Thursday, April 14, 2016
In its opinion in Vergara v. California today, the Court of Appeal for the Second Appellate District of California reversed the conclusion of Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Rolf Treu that the state tenure statutes for public school teachers violate the California Constitution's provisions on equal protection and provision of education. California's so-called teacher tenure statutes challenged in the action are provisions of California's Education Code governing teacher employment, including the permanent employment statute (§44929.21(b)); dismissal statutes (§§ 44934; 44938(b)(l) and (2) and 44944); and a seniority statute, "Last In First Out" or "LIFO" statute (§44955).
In a nutshell, the appellate court found:
Plaintiffs failed to establish that the challenged statutes violate equal protection, primarily because they did not show that the statutes inevitably cause a certain group of students to receive an education inferior to the education received by other students. Although the statutes may lead to the hiring and retention of more ineffective teachers than a hypothetical alternative system would, the statutes do not address the assignment of teachers; instead, administrators—not the statutes—ultimately determine where teachers within a district are assigned to teach. Critically, plaintiffs failed to show that the statutes themselves make any certain group of students more likely to be taught by ineffective teachers than any other group of students.
The appellate court implied that the trial judge had misconstrued his constitutional task:
With no proper showing of a constitutional violation, the court is without power to strike down the challenged statutes. The court’s job is merely to determine whether the statutes are constitutional, not if they are “a good idea.” (McHugh v. Santa Monica Rent Control Bd. (1989) 49 Cal.3d 348, 388.) Additionally, our review is limited to the particular constitutional challenge that plaintiffs decided to bring. Plaintiffs brought a facial equal protection challenge, meaning they challenged the statutes themselves, not how the statutes are implemented in particular school districts. Since plaintiffs did not demonstrate that the statutes violate equal protection on their face, the judgment cannot be affirmed.
The appellate court's 36 page opinion contains a careful rehearsal of the evidence before the trial judge as well as a discussion of his opinion. In its own analysis, the appellate court considered the plaintiffs' original contentions that:
the challenged statutes create an oversupply of grossly ineffective teachers because (i) the tenure statute’s probationary period is too short, preventing the identification of grossly ineffective teachers before the mandated deadline for reelection; (ii) when grossly ineffective tenured teachers are identified, it is functionally impossible to terminate them under the overly burdensome and complicated dismissal statutes; and (iii) when reductions-in-force are required, the statute requires the termination of junior, competent teachers while more senior, grossly ineffective teachers keep their jobs only because they have seniority. Plaintiffs argued, and the trial court agreed, that two distinct classes of students—Group 1 (an “unlucky subset” of students within the population of students at large) and Group 2 (poor and minority students)—were denied equal protection because the challenged statutes led members of these groups to be assigned to grossly ineffective teachers.
The unanimous panel found that there was no "identifiable class" for equal protection purposes: the group of "unlucky students" who are allegedly harmed by being assigned to grossly ineffective teachers have only one defining characteristic - - - they are assigned to grossly ineffective teachers. As for the second group - - - identified as poor and minority students - - - the appellate court found that there was insufficient causation for a facial constitutional violation: "the statutes do not differentiate by any distinguishing characteristic, including race or wealth." While it is possible, the appellate court noted, that the plaintiffs could have shown that the implementation of the statutes inevitably resulted in "consequential assignment of disproportionately high numbers of grossly inefficient teachers to schools predominantly serving low-income and minority students," the plaintiffs here did not make such a showing.
While the appellate court recognized there were "deplorable staffing decisions made by some local administrators," this was not sufficient to support a facial challenge to teacher tenure statutes.
The appellate decision is much better reasoned than the trial judge's opinion, which derided the "uber due process" provided by the statutes and did not elaborate on the facts and evidence. It is likely to stand.
Wednesday, April 13, 2016
The Ninth Circuit ruled today in Chen v. Allstate Insurance that a defendant's unaccepted offer of full judgment on a plaintiff's individual claim does not moot the plaintiff's individual claim, or his class action.
The ruling means that plaintiff Florencio Pacleb's individual claim and his class-action complaint against Allstate can move forward at the district court. This is a significant win for Pacleb (and other Ninth Circuit class plaintiffs) and answers a question left open by the Supreme Court.
The case arose when Pacleb filed a class-action suit against Allstate for calls he received from the insurance company on his cell phone, in violation of the Telephone Consumer Protection Act. Before Pacleb moved for class certification (and shortly after the Supreme Court handed down Campbell-Ewald), Allstate tried to pick him off (and thus undermine his class action) by depositing full monetary judgment in escrow and promising to stop making calls to his cell phone. Allstate then moved to dismiss the case as moot.
Allstate's move was a clever exploitation of an open question from Campbell-Ewald. In that case, the Supreme Court held that "an unaccepted settlement offer has no force" and does not moot a claim. But the Court left open the question "whether the result would be different if a defendant deposits the full amount of the plaintiff's individual claim in an account payable to the plaintiff, and the court then enters judgment for the plaintiff in that amount." Allstate's move took up that open question.
But the Ninth Circuit didn't bite. The Ninth Circuit ruled first that Pacleb's individual claim wasn't moot, because he hadn't received full judgment. (The money was still in escrow, not in Pacleb's bank account.) The court went on to rule that circuit law allowed Pacleb to seek class certification, even if Allstate could fully satisfy Pacleb's individual claims. But the court said that even if circuit law didn't answer the question, language in Campbell-Ewald suggests that "when a defendant consents to judgment according complete relief on a named plaintiff's individual claims before certification, but fails to offer complete relief on the plaintiff's class claims, a court should not enter judgment on the individual claims, over the plaintiff's objection, before the plaintiff has had a fair opportunity to move for class certification."
In other words, a plaintiff's interest in class certification isn't satisfied by an offer of full judgment to the individual plaintiffs. And such an offer therefore doesn't moot the plaintiff's class claims.
The ruling is a victory for Pacleb and class plaintiffs in the Ninth Circuit (and maybe beyond), as it forecloses the latest pick-off gambit left open by the Supreme Court in Campbell-Ewald.
Tuesday, April 12, 2016
The Tenth Circuit has ruled that the Browns - - - of Sister Wives reality television fame - - - cannot challenge Utah's ban on polygamous cohabitation and marriage under Article III judicial power constraints. In its opinion in Brown v. Buhman, the unanimous three judge panel found that the matter was moot.
Recall that federal district judge Clark Waddoups finalized his conclusion from his previous opinion that Utah's anti-bigamy statute is partially unconstitutional. The statute, Utah Code Ann. § 76-7-101, provides:
- (1) A person is guilty of bigamy when, knowing he has a husband or wife or knowing the other person has a husband or wife, the person purports to marry another person or cohabits with another person.
- (2) Bigamy is a felony of the third degree.
