Tuesday, May 10, 2016
The D.C. Circuit ruled in Jankovic v. International Crisis Group that a supporter of former Serbian Prime Minister Zoran Djindjic failed to make out a defamation case against the International Crisis Group for critical statements in an ICG report.
The ruling means that plaintiff Milan Jankovic's case against the ICG is dismissed. (Jankovic is also known as Philip Zepter.)
Zepter, a prominent Serbian businessman, sued the ICG for defamation after the organization published a report that said that Zepter was a member of the "New Serbian Oligarchy" and that he was "associated with the Milosevic regime and benefited from it directly." The ICG report also said that individuals like Zepter continued to be in positions of power and to enjoy access to public resources, and that few of the "crony companies" had been subject to legal action, despite promises by post-Milosevic reformers. The district court concluded that a reasonable reader could construe the statements as saying that Zepter was a crony of Milosevic and supported the regime in exchange for favorable treatment.
As an initial matter, the D.C. Circuit applied its three-part rule and concluded that Zepter was a limited-purpose public figure. The court said that (1) the controversy was public, (2) Zepter played a significant role in it, and (3) the defamatory statement was germane to Zepter's participation. As to (2), the court said that "[t]he evidence . . . shows that [Zepter] was an outspoken supporter, financial backer, and advisor of Prime Minister Djindjic [who] paid over $100,000 to a lobbyist to support [Djindjic's] effort to improve relations between the United States and Serbia." "The evidence shows that Zepter had voluntarily thrust himself into ensuring that Serbia underwent reforms in the post-Milosevic era."
If there seems to be a disconnect between Zepter's role as a Djindjic supporter and a Milosevic crony, here's what the court said: "Yet even if Zepter was an important figure in the Serbian reform effort mainly due to his relationship with Prime Minister Djindjic, his relationship to Milosevic is relevant to Zepter's role in the controversy. Linking Zepter to Milosevic would be relevant to understanding Zepter's role and why he wanted to be involved in the reform effort led by Prime Minister Djindjic."
The court went on to say that Zepter failed to show evidence of actual malice. "What is still missing is evidence that ICG had 'serious doubts' about the truth of the defamatory statement or that it published the statement with a high degree of awareness of its probable falsity, such that ICG acted with reckless disregard for the statement's truth."
The ruling ends Zepter's case against the ICG.
Tuesday, May 3, 2016
Congressional Research Service Reports are almost always a terrific resource and this new one - - - Judge Merrick Garland: His Jurisprudence and Potential Impact on the Supreme Court by Andrew Nolan, Kate M. Manuel, and Brandon J. Murrill - - - is no exception. At almost 80 pages, with numerous footnotes, as well as two tables and an appendix, it is a wealth of information and analysis.
For example, here's an excerpt regarding Garland's views on campaign finance and the First Amendment:
While serving on the D.C. Circuit, Judge Garland has ruled in a number of major free speech cases. In particular, because the D.C. Circuit has exclusive jurisdiction over certain election law appeals,454 the bulk of these matters have involved free speech issues arising in the context of campaign finance regulations and rules governing political parties.455 Perhaps most significantly, Judge Garland wrote the opinion for a unanimous en banc court in Wagner v. FEC,456 upholding the prohibition on campaign contributions by certain federal government contractors457 against a challenge under the First Amendment and the Equal Protection clause of the Fifth Amendment.. . . Perhaps revealing aspects of Judge Garland’s views on the constitutionality of campaign finance regulation more broadly, the opinion deferred to Congress’s judgment on how best to serve the government’s interests. . . . . In contrast, judicial deference to congressional determinations has arguably not been as evident in the Supreme Court’s more recent campaign finance jurisprudence.463 At the same time, because of the unanimity of the Wagner decision and the decision’s relatively narrow scope, it may be difficult to draw any firm conclusions regarding Judge Garland’s views on judicial deference toward congressional determinations respecting campaign restrictions from the Wagner decision, in and of itself.
Nonetheless, in another context, Judge Garland generally took a favorable view of the regulation of federal lobbyists. Specifically, in National Association of Manufacturers (NAM) v. Taylor,464 he authored a unanimous opinion rejecting a First Amendment challenge to a federal lobbying disclosure law. The court found no evidence of harassment connected to lobbying disclosures465 that might justify more skepticism with regard to the disclosure requirements, and, in a display of deference to Congress arguably like that in Wagner, ultimately concluded that there was “no reason why Congress cannot enact a scheme that plausibly yields a significant portion of the information it seeks.”466
On the other hand, during Judge Garland’s tenure on the D.C. Circuit, the appellate court issued a well-known campaign finance ruling that resulted in the establishment of super PACs, political committees that spend independently of any candidate or party and are permitted to receive unlimited contributions.467 In SpeechNow.org v. FEC,468 Judge Garland joined, but did not author, a unanimous en banc opinion holding that limits on contributions to groups that make only independent expenditures are unconstitutional.469
[footnote text omitted].
Other sections relating to the constitution include the Religion Clauses, Second Amendment, Separation of Powers, Federalism, Substantive Due Process, and Criminal Law and Procedure.
While the Report cautions "that, at least as a historical matter, attempting to predict how particular Supreme Court nominees may approach their work on the High Court based on their previous experience is a task fraught with uncertainty," since Garland's nomination there has been reference to his opinions on the DC Circuit.
This CRS Report provides a wealth of information should Garland's nomination be subject to Senate hearings.
Wednesday, April 27, 2016
The D.C. Circuit ruled today in Holmes v. FEC that a lower court erred in not certifying a challenge to federal base contribution limits to the en banc D.C. Circuit.
The ruling means that the full D.C. Circuit will take up the question whether federal base contribution limits violate the First Amendment.
The case arose when the plaintiffs challenged the federal base contribution limit of $2,600 "per election" as violating free speech. They wanted to contribute $5,200 to a congressional candidate in the general election, but the "per election" limit prohibited this. (They could have contributed $2,600 in the primary, then another $2,600 in the general, but they didn't want to contribute in the primary.) They argued that language in the plurality opinion in McCutcheon supported their claim: "Congress's selection of a $5,200 base limit [the combined limit for a primary and general election, according to the plaintiffs] indicates its belief that contributions of that amount or less do not create a cognizable risk of corruption."
The district court declined to certify the question to the D.C. Circuit, because the plaintiffs' argument contradicted "settled law," that is, Supreme Court precedent.
The D.C. Circuit reversed. The court said,
We therefore do not think a district court may decline to certify a constitutional question simply because the plaintiff is arguing against Supreme Court precedent so long as the plaintiff mounts a non-frivolous argument in favor of overturning that precedent. That the plaintiff will be fighting a losing battle in the lower courts does not necessarily make the question "obviously frivolous," or "wholly insubstantial," or "obviously without merit." The plaintiff has to raise the question to ensure that it is preserved for Supreme Court review. And certifying the question fulfills Section 30110's evident purpose of accelerating potential Supreme Court review.
