Monday, March 9, 2015
The Supreme Court ruled today in Perez v. Mortgage Bankers Association that the Department of Labor need not engage in notice-and-comment rule-making when it changes a Department interpretation of an existing rule. At the same time, the Court overturned the D.C. Circuit rule that forced agencies to do this whenever an agency wished to issue a new interpretation that deviated significantly from an old one.
The ruling thus re-shifts power back to executive agencies in determining the meaning of their own regulations. That's because Congress didn't require agencies to use notice-and-comment rule-making for interpretations, but the D.C. Circuit did, when a new interpretation deviated significantly from an old one--that is, when an agency changed its interpretation. By overturning that decision, and putting interpretive decisions back in the exclusive hands of the agencies (with loose, deferential judicial oversight), the Court re-set the balance that Congress struck. The ruling is thus a victory for agencies and their power to interpret their own regulations without notice-and-comment rule-making and with deferential judicial review. (More on that last part below.)
The case grows out of DOL's re-interpretation of its FLSA rule on minimum wage and overtime for mortgage-loan offices. The agency's rule exempts certain classes of employees, including individuals who are "employed in a bona fide executive, administrative, or professional capacity . . . or in the capacity of outside salesman . . . ." In 1999 and 2001, DOL issued interpretive letters opining that mortgage-loan officers did not qualify for this exemption. In 2006, however, DOL reversed course and opined that mortgage-loan officers did meet the exemption. But in 2010, DOL went back to its old position, withdrew the 2006 interpretation, and opined that mortgage-loan officers didn't meet the exemption.
The Administrative Procedure Act requires agencies to provide public notice and an opportunity to comment when they propose new rules and regulations under an authorizing statute. But the APA does not require this notice-and-comment rule-making when an agency simply issues an interpretation. Seeing the potential for abuse, the D.C. Circuit devised a court-created rule that said that agencies still had to use notice-and-comment rule-making, even for a mere interpretation. The D.C. Circuit rule is called the Paralyzed Veterans rule, after the case that established it.
So the question in Mortgage Bankers Association was whether DOL had to use notice-and-comment rule-making in issuing its 2010 interpretation.
The Supreme Court said no. The Court, in an opinion by Justice Sotomayor, ruled that the APA by its plain terms exempts interpretative decisions from the notice-and-comment requirement, and that the D.C. Circuit's Paralyzed Veterans rule violated those plain terms. Justice Sotomayor wrote that Congress, in enacting the APA, considered the costs and benefits of applying notice-and-comment rule-making requirements to agency interpretations, and that Congress decided that notice-and-comment procedures weren't necessary.
All nine justices agreed on the result, but Justices Scalia, Thomas, and Alito each wrote separately to take issue in different ways and to different degrees with judicial deference to agency interpretations. In other words, they're not sure that the courts should defer to agency interpretations (even if courts do validly defer to agency rules), or they reject deference altogether. Judicial deference to agency interpretations comes from Bowles v. Seminole Rock & Sand Co. and Auer v. Robbins. In Auer (relying on Seminole Rock) the Court held that agencies may authoritatively resolve ambiguities in their own regulations.
The rule that courts defer to an agency's interpretation of its authorizing statute is well settled in Chevron v. Natural Resources Defense Council. This is called Chevron deference. But Auer extended that deference to an agency's interpretation of its own rules. This Auer deference is what caught the eyes of Justices Scalia, Thomas, and Alito.
They all indicated that they'd reconsider Auer deference if given the chance. Justices Scalia and Thomas both outlined their (separate) separation-of-powers objections to Auer deference. In short, Justice Scalia expressed concern that an agency could both write its own rule and then interpret that rule without meaningful oversight; Justice Thomas explained why Auer deference took power away from the judiciary and gave it to the executive agencies.
Both Chief Justice Roberts and Justice Kennedy signed on in full to Justice Sotomayor's opinion (as did Justices Ginsburg, Breyer, and Kagan). None of these joined Justice Scalia, Justice Thomas, or Justice Alito and the concerns with Auer deference that they expressed.
Any nuclear agreement negotiated by President Obama could be short-lived, according to an open letter signed by forty-seven Senate Republicans today, and Iran should take note.
The letter, first reported by Josh Rogin at Bloomberg, tries to school Iran in the U.S. Constitution and separation of powers--and to undermine President Obama's efforts to come to nuclear deal with Iran.
The letter warns that any agreement "not approved by Congress is a mere executive agreement" that "[t]he next president could revoke . . . with the stroke of a pen and future Congresses could modify the terms of the agreement at any time."
The letter also reminds Iran that President Obama leaves office in January 2017, "while most of [the letter signers] will remain in office well beyond then--perhaps decades."
Wednesday, March 4, 2015
The Supreme Court heard oral arguments today in King v. Burwell, the case testing whether IRS tax subsidies to health-insurance purchasers on a federally-facilitated exchange violate the ACA. We posted our oral argument preview here.