- (3) It shall be a defense to bigamy that the accused reasonably believed he and the other person were legally eligible to remarry.
[emphasis added]. Judge Waddoups concluded that the "the cohabitation prong does not survive rational basis review under the substantive due process analysis." This analysis implicitly imported a type of equal protection analysis, with the judge concluding:
Adultery, including adulterous cohabitation, is not prosecuted. Religious cohabitation, however, is subject to prosecution at the limitless discretion of local and State prosecutors, despite a general policy not to prosecute religiously motivated polygamy. The court finds no rational basis to distinguish between the two, not least with regard to the State interest in protecting the institution of marriage.
On appeal, the Tenth Circuit panel held that the district judge should not have addressed the constitutional claims because the case was moot. Even assuming the Browns had standing when the complaint was filed, any credible threat of prosecution was made moot by a Utah County Attorney's Office (UCAO) 2012 policy which stated that "the UCAO will prosecute only those who (1) induce a partner to marry through misrepresentation or (2) are suspected of committing a collateral crime such as fraud or abuse." The opinion stated that nothing "in the record" suggested that Browns fit into this category and additionally, there was an affirmation from the defendant that "the UCAO had 'determined that no other prosecutable crimes related to the bigamy allegation have been or are being committed by the Browns in Utah County as of the date of this declaration. ' ”
The opinion found that the "voluntary cessation" exception to mootness was not applicable because that was intended to prevent gamesmanship: a government actor could simply reenact the challenged policy after the litigation is dismissed.
Yet the problem, of course, is that the statute remains "on the books" and the policy is simply not to enforce it except in limited cases. The court rejected all of the Browns' arguments that the UCAO statement did not moot the challenge to the constitutionality of the statute including a precedential one; the possibility that a new Utah County Attorney could enforce the statute; the failure of defendant, the present Utah County Attorney, to renounce the statute's constitutionality; and the tactical motives of the defendant, the present Utah County Attorney, in adopting the policy. The court stated:
The first point misreads the case law, the second is speculative, the third is minimally relevant, and the fourth may actually assure compliance with the UCAO Policy because any steps to reconsider would almost certainly provoke a new lawsuit against him. Such steps also would damage Mr. Buhman’s credibility as a public official and might even expose him to prosecution for perjury and contempt of federal court for violating his declaration. Assessing the veracity of the UCAO Policy must account for all relevant factors, which together show no credible threat of prosecution of the Browns.
Thus, like other criminal statutes that are said to have fallen into "desuetude," the statute seems immune from constitutional challenge.
In a very brief section, the court does note that the plaintiffs no longer live in Utah, but have moved to Nevada, another rationale supporting mootness. The Nevada move is discussed in the video below featuring some of the children involved.
April 12, 2016 in Courts and Judging, Equal Protection, Family, Federalism, First Amendment, Fourteenth Amendment, Free Exercise Clause, Fundamental Rights, Mootness, Opinion Analysis, Religion, Sexuality, Standing, Television | Permalink | Comments (0)
Monday, April 11, 2016
The Fifth Circuit ruled on Friday in Google v. Hood that a federal district court's injunction against Mississippi Attorney General James M. Hood III jumped the gun, and struck it. The ruling means that AG Hood's subpoena to Google remains live, and that he is not enjoined from bringing civil and criminal action against the web giant.
The case arose when AG Hood and certain other state AGs started expressing concerns that search engines weren't doing enough to stop copyright infringement, prescription drug and counterfeit product sales, and other "illegal and harmful" activity on the internet. Hood wrote to Google, and after some back-and-forth, issued a wide-ranging administrative subpoena, stating that there were "reasonable grounds to believe that Google Inc. may have violated . . . the Mississippi Consumer Protection Act."
Google sued in federal court, alleging that Hood's investigation violated Google's immunity under the Communications Decency Act, the Fourth Amendment, and the First Amendment rights of Google and its users, and seeking an injunction. The district court preliminarily enjoined Hood from enforcing the administrative subpoena and "bringing a civil or criminal charge against Google under Mississippi law for making accessible third-party content to Internet users (as threatened)."
Without touching the merits (even for likelihood of success, under the preliminary injunction standard), the Fifth Circuit struck the injunction. The court said that Google could bring the case in federal court, and that the district court did not err in not abstaining under Younger. But the court went on to say that Google's federal lawsuit was not ripe. That's because the subpoena was non-self-executing, and Hood had no independent authority to enforce it. (Instead, he has to enforce it through injunctive relief and a contempt motion in state court.) As to Hood's threats of civil or criminal enforcement: the court said that these were too "fuzzily defined," and that the court could not "on the present record predict what conduct Hood might one day try to prosecute under Mississippi law." In short: Google's case wasn't ripe, and the district court jumped the gun in issuing the injunction.
The ruling means that Hood can go ahead and try to enforce his subpoena in state court. He can also initiate any civil and criminal actions that Mississippi might allow. But when he does, he'll face Google's immunity and constitutional defenses in state court, and a likely second try in federal court.
Friday, April 8, 2016
In a brief per curiam opinion, a panel of the First Circuit essentially reversed the ruling of Senior United States District Judge for the District of Puerto Rico Juan Perez-Gimenez that denied the joint motion for summary judgment in Conde-Vidal v. Garcia-Padilla regarding a challenge to Puerto Rico's same-sex marriage ban.
The panel stated:
The district court's ruling errs in so many respects that it is hard to know where to begin. The constitutional rights at issue here are the rights to due process and equal protection, as protected by both the Fourteenth and Fifth Amendments to the United States Constitution. Obergefell v. Hodges; United States v. Windsor. Those rights have already been incorporated as to Puerto Rico. Examining Bd. Of Eng'rs, Architects & Surveyors v. Flores de Otero (1976). And even if they had not, then the district court would have been able to decide whether they should be. See Flores de Otero.
In any event, for present purposes we need not gild the lily. Our prior mandate was clear . . .
[citations and footnote omitted].
After quoting its previous opinion, the panel then addressed the procedural posture of the case, noting that the district court "compounded its error (and signaled a lack of confidence in its actions), by failing to enter a final judgment to enable an appeal in ordinary course." Both parties therefore sought a writ of mandamus, which the court granted and additionally "remitted" the case to the district court "to be assigned randomly by the clerk to a different judge to enter judgment in favor of the Petitioners promptly, and to conduct any further proceedings necessary in this action."
The First Circuit did not explicitly discuss the district judge's conclusions regarding Puerto Rico's status and his argument that under The Insular Cases (1901), territorial incorporation of specific rights is questionable. But the First Circuit did cite contrary authority and made clear its disagreement. The intensity of the disagreement is also made evident by the First Circuit's somewhat unusual instruction that Senior United States District Judge for the District of Puerto Rico Juan Perez-Gimenez be removed from the case.