At the same time, the court declined to order certification for a related Fifth Amendment claim against base limits. The court said that this claim was based on regulations, not the Act, and therefore not subject to certification.
Tuesday, April 26, 2016
Supreme Court Decides First Amendment Protects "Mistaken" Perception of Political Activity by Public Employee
In its relatively brief opinion in Heffernan v. City of Paterson, NJ, the Court decides that the First Amendment is applicable when a government employer takes an adverse employment action against an employee for perceived (but not actual) political activity. Heffernan, a police officer, was demoted for his perceived political activity: he had decided to stay neutral but was seen picking up a mayoral campaign sign at the request of his "bedridden mother" to "replace a smaller one that had been stolen from her lawn" and was therefore demoted.
The majority opinion, authored by Justice Breyer, began by noting that the First Amendment "generally prohibits"government officials from "dismissing or demoting an employee because of the employee’s engagement in constitutionally protected political activity" and posing the question of whether "the official’s factual mistake makes a critical legal difference."
In determining that the factual mistake is not a critical legal difference, Breyer's 8 page opinion for the Court concludes that it is the "government's reason" that "counts." Supporting this conclusion is the language of the First Amendment itself:
Unlike, say, the Fourth Amendment, which begins by speaking of the “right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects . . . ,” the First Amendment begins by focusing upon the activity of the Government. It says that “Congress shall make no law . . . abridging the freedom of speech.”
(This point was made by Justice Ginsburg in oral argument). Additionally, the conclusion focusing on the government's rationale supports the underlying rationale of the rule:
The constitutional harm at issue in the ordinary case consists in large part of discouraging employees—both the employee discharged (or demoted) and his or her colleagues—from engaging in protected activities . . . . The upshot is that a discharge or demotion based upon an employer’s belief that the employee has engaged in protected activity can cause the same kind, and degree, of constitutional harm whether that belief does or does not rest upon a factual mistake.
Finally, Breyer's opinion for the Court noted that the recognition of mistaken employer beliefs will not open the floodgates (or as the Court phrases it "impose significant costs on the employer"), because "the employee will, if anything, find it more difficult to prove that motive, for the employee will have to point to more than his own conduct to show an employer’s intent to discharge or to demote him for engaging in what the employer (mistakenly) believes to have been different (and protected) activities."
In remanding the case, the Court did recognize that Heffernan may have been dismissed under a "different and neutral policy," but did not express its views on that issue.
Dissenting, Justice Thomas joined by Justice Alito - - - in an opinion as long as the one for the Court - - - stressed that Heffernan did not have a constitutional right that had been violated: "The mere fact that the government has acted unconstitutionally does not necessarily result in the violation of an individual’s constitutional rights, even when that individual has been injured."
In oral argument, Justice Alito had described the issue as being "like a law school hypothetical." The Court, however, has decisively answered the question in favor of construing the First Amendment to prohibit government "wrongs" rather than requiring the actual exercise of individual "rights."
Monday, April 18, 2016
In its relatively brief but important opinion in In re William Goode, the Fifth Circuit found that Western District of Louisiana Local Criminal Rule 53.5 (“L. Crim. R. 53.5”), violated the First Amendment as applied to Goode.
The rule provides:
During the trial of any criminal matter, including the period of selection of the jury, no lawyer associated with the prosecution or defense shall give or authorize any extrajudicial statement or interview, relating to the trial or the parties or issues in the trial, for dissemination by any means of public communication, except that the lawyer may quote from or refer without comment to public records of the court in the case.
In Goode's situation, he was an attorney "associated" with the defense although not defense counsel in the criminal case. Instead, he was assisting the two defendants, both of whom were also attorneys.
During the trial, one of the defendant attorneys "suffered from a self-inflicted gunshot wound." The prosecution stated it would not oppose a mistrial, but before the judge ordered a mistrial, Goode "gave interviews to two media outlets." Goode contended he was under the belief that a mistrial would be granted and that a reporter had promised to hold the story until the mistrial was granted, although the story ran online before the mistrial was granted. The Chief Judge of the district later suspended Goode from practice in the district court for six months.
The Fifth Circuit discussed Gentile v. State Bar of Nevada (1991) as well as Fifth Circuit precedent that held that "prior restraints on trial participants must be narrowly tailored to only prohibit speech that has a “meaningful likelihood of materially impairing the court’s ability to conduct a fair trial.” and that the "prior restraint must also be the least restrictive means available." The unanimous Fifth Circuit panel found that the application of the "expansive" Rule 53.5 that was applied to Goode was a prior restraint and was neither narrowly tailored nor the least restrictive means possible.
While the Fifth Circuit did not address the facial challenge and while Goode's situation has unique features, the Fifth Circuit's opinion casts the shadow of unconstitutionality on the local Rule 53.5.
Friday, March 11, 2016
The Eighth Circuit ruled today that the ACLU lacked standing to bring a case against the director of the Missouri Department of Corrections to stop him from enforcing the state's ban on revealing the identities of execution team members. The ruling is a set-back for the ACLU and its efforts to disclose information about the state's executions, and, in particular, who provides the drugs. (Publicizing the providers has been an effective strategy by anti-death-penalty advocates to get those providers to stop providing.)
The case arose when the ACLU realized that it may have posted information about Missouri's executions (obtained under the Missouri Sunshine Law) that included "the identity of a current or former member of an execution team" in violation of a state law that prohibits revealing this information. The organization only realized the potential violation after it saw how the Department defined the members of the team--to include "anyone selected by the department director who provides direct support for the administration of lethal chemical, including individuals who prescribe, compound, prepare, or otherwise supply the lethal chemicals for use in the lethal injection procedure." So the organization removed the material from its web-site and moved quickly to sue the director for declaratory and injunctive relief, arguing that the law violated free speech, free press, and due process.
The director moved to dismiss, claiming that he was immune under the Eleventh Amendment, that the ACLU lacked standing, and that the claims failed as a matter of law.
The Eighth Circuit today sided with the director on immunity and standing (and didn't say anything on the merits). The court ruled that the director was immune, because under the law he has no role in enforcing the prohibition, even if he has authority to define the members of the execution team. But the court said that defining the members wasn't an enforcement action within the meaning of Ex Parte Young.
The court also ruled that the ACLU lacked standing. That's (again) because the director has no authority to enforce the prohibition. (Instead, the law provides for a civil cause of action by any execution team member against anyone who reveals his or her identity.) The court said that this means that the director's action (defining the execution team) didn't cause the ACLU's injury, and an injunction against the director wouldn't redress it.
But the court did recognize that the ACLU suffered an injury--an objectively reasonable fear of legal action that chills its speech. Because this fear derives from the possibility of a team member's suit, the organization could probably could sue a team member who appears in its materials for the same relief. Or it could post the material, wait to be sued, and then raise the constitutional defenses.
