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.
Wednesday, December 10, 2014
The Montana Supreme Court ruled in In the Matter of the Adoption of AWS and KRS that state constitutionaly equal protection guaranteed the right to counsel for an indigent mother in a private termination-of-parental rights proceeding.
The ruling means that poor parents in Montana now have a constitutional right to an appointed attorney to represent them in private cases (like adoptions) involving the termination of their parental rights.
The ruling also illustrates how state constitutional rights can be more generous than federal constitutional rights. (Under Lassiter v. Dep't of Social Services, there is no categorical constitutional right to counsel in a termination proceeding under the Fourteenth Amendment.)
The Supreme Court applied Montana state constitutional equal protection, which the court said "provides even more individual protection than the Equal Protection Clause in the Fourteenth Amendment of the United States Constitution."
The court noted that parents subject to state-initiated termination of parental rights (as in an abuse-and-neglect proceeding) have a state statutory right to counsel, but that parents subject to private termination of parental rights (as in an adoption, as in this case) don't. Because the underlying right--the right to parent--is fundamental, the court applied strict scrutiny to the distinction.
The court said that the only reason for not providing counsel in the private termination case was money. And that's not a sufficiently important state interest under strict scrutiny. So the indigent parent in a private termination case gets an attorney, too, as a matter of state constitutional equal protection.
The court suggested that an attorney in a state-initiated termination proceeding might be constitutionally compelled, or at least the issue raises a serious constitutional question, under the Montana constitution. (Under the Fourteenth Amendment and Lassiter v. Dep't of Social Services, there is no categorical constitutional right to counsel, and the answer depends on a Mathews v. Eldridge balancing.) This means that the state legislature can't solve the equal protection problem by taking away the statutory right to counsel for parents in a state-initiated termination proceeding; instead, it has to ratchet-up the rights of parents in a private termination proceeding.
For more information on civil right to counsel, or Civil Gideon, check out the National Coalition for a Civil Right to Counsel, an outstanding organization that is the clearinghouse for the excellent work in this area.
Tuesday, November 25, 2014
The Georgia Supreme Court yesterday rejected claims by a group of plaintiffs that the state courts' use of private probation companies violated due process. At the same time, however, the court ruled that Georgia law and contract principles could limit the way those companies operate.
The plaintiffs in the case, a group of probationers, argued that the use of private probation companies violated due process, and that the company imposed excessive fees on them for unauthorized monitoring, testing, and tolling of their probation. The case illustrates the dangers and abuses that can come with hiring out a private company to conduct functions like probation.
The plaintiffs alleged first that Georgia's statute authorizing state courts to use private probation companies was facially invalid, because it them of liberty without due process of law. That's because the statute did not restrict the courts from arranging payment based on the length of a misdemeanant's probation and other probation-related services that the company provided (like monitoring and testing), creating a conflict of interest for the company. Moreover, plaintiffs claimed that courts relied on recommendations by private probation officers who had a pecuniary interest in the outcome.
The court rejected these claims:
While the supervision of probation is a function historically performed by state probation officers, the mere act of privatizing these services does not violate due process. Nothing on the face of the statute allows Sentinel or any other private probation company to deprivate an individual of his or her property or liberty without due process of law nor is there anything which authorizes the creation of a private probation system that is so fundamentally unfair that it fails to comport with our notions of due process. . . . As found by the trial court, most of the injuries alleged by the plaintiffs in these cases occurred not because of Sentinel's compliance with the restrictions placed upon it by the private probation statutory framework, but becasue of Sentinel's failure or the failure of its employees to abide by the limited statutory authority granted.
The court also rejected the plaintiffs' claims that the statute allowed their imprisonment for debt, in violation of the Georgia Constitution, and that a court couldn't order, and a private company couldn't use, electronic monitoring devices.
But the court ruled as a matter of statutory interpretation that Georgia law did not allow for the tolling of misdemeanor probationers' sentences. That's because misdemeanor sentences are set by statute at one year, at which point jurisdiction over the defendant ceases, and there's no statutory authority to deviate from that rule.
Finally, the court ruled, based on Sentinel's contracts, that some of the plaintiffs could recover fees paid to Sentinel for probation services during their original probation, and that others could recover fees paid after the expiration of the term of their original sentences or for electronic monitoring.
Wednesday, November 5, 2014
In addition to the candidates, Tuesday's ballots contained a wide variety of proposed state constitutional amendments--from protecting and curtailing fundamental rights, to taxes, to structure and governance issues.
Maybe most notably, Colorado and North Dakota voters rejected a personhood amendment, while Tennessee voters approved an amendment giving lawmakers more power to regulate abortions.
Here's a sampling of other approved amendments:
Alabama voters passed an amendment to ban the use of foreign law in state courts, and another one to strengthen the state's constitutional right to hunt.
Illinois voters passed an amendment banning discrimination in the vote and another one that expands the rights of crime victims in the criminal justice system.
Mississippi voters aproved an amendment creating a right to hunt and fish.
Missouri voters approved an amendment to make it easier to prosecute sex crimes against children, and another one to limit the governor's ability to withhold money from the state budget.
North Carolina voters approved an amendment allowing criminal defendants to choose a judge or a jury trial.
South Carolina voters approved an amendment allowing certain nonprofits to hold raffles and use proceeds for charitable causes, and another allowing the governor to appoint the head of the South Carolina National Guard with consent of the Senate.
Tennessee approved four amendments: one to give lawmakers more power to regulate and restrict abortions; two to give more power to the governor in appointing judges (and to take that power away from a judicial nominating commission); three to forbid a state income tax; and four to allow the legislature to authorize lotteries to certain nonprofits.
Utah voters passed an amendment clarifying the term of an appointed lieutenant governor.
Virginia voters approved an amendment that exempts from local property taxes the home of a surviving spouse of an armed forces member who was killed in action.
Wisconsin voters approved an amendment that prevents governors and legislators from using state transportation funds for other purposes.
Here's a sampling of rejected amendments:
Colorado voters overwhelmingly rejected a personhood amendment.
Florida voters rejected a medical marijuana amendment. (Voters in other states also voted on marijuana initiatives, but Florida's was a proposed constitutional amendment.)
Idaho voters rejected an amendment that would allow the legislature to veto rules put in place by executive branch agencies.
Missouri voters rejected an amendment to evaluate K-12 teachers based on student performance instead of seniority, and another amendment to create a limited early voting period.
North Carolina voters rejected a personhood amendment.
Thursday, October 16, 2014
The Arkansas Supreme Court yesterday struck the state's voter ID requirement under the state constitution. The unanimous ruling means that Arkansas will not use Act 595's voter ID requirements in the