April 8, 2016 in Courts and Judging, Due Process (Substantive), Equal Protection, Federalism, Fourteenth Amendment, Fundamental Rights, Interpretation, Opinion Analysis, Sexual Orientation, Supremacy Clause, Supreme Court (US) | Permalink | Comments (0)
Thursday, April 7, 2016
In its opinion in Arizona Dream Act Coalition v. Brewer, the Ninth Circuit has found unconstitutional an Executive Order by Arizona Governor Jan Brewer that prohibits recipients of the federal program called the “Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals” (DACA) from obtaining driver’s licenses by using Employment Authorization Documents as proof of their authorized presence in the United States.
Recall that the Ninth Circuit had earlier reversed the denial of a preliminary injunction finding that the plaintiffs had a substantial likelihood of success on their equal protection claim. The United States Supreme denied Arizona's application for a stay. On remand, the district judge had found that the plaintiffs prevailed on their equal protection claim, applying a rational basis standard of review, and entered a permanent injunction.
In this appeal by the Arizona state defendants, the same Ninth Circuit panel of judges - - - Harry Pregerson, Marsha S. Berzon, and Morgan Christen - - - in the opinion again authored by Judge Pregerson, not surprisingly found equal protection "problems" but decided to resolve the case on the "nonconstitutional grounds" of preemption, explaining (in footnote 5),
Though preemption principles are rooted in the Supremacy Clause, this court has previously applied the principle that preemption does not implicate a constitutional question for purposes of constitutional avoidance.
Yet the panel's opinion spends more than half of its analysis on the equal protection question. The court's opinion states that the judges "remain of the view" that "Arizona's policy may well fail even rational basis review" and rejected all of Arizona's asserted government interests. Moreover, the opinion stated that it "bears noting, once again" that "the record does suggest" that Arizona's policy was motivated by "a dogged animus against DACA recipients," and as the Supreme Court has "made very clear that such animus cannot constitute a legitimate state interest, and has cautioned against sowing the seeds of prejudice," citing cases including United States v. Windsor.
The opinion continued
Given the formidable Equal Protection concerns Arizona’s policy raises, we turn to a preemption analysis as an alternative to resting our decision on the Equal Protection Clause. Doing so, we conclude that Arizona’s policy encroaches on the exclusive federal authority to create immigration classifications and so is displaced by the INA.
While the court's final opinion is of questionable precedential value concerning the equal protection conclusion, the previous opinion's equal protection conclusion remains of high precedential value, and certainly the ultimate conclusion - - - here based on the Supremacy Clause preemption - - - is definitive.
Tuesday, April 5, 2016
The D.C. Circuit ruled today in U.S. v. Fokker Services B.V. that a federal district court cannot deny an exclusion of time under the Speedy Trial Act for a deferred prosecution agreement (DPA) because the court disagrees with the government's charging decisions. The ruling, a victory for both parties, reverses the district court's decision on separation-of-powers grounds and remands the case.
The case arose when the parties asked the court for an exclusion of time under the Speedy Trial Act in order to allow the defendant to meet the government's conditions under the DPA. (The DPA provided that the government would defer prosecution so long as Fokker met certain conditions over an 18-month period. But if Fokker failed to meet the conditions after 18 months, the Speedy Trial Act would have prevented the government to pursue prosecution. So the parties moved the court for an exclusion of time under the Act.) The court denied the motion, saying that it disagreed with the government's decision to charge only the corporation, and not its individual officers, with violations. Both parties appealed.
The D.C. Circuit reversed. The court said that "[t]he Constitution allocates primacy in criminal charging decisions to the Executive Branch," and that "the Judiciary generally lacks authority to second-guess those Executive determinations, much less to impose its own charging preference." So when the court denied an exclusion of time because of its disagreement with the government's charging decision, it exceeded its own authority and intruded into the prerogative of the Executive.
The court said that "we construe [the Speedy Trial Act] in a manner that preserves the Executive's long-settled primacy over charging decisions and that denies courts substantial power to impose their own charging preferences."
The case now goes back to the district court for an order excluding time under the Speedy Trial Act and implementation of the DPA.
Check out Prof. Tim O'Neill's (John Marshall) excellent piece in the Cal. Law Review on Chief Justice Roberts's approach to deference in the Obamacare case, NFIB v. Sebelius: Harlan on My Mind: Chief Justice Roberts and the Affordable Care Act.
O'Neill notes that "Chief Justice Roberts has never been shy about finding acts of Congress to be unconstitutional," but that he nevertheless extolled the virtues of deference to the legislature and ultimately upheld the individual mandate in NFIB. O'Neill asks: Where did this "newly minted Thayerian justice" come from?
This essay will attempt to answer that question. It will begin by further examining Posner's article and the reasons he provided for the death of Thayerian review. It will then turn to an examination of one justice in particular whom Chief Justice Roberts has cited as his model: the younger Justice John Marshall Harlan, perhaps the last justice on the Court who exhibited Thayer-like restraint. It will conclude by contending that when faced with the most important case of his judicial career, Roberts took a Thayer-like approach that might have been similar to the approach his judicial model, Justice Harlan, would have taken. Thayer-like restraint may be dead, but it appears to have come back to life for at least one decision on June 28, 2012.
Monday, April 4, 2016
A unanimous Supreme Court ruled today in Evenwel v. Abbott that states can use total population--and need not use voter-eligible population--to comply with the one-person-one-vote principle in drawing legislative districts.
The ruling is a setback for a group of conservative Texas voters that argued that states must use voter-eligible population in drawing legislative districts. Using voter-eligible population (as compared to total population) would benefit rural, and conservative, areas in a state like Texas, because urban areas contain a higher proportion of non-voter-eligible persons (who would count in measuring total population, but not voter-eligible population).
The case arose when a group of Texas voters argued that their votes were diluted as compared to the votes of eligible voters in other state senate districts, thus violating the one-person-one-vote principle. The state drew its state senate map based on total population, but the voters claimed that this resulted in inequalities. In particular, the voters claimed that their senate district contained a far greater eligible-voter population than other districts of equal total population. (The state senate map had a deviation between districts of 8.04 percent when measured by total population--the population that the state used in drawing the maps. This deviation is within the 10 percent deviation range that is presumptively permissible under the one-person-one-vote principle. But when measured by voter-eligible population, the map had a deviation of 40 percent--well outside that presumptively permissible point.) The voters argued that the state must use voter-eligible population in drawing districts.
The unanimous Supreme Court disagreed. Justice Ginsburg, writing for the Court, said that constitutional history, precedent, and practice show that a state may use total population in drawing legislative districts. In short: we've always done it this way, and we've said it's OK, so it's OK.
The Court declined to say whether a state may use voter-eligible population.