Wednesday, March 2, 2016
The Tenth Circuit ruled today in Coalition for Secular Government v. Williams that burdensome state disclosure requirements as applied to a small-scale issue-advocacy nonprofit violate the First Amendment. The ruling means that Colorado's disclosure requirements cannot apply against the Coalition for Secular Government's small-scale advocacy against a statewide "personhood" ballot initiative in the 2014 general election.
The Coalition for Secular Government is a small outfit (one person) that devotes itself to printing and distributing material against a proposed "personhood" amendment in Colorado each time it comes up for a vote--the last in 2014. Because the Coalition collects donations to support its operations, the state constitution and implementing laws and regulations require the Coalition to register as an "issue committee" and to disclose information about contributors. These turn out to be quite a hassle, especially for a small group, so the Coalition sued, arguing that they violate the First Amendment.
The Tenth Circuit agreed. The court applied "exacting scrutiny" and concluded that "the minimal informational interest [in disclosure] cannot justify the associated substantial burdens [of compliance]." The court noted that the small-scale nature of the Coalition had an impact on both sides of the balance. As to the informational interest, "the strength of the public's interest in issue-committee disclosure depends, in part, on how much money the issue committee has raised or spent," and the informational interest in the Coalition's spending (about $3,500) was nothing like the informational interest in a group that spent, say, $10 million. As to the burden, the court noted that a small-scale organization like the Coalition faces greater challenges in compliance than a large-scale outfit.
At the same time, the court declined to say whether the state constitutional threshold for issue-committee reporting (a mere $200) constituted a facial violation of the First Amendment. As a result, that threshold is still on the books.
In her extensive opinion in Wandering Dago, Inc. v. Desito, United States District Judge for the Northern District of New York Judge Mae D'Agostino granted summary judgment for the government against the First Amendment and Equal Protection claims of "Wandering Dago" resulting from the denial of a permit to operate a food truck at the Empire State Plaza in Albany (pictured below), a facility owned by the state of New York and operated by the state Office of General Services (OGS) under Commissioner RoAnn Desito.
In the summers of 2013 and 2014, OGS administered "The Empire State Plaza Summer Outdoor Lunch Program," permitting vendors to operate food trucks for limited hours on the plaza, intended to provide "lunch options to the approximately 11,000 State employees who work at Empire State Plaza, as well as for visitors to the Capitol, State Museum, performing arts center" - - - known as The Egg - - - and various monuments and memorials in New York's capital city. As the list of applicants was being processed, the name "Wandering Dago" attracted attention of OGS employees, one who "recognized the term 'dago' as 'a highly offensive term for Italians,'" and after conducting a "computer search" to determine whether this was true, his conclusion was not only "confirmed" but it was "revealed" that the term has been "used to refer to people of Spanish and Portuguese descent, as well as Italians." OGS denied the application "on the grounds that its name contains an offensive ethnic slur and does not fit with OGS' policy of providing family-friendly policy." Wandering Dago's application the next year was similarly rejected.
The First Amendment claims were primary; the Equal Protection Clause claims having been previously dismissed and warranting little more analysis when re-plead. On the First Amendment, Judge D'Agostino identified the problem common to so much free speech litigation: this case does not fit neatly into any particular First Amendment "framework." Thus, Judge D'Agostino engaged in several strands of analysis, most prominently being "forum" analysis, but also government speech, employee (contractor) speech, and commercial speech.
As to forum doctrine, Judge D'Agostino rehearses the well-know different types of forum, ultimately deciding that the forum is a "nonpublic forum." Key to this conclusion, as is so often true, is the definition of the forum. For Judge D'Agostino, the forum is not Empire State Plaza, but the lunch program - - - "which happens to take place within the grounds that comprise the Empire State Plaza." That OGS required permits and controlled the "forum" contributes to this view.
Yet even under a nonpublic forum, the government must be "reasonable" and content/viewpoint neutral. As to the reasonableness, Judge D'Agostino discounted the fact that the policy was not written or even previously articulated. Somewhat confusingly, the judge decided that the owners of Dago did not intend to express anything particular by the name, and therefore there could be no viewpoint/content discrimination and similarly found that there was no problem with unbridled discretion. The judge rejected the applicability of In Re Simon Shiao Tam, in which the en banc Federal Circuit held that the disparagement provision in Section 2(a) of the Lanham Act, 15 U.S.C. § 1052(a), barring the the Patent and Trademark Office from registering scandalous, immoral, or disparaging marks, is unconstitutional because it violates the First Amendment because it did not involve a forum, but an application of strict scrutiny. Judge D'Agostino also distinguished cases in which the proprietor was denied the entire opportunity to sell the goods rather than simply not allowed to participate in a particular program.
The particular program aspect supports the judge's conclusion that "government speech" was at issue, relying on Walker v. Texas Sons of Confederate Veterans in which the Court found that Texas's program of specialty license plates was government speech.
While Judge D'Agostino's opinion is well-structured and comprehensive, the analysis regarding content/viewpoint discrimination, no matter the forum type, will most likely be fertile ground for appeal. On government speech, the case may provide the Second Circuit with an opportunity to clarify the limits of Walker.
Thursday, February 25, 2016
Recall the controversy in 2012 regarding the racist and sexist emails of Judge Richard Cebull of the District of Montana reportedly regarding President Obama? Judge Cebull resigned about a year later, as the matter was being investigated by judicial committees. The Ninth Circuit Committee on Judicial Conduct and Disability entered its Decision in January 2014 incorporated the findings of judicial misconduct of other committees, but found that remedial action was "inoperative" given Cebull's retirement.
In Adams v. Committee on Judicial Conduct and Disability, two Montana journalists sought more information than the Committee included in that decision, including additional emails, and brought suit against the Committee and other defendants. In an 25 page Order today, Judge Yvonne Gonzalez Rogers dismissed the complaint without leave to amend. Judge Rogers's decision included several grounds.
First, Judge Rogers concluded that the Committee on Judicial Conduct and Disability was protected by federal sovereign immunity and that the Committee had not waived that immunity.
Second, Judge Rogers considered the Defendants' claim that the plaintiff journalists lacked standing. Citing First Amendment cases such as Branzburg v. Hayes (1972), Judge Rogers found that the plaintiffs did suffer "injury in fact" as journalists. However, Judge Rogers concluded that the plaintiff journalists failed to satisfy another element of standing, the causation inquiry, stating that "Plaintiffs have not alleged that their injury is fairly traceable to any conduct of the Committee, at least not with clarity." She thus dismissed the complaint for lack of standing.
Third, Judge Rogers entertained the Committee's arguments that it was protected by judicial immunity. Judge Rogers found that the Committee had both judicial immunity and quasi-judicial immunity, and granted the motion to dismiss on both these grounds.
Fourth, the Committee sought judicial deliberative privilege regarding Judge Cebull's emails. However, Judge Rogers found that the particular emails sought were not "in pertinent part, communications relating to official judicial business."