There were no huge surprises, and questions from the bench mostly aligned with conventional beliefs about the Justices' politics (with Chief Justice Roberts, in his near silence, declining to tilt his hand at all).
But questions from Justice Kennedy--one to watch here (along with Chief Justice Roberts)--suggested that federalism principles and constitutional avoidance may drive the case. (That assumes that Justice Kennedy controls the center in the case.) This could be an elegant way for a conservative Justice to uphold the subsidies, because it's rooted in the challengers' argument itself (and not the government's case). In other words, a conservative Justice could accept the challengers' premise, but still uphold the subsidies.
Justice Kennedy at several points raised federalism concerns about the challengers' case: If the challengers are right that Congress designed the ACA so that all states would establish their own exchange (on threat of the death spiral that would result if they defaulted to a federally-facilitated exchange, without tax subsidies), then isn't that coercion in violation of federalism principles? And if that's so, shouldn't the Court reject the challengers' reading for constitutional avoidance reasons? Here he puts the question to Michael Carvin, arguing for the ACA challengers:
Let me say that from the standpoint of the dynamics of Federalism, it does seem to me that there is something very powerful to the point that if your argument is accepted, the States are being told either create your own Exchange, or we'll send your insurance market into a death spiral. We'll have people pay mandated taxes which will not get any credit on -- on the subsidies. The cost of insurance will be sky-high, but this is not coercion. It seems to me that under your argument, perhaps you will prevail in the plain words of the statute, there's a serious constitutional problem if we adopt your argument.
Later, he made a similar point with General Verrilli: "Because it does seem to me that if Petitioners' argument is correct, this is just not a rational choice for the States to make and that they're being coerced. And that you then have to invoke the standard of constitutional avoidance."
But in terms of constitutional avoidance, Justice Kennedy qualified his earlier statement to Carvin: "It may well be that you're correct as to these words, and there's nothing we can do. I understand that." Justice Kennedy also later seemed concerned with the government's Chevron argument, pointing out that a statute that costs billions of dollars in tax subsidies has to be absolutely clear.
Carvin argued that the ACA didn't create coercion for the states to establish their own exchanges. But he may have painted himself into a corner with the argument, because his argument also assumes that Congress thought all 50 states would establish an exchange, and, as Justices Ginsburg, Sotomayor, and Kagan pointed out, the portion of the ACA establishing a federally-facilitated exchange would be superfluous if all 50 states set up their own exchanges. They also pointed out that he had a different position in the last ACA challenge. Chief Justice Roberts rescued him, though, reminding everyone that he lost.
Most of the rest of the argument involved predictable statutory construction arguments, with no clear winner or loser. Maybe the only surprise was Justice Scalia's cramped reading of the four words, seemingly at odds with his approach (stated at oral argument earlier just this Term) to consider the context and entire statutory scheme when interpreting any individual provision.
Justice Ginsburg noted that standing is an issue, and that the Court can address it itself. Some of the other Justices fished a little around the question with General Verrilli. But in the end, General Verrilli didn't press the point and instead assumed that "because Mr. Carvin has not said anything about the absence of a tax penalty," that at least two plaintiffs still have standing.
Monday, February 23, 2015
A New Jersey trial judge today ruled that Governor Chris Christie's cut to the state's public pension system violated the state and federal contracts clauses. Along the way, the judge also ruled that the state's contractual obligation to fund its public pension system did not violate the state constitutional Debt Limitations Clause and Appropriations Clause, and did not impermissibly infringe on the governor's line-item veto power. Oh, and she also ruled that the trial court had jurisdiction over the case, and that it didn't present a political question.
In a case that "implicate[s] the fragile balance at the heart of the legislative process . . . where political, constitutional, and judicial forces appear to collide," this ruling has a little something for everyone.
As a result of earlier litigation, the state has a statutory obligation to fund its public pension system. And the statute is written to create a contract right on the part of public employees--so that any decision not to fully fund the system immediately implicates the state and federal contract clauses. So when Governor Christie wielded his line-item veto pen to cut the state contribution out of the legislature's appropriation bill (because of unexpectedly low revenues), the plaintiffs were waiting in the wings with their contracts clause claims. And the judge agreed with them. That part of the ruling is unremarkable.
But the Governor's creative defenses--and the court's rejection of them--demand some attention. The governor argued that the statutory obligation to fund the public pension system violated the state constitutional Debt Limitations Clause (which limits state borrowing burdens) and the Appropriations Clause. Moreover, Governor Christie said that the statutory obligation intruded upon his executive power to veto legislation. The court reviewed the text, history, and cases on the relevant state constitutional provisions and concluded that they did not override the state's statutory obligation to fund its public pension system.
The ruling means that the state has to find $1.57 billion to fund the system. Governor Christie will likely appeal.
Wednesday, February 11, 2015
The White House today sent its long-awaited authorization for use of military force against ISIS (or ISIL) to Congress. Here's the accompanying letter from the President.