Friday, April 1, 2016
In his opinion in Campaign for Southern Equality v. Mississippi Department of Human Services (DHS), United States District Judge Daniel Jordan III found that Mississippi Code §93-17-3(5) prohibiting "adoption by couples of the same gender" violates the Equal Protection Clause and ordered that the Executive Director of DHS is preliminarily enjoined from enforcing the statute.
The majority of the 28 page opinion is devoted to matters of standing and the Eleventh Amendment relevant to the multiple plaintiffs and multiple defendants, including judges. However, Judge Jordan did find that the individual plaintiffs had standing and DHS was an appropriate defendant.
On his discussion of likelihood to prevail on the merits, Judge Jordan wrote in full:
Obergefell [v. Hodges] held that bans on gay marriage violate the due-process and equal-protection clauses. It is the equal-protection component of the opinion that is relevant in the present dispute over Mississippi’s ban on gay adoptions. Under traditional equal-protection analysis, a law that does not “target[ ] a suspect class” or involve a fundamental right will be upheld, “so long as it bears a rational relation to some legitimate end.” Romer v. Evans, 517 U.S. 620, 631 (1996). Conversely, “if a classification does target a suspect class or impact a fundamental right, it will be strictly scrutinized and upheld only if it is precisely tailored to further a compelling government interest.” Sonnier v. Quarterman, 476 F.3d 349, 368 (5th Cir. 2007) (citation omitted).
In this case, Defendants argue that rational-basis review applies. But Obergefell made no reference to that or any other test in its equal-protection analysis. That omission must have been consciously made given the Chief Justice’s full-throated dissent. 135 S. Ct. at 2623 (Roberts, C.J., dissenting) (“Absent from this portion of the opinion, however, is anything resembling our usual framework for deciding equal protection cases . . . .”).
While the majority’s approach could cause confusion if applied in lower courts to future cases involving marriage-related benefits, it evidences the majority’s intent for sweeping change. For example, the majority clearly holds that marriage itself is a fundamental right when addressing the due-process issue. Id. at 2602. In the equal-protection context, that would require strict scrutiny. But the opinion also addresses the benefits of marriage, noting that marriage and those varied rights associated with it are recognized as a “unified whole.” Id. at 2600. And it further states that “the marriage laws enforced by the respondents are in essence unequal: same-sex couples are denied all the benefits afforded to opposite-sex couples and are barred from exercising a fundamental right.” Id. at 2604 (emphasis added).
Of course the Court did not state whether these other benefits are fundamental rights or whether gays are a suspect class. Had the classification not been suspect and the benefits not fundamental, then rational-basis review would have followed. It did not. Instead, it seems clear the Court applied something greater than rational-basis review. Indeed, the majority never discusses the states’ reasons for adopting their bans on gay marriage and never mentions the word “rational.”
While it may be hard to discern a precise test, the Court extended its holding to marriage- related benefits—which includes the right to adopt. And it did so despite those who urged restraint while marriage-related-benefits cases worked their way through the lower courts. According to the majority, “Were the Court to stay its hand to allow slower, case-by-case determination of the required availability of specific public benefits to same-sex couples, it still would deny gays and lesbians many rights and responsibilities intertwined with marriage.” Id. at 2606 (emphasis added).
The full impact of that statement was not lost on the minority. Chief Justice Roberts first took issue with the majority’s failure to “note with precision which laws petitioners have challenged.” Id. at 2623 (Roberts, C.J., dissenting). He then criticized the majority for jumping the gun on marriage-related cases that might otherwise develop:
Although [the majority] discuss[es] some of the ancillary legal benefits that accompany marriage, such as hospital visitation rights and recognition of spousal status on official documents, petitioners’ lawsuits target the laws defining marriage generally rather than those allocating benefits specifically. . . . Of course, those more selective claims will not arise now that the Court has taken the drastic step of requiring every State to license and recognize marriages between same-sex couples.
Id. at 2623–24 (Roberts, C.J., dissenting) (emphasis added).
In sum, the majority opinion foreclosed litigation over laws interfering with the right to marry and “rights and responsibilities intertwined with marriage.” Id. at 2606. It also seems highly unlikely that the same court that held a state cannot ban gay marriage because it would deny benefits—expressly including the right to adopt—would then conclude that married gay couples can be denied that very same benefit.
Obergefell obviously reflects conflicting judicial philosophies. While an understanding of those positions is necessary for this ruling, it is not this Court’s place nor intent to criticize either approach. The majority of the United States Supreme Court dictates the law of the land, and lower courts are bound to follow it. In this case, that means that section 93-17-3(5) violates the Equal Protection Clause of the United States Constitution.
The judge's interpretation of Obergefell v. Hodges interestingly focuses on the dissent of Chief Justice Roberts to explain the doctrine of Kennedy's opinion for the Court, a phenomenon familiar from the use of Justice Scalia's dissents in the same-sex marriage litigation.
Thursday, March 31, 2016
South Africa's Constitutional Court on Corruption, Presidential and Legislative Responsibilities, and the Constitution
The controversy at the center of today's unanimous judgment by the South Africa Constitutional Court in Economic Freedom Fighters v Speaker of the National Assembly and Others; Democratic Alliance v Speaker of the National Assembly and Others arises from "improvements" to President Jacob Zuma's private residence in Nkandla done at public expense.
Although the cost of "security features" can be born by the state, other improvements - - - such as the visitors' centre, amphitheater, cattle kraal, chicken run, and swimming pool involved in this case - - - should not be state-funded and should be personally paid by the President.
The constitutional questions in the case are not only about apportioning costs, however, but are about apportioning power in the South Africa government.
The South Africa Constitution establishes the "Public Protector" (sections 181, 182) as an independent entity with the power
a. to investigate any conduct in state affairs, or in the public administration in any sphere of government, that is alleged or suspected to be improper or to result in any impropriety or prejudice;
b. to report on that conduct; and
c. to take appropriate remedial action.
In this case, the Public Protector, investigated the allegations of "irregular expenditure" and issues a report in 2014 directing the President to make reimbursements and reprimand the Ministers involved in the expenditures; this report was also submitted to the National Assembly.
The President basically refused to comply and the National Assembly "resolved to absolve the President of all liability." Once the matter reached the Constitutional Court's exclusive jurisdiction, President Zuma essentially agreed that he would pay the costs of improvement. Thus, the decision in the case is not surprising.
Nevertheless, the Constitutional Court's decision is an important one. It strongly sides with the Public Protector and states that her remedial action taken against the President is "binding." Additionally, it finds that both the President and the National Assembly acted unconstitutionally:
The failure by the President to comply with the remedial action taken against him, by the Public Protector in her report of 19 March 2014, is inconsistent with section 83(b) of the Constitution read with sections 181(3) and 182(1)(c) of the Constitution and is invalid.