Fifth and finally, was the First Amendment claim. The Defendants claimed that the emails were "investigative materials" shielded from First Amendment disclosure by the confidentiality provision of the Judicial Council’s Reform and Judicial Conduct and Disability Act of 1980, 28 U.S.C section 360. Judge Rogers framed the issue thusly:
(i) assuming Defendants are correct that the emails are “investigative materials” covered by 360(a), is that confidentiality restriction consistent with the First Amendment?; and alternatively,
(ii) assuming the emails are not “investigative materials” covered by 360(a), does the First Amendment provide any right or claim to compel their disclosure by Defendants?
The Court turns to the Press-Enterprise II framework to determine if, under either formulation, Plaintiffs’ access claim is one that meets the historical experience and logic criteria, such that a qualified First Amendment right of access exists.
Using the experience and policy framework of Press Enterprise II (1986) Judge Rogers concluded that under either formulation of the issue, the press did not sustain a claim for access to the emails. Instead, the "more general rule set forth by the Supreme Court in Houchins [v. KQED (1978) ] — that the First Amendment right of the public or the press does not grant unlimited access to all government information or information within the government’s control—prevails.
Thus, it seems we will never be have an opportunity to read the other (presumably offensive) emails that Judge Cebull sent through his official judicial accounts when he was a sitting judge. Given the multiple grounds on which Judge Rogers relied, and the well-reasoned First Amendment discussion, any appeal would have much to overcome in order to be successful.
Tuesday, February 23, 2016
In a Memorandum Opinion in Fields v. City of Philadelphia, recently appointed United States District Judge for the Eastern District of Pennsylvania, Mark Kearney held that the First Amendment does not protect video-recording of the police absent a "stated purpose of being critical of the government."
For Judge Kearney, video-recording is conduct and there is no "expressive" element unless there is an explicit intent of being critical of police conduct. Mere "observation," Judge Kearney wrote, is not expressive. It is not within the First Amendment unless the observers are "members of the press."
Judge Kearney rather unconvincingly distinguished the First Circuit's 2011 opinion in Glik v. Cunniffee, by stating [in a footnote], "In Glik, the plaintiff expressed concern police were using excessive force arresting a young man in a public park and began recording the arrest on his cell phone and the police then arrested plaintiff." Even if valid, this distinction is problematical. It may be pertinent with regard to one plaintiff, Richard Fields, who took a picture of 20 or so police officers outside a home hosting a party. However, with regard to the other plaintiff, Amanda Geraci, who the judge notes is a "self-described 'legal observer'" with training, the distinction seems to be one without a difference: she was at a protest and "moved closer" to videotape an officer arresting one of the protesters when a police officer restrained her and prevented her from doing so.
Judge Kearney thus granted the motion for summary judgment on the First Amendment claims. The judge did, however, deny summary judgment on the Fourth Amendment claims for unreasonable search and false arrest (for Fields) and excessive force (for Geraci). Yet however these claims are resolved, the First Amendment ruling is one that is exceedingly suitable for Third Circuit review.
Tuesday, February 9, 2016
Federal District Judge Enters Preliminary Injunction Against Center for Medical Progress, Anti-Abortion Group
The Center for Medical Progress (CMP) - - - including its founder David Daleiden, others (and their aliases) associated with the nonprofit, as well as "fake" companies - - - has been in the news a great deal of late.
Daleiden and employee Merritt have recently been indicted in connection with an “investigation” of Planned Parenthood and the publication of a “heavily edited” video charging Planned Parenthood with unauthorized selling of fetal tissue. The video has prompted some lawmakers to urge defunding of Planned Parenthood and, interestingly, the grand jury indictment of Daleiden and Merritt in Texas sprung from an inquiry into whether Planned Parenthood had violated any criminal laws. Planned Parenthood has recently sued CMP under RICO and for various tort-like claims.
Judge William Orrick of the Northern District of California has issued a preliminary injunction that some might view as a prior restraint against CMP and its associates in an Order in National Abortion Federation v. Center for Medical Progress. In July, Judge Orrick issued a TRO. The discovery orders and motions were quite contentious, with CMP seeking relief from the Ninth Circuit, which was denied, and Justice Kennedy (in his role as Justice for the Ninth Circuit) refusing to intervene. The preliminary injunction prohibits:
(1) publishing or otherwise disclosing to any third party any video, audio, photographic, or other recordings taken, or any confidential information learned, at any NAF annual meetings;
(2) publishing or otherwise disclosing to any third party the dates or locations of any future NAF meetings; and
(3) publishing or otherwise disclosing to any third party the names or addresses of any NAF members learned at any NAF annual meetings.
This injunction relates primarily to the enforcement of a “confidentiality agreement” required by attendees of the NAF national conference, which Center for Medical Progress admitted violating, engaging in over 250 hours at each of two conferences (2014 and 2015), including of personal conversations, intended - - - as CMP founder Daleiden admits, to “trap people into saying something really messed up” and to say the words “fully intact baby.” Judge Orrick found that enforcement of the confidentiality agreement does not violate the First Amendment, citing Cohen v. Cowles Media (1991). Judge Orrick also found that this was not a “typical ‘newsgathering’ case” in which "prior restraints" would be disfavored, but instead had exceptional circumstances:
The context of how defendants came into possession of the NAF materials cannot be ignored and directly supports preliminarily preventing the disclosure of these materials. Defendants engaged in repeated instances of fraud, including the manufacture of fake documents, the creation and registration with the state of California of a fake company, and repeated false statements to a numerous NAF representatives and NAF members in order to infiltrate NAF and implement their Human Capital Project. The products of that Project – achieved in large part from the infiltration – thus far have not been pieces of journalistic integrity, but misleadingly edited videos and unfounded assertions (at least with respect to the NAF materials) of criminal misconduct. Defendants did not – as Daleiden repeatedly asserts – use widely accepted investigatory journalism techniques. Defendants provide no evidence to support that assertion and no cases on point.
One of the cases that Judge Orrick's footnote distinguishes is Judge Winmill's decision in Animal Defense League v. Otter, finding Oregon's ag-gag law unconstitutional as a violation of the First Amendment, which is presently on appeal to the Ninth Circuit. Undoubtedly, Center for Medical Progress will eventually follow the path to the Ninth Circuit. Taken together, these cases raise controversial issues about the First Amendment's protection for what some might name "investigative journalism" and what others view as "illegal actions."
Thursday, January 28, 2016
Judge Paul Friedman (D.D.C.) ruled today in ANSWER v. Jewell that the National Park Service regs setting aside a portion of the Presidential inauguration route for the inauguration committee and banning sign supports do not violate free speech.