The draft AUMF authorizes the President to use "necessary and appropriate" military force against "ISIL or associated persons or forces." (The draft defines "associated persons or forces" as "individuals and organizations fighting for, on behalf of, or alongside ISIL or any closely-related successor entity in hostilities against the United States or its coalition partners.") The draft has a three-year duration, and specifically excludes the use of U.S. troops in "enduring offensive ground operations," but it contains no geographic restriction on the use of force.
The draft would also revoke the 2002 AUMF against Iraq. However, it does not revoke (or otherwise address) the sweeping 2001 AUMF, although President Obama calls for refinement, and ultimately revocation, in his accompanying letter.
The draft acknowledges that "the United States has taken military action against ISIL" already, and cites "its inherent right of individual and collective self-defense" as authority for that prior action. Last fall, the President cited his Article II powers and the 2001 AUMF as authority for military action against ISIS and the Khorasan Group.
Friday, January 9, 2015
The Nebraska Supreme Court today upheld the state law delegating authority to the governor to approve the Keystone pipeline and to use eminent domain to access land along the pipeline route. The ruling does not affect fight in Washington, however, where today the House passed a bill to approve the pipeline, and where President Obama promised to veto it.
The Nebraska case arose out of a Nebraska law that delegated to the governor the power to approve the pipeline. (The former governor did so.) Taxpayers sued, arguing that the law violated the state constitution.
Four (of seven) judges agreed. They said that the law violated a state constitutional provision that reserves to the Public Service Commission this kind of decision. That provision says,
There shall be a Public Service Commission . . . . The powers and duties of such commission shall include the regulation of rates, service and general control of common carriers as the Legislature may provide by law. But, in the absence of specific legislation, the commission shall exercise the powers and perform the duties enumerated in this provision.
The four judges wrote that "we have held that the PSC has 'independent legislative, judicial, and executive or administrative powers' over common carriers, which powers are plenary and self-executing." Moreover, "specific legislation" means "specific restrictions," not "general legislation to divest the PSC of its jurisdiction and transfer its powers to another governmental entity besides the legislature." Thus the legislative delegation over Keystone to the governor improperly intruded upon the power of the PSC under the state constitution.
But under another state constitutional provision, four judges aren't enough to rule a law unconstitutional. The state constitution requires a super-majority of five (of seven) judges to rule a law unconstitutional. So even though a majority held the delegation unconstitutional, it's not. That means the law stays in place, the delegation is good, and the governor's action approving Keystone is untouched.
Before ruling on the merits, the court also ruled on taxpayer standing. The same four judges that argued that the delegation was unconstitutional also held that taxpayers had standing. (The other three argued that there was no standing, and that the standing decision also required a super-majority.) The court invoked its "great public concern" exception to the general rule against taxpayer standing. Under that exception, the court can take up a taxpayer case when it involves an issue of "the Legislature's obedience to the fundamental distribution of power in this state": "when a taxpayer claims that the Legislature enacted a Law that undermines the fundamental limitations on government powers under the Nebraska Constitution, this court has full power and the responsibility to address the public rights raised by a challenge to that act." The "great public concern" exception gives the Nebraska courts more leeway in taking up taxpayer cases than the Supreme Court's standing rules under Article III.
Monday, December 22, 2014
President Obama on Friday signed the FY 2015 National Defense Authorization Act, and, as in prior years, issued a constitutional signing statement on provisions restricting the use of funds to move any detainee out of Guantanamo Bay.
President Obama's signing statement this year is a little different than in prior years: it includes an array of policy objections to Congress's forced maintenance of the detention facility. The constitutional objection is a little more dressed up than in prior years, but the core constitutional objection remains the same:
The executive branch must have the flexibility, with regard to those detainees who remain, to determine when and where to prosecute them, based on the facts and circumstances of each case and our national security interests, and when and where to transfer them consistent with our national security and our humane treatment policy. Under certain circumstances, the provisions concerning detainee transfers in both bills [the NDAA and the Consolidation and Further Continuing Appropriations Act, 2015] would violate constitutional separation of powers principles. In the event that the restrictions on the transfer of detainees operate in a manner that violates constitutional separation of powers principles, my Administration will implement them in a manner that avoids the constitutional conflict.
That means that the administration claims the right to ignore the restrictions when they violate separate of powers.
It's not clear that the changed language of the signing statement this year signals any greater likelihood that the administration will actually ignore the restrictions and move a detainee off the base in violation of the provisions. But President Obama's other actions (on immigration, on Cuba) might suggest that the administration is more willing to do this.
The Supreme Court hasn't ruled on the legal status of a signing statement like this. And even though a signing statement is involved in the Zivotofsky passport case this Term, the Court's not likely to say anything about it.
Tuesday, December 16, 2014
A federal district judge in Pennsylvania has taken it upon himself to rule President Obama's recently announced immigration action unconstitutional--in a case that apparently has nothing to do with the action. We've posted on President Obama's action, and challenges to it, here, here, and here.