The resolution passed by the National Assembly absolving the President from compliance with the remedial action taken by the Public Protector in terms of section 182(1)(c) of the Constitution is inconsistent with sections 42(3), 55(2)(a) and (b) and 181(3) of the Constitution, is invalid and is set aside.
Jennifer Elgot has a good basic overview of the 52 page decision and background controversy in her piece in The Guardian.
Pierre deVos, Constitutional Law Professor at University of Cape Town has a terrific discussion on his blog Constitutionally Speaking.
Tuesday, March 29, 2016
An equally divided Supreme Court today affirmed the Ninth Circuit's ruling upholding public-sector union fair-share fees against a First Amendment challenge. The one-sentence per curiam ruling said nothing on the merits.
The case, Friedrichs v. California Teachers Association, almost surely represented the end of public-sector union fair-share fees. The Court had sent a couple signals in recent Terms that it was prepared to overturn Abood v. Detroit Board of Education, the 1977 case upholding fair-share fees, and oral arguments earlier this year suggested that this was the case to do it.
But with Justice Scalia's passing (after oral arguments in the case), the Court divided four to four, upholding the lower court, which upheld fair-share fees.
The ruling today leaves fair-share fees on the books--at least for now, unless and until Justice Scalia's replacement votes with the four traditional conservatives to overturn it in a future case. But the Court's more recent cases--the ones that teed up the challenge in Friedrichs--also stay on the books. So Abood and the Ninth Circuit ruling in Friedrichs still represent the law, but under Harris and Knox, Abood is still hanging by a thread.
The new justice will be the swing vote on this issue, and will say whether public-sector union fair-share fees stay, or go.
Monday, March 28, 2016
The Court will hear oral arguments on Tuesday in Ross v. Blake, the case testing whether the Prison Litigation Reform Act includes a "special circumstances" exception to the exhaustion requirement that excuses an inmate's failure to exhaust when he had a reasonable, but mistaken, belief that no further administrative remedies were available.
The case raises important access-to-justice questions in the context of administrative exhaustion in PLRA litigation. Here's my preview, from the ABA Preview of United States Supreme Court Cases, with permission:
Shaidon Blake is a prisoner serving a life sentence in the custody of the state of Maryland. In 2007, Blake was housed at the Maryland Reception, Diagnostic and Classification Center.
On June 21 of that year, Lieutenant James Madigan and Sergeant Michael Ross, officers at the Center, attempting to relocate Blake to another cellblock, handcuffed Blake and removed him from his cell. As the two officers escorted Blake to his new cellblock, Madigan shoved Blake twice. He then wrapped a key ring around his fingers and struck Blake at least four times in the face.
Ross asked another officer to call for assistance. Ross and Madigan then lifted Blake and dropped him to the floor. Ross put his knee into Blake’s chest, and Madigan restrained Blake until other officers arrived.
The responding officers took Blake to the medical unit. Blake declined treatment, but was later diagnosed with nerve damage.
Blake reported the episode to senior corrections officers and provided a written account of the assaults. Captain Calvin Vincent conducted a preliminary investigation. Vincent concluded that Madigan used excessive force and recommended that Madigan be disciplined. (Madigan later resigned in order to avoid termination.)
Vincent referred the incident to the Internal Investigative Unit, or “IIU,” a division of the Maryland Department of Public Safety and Correctional Services charged with investigating criminal violations and serious misconduct of correctional officers. The IIU undertook a year-long investigation into Madigan’s behavior and issued a formal report concluding that Madigan used excessive force against Blake. The report did not assign any fault to Ross or Blake. The IIU did not otherwise provide any redress or compensation to Blake. (The IIU is a criminal investigative unit. It lacks authority to remedy a prisoner’s complaint, or to discipline a correctional officer.)
Blake sued Ross, Madigan, two supervisors, and two government entities in federal court for civil rights violations. The district court dismissed the claims against the two supervisors and the government entities, leaving only Ross and Madigan as defendants.
Ross then moved to dismiss the case against him, alleging that Blake failed to exhaust his administrative remedies as required by the Prison Litigation Reform Act, or “PLRA,” 42 U.S.C. § 1997e(a). In particular, Ross claimed that Blake failed to use the administrative remedy process, or “ARP,” that the state created to address inmate grievances, including complaints about the use of force, and to provide redress and compensation to inmates. (Ross now claims that Blake alternatively could have filed a complaint with the Inmate Grievance Office, or “IGO,” an independent entity outside the prison that has authority to hear grievances in the first instance and award monetary damages, if the ARP was unavailable. When the ARP is available, the Inmate Grievance Office hears appeals from the ARP.) Ross said that Blake admitted having received a copy of the inmate handbook, which contains information about the ARP, but that Blake did not read those portions of the handbook and did not initiate an ARP grievance.
The district court granted Ross’s motion to dismiss. (The court at first dismissed Blake’s case against Madigan, too. But the court later reinstated that case, and Blake won a $50,000 judgment against Madigan. Madigan is not a part of this appeal.) Blake appealed, and the United States Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit reversed. This appeal followed.
The PLRA says that “[n]o action shall be brought with respect to prison conditions . . . by a prisoner confined in any jail, prison, or other correctional facility until such administrative remedies as are available are exhausted.” 42 U.S.C. § 1997e(a). This means that a prisoner like Blake has to pursue, and exhaust, any internal, administrative remedies that he has available before filing a civil rights suit in federal court. Congress adopted the measure in order to allow a prison to address complaints internally, to reduce litigation (at least to the extent that a prison can resolve complaints internally), and to improve litigation by allowing the parties to develop a useful administrative record before going to court.
The Supreme Court has said that exhaustion means “proper exhaustion.” In other words, a prisoner must use all the administrative steps that the prison makes available, and do so in compliance with the applicable deadlines and other critical procedural rules. Woodford v. Ngo, 548 U.S. 81 (2006).
Still, some read more flexibility into the requirement. For example, Justice Breyer suggested in his concurrence in Woodford that well-settled exceptions to exhaustion in administrative law should also apply to the PLRA. Justice Breyer pointed to a Second Circuit case holding that “special circumstances” can excuse exhaustion (as in administrative law). The Second Circuit in that case concluded that a prisoner’s failure to exhaust “was justified by his reasonable belief” that no further remedies were available. Giano v. Goord, 380 F.3d 670 (2004). The Fourth Circuit adopted this same approach in ruling for Blake.
The parties dispute whether the PLRA has a “reasonable belief” exception to exhaustion. But they also dispute whether Blake actually exhausted his remedies. Recall that Blake pursued his complaint through the IIU, and not the ARP or IGO. The parties disagree over whether the IIU process amounts to exhaustion, and whether the ARP and IGO processes were actually available.