The case challenged NPS regulations that set aside 18% of the sidewalk and park space along the inauguration parade route for the Presidential Inauguration Committee, a private, non-profit that represents the interests of the President-Elect, and requires other groups that wish to protest or speak to get a permit. Judge Friedman upheld the regulation against a First Amendment challenge, ruling that the PIC was government speech (under the factors in Walker v. Texas and Pleasant Grove City v. Summum), that the set-aside for PIC therefore did not constitute viewpoint-based discrimination against other groups that wished to speak against PIC's message, and that the set-aside and permit requirement were content neutral and otherwise satisfied the test for speech in a public forum.
Judge Friedman also ruled that the ban on sign-supports was content-neutral and satisfied the public forum test. (The government's interests were safety--sign-supports could be used as a weapon--and marshaling parade viewers through security checkpoints quickly and efficiently.) Judge Friedman noted that this ruling conflicted with the Ninth Circuit in Edwards v. Coeur d'Alene, however: the Ninth Circuit said in that case that a ban on sign-supports failed to leave open ample alternative channels of communication, because "there is no other effective and economical way for an individual to communicate his or her message to a broad audience during a parade or public assembly than to attach a handle to his sign to hoist it in their air."
The plaintiff in the case, the anti-war and anti-racism group ANSWER, may have inadvertently contributed to the result: Judge Friedman wrote at several points in the opinion that ANSWER had touted its previous protests, under similar restrictions, as successful--apparently demonstrating that ANSWER can get its message out effectively (that it has ample alternative channels for communication) even with the NPS regs.
Tuesday, January 19, 2016
The Court heard oral arguments in Heffernan v. City of Paterson, NJ today, a situation presenting a question that Justice Alito at one point described as "like a law school hypothetical." Heffernan, a police officer, was demoted for his perceived political activity: he had decided to stay neutral but was seen picking up a mayoral campaign sign at the request of his "bedridden mother" to "replace a smaller one that had been stolen from her lawn" and was therefore demoted.
At the heart of the oral argument is a large question about the purpose (and one might say the direction) of the First Amendment. On one view - - - that of the City of Paterson as represented by Tom Goldstein - - - the First Amendment requires that a person be exercising the right of free association (or speech): "It's called an individual right, not a government wrong." On the other view - - - that of Jeffrey Heffernan represented by Mark Frost - - - the First Amendment restrains the government from acting to infringe First Amendment rights, even if it does so in error. This was perhaps best expressed by Justice Ginsburg:
And I thought - - - and unlike Justice Scalia - - - that the thrust of the First Amendment is operating on government. It says government, thou shalt not - - - thou shalt not act on the basis of someone's expression, speech or belief.
Justice Ginsburg broached the analogy to Title VII, which arguably allows perceived status to support a claim, was quickly distinguished by Justice Scalia as being a statute that focuses on the employer's discrimination rather than the employee, unlike the First Amendment. There was no reference to the text of the First Amendment which of course begins "Congress shall make no law . . ." which could be read as emphasizing the restriction on government.
Justice Kennedy asked the first question of the argument to Mark Frost as he was just finishing his opening by requesting an articulation of the right: "How would you define the right that your client wishes this Court to vindicate?" But although some other Justices seemed to believe there was no actual right, Justice Kennedy later seemed more equivocal:
JUSTICE KENNEDY: You want this Court to hold that the government of the United States has a right to ascribe to a citizen views that he or she does not hold.
MR. GOLDSTEIN: Justice Kennedy, I think that that is not a First Amendment violation.
The Solicitor General's views on behalf of the United States, represented by Ginger Anders, supported the employee. Ms. Anders articulated the right as "a First Amendment right not to have adverse action taken against him by his employer for the unconstitutional purpose of suppressing disfavored political beliefs" and later as the "right not to be subject to a test of political affiliation."
Chief Justice Roberts at several points expressed concerns about a possible "flood of meritless lawsuits" if the employee does not have to show he was actually exercising a protected right.
The Justices seemed divided; Justice Kennedy may (again) be the "swing" vote on this one.
Saturday, January 16, 2016
United States Supreme Court Grants Certiorari in Free Exercise State Funding Case: Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia, Mo.
The United States Supreme Court has granted certiorari in Trinity Lutheran Church of Columbia, Mo. v. Pauley regarding a Free Exercise and Equal Protection challenge to a denial of state funding that was based on a state constitutional provision prohibiting state funds be given to religious organizations.
As the Eighth Circuit opinion ruling for the state, had phrased it, "Trinity Church seeks an unprecedented ruling -- that a state constitution violates the First Amendment and the Equal Protection Clause if it bars the grant of public funds to a church." The Eighth Circuit relied in part on Locke v. Davey, 540 U.S. 712 (2004), in which "the Court upheld State of Washington statutes and constitutional provisions that barred public scholarship aid to post-secondary students pursuing a degree in theology." For the Eighth Circuit, "while there is active academic and judicial debate about the breadth of the decision, we conclude that Locke" supported circuit precedent that foreclosed the challenge to the Missouri state constitutional provision.
There are actually two Missouri constitutional provisions, Art. I §7 and Art. IX §8, which as the Eighth Circuit noted, are "not only more explicit but more restrictive than the Establishment Clause of the United States Constitution,” quoting a Missouri Supreme Court decision. The provisions were initially adopted in 1870 and 1875, and re-adopted in the Missouri Constitution of 1945, the current constitution. The first provision is the one at the heart of this dispute. Placed in the state constitution's "Bill of Rights," Art. I §7 provides:
That no money shall ever be taken from the public treasury, directly or indirectly, in aid of any church, sect, or denomination of religion, or in aid of any priest, preacher, minister or teacher thereof, as such; and that no preference shall be given to nor any discrimination made against any church, sect, or creed of religion, or any form of religious faith or worship.
It was in reliance on this state constitutional provision that the state Department of Natural Resources denied the grant application of Trinity Lutheran Church for funds to purchase of recycled tires to resurface its preschool playground. To supply such funds, the state officials decided, would violate the state constitution.
Trinity Lutheran Church articulated the issue in its petition for certiorari as
Whether the exclusion of churches from an otherwise neutral and secular aid program violates the Free Exercise and Equal Protection Clauses when the state has no valid Establishment Clause concern.
It argues that the Eigth Circuit's decision was not "faithful" to Locke v. Davey because the playground resurfacing program was purely secular in nature, unlike in Locke. But this might mean that the state constitutional provisions defining their own boundaries regarding "establishment" of religion are unconstitutional.
Friday, January 15, 2016
New York State Appellate Court Rejects First Amendment Claim in Same-Sex Wedding Discrimination Case
In its opinion in Gifford v. McCarthy, an appellate court in New York upheld the decision of the State Division of Human Rights that the owners of Liberty Ridge Farm, a wedding venue, were guilty of an unlawful discriminatory practice based upon sexual orientation when they refused to provide services for a same-sex wedding. Writing for the unanimous five judge panel, Presiding Justice Karen Peters concluded that the venue was clearly a place of public accommodation within the anti-discrimination law and that discrimination based upon sexual orientation clearly occurred.
