial speech permeates some of the opinions by Judges who did not join the majority.  Perhaps most persuasive is the dissenting opinion by Judge Jimmie Reyna, arguing that §2(a) survived commercial speech's intermediate scrutiny:

The marketplace of ideas differs dramatically from the marketplace of goods and services. While the marketplace of ideas may tolerate or even benefit from the volatility that accompanies disparaging and insulting speech, the marketplace of goods and services is a wholly different animal. Commerce does not benefit from political volatility, nor from insults, discrimination, or bigotry. Commerce is a communal institution regulated for the mutual economic benefit of all. Commercial speech that discredits or brings reproach upon groups of Americans, particularly based on their race, has a discriminatory impact that undermines commercial activity and the stability of the marketplace in much the same manner as discriminatory conduct.

As the court notes numerous times throughout its opinions, the disparagement provision has long been contentious, including the notorious "Dykes on Bikes" trademark dispute (which I wrote about here). 

But currently - - - and looming largely - - - the ongoing litigation currently before the Fourth Circuit regarding the PTO's cancellation of the trademark of a football team with the name many believe disparages Native Americans.

Moreover, given that a circuit court has declared a portion of a federal statute unconstitutional, this issue could well be going to the United States Supreme Court.

December 22, 2015 in First Amendment, Opinion Analysis, Race, Recent Cases, Speech | Permalink | Comments (0)

Friday, December 18, 2015

President Obama May Have Ordered Periodic Review at Guantanamo, but That Doesn't Mean You Get It

Judge Royce Lamberth (D.D.C.) ruled yesterday that the district court lacked jurisdiction over a Guantanamo detainee's habeas claim seeking his periodic review, as ordered by President Obama.

The ruling in Salahi v. Obama leaves Guantanamo detainees without a way to enforce the Periodic Review Board process set by executive order by President Obama.

Recall that President created an interagency process in 2011 to periodically review whether continued detention of certain Guantanamo detainees was "necessary to protect against significant threat to the security of the United States." Under EO 13567, every detainee was to get a full hearing every three years from a PRB, plus interim review under certain circumstances.

Salahi has been detained at Guantanamo since 2002, without charges, and has yet to have a PRB hearing (or even have one scheduled). He filed a habeas claim in the D.C. District seeking, among other things, a scheduled PRB hearing.

The court rejected his claim. The court said that "probabilistic" claims--that is, claims that only might lead to release--don't fall within habeas, and that in any event the EO didn't create any substantive rights that a Guantanamo detainee might actually enforce in court.

The upshot is that while the President may order periodic review, that doesn't mean that detainees can actually get it.

December 18, 2015 in Cases and Case Materials, Executive Authority, Habeas Corpus, Jurisdiction of Federal Courts, News, Opinion Analysis, Separation of Powers | Permalink | Comments (0)

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Full Second Circuit Gives Detainee Suit Against Ashcroft, Mueller a Green Light

The full Second Circuit last week denied en banc review of its June ruling in Turkmen v. Ashcroft. That ruling allowed a civil rights case against former AG Ashcroft and former FBI Director Mueller, among others, by alien detainees held at the Metropolitan Detention Center in New York to go forward. (The June ruling was not a ruling on the merits, however.) The full Second Circuit denied review by a 6-6 vote. (H/t: Joe Dicola.)

The June ruling and the full court's denial of review are victories for the plaintiffs and, more generally, for access to justice. They deal a major blow to the government in defending detainee-abuse suits that arise in domestic, non-military detention facilities. But while the rulings are significant (to say the least), they may be short-lived. That's because the government is sure to appeal to the Supreme Court, and because the Court will almost surely take it.

December 16, 2015 in Cases and Case Materials, Executive Authority, News, Opinion Analysis, Separation of Powers, War Powers | Permalink | Comments (0)

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Court Upholds Another Mandatory Arbitration Clause

Schwinn-steven
Steven D. Schwinn, John Marshall Law School

The Supreme Court yesterday upheld a mandatory arbitration clause in a consumer contract-of-adhesion, forcing the consumer-plaintiffs into arbitration (and out of the courts) to sue DIRECTTV over early termination fees. The ruling is yet another blow to consumers who seek to recover relatively small damages from corporations--the kinds of claims that are best suited for class action lawsuits (in courts). But yesterday's ruling all but bolts the door to the courts for these kinds of claims, as corporations increasingly include mandatory arbitration clauses in their standard-form consumer contracts.