Ross argues first that the plain language of the PLRA requires strict and mandatory exhaustion. Ross claims that the Supreme Court affirmed this reading through its “proper exhaustion” rule in Woodford. Ross says that the Fourth Circuit’s approach—adopting an exception to exhaustion based on a prisoner’s “reasonable belief”—conflicts with the PLRA’s strict approach to exhaustion, because it excuses a prisoner’s failure to use a particular remedy based only on the prisoner’s misunderstanding. Ross contends that the PLRA’s plain language is clear, and that the courts have no authority to create an extra-textual exception to its strict and mandatory exhaustion requirement.
Ross argues next that the Fourth Circuit’s approach conflicts with the history and purposes of the PLRA. Ross claims that Congress enacted PLRA’s exhaustion requirement in order to replace a prior, ineffective requirement that permitted courts to require exhaustion only if doing so would be in the “interests of justice” and that the remedies were “plain, speedy, and effective.” Ross says that the current PLRA was enacted in order to eliminate judicial discretion from the exhaustion inquiry. He contends that the Fourth Circuit’s approach takes us back to the old system, which Congress unambiguously superseded with the more recent mandatory exhaustion requirement. Moreover, Ross claims that the Fourth Circuit’s approach would undermine the purposes of the PLRA, because it would result in more lawsuits without affording the prisons an opportunity to resolve them in the first instance. According to Ross, the Fourth Circuit’s approach would also mire the courts in the nuances of a prison’s grievance system in order to determine the reasonableness of a prisoner’s belief as to available remedies within the prison.
Third, Ross argues that the Fourth Circuit wrongly interpreted traditional administrative law exceptions, and thus wrongly imported a “reasonable belief” exception into the PLRA’s exhaustion requirement. Ross claims that there are only three sets of traditional exceptions to administrative exhaustion—where exhaustion would cause irreparable harm, where exhaustion would be futile, and where an agency is biased. Ross says that none of these traditional categories includes a “reasonable belief” exception, and so the Fourth Circuit erred in importing that exception (even if traditional administrative law exceptions apply to PLRA exhaustion).
Finally, Ross argues that even if the Fourth Circuit were correct in applying a “reasonable belief” exception, Blake does not satisfy it. Ross points to the fact that Blake never read the state’s grievance procedures. Ross says that if Blake would have read them, he would have seen that the APR process was available and most relevant to his kind of complaint. (Ross claims that the IIU process that Blake used against Madigan is designed for a different purpose—investigation of wrongdoing, not redress and compensation—and therefore does not satisfy the PLRA’s exhaustion requirement.) Ross contends that Blake’s failure to read the processes cannot amount to a “reasonable belief,” even if there is a “reasonable belief” exception to PLRA exhaustion.
(The government weighs in as amicus curiae in favor of Ross and makes substantially similar arguments.)
Blake argues first that this case does not properly address the Question Presented, whether the PLRA exhaustion requirement bars a lawsuit by a prisoner who made an objectively reasonable mistake in pursuing his administrative remedies. This is because Blake says that he made no mistake. He claims that the ARP process was not available to him, because routine practice at the time was to dismiss an ARP complaint when (as here) an IIU investigation was pending. (Blake points to five separate cases, including one filed on the same day as his assault, in which ARP complaints were dismissed as procedurally improper because an IIU investigation was pending.) He contends that the IGO procedure was similarly unavailable to him. Because his case does not fall within the Question Presented, Blake says that the Court should either affirm the Fourth Circuit’s decision or dismiss the appeal (as improvidently granted).
In the alternative, Blake argues that he properly exhausted his administrative remedies, because the ARP process and the IGO procedure were unavailable to him. Blake says that for a remedy to be available under the PLRA, it must be “sufficiently clear so that an objectively reasonable prisoner would know which remedy to use and how to use it.” Blake asserts that the two processes here fail that test. He claims that even Ross (represented here by the state attorney general) fails to identify which of the two proffered processes were available to him, underscoring just how unclear the policies were. Moreover, Blake claims that Ross’s position that the exhaustion requirement applies whenever a prisoner makes an error—and that the clarity of the remedy is irrelevant to its availability—is untenable, and gives the prisons a perverse incentive to make their administrative processes unnecessarily complex.
This case tests the flexibility of the exhaustion requirement in the PLRA. It asks: Does the exhaustion requirement apply rigidly, so that a prisoner must exhaust all administrative remedies, even if he reasonably, but mistakenly, thought he satisfied it? Or does the requirement have some give, so that a prisoner can satisfy it under those circumstances? The answer to these questions will also tell us when a federal judicial remedy is available to prisoners for civil rights violations. This is an important access-to-justice issue, and the Court’s ruling (one way or the other) will impact when and how prisoners can pursue a meaningful damages claim in court.
Whatever the Court says, however, Congress will have the last word. That’s because the case raises only a statutory question—interpretation of the PLRA—and not a constitutional one. Congress can always go back and undo through legislation anything the Court does through litigation.
The controversial North Carolina statute passed last week, known as HB2, entitled "An Act to provide for single-sex multiple occupancy bathroom and changing facilities in schools and public agencies and to create statewide consistency in regulation of employment and public accommodations," has been challenged in a Complaint filed this morning, Carcaño v. McCrory, in the Middle District of North Carolina. The plaintiffs are three individuals as well as the organizations ACLU North Carolina and Equality North Carolina.
As the Act's title and the complaint's description note, HB2 has two distinct aspects relating to LGBT issues.
First, it mandates that school boards and state agencies, including the university and community college systems, "shall require every multiple occupancy bathroom or changing facility to be designated for and only used by persons based on their biological sex."
Second, in Part III of the bill, it will "supersede and preempt" any "ordinance, regulation, resolution, or policy adopted or imposed by a unit of local government or other political subdivision of the State that regulates or imposes any requirement upon an employer pertaining to the regulation of discriminatory practices in employment." The bill amended the state-wide policy prohibiting discrimination on the basis of "sex" to read "biological sex," thus making the intent clear. As the complaint alleges, the city of Charlotte had passed a non-discrimination ordinance on the basis of sexual orientation and gender identity, prompting the legislative action.
(Interestingly, Part II of the bill supersedes and preempts local ordinances relating to wage and hour provisions.)
Not surprisingly, the first count of the Complaint challenges HB2 based on the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. It argues that HB2 violates the equality rights of transgendered persons and sexual orientation minorities and that such classifications should be evaluated under heightened scrutiny. It also contends that the North Carolina act was based on animus. Recall that in Romer v. Evans the United States Supreme Court held that Colorado's Amendment 2, which similarly banned all local laws that prohibited discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation, violated the Equal Protection Clause, reasoning that the animus of the law was not a legitimate government purpose. The Complaint here contains several expressions by legislators - - - for example,“You know, $42,000 is not going to cover the medical expenses when a pervert walks into a bathroom and my little girls are in there" - - - that would presumably go to animus.