On the constitutional issues, Justice Peters found the arguments under both the First Amendment and New York's similar provisions without merit. Regarding the First Amendment Free Exercise of religion claim, Justice Peters concluded that "the right of free exercise does not relieve an individual of the obligation to comply with a 'valid and neutral law of general applicability on the ground that the law proscribes (or prescribes) conduct that his [or her] religion prescribes (or proscribes)," citing Employment Div., Dept. of Human Resources of Ore. v Smith (1990). She noted that the "fact that some religious organizations and educational facilities are exempt from the [state] statute's public accommodation provision does not, as petitioners claim, demonstrate that it is not neutral or generally applicable."
Applying New York's Free Exercise provision under which the infringement is balanced against the state interests, and Justice Peters wrote:
While we recognize that the burden placed on the Giffords' right to freely exercise their religion is not inconsequential, it cannot be overlooked that SDHR's determination does not require them to participate in the marriage of a same-sex couple. Indeed, the Giffords are free to adhere to and profess their religious beliefs that same-sex couples should not marry, but they must permit same-sex couples to marry on the premises if they choose to allow opposite-sex couples to do so. To be weighed against the Giffords' interests in adhering to the tenets of their faith is New York's long-recognized, substantial interest in eradicating discrimination."
Thus the court rejected the free exercise claims. Similarly, the court rejected the free speech claims of compelled speech and free association. On compelled speech, Justice Peters' opinion for the court concluded that the provision of a wedding venue was not expressive:
Despite the Giffords' assertion that their direct participation in same-sex wedding ceremonies would "broadcast to all who pass by the Farm" their support for same-sex marriage, reasonable observers would not perceive the Giffords' provision of a venue and services for a same-sex wedding ceremony as an endorsement of same-sex marriage. Like all other owners of public accommodations who provide services to the general public, the Giffords must comply with the statutory mandate prohibiting discrimination against customers on the basis of sexual orientation or any other protected characteristic. Under such circumstances, there is no real likelihood that the Giffords would be perceived as endorsing the values or lifestyle of the individuals renting their facilities as opposed to merely complying with anti-discrimination laws.
The court also held that Liberty Farms was not an "expressive association" but a business with the "purpose of making a profit through service contracts with customers." However, the court added that even if Liberty Ridge were to be deemed an expressive enterprise, "a customer's association with a business for the limited purposes of obtaining goods and services – as opposed to becoming part of the business itself – does not trigger" expressive association.
In upholding the application of the anti-discrimination law against First Amendment challenges, the New York appellate opinion joins other courts that have reached the same conclusion: the New Mexico courts in Elane Photography to which the United States Supreme Court denied certiorar and the Colorado courts in Masterpiece Cakeshop. The UK Supreme Court's decision in Bull v. Hall is also consistent with this trend. Nevertheless, the issue is far from settled and more decisions likely.
UPDATE: The owners of Liberty Ridge will reportedly not appeal.
January 15, 2016 in Association, Cases and Case Materials, Current Affairs, Family, First Amendment, Fundamental Rights, Opinion Analysis, Recent Cases, Religion, Speech, State Constitutional Law, Supreme Court (US) | Permalink | Comments (1)
In its opinion in United States v. Swisher authored by Judge Sandra Ikuta, the en banc Ninth Circuit found that the provision in 18 USC §704(a) that criminalized the unauthorized wearing of any military medal violates the First Amendment. Swisher was photographed wearing "the Silver Star, Navy and Marine Corps Ribbon, Purple Heart, Navy and Marine Corps Commendation Medal with a Bronze “V,” and UMC Expeditionary Medal," none of which he ever received.
The Court's opinion occurs in the shadow of the United States Supreme Court's 2012 decision in United States v. Alvarez which held that 18 USC §704(b) - - - prohibiting false statements about military medals - - - violated the First Amendment. A panel of the Ninth Circuit had previously held in United States v. Perelman that Alvarez was not dispositive regarding §704(a) because wearing the medal was conduct rather than speech, akin to "impersonation" rather than expression. The en banc opinion in Swisher explicitly overruled Perelman "to the extent inconsistent with this opinion."
The en banc opinion in Swisher held that while wearing the medal may have been expressive conduct, the government's purpose in regulating that conduct was aimed at regulating the message conveyed by the expressive conduct rather than the conduct itself. Judge Ikuta's opinion interestingly relied upon the Court's decision last Term in Reed v. Town of Gilbert as "authoritative direction for differentiating between content-neutral and content-based enactments."
Thus, Judge Ikuta's opinion determined that the lenient standard of United States v. O'Brien for expressive conduct was not the correct analysis and instead the standard as articulated in Alvarez should apply. But what is the Alvarez standard, given that Justice Kennedy's opinion for a plurality applied an exacting scrutiny standard and Justice Breyer's concurring opinion applied more of an intermediate scrutiny test? The en banc Ninth Circuit adroitly circumvented the need to decide the United States Supreme Court's holding by beginning with Justice Breyer's "less demanding standard": consideration of the seriousness of the speech related harm the provision will likely cause; evaluating the nature and importance of the provision's countervailing objectives; and the extent to which the provision will tend to achieve those objectives and whether there are other, less restrictive means, of doing so." The en banc Ninth Circuit found that the criminalizing of inappropriately wearing military medals failed the intermediate Breyer standard and thus would obviously fail the stricter more exacting scrutiny standard of the plurality.
Not surprisingly Judge Bybee, who wrote a vigorous dissent in 2010 when a panel of the Ninth Circuit held the provision in Alvarez unconstitutional, dissented in Swisher, joined by Judges N.R. Smith and Watford.
The practical consequences of the Ninth Circuit's en banc opinion are marginal: the statute has already been amended and Swisher was also convicted on other provisions including fraud. However, the doctrinal consequences of the opinion include an important demonstration of an application of Alvarez and the even more important holding clarifying that "wearing" is not always mere conduct evaluated at the lowest levels of First Amendment scrutiny.
Wednesday, January 13, 2016
Check out this new Brennan Center report on the recent spate of sharply divided Supreme Court rulings that opened the spigot on money in politics.
In Five to Four, Brennan Center attorneys Lawrence Norden, Brent Ferguson, and Douglas Keith show how "six closely divided Supreme Court decisions in the last decade contributed to some of the most disturbing trends in American elections"--things like super PACs, dark money, unlimited corporate and union spending, and radically increased total contributions to candidates and parties. (Each of these gets its own chapter.)
Four of the nine justices strongly disagreed with these decisions, and if one more justice had joined them, our ability to regulate big money in politics, and to give ordinary Americans more of a voice in the political process, would be very different today.
In other words, the last few years of campaign financing are not "normal," or "inevitable," or "just the way things are." To the contrary, in the modern era, they are the aberrant result of a single swing vote on the Supreme Court, which upended decades of carefully crafted campaign finance laws, and they can be reversed.
Tuesday, January 12, 2016
The Supreme Court heard oral arguments yesterday in Friedrichs v. California Teachers Ass'n, the case testing whether a state's public-sector union fair-share requirement violates the First Amendment.