The surprising and brazenly activist, stretch-of-a-ruling underscores just how political President Obama's action has become, driving a district judge to reach out in a wholly unrelated case to rule the action unconstitutional.
The ruling comes in a case involving an undocumented immigrant who pleaded guilty to re-entry into the United States by a removed alien in violation of 8 U.S.C. Sec. 1326. Judge Arthur J. Schwab (W.D. Pa.) then ordered the parties to brief whether President Obama's action has any impact on the defendant, and whether the action is constitutional. Despite the government's reply that the action wouldn't affect this defendant (because "the Executive Action is inapplicable to criminal prosecutions under 8 U.S.C. Sec. 1326(a), and . . . [it] solely relates to civil immigration enforcement status"), and the defendant's agreement with that position, Judge Schwab said that the action could protect the defendant from removal and went ahead to rule on its constitutionality.
Even if the action applied to the defendant, however, Judge Schwab didn't bother to explain why ti was relevant to this proceeding, or why he had to rule on its constitutionality, except to say this:
Specifically, this Court was concerned that the Executive Action might have an impact on this matter, including any subsequent removal or deportation, and thereby requiring the Court to ascertain whether the nature of the Executive Action is executive or legislative.
Judge Schwab went on to say why he thought the action was unconstitutional, relying not on the ordinary judicial tools for such an important task (like, say, the text of the law, serious consideration of Supreme Court precedent, prior executive practice, etc.), but instead on President Obama's public statements about the action. Judge Schwab wrote that the President can't act just because Congress won't (answering President Obama's public statements suggesting that he'd act unilaterally if Congress wouldn't) and that the President's action is policy-making, not prosecutorial discretion, because it treats a large class of people alike.
Oddly, after concluding that the action is unconstitutional, Judge Schwab goes on to consider whether it applies to this defendant. (His conclusion: maybe, maybe not. Judge Schwab says the action leaves the defendant in a "no-man's land.") Ordinarily, this question would come prior to the constitutional question--for constitutional avoidance reasons, but also because it is logically prior to the constitutional question. Still, Judge Schwab answered it second.
In a final surprising move, Judge Schwab says that President Obama's action violates the rights of the defendant, because it doesn't obviously grant deferred status to him, even as it grants deferred status to others.
Judge Schwab concluded by giving the defendant a chance to withdraw his guilty plea, go to sentencing and take one year supervised release in the United States, or go to sentencing and be turned over to ICE.
So the logic of the opinion appears to be this: The President's action is unconstitutional; but if it is constitutional, it doesn't obviously apply (or not apply) to the defendant; and therefore the defendant should have a chance to withdraw his guilty plea in order to (possibly) take advantage of the (unconstitutional) action. All this after both parties agreed that the President's action didn't really have anything to do with this case in the first place.
With all its twists and turns, it's really hard to make heads or tails of this opinion. But one thing is clear: This is not the stuff of a serious separation-of-powers ruling. If the case against President Obama's action is going anywhere, opponents are going to have to do better--much better--than this.
Friday, December 5, 2014
As expected, Texas Governor-Elect Greg Abbott led 17 other states and state officials in suing the federal government over President Obama's immigration policy.
The complaint argues that the President, through DACA and administration immigration policies, caused a humanitarian crisis by encouraging illegal immigration and then turning a blind eye to undocumented immigrants within the country. It contends that the President, having created this crisis, now makes it even worse by authorizing an even larger class of certain undocumented immigrants to stay. The plaintiffs claim that even President Obama previously said, repeatedly (with quotes), that taking the kind of action that he took would have exceeded his authority. This all appears to be just context, or even political blustering; the plaintiffs don't say why or how any of it bears on their legal claims.
The complaint discusses the OLC memo that provides legal justification for President Obama's policy, but doesn't seriously try to undermine it. The complaint says only that the OLC justifies President Obama's policy based in part "on much smaller and more targeted deferred action programs that previous Congresses approved," such as "deferred action for victims of violence and trafficking, family members of U.S. citizens killed in combat, and family members of individuals killed in the September 11 attacks."
That's true, as far as it goes. But it also woefully under-describes the OLC analysis. The complaint doesn't take issue with the other components of the OLC memo, like the statutory analysis, e.g. The plaintiffs appended the OLC memo to their complaint.
The plaintiffs argue that the President's policy violates the Take Care Clause and the APA. As to the Take Care Clause, the complaint says, "the President admitted that he 'took an action to change the law.' The Defendants could hardly contend otherwise because a deferred action program with an acceptance rate that rounds to 100% is a de facto entitlement--one that even the President and OLC previously admitted would require a change to the law." As to the APA, the complaint alleges that the President's policy made law without proper authority, and without following notice-and-comment rulemaking procedures.
Tuesday, November 25, 2014
Texas Governor-Elect Greg Abbott put the finest point yet on Republicans' legal case against President Obama over his announcement last week to defer immigration enforcement action against certain unauthorized aliens. Abbott said in a statement yesterday that President Obama's move violated the Take Care Clause, Congress's immigration authority under Article II, Section 8, and the Administrative Procedure Act.