The Complaint also alleges violations of substantive due process under the Fourteenth Amendment. In Count II, the claim is a right to privacy for transgendered individuals. In Count III, the claim is a more novel one based on the right to refuse medical treatment:
- H.B. 2 forces transgender people to undergo medical procedures that may not be medically appropriate or available in order to access facilities consistent with their gender identity.
- Not all transgender individuals undergo gender confirmation surgery. For some, the surgery is not medically necessary, while for others it is medically impossible. For example, because medical treatment for gender dysphoria is individualized, hormone treatment may be sufficient to manage the distress associated with gender dysphoria for some individuals. Surgery may be medically necessary for others who do not have health insurance coverage for it and cannot afford to pay for the surgery out-of-pocket.
- Some states require proof of surgery before they will allow the gender marker on a birth certificate to be changed. For those born in North Carolina, state law requires proof of “sex reassignment surgery.” N.C. Gen. Stat. § 130A-11B.
Recall that the United States Supreme Court recognized a substantive due process right to refuse medical treatment in Cruzan v. Director, Missouri Department of Health (1990).
The remaining counts, four and five, are statutory ones under Title IX, based on sex discrimination in educational facilities.
Given the constitutional precedents, it does seem as if North Carolina will have a difficult time defending the statute.
Friday, March 25, 2016
Judge Amy Berman Jackson ruled this week in Friends of Animals v. Ashe that Friends lacked standing to challenge a decision by the Fish and Wildlife Service to issue permits authorizing two American hunters to import the trophies they garnered in legal hunts of black rhinoceros in Namibia. The ruling means that the case is dismissed.
The ruling illustrates the barriers for plaintiffs in challenging this kind government action, even before they get to the merits. The core problem, according to the court, is that the Service didn't cause the rhino hunting--the government of Namibia did--and so the court was powerless to remedy the loss of rhinos.
Judge Jackson ruled that the plaintiff-organization demonstrated an injury, the first standing requirement, through one of its members--but barely. In particular, Judge Jackson wrote that a Friends of Animals member who lives in Namibia demonstrated an injury, because he claimed that he viewed, and would view, black rhinos in the Kunene region and Etosha National Park. But the rhinos in this case came from Mangetti National Park. Judge Jackson nevertheless said that the plaintiff alleged a sufficient injury--though "the thinnest reed of an injury"--based on the allegation that the import permits will affect rhinos in the future, throughout the country.
But Judge Jackson went on to rule that the injury lacked causation and redressibility. In particular, she said that the reduced viewing opportunities of rhinos was caused by the Namibian government's authorization of the hunt, not the Service's permits, and that an order halting the permits would do nothing to stop hunting (again, authorized by Namibia).
Finally, the court held that Friends' claim that the Service has a "policy and repeated practice of issuing permits to import sport-hunted trophies of endangered animals" in violation of the Endangered Species Act and the APA wasn't ripe for review.
Thursday, March 24, 2016
In a case that's just crazy enough to have come right out of a ConLaw exam, the Tenth Circuit ruled this week that a group of nonprofits and businesses lacked standing to challenge Colorado's background-check requirement and ban on the possession, sale, and transfer of large-capacity magazines under the Second Amendment and the ADA.
The ruling says nothing on the merits, of course. But it is a pretty good "how-to" on losing on standing (if you're looking for such a thing): the ruling recounts, in detail, the plaintiffs' numerous and surprising missteps and lost opportunities in pressing their standing arguments.
First, the court rejected the plaintiffs' economic injury claim. But this isn't (necessarily) because it's a bad claim; instead, it's because the plaintiffs don't make it. "While compelling arguments may exist as to why we should adopt [an accepted approach on economic burdens when compliance is coerced by the threat of enforcement], the plaintiffs fail to make those arguments in their opening brief, and we decline to make them on their behalf." So the Tenth Circuit denied the plaintiffs' newly generated economic injury theory and applied the district court's credible-threat-of-prosecution test.
Next, under that test, the court said that a number of plaintiffs simply waived their challenge to the district court's ruling as to the background-check requirement. As to those left over, these organizations could only show that they had standing to challenge the background check by showing that it was a burden to comply with the background check--which means, of course, that they couldn't satisfy the credible-threat-of-prosecution test. One organization that alleged that it previously violated the background-check requirement ran into another problem: the prosecutor declined to prosecute. And as to current or future violations: the head of the organization pleaded the Fifth and thus declined to give any details.
Third, a good number of plaintiffs failed to provide any evidence of standing to challenge the large-capacity-magazine ban at the district court. They didn't appeal, and the plaintiffs didn't appeal the district court's failure to address other plaintiffs below. That left just one group on appeal. But that group couldn't establish associational standing on behalf of its member, because her large-capacity magazine was grandfathered by the ban, and her claim that she might eventually want to buy another was too speculative an injury.
Finally, two individuals argued that the gun laws violated the ADA, but failed to allege anything other than that they were disabled. The court said that this may be enough to show standing under the ADA, but it's not enough to show that they had constitutional standing to challenge the gun laws at issue here.
There were other problems with the plaintiffs' case, equally baffling. Take a peek if you're trawling for a good standing fact pattern for your next exam, or if you're looking for a good example how not to argue standing.
The Illinois Supreme Court today issued two opinions on state constitutional provisions as they relate to public employees' compensation. One went for the employees; the other went for the state.
In the first, Jones v. Municipal Employees' Annuity and Benefit Fund of Chicago, the court ruled that the state's effort to cut back on promised annuity payment increases under public-sector union contracts violated the state constitutional Pension Protection Clause. The case involved Public Act 98-641, which would have, among other things, cut the flat annual annuity increases under the contract in order to bring the funds back to solvency. Union members sued, arguing that the provision violated the state constitution's Pension Protection Clause, which says: "Membership in any pension or retirement system of the State, any unit of local government or school district, or any agency or instrumentality thereof, shall be an enforceable contractual relationship, the benefits of which shall not be diminished or impaired."
The court agreed. It said that the Clause means what it says--"shall not be diminished" really means "shall not be diminished"--and that Public Act 98-641 therefore violates it. The court rejected the state's arguments that the Act, when read as a whole, actually provides a net benefit to members and that the Act was part of a bargained-for exchange supported by consideration.