Answer: Almost certainly yes.
Few cases are predictable as this one, given the Court's lead-ups in Harris and Knox (both sharply criticizing Abood, the 40-year-old case upholding fair-share requirements against a First Amendment challenge). And few oral arguments foretell the Court's and the dissent's analyses and split so clearly as yesterday's argument.
The conservative justices, including Kennedy, have made up their minds against fair share (and in favor of overruling Abood). The progressives have made up their minds in favor of fair share (and keeping Abood on the books). Both sides rehearsed the arguments that we'll see when the opinion comes out later this year.
All this made the oral arguments seem unnecessary. And maybe they were. After all, those opposing fair-share didn't seem at all troubled by the absence of a factual record in this case--even though some amici briefed significant practical labor-relations problems that arose without fair share. Instead, those opposing fair share seemed perfectly willing to rely on their own intuition about how public-sector labor relations work.
The facts don't really matter, so why should the legal arguments, when everybody's minds are made up, anyway?
Some of the early discussion focused on the extent of fair-share opponents' First Amendment claim: does it apply only to public-sector unions, or also to private-sector unions? Michael Carvin, attorney for the fair-share opponents, was clear: it only applies to public-sector unions. That's because collective bargaining for public-sector unions inevitably involves public issues--so a fair-share requirement compels non-union-members to pay for public advocacy (with which they disagree). (Private-sector collective bargaining, in contrast, involves only private employment issues.) Moreover, Carvin said that it's not always so easy to sort out what union speech goes to collective bargaining issues, and what goes to other public advocacy--a problem administering Abood that goes to its stare decisis staying power (see below).
And that leads to Carvin's next point, a clever twist on the concern about free-riders: fair-share requirements don't serve the interest of avoiding free-riders (as conventional wisdom and Abood would have it); instead, fair-share requirements let the union free ride on non-members' fair-share contributions. Carvin turned the traditional free-rider concern on its head.
And the conservatives, including Justice Kennedy, accepted all this. (Chief Justice Roberts even added at one point that if unions are so popular, the traditional concern about free riders is "insignificant.") Indeed, Justice Kennedy stated the opponents' case as clearly (and certainly as concisely) as anyone yesterday:
But it's almost axiomatic. When you are dealing with a governmental agency, many critical points are matters of public concern. And is it not true that many teachers are -- strongly, strongly disagree with the union position on teacher tenure, on merit pay, on merit promotion, on classroom size?
And you -- the term is free rider. The union basically is making these teachers compelled riders for issues on which they strongly disagree.
Many teachers think that they are devoted to the future of America, to the future of our young people, and that the union is equally devoted to that but that the union is absolutely wrong in some of its positions. And agency fees require, as I understand it -- correct me if I'm wrong -- agency fees require that employees and teachers who disagree with those positions must nevertheless subsidize the union on those very points.
The progressives pushed back with stare decisis: shouldn't the Court give some weight to Abood? Carvin said that overruling Abood would actually better square the jurisprudence. But that didn't sit well with Justice Kagan:
So really what your argument comes down to is two very recent cases, which is Harris and Knox. And there you might say that Harris and Knox gave indications that the Court was not friendly to Abood. But those were two extremely recent cases, and they were both cases that actually were decided within the Abood framework. . . .
So taking two extremely recent cases, which admittedly expressed some frustration with Abood, but also specifically decided not to overrule Abood, I mean, just seems like it's nothing of the kind that we usually say when we usually say that a precedent has to be overturned because it's come into conflict with an entire body of case law.
Some on the left also wondered whether striking Abood also mean striking mandatory bar fees and mandatory student fees (previously upheld by the Court), and whether it would disrupt reliance interests (in the form of the thousands of public-sector union contracts that rely on it).
Look for all these points in the opinion, when it comes down. And look for the conventional 5-4, conservative-progressive split. If the result in this case wasn't clear going into arguments yesterday (though it was), then arguments yesterday certainly clarified it.
(The second question in the case--whether non-chargeable expenses need to follow an opt-in rule, instead of an opt-out rule, got very little attention. This issue, too, is all but decided, by the same split: the Court will almost certainly require opt-in.)
Tuesday, December 22, 2015
In its more than 100 page opinion today in In Re Simon Shiao Tam, the en banc Federal Circuit held that the disparagement provision in Section 2(a) of the Lanham Act, 15 U.S.C. § 1052(a), barring the the Patent and Trademark Office from registering scandalous, immoral, or disparaging marks, is unconstitutional because it violates the First Amendment.
The central issue was the denial of a trademark registration to "The Slants" by the applicant Simon Shiao Tam, on behalf of the Portland, Oregon "all Asian American dance rock band" (pictured below).
The United States Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit, established in 1982 by a the merger of the United States Court of Customs and Patent Appeals and the appellate division of the United States Court of Claims, was reviewing the denial of the trademark by the Patent and Trademark Office (PTO). A panel of the Federal Circuit rejected Tam's First Amendment arguments, finding that it was bound by circuit precedent from 1981 that held that the First Amendment was not implicated by the denial of trademark registration.
The Circuit sua sponte ordered rehearing en banc. The majority opinion, authored by Judge Kimberly Moore (who was formerly a law prof at George Mason School of Law), was joined by 8 other judges, including Chief Judge Sharon Prost, reasoned that much had changed since the 1981 circuit precedent - - - including the jurisprudence offering protections for commercial speech under the First Amendment - - - and that the First Amendment should apply.
Not only should the First Amendment apply, it is violated in the most egregious manner: viewpoint discrimination. Moore's opinion for the majority stresses that the "disparagement" provision "discriminates against speech because it disapproves of the message conveyed by the speech" and is therefore subject to strict scrutiny. That the government might itself not disapprove but "claims that some part of the populace will disapprove of the message" is irrelevant. When the PTO refuses to register a trademark under this provision,"it does so because it believes the mark conveys an expressive message—a message that is disparaging to certain groups." Mr. Tam was undoubtedly engaging in expressive speech:
Mr. Tam explicitly selected his mark to create a dialogue on controversial political and social issues. With his band name, Mr. Tam makes a statement about racial and ethnic identity. He seeks to shift the meaning of, and thereby reclaim, an emotionally charged word. He advocates for social change and challenges perceptions of people of Asian descent. His band name pushes people. It offends. Despite this—indeed, because of it—Mr. Tam’s band name is expressive speech.
The court rejected the government's three arguments, including its argument that the First Amendment did not apply since no speech was prohibited. The government's second argument - - - that trademark registration is government speech - - - was likewise rejected. Here, the court distinguished last Term's decision in Walker v. Texas Sons of Confederate Veterans, the confederate flag license plate case, by distinguishing between the license plate (which the government continues to own and which the car driver must affix) and the trademark symbol (which the government does not "own" and the registrant can use or not). As for public perception, the court used a copyright analogy: just as the public does not associate copyrighted works such as Fifty Shades of Grey with the government, "neither does the public associate individual trademarks such as THE SLANTS with the government."