At the same time, the opinion includes powerful federal supremacy language, and reminds us of the constitutional requirement that state court judges uphold federal law, explicitly mentioning federal civil rights. The ruling thus illustrates that the politics in preemption cases can be complicated, and that a federal-friendly ruling in one area (mandatory arbitration clauses) can have important implications in others (civil rights enforcement).

Of course, Congress can "reverse" the holding simply by changing the FAA, although that seems highly unlikely.

The case, DIRECTTV v. Imburgia, grew out of consumers' disputes with DIRECTTV over early termination fees. The plaintiffs' contracts with DIRECTTV (a standard-form contract of adhesion) included a mandatory arbitration clause and a class-arbitration waiver. In particular, the contracts said that "any Claim either of us asserts will be resolved only by binding arbitration," and that "[n]either you nor we shall be entitled to join or consolidate claims in arbitration." The contract also said that if the "law of your state" makes the waiver of class arbitration unenforceable, then the entire arbitration clause is unenforceable.

But at the time the parties contracted, California law said that a waiver of class arbitration in a consumer contract of adhesion was unconscionable and thus unenforceable. This rule came from the California Supreme Court's decision in Discover Bank v. Superior Court. This was the "law of your state," at least insofar as the parties understood it at the time of the contract, and would have rendered the entire arbitration clause unenforceable, allowing the plaintiffs' case to proceed in court (and not requiring arbitration).

An earlier Supreme Court case and the Federal Arbitration Act threw a wrench into that analysis. The Federal Arbitration Act says that a "written provision" in a contract providing for "settle[ment] by arbitration" of "a controversy . . . arising out of" that "contract . . . shall be valid, irrevocable, and enforceable, save upon such grounds as exist at law or in equity for the revocation of any contract." The Supreme Court ruled in AT&T Mobility v. Concepcion (2011) (after the parties contracted) that the FAA preempted California's Discover Bank rule, because that rule stood as an obstacle "to the accomplishment and execution of the full purposes and objectives of Congress."

So the plaintiffs' ability to sue in state court turned on whether the contract's reference to "law of your state" meant the Discover Bank rule absent preemption, or the Discover Bank ruled as preempted under Concepcion. If the former, then the contract provision would have made the entire arbitration clause unenforceable, and the plaintiffs could have pursued their claims in court. If the latter, then the contract provision would have left the arbitration clause in place, and forced the courts to dismiss the plaintiffs' claim (and go to arbitration instead).

The Court ruled that the latter interpretation was the better one. In other words, the Court said that "law of your state" meant valid California law--that is, the Discover Bank rule as preempted by the FAA under Concepcion--which did not render the class-arbitration waiver unenforceable. As a result, the arbitration clause in the contract stayed in place, and the plaintiffs' court case will be dismissed. (Justice Breyer wrote the opinion, joined by the Court's conservatives (minus Justice Thomas) and Justice Kagan. Justices Breyer wrote the dissent, and Justice Kagan joined him, in Concepcion.)

Justice Ginsburg dissented, joined by Justice Sotomayor. She wrote that "law of your state" should be interpreted to mean the Discover Bank rule, as the parties intended and expected at the time of the contract (because the Court had not then issued Concepcion). Justice Thomas dissented separately, arguing that the FAA has no application to state court proceedings.

The ruling adds yet more authority to FAA preemption of consumer mandatory arbitration clauses and thus deals a blow to consumer-plaintiffs who seek to sue corporations in court. (Arbitration often favors the corporation.) It tilts the scales (again) toward the corporation, and away from the consumer.

But at the same time, the ruling is strong on federal supremacy, including federal civil rights. Justice Breyer included powerful language reinforcing the supremacy of federal law and the constitutional requirement of state court judges to enforce federal law, explicitly mentioning federal civil rights law.

December 15, 2015 in Cases and Case Materials, Federalism, News, Opinion Analysis, Preemption | Permalink | Comments (0)