These claims are head-and-shoulders above the kind of general blustering we've heard from others in the debate. But they're still far from specific. Indeed, they're answered by the OLC's own legal analysis: the OLC relies on congressionally-designed flexibility in the text of the INA, among other legal authorities, to conclude that President Obama's action is consistent with, and supported by, the INA. In other words, Congress wrote the INA (using its authority under Article II, Section 8) to give the President just this kind of flexibility in enforcement. If that's true--and we haven't heard many (if any) specifics challenging this interpretation from opponents of President Obama's actions--then it seems odd to argue that President Obama isn't properly executing the law, or that he isn't respecting a uniquely congressional authority, or that he's violating the APA. Indeed, it seems that's exactly what he's doing.
Moreover, Abbott's statement is silent on prior executive practice, an important tool in sorting out this kind of separation-of-powers problem.
Abbott swears that "[t]his is a legal issue, not a political issue." But before we can take that claim seriously, it'd help if Abbott, Oklahoma AG Scott Pruitt, Kansas AG Kris Kobach, and others threatening suit sharpen their case with a little statutory interpretation and history of executive practice (to say nothing of Supreme Court precedent). We'll keep you posted.
Friday, November 21, 2014
House Republicans filed their expected lawsuit against the Obama administration, arguing that the administration spend money on the Affordable Care Act's insurer offset program without an appropriation and extended the ACA's deadline for the employer mandate without congressional authorization. The complaint is here; Jonathan Turley's post on his blog onthe case is here; we previously posted on the issue here. It's also all over the news.
The case is only the latest move by opponents of the ACA to chip away and ultimately kill the Act by a thousand cuts. It's also only the latest move by opponents of President Obama in their effort to cast him as lawless.
House Republicans' first claim involves the administration's expenditures of funds that haven't been appropriated by Congress. The ACA contains two expenditure programs. The first, the Section 1401 Refundable Tax Credit Program, provides refundable tax credits for individual purchasers of health insurance on an ACA health insurance marketplace exchange. The second, the Section 1402 Offset Program, provides direct payments to ACA insurers to offset costs that they incur in providing cost-sharing reductions to beneficiaries that are required under the Act.
House Republicans claim that Congress funded the Section 1401 program, but did not fund the Section 1402 program. Yet they say that the Obama administration is using Section 1401 appropriated funds to make payments under Section 1402. In other words, House Republicans claim that the administration is spending money that wasn't appropriated by Congress, and shifting money from one line to another, in violation of Congress's exclusive power of the purse.
House Republicans also claim that the administration unilaterally extended the deadline for the ACA's employer mandate. The ACA says that large employers will be subject to tax penalties (or shared-responsibility payments), and that those penalties "shall apply to months beginning after December 31, 2013." But House Republicans claim that the administration unilaterally altered that date, without congressional action or congressional delegation, by extending the date by which penalties will be assessed by a year.
Thursday, November 20, 2014
The Office of Legal Counsel yesterday released an opinion on the President's legal authority for his immigration plan, which he'll announce shortly. Here's the summary, in three points:
The Department of Homeland Security's proposed policy to prioritize the removal of certain aliens unlawfully present in the United States would be a permissible exercise of the DHS's discretion to enforce the immigration laws.
The Department of Homeland Security's proposed deferred action program for parents of U.S. citizens and legal permanent residents would also be a permissible exercise of DHS's discretion to enforce the immigration laws.
The Department of Homeland Security's proposed deferred action program for parents of recipients of deferred action under the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program would not be a permissible exercise of DHS's enforcement discretion.
In short, the first two are OK, because the executive has authority to prioritize enforcement based on available limited resources, the actions are consistent with (and not inconsistent with) federal law and congressional priorities, and there is precedent (i.e., similar prior executive actions) for them. The third is not, because it's not consistent with priorities in federal law, and because there's no precedent.
As to the first, OCL said that "DHS's organic statute itself recognizes [that DHS must make enforcement choices], instructing the Secretary to establish 'national immigration enforcement policies and priorities.'" It also said that the proposal is consistent with the removal priorities established by Congress, that it doesn't amount to a legislative rule that overrides the requirements of the substantive statute, and that it doesn't "identify any category of removable aliens whose removal may not be pursued under any circumstances."
As to the second, OCL said that deferred action for parents of U.S. citizens and legal permanent residents is a lawful exercise of executive power, because it's based on an allocation of scarce resources (deferring action against this class in order to shift very limited resources elsewhere), and because deferred action for this class is consistent with the INA's concerns with keeping families together when possible. OCL also noted that "the proposed deferred action program would resemble in material respects the kinds of deferred action programs Congress has implicitly approved in the past . . . ."
Finally, as to the third, OLC said that the President lacks authority to implement deferred action for DACA parents. OLC said that the considerations here are similar to considerations for deferred action for parents of U.S. citizens, but are different in two key respects. First, while immigration law expresses concern about keeping families together, it expresses this concern in the context of citizens and lawful residents, not DACA'd individuals (who "unquestionably lack lawful status in the United States"). Next, deferred action for DACA parents "would represent a significant departure from deferred action programs that Congress has implicitly approved in the past."
Here are some other resources on the issue:
- We posted on executive authority for DACA here.
- The CRS has a report on Prosecutorial Discretion in Immigration Enforcement here, and a Memo on DACA authority here.
- The Immigration Policy Center has a legal resources page on executive enforcement of immigration laws here.
Monday, November 10, 2014
The D.C. Circuit today upheld an appointment to the NLRB on the first day of a 17-day intra-session recess of the Senate for a vacancy that existed before the recess. The case is an application of the Supreme Court's ruling last Term in Noel Canning--and it shows why all three parts of that ruling matter.
The case was a challenge to an NLRB decision based on lack of quorum, just like Noel Canning. In particular, the appellants, Stevens Creek Chrysler Jeep Dodge, argued that President Obama's appointment of Gary Becker to the Board violated the Recess Appointment Clause, because President Obama made the appointment to an already-existing vacancy on the first day of an intra-session recess.
The D.C. Circuit said that the recess appointment authority extends to intra-session recesses and to vacancies that already existed at the time of the recess, based on two of the holdings in Noel Canning. The court also said that the 17-day recess here was longer than the 10 days that the Supreme Court identified as enough to constitute a "recess."
Breaking a little new ground, however, the court also said that it didn't matter that Becker's appointment came on the first day of this 17-day recess. That's because, under historical examples that the Court relied upon in Noel Canning, the "lawfulness of a recess appointment depends on the ultimate length of the recess . . . not the number of days from the start of the recess to the appointment."
But don't count on this to shift the balance of power back to the President (by allowing him to recess appoint on the first day of any open-ended recess). Instead, it'll only mean that the Senate, if it wants to foil the use of the recess appointment power, won't have an open-ended recess; it'll define the recess and use pro forma sessions (as it did in the recess leading to Noel Canning).
Friday, November 7, 2014
The Supreme Court today agreed to hear King v. Burwell, the case testing the federal government's authority to issue tax credits to individuals who purchase health insurance on a federal (not state) health-insurance exchange.
The case tests whether the IRS can issue tax credits to low- and moderate-income individuals who purchase health insurance on a federal (not state) health-insurance exchange, in light of the language in the Affordable Care Act that, read in isolation, seems to limit those credits to purchasers on an "[e]xchange established by the State."
The plaintiff-petitioners argue that the this language means exactly what it says: that the government can provide credits only for purchasers on state exchanges, not federal exchanges. The government argues that other provisions in the ACA and the broader purposes of the Act show that Congress clearly intended to offer credits to purchasers on all exchanges.
Under the ACA, the federal government can step in an establish an exchange when a state declines to. Thirty-six states are now covered by a federal exchange; the rest established a state exchange.
If the plaintiff-petitioners ultimately win, the case would strike a serious blow to the universal coverage goal of Obamacare. That's because without the credits (which are significant, $4,700 per person per year, on average), low- and moderate-income individuals may not be able to afford insurance. Given that estimates put the number of individuals who have already received subsidies at nearly 5 million, the lack of subsidies could force large numbers out of the insurance pool and drive up rates for those in the insurance pool.
Today's grant was of the Fourth Circuit decision, which upheld the subsidies. The D.C. Circuit panel decision struck the subsidies, but the en banc D.C. Circuit vacated that ruling and agreed to rehear the case. (Oral argument is set for December 17.) All this means that there was no circut split before the Court (although there were conflicting lower court rulings, at least before the en banc D.C. Circuit stepped in).) This probably says little, if anything, about the likely result in the case. (In particular: the Court didn't necessarily take the case to reverse the Fourth Circuit.)
The Court requires the votes of four Justices to grant review. But this, too, probably says little, if anything, about the likely result in the case. (We don't know which Justices voted for review, which voted against (if any), and why.) All we know is that four or more wanted to hear it.
Monday, November 3, 2014
The Supreme Court heard oral arguments on Monday in Zivotofsky v. Kerry, the case testing whether Congress can require the State Department to list "Israel" as the country of birth for a U.S. citizen born in Jerusalem, upon the request of that citizen. The State Department has long declined to list "Israel" (or "Palestinian Territories" or the like) as the country of birth on such a passport, in order to promote its long-standing position of neutrality with regard to sovereignty over Jerusalem. This case tests which branch gets to decide whether Congress, or the executive branch, gets to decide what goes on the passport.
If arguments are any indication, this'll be a 5-4 opinion, along conventional lines (conservatives for Congress; progressives for the President). In short, conservatives didn't seem to think the Act's place-of-birth designation mattered much to recognition or to foreign affairs (or, as Justice Kennedy suggested, that its impact could be mitigated), and therefore that the Act didn't seriously interfere with any exclusive powers of the presidency. Progressives took the opposite view.
Zivotofsky tried to steer the Court toward his argument that the country-of-birth deisgnation on a passport has nothing to do with official recognition of a foreign sovereign. This position could allow the Court to dodge a thorny separation-of-powers problem entirely, by hanging its hat on the idea that the country-of-birth designation serves only an identification purpose, not a sovereign-recognition purpose. If so, the Court could rule for Zivotofsky by saying that Congress can require anything it wants in the place-of-birth line, because it doesn't interfere with the President's recognition power. (Or, as the government argued, the Court could rule for the government, saying that the congressionally required designation in effect requires the President to issue a diplomatic communication that contradicts the President's own recognition and foreign policy. But this would require at least some consideration of constitutional separation of powers--in particular, whether the President's power of recognition is exclusive.)
This approach seemed to get the attention of the conservatives on the Court. In particular, Justices Kennedy and Scalia in different ways seemed to suggest that the country-of-birth designation didn't recognize sovereignty. (If not, however, Justice Kennedy at one point wondered why Congress would have passed it in the first place.) Justice Kennedy returned several times to the ideal of a State Department disclaimer--that State could just write a statement that the place-of-birth designation didn't reflect the policy of the United States. And Chief Justice Roberts wondered later in the arguments whether the President's objections to the Act and the executive's position in litigation amount to a self-fulfilling prophecy--that is, whether designating "Israel" wasn't really all that big of a deal, until the President made it so. (This exchange, with SG Verilli, came up in a line of questions about why President Bush signed the Act in the first place, even with his constitutional reservations in the signing statement.) All these, and Justice Alito, suggested at different times that the country-of-birth designation wasn't all that important, anyway--a corollary to the country-of-birth-designation-as-mere-identification theory.
But Justice Kagan pushed back against the self-identification theory: she called the Act a "very selective vanity plate law," because it allows a passport holder to determine the designation of country of birth. She also underscored the passport-as-diplomatic-note point by asking whether a hypothetical congressional act would be constitutional if it required the State Department to inform all foreign minister that a new American was born in Israel whenever a new American was born in Jerusalem. (Zivotofsky's answer: Yes. Justice Kagan called this "a little bit shocking.") Justice Sotomayor went a step further and said (several times) that Zivotofsky and Act supporters wanted the government to lie--to say that Israel was the place of birth, even though the government doesn't recognize Israel as sovereign over Jerusalem.
Justice Breyer took an institutional competence view of the case, asking if the foreign affairs experts at the State Department declined to recognize Israeli sovereignty over Jerusalem, who was he to question them?
Justice Kagan took the final shot at the it-doesn't-matter-that-much view at the very end of arguments:
Can I say that this seems a particularly unfortunate week to be making this kind of, "oh, it's no big deal" argument. I mean, history suggests that everything is a big deal with respect to the status of Jerusalem. And right now Jerusalem is a tinderbox because of issues about the status of and access to a particularly holy site there. And so sort of everything matters, doesn't it?
It seems doubtful that she'll persuade her conservative colleagues.
Tuesday, September 30, 2014
Judge Ronald A. White (E.D. Okla.) ruled today in Oklahoma v. Burwell that the IRS rule providing subsidies for individual purchasers of health insurance on an exchange established by the federal government (and not a state government) ran afoul of the plain language of the Affordable Care Act. Judge White stayed his ruling pending appeal, however, so it has no immediate impact on subsidies in Oklahoma.
Judge White's ruling aligns with the D.C. Circuit panel decision in Halbig and stands opposite the Fourth Circuit ruling in King. (Recall that the full D.C. Circuit vacated the panel ruling and agreed to rehear the case en banc. That argument is set for December.) All this means that there is currently no circuit split on the issue; instead, the Fourth Circuit upheld the tax subsidies, the full D.C. Circuit will reconsider them in December, and the Tenth Circuit will consider them soon (on the inevitable appeal from Judge White's ruling).
Judge White wrote that the plain language of the ACA resolved the case. That language allows a tax subsidy for a purchaser of health insurance who is "covered by a qualified health plan . . . enrolled in through an Exchange established by the State under section 1311 of the [ACA]." 26 U.S.C. Sec. 36B(c)(2)(A)(i) (emphasis added). Like the panel in Halbig, Judge White said that the language was clear, and that the IRS rule extending credits to purchasers of health insurance on exchanges established by the federal government (and not a state) violated it.
Judge White downplayed the effect of striking the IRS rule, saying that "apocalyptic" claims about the challenges tot he IRS rule are overstated. In any event, he wrote, Congress could re-write the law to specifically authorize the subsidies.
Judge White also ruled that Oklahoma had standing to challenge the IRS rule, because the state, as a large employer, would have been subject to federal penalties for some of its employees who might purchase health insurance on the federal exchange and qualify for a subsidy under the IRS rule.
Judge White's ruling probably doesn't make this case any more (or less) likely to go to the Supreme Court soon. With just two circuits weighing in so far--and one of them vacating the panel ruling and rehearing the case en banc--the Court will likely wait to see what the full D.C. Circuit, and now the Tenth Circuit, do with it. Still, the challengers in the Fourth Circuit case have asked the Supreme Court to review it.
Wednesday, September 24, 2014
President Obama sent two letters to Congress yesterday pursuant to the War Powers Resolution notifying it of U.S. military efforts in Iraq and Syria against ISIS and the Khorasan Group.
The first letter outlines "a series of strikes in Syria against elements of al-Qa'ida known as the Khorasan Group." It says that "[t]hese strikes are necessary to defend the United States and our partners and allies against the threat posed by these elements." The letter cites as authority the constitutional Commander-in-Chief, Chief Executive, and foreign relations powers of the presidency, and authority under the 2001 AUMF, the authorization for use of force against those who planned the attacks of September 11 and anyone who helped or harbored them.
The second letter reviews previous military efforts against ISIS in Iraq and outlines the deployment of 475 additional troops to Iraq and the use of U.S. forces "to conduct coordination with Iraqi forces and to provide training, communications support, intelligence support, and other support to select elements of the Iraqi security forces, including Kurdish Peshmerga forces." The letter also says that the President "ordered the U.S. Armed Forces to conduct a systematic campaign of airstrikes and other necessary actions against [ISIS] in Iraq and Syria . . . in coordination with and at the request of the Government of Iraq and in conjuntion with coalition partners." The letter cites the same authority as the first letter, above, along with the 2002 AUMF, the authorization for use of military force against Iraq.
The President has faced plenty of criticism for relying on his inherent constitutional authority and these two AUMFs in authorizing recent strikes. Congress is considering new AUMFs that would specifically authorize his actions. The Hill reports that Senator Levin, chairman of the Armed Services Committee, thinks that Congress will take up the measures after the mid-terms.
Tuesday, September 9, 2014
According to The Hill, President Obama told congressional leaders today that he doesn't need congressional approval for his campaign against ISIS, details to be announced tomorrow night.
While he told the congressional leaders he would welcome congressional action that demonstrated a unified front, the president told the bicameral, bipartisan group "he has the authority he needs to take action against [ISIS] in accordance with the mission he will lay out in his address," according to the White House.
Participants in the meeting--the House Speaker and Minority Leader, and the Senate Majority and Minority Leaders--didn't say anything about the need for congressional approval afterward.
The Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee held a hearing today on President Obama's nomination of Sharon Block to the NLRB. Block was one of the recess-appointees to the NLRB that the Supreme Court struck this summer in Noel Canning. Her nomination this time is going through the regular Appointments Clause process.
If confirmed, Brown would replace Nancy Schiffer and become the third Democrat on the five-member Board.
Republicans oppose Brown because of her political ideology and the direction of the Board with President Obama's appointments. They also see her appointment as an end-run around Noel Canning (given that Noel Canning struck her recess appointment).
Still, the full Senate will likely confirm her. That's because of the filibuster rules change that allows most presidential nominees to move forward to an up-or-down majority vote in the Senate.
Of course, if nominees like Brown hadn't faced a Republican filibuster in the first place, President Obama wouldn't have recess-appointed them; instead, they would have been confirmed through the ordinary appointment process--exactly what's happening to Brown now. In that way, after all the drama and attention to President Obama's recess appointments in Noel Canning, we're right back where we might have started: majority (not super-majority) confirmation of presidential nominees through the ordinary appointment process.
Thursday, September 4, 2014
The full D.C. Circuit today agreed to rehear Halbig v. Burwell, in which a three-judge panel of the court previously struck the IRS rule that offers tax credits to purchasers of health insurance on a federally operated exchange who meet certain income requirements. Today's order also vacates that earlier ruling. It means that the full, en banc D.C. Circuit will get a bite at the apple, and that the earlier panel ruling is wiped from the books. The court will hear arguments on December 17.
Recall that the earlier panel ruling striking the tax credit was in direct conflict with a Fourth Circuit ruling the same day upholding the tax credit. Today's order also removes that circuit split.
We last posted on the case, with background explanation, here. In short, the case involves an IRS rule that extends tax credits to purchasers of health insurance on a federally operated exchange. Opponents of the rule argue that the plain text of the ACA limits credits to purchasers on a state-operated exchange. The government argues that the broader text of the ACA and its purposes show that the credit applies to purchasers on both state and federal exchanges.
A ruling striking the credits for purchasers on a federal exchange would deal a major blow to the Affordable Care Act and its goal of universal coverage, and could put lower-income purchasers in a pinch. That's because purchasers in states that declined to establish their own exchanges (and thus triggered the federal government to establish a federal exchange) wouldn't qualify for a credit, and may not be able to afford insurance without it, yet would still be required to purchase it. An amendment to the ACA could easily solve the problem (again, if a court struck the credits for purchasers on federal exchanges), but congressional opponents of the ACA, and thus Congress, would never go for it--at least unless and until these cases are resolved in favor of the government (when the point would be moot, anyway).