The court likewise rejected the government argument that § 2(a) merely withholds a government subsidy for Mr. Tam’s speech and is valid as a permissible definition of a government subsidy program: "Trademark registration does not implicate Congress’s power to spend or to control use of government property." Further, the "benefits of trademark registration, while valuable, are not monetary, and are "unlike a subsidy consisting of, for example, HIV/AIDS funding," as in the Court's 2013 decision in USAID v. Alliance for an Open Society.
The majority's opinion clearly rests on its conclusion that the disparagement provision of § 2(a) is viewpoint discrimination that cannot survive strict scrutiny. But it also provides the fall-back rationale of commercial speech.
Even if we were to treat § 2(a) as a regulation of commercial speech, it would fail to survive. In Central Hudson, the Supreme Court laid out the intermediate- scrutiny framework for determining the constitutionality of restrictions on commercial speech. First, commercial speech “must concern lawful activity and not be misleading.” If this is the case, we ask whether “the asserted governmental interest is substantial,” id., and whether the regulation “directly and materially advanc[es]” the government’s asserted interest and is narrowly tailored to achieve that objective.
[citations omitted]. But the court's rationale circles back. The court finds that 2(a) fails at the second step: the government interest cannot be substantial because it is based on viewpoint discrimination. This is certainly predictable in light of IMS v. Sorrell (2011). The court finds that the government's asserted interest in "fostering racial tolerance" cannot support a speech regulation. "The case law does not recognize a substantial interest in discriminatorily regulating private speech to try to reduce racial intolerance." The cases relied upon are outside the commercial speech realm.
This tension between commercial speech and non-commercial speech permeates some of the opinions by Judges who did not join the majority. Perhaps most persuasive is the dissenting opinion by Judge Jimmie Reyna, arguing that §2(a) survived commercial speech's intermediate scrutiny:
The marketplace of ideas differs dramatically from the marketplace of goods and services. While the marketplace of ideas may tolerate or even benefit from the volatility that accompanies disparaging and insulting speech, the marketplace of goods and services is a wholly different animal. Commerce does not benefit from political volatility, nor from insults, discrimination, or bigotry. Commerce is a communal institution regulated for the mutual economic benefit of all. Commercial speech that discredits or brings reproach upon groups of Americans, particularly based on their race, has a discriminatory impact that undermines commercial activity and the stability of the marketplace in much the same manner as discriminatory conduct.
As the court notes numerous times throughout its opinions, the disparagement provision has long been contentious, including the notorious "Dykes on Bikes" trademark dispute (which I wrote about here).
But currently - - - and looming largely - - - the ongoing litigation currently before the Fourth Circuit regarding the PTO's cancellation of the trademark of a football team with the name many believe disparages Native Americans.
Moreover, given that a circuit court has declared a portion of a federal statute unconstitutional, this issue could well be going to the United States Supreme Court.
Sunday, November 29, 2015
Judge Christopher Cooper (D.D.C.) ruled last week that a constitutional challenge to the federal restrictions on soft money by state and local political party committees will be heard by a three-judge district court. The ruling puts the case on the fast-track to the Supreme Court, whose plurality ruling last year in McCutcheon puts the federal soft-money restrictions on extremely shaky ground. The net result: this case, Republican Party of Louisiana v. FEC, will likely go to the Supreme Court; the Court will almost surely strike the soft-money restrictions; and the ruling will open yet another spigot for vast amounts of money to flow in politics.
The case involves BCRA's limits on soft money by state and local political parties. "Soft money" is a contribution to a political party for state and local elections and for "issue advertising," but not for influencing federal elections. (Money for federal elections is subject to other restrictions.) The 2002 Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act flatly prohibits national political parties from raising or spending soft money. But as to state and local party committees, BCRA permits them to use soft money for state and local elections and issue ads, but not for federal election activities. As a result, state and local political party committees use (1) a federal fund, consisting of contributions at and below federal (FECA) limits, for federal elections, and (2) nonfederal funds, consisting of soft-money contributions, for state and local elections and issue ads. (There is a third category, too: Levin funds. Levin funds are a type of nonfederal fund that can be used for some federal election activity. They don't appear to be a game-changer in this case, though.)
The plaintiffs in this case, state and local committees of the Republican Party in Louisiana, challenged BCRA's limits on soft-money. In particular, they challenged (1) BCRA's prohibition on the use of soft-money for federal election activity, (2) BCRA's requirement that state and local committees pay direct costs of fundraising activity for funds used for federal election activity, and (3) BCRA's monthly reporting requirement disbursements and receipts for federal election activity. (BCRA defines "federal election activity" as voter registration, voter identification and GOTV, in addition to campaign communications that refer to a clearly identified candidate for federal office.) The plaintiffs claim these restrictions violate the First Amendment.
The plaintiffs moved to convene a three-judge court to hear their claims. BCRA authorizes such a court to hear constitutional challenges to BCRA, and allows the loser to take the case directly to the Supreme Court. (Constitutional challenges to FECA, on the other hand, go first to an en banc court of appeals. The plaintiffs wanted to by-pass this step and fast-track the case to the Supreme Court, so, learning a lesson from earlier cases, they challenged BCRA's restrictions, not FECA's limits on contributions. Still, a successful challenge would effectively erase FECA's contribution limits.) In this way, the plaintiffs will get the case to the Supreme Court, and quickly.
And that matters, because the Supreme Court has signaled that it's ready to strike at least some soft-money restrictions. In McCutcheon, a plurality defined "corruption"--the only justification for contribution limits that will withstand constitutional scrutiny--quite narrowly, as "quid pro quo corruption or its appearance," or vote-buying. By that definition, the Court is almost sure to strike soft-money restrictions for things like voter registration, GOTV, and issue ads, and maybe others. (How do these things lead directly to quid pro quo corruption?) Even as the Court said in McCutcheon that it wasn't disturbing prior cases upholding restrictions on soft money, its cramped definition of corruption almost surely rules some or all of those restrictions out.
At least the uncertainty created by the Court's definition in McCutcheon caused Judge Cooper to conclude that the plaintiffs' constitutional challenge was "substantial"--a trigger for the three-judge court.
(One potentially complicating factor: The Court is now considering when a complaint is "substantial" so that it triggers a three-judge court, in Shapiro v. McManus. Judge Cooper wrote that if the Court's ruling in Shapiro alters his analysis of "substantial," the three-judge court could dissolve itself. That wouldn't end the case (necessarily), but it would require the plaintiffs to appeal through the D.C. Circuit.)
Judge Cooper's ruling did not address the merits (except to say that the challenge was "substantial"). Still, the ruling puts the case on the fast-track to the Supreme Court (subject to any potential speedbumps from Shapiro), where some or all of the soft-money restrictions on state and local political party committees will likely meet their doom.