While Jones is a win for public employees, the other case, State of Illinois v. AFSCME, most certainly is not. In AFSCME, the state legislature failed to fund a promised 2-percent raise for certain government employees, even though that raise itself was a concession by those employees, who were entitled to a 4-percent raise under their contract. (In order to meet the state's fiscal crisis, the union and state agreed to a 2-percent raise on schedule, and a later, additional 2-percent raise, for a total of 4 percent--the contractual amount.) AFSCME took the case to an arbitrator and won, but the court reversed. The court said that the state constitutional Appropriations Clause overrode the agreement. That Clause reads: "The General Assembly by law shall make appropriations for all expenditures of public funds by the State." Moreover, an Illinois statute qualifies all public-sector collective bargaining with this language: "Subject to the appropriation power of [the legislature] . . . ." The court said that the Appropriations Clause and Illinois law together mean that the legislature can effectively override a promised contractual raise by failing to fund it.
Justice Kilbride dissented on this point. He argued that the legislature's failure to fund the 2-percent raise constituted a violation of the state constitution's Contract Clause.
The Supreme Court heard oral arguments yesterday in Zubik v. Burwell, the case testing whether the government's accommodation to the contraceptive requirement for religious nonprofits violates the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. Our preview is here.
The big news is, well, that there's no big news. Nothing new came out in oral arguments, and the justices' questions seemed only to put their positions on public display or to help them write their mostly-already-decided decisions. The Court spent plenty of time on how the accommodation works (and therefore whether it's a substantial burden), and whether there are other ways the government can achieve its interests (and therefore whether the accommodation is narrowly tailored). The number and types of exceptions already built into the requirement will clearly play a part in the decisions (because they show, or don't, how the accommodation isn't narrowly tailored, depending on your view). The question where the government does, or can, draw the line between religious nonprofits and churches will also be important (for the same reason). But none of this is really new.
The justices seemed to divide four-four, traditional progressives for the government and traditional conservatives for the nonprofits. Justice Kennedy may have left himself a small (very small) opening to go with the progressives; but if he does, it'll be on narrowly tailoring. (Justice Kennedy bought the nonprofits' theory that the government accommodation "hijacked" their insurance coverage--"hijack" being the word of the day for the nonprofits and the conservatives--and therefore created a substantial burden on their religious practice.)
If there's a four-four split, the lower courts' decisions will stand. This means, without some other action by the Court, that the accommodation will be invalid only in the Eighth Circuit--the only one to rule for the nonprofits so far--and valid in the rest of the country.
Wednesday, March 23, 2016
Here's my oral argument analysis in Simmons v. Himmelreich, re-posted from SCOTUSblog, with permission:
If you read the briefs in Simmons v. Himmelreich, you know that it could be tricky to figure out when a court’s dismissal of a federal prisoner’s Federal Tort Claims Act case forecloses his parallel Bivens claim. The issue involves no fewer than four interlocking FTCA provisions that together create quite a puzzle.
But for all the potential technicalities and complications in the case, the oral arguments turned on a surprisingly straightforward question: Does the plain language of just one FTCA provision, the “exceptions” provision, explicitly allow a parallel claim?
The question harkens back to the lead argument that Walter Himmelreich made in his merits brief. He pointed to Section 2680 of the FTCA, titled “Exceptions,” which says that “[t]he provisions of this chapter and section 1346(b) of this title shall not apply to” over a dozen different types of claims that are altogether exempt from the FTCA. (This includes Himmelreich’s FTCA claim, dismissed under the discretionary-function exception in Section 2680.) This means that the government has not waived immunity for these claims, and that the FTCA offers no cause of action, liability, or relief for them.
But by a literal reading, it also means that there is no bar to a non-FTCA claim arising out of the same events that falls within a Section 2680 exception. That’s because “the provisions of this chapter” in Section 2680 include the FTCA judgment bar itself. In other words, the plain language of Section 2680 exempts from the excepted claims (like Himmelreich’s FTCA claim) the very FTCA provision that bars a person like Himmelreich from filing a parallel claim. If this is right – and the plain language seems to support it – then the “exceptions” provision explicitly allows Himmelreich’s parallel Bivens claim. This may be the cleanest path to victory for Himmelreich, and it seemed to have the support of Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Stephen Breyer, Sonia Sotomayor, and Elena Kagan.
While the argument seems straightforward, there are some problems, according to the federal government. For example, if this reading of Section 2680 is right, then other key sections of the FTCA similarly wouldn’t apply to Section 2680 claims. In particular, the FTCA’s definitions section wouldn’t apply, and the section precluding state tort suits against federal agencies that could otherwise be subject to suit under their sue-and-be-sued authority wouldn’t apply. According to the government, this would lead to absurdities (in the case of the FTCA’s definitions section) and “massively expand[ed]” direct liability for the government, contrary to the intent of the FTCA (in the case of the section precluding state tort suits against federal agencies with sue-and-be-sued authority). (The provision applying the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure and the appellate review provision wouldn’t apply to Section 2680 claims, either. But it’s not clear that these lead to significant problems under the FTCA.) Chief Justice John Roberts pushed back against Christian Vergonis, arguing on Himmelreich’s behalf, on these points, suggesting that he wasn’t persuaded by Himmelreich’s literal reading of Section 2680.
The Court also spent significant time trying to figure out if Himmelreich’s Section 2680 argument runs contrary to the result in United States v. Smith. The government argued that if Section 2680 means precisely what it says (as Himmelreich claims), then Smith came out wrong. But Smith doesn’t address the question in this case, and it doesn’t compel the result. The arguments didn’t produce any further clarity on Smith or suggest that Smith might sway anyone’s vote. In the end, Smith is probably neutral: the government’s Smith argument alone doesn’t seem likely to change any positions on the Court.
Other arguments were in play, but barely. For example, Sotomayor opened with a line of questions for the government about why something as arbitrary as timing should matter – that is, why a plaintiff’s Bivens claim should be dismissed if filed after his FTCA claim, but not if filed before it. Ginsburg emphasized that the FTCA claim and the Bivens claim were different – the former looking to the government, but the latter looking to the individual officer – and why that means that Himmelreich’s Bivens claim is not subject to claim preclusion. And Justice Samuel Alito, leaning in the opposite direction, against Himmelreich, asked several times, and in several different ways, why a plain reading of the term “judgment” in the FTCA’s judgment bar didn’t answer the case. He also asked whether the Court should even address Himmelreich’s Section 2680 argument, given that the Sixth Circuit didn’t rule on it.
Based on the arguments, we could be looking at a four-to-four split, with the Court’s more liberal Justices siding with Himmelreich and his Section 2680 argument, and the more conservative Justices siding with the government and its judgment-bar argument. (Justice Anthony Kennedy asked just two questions, but they seemed to lean against Himmelreich.) That would leave the Sixth Circuit’s ruling in favor of Himmelreich in place. But it would also leave Himmelreich’s Section 2680 argument – and the larger question whether a prisoner’s dismissed FTCA claim can foreclose his parallel Bivens claim – open and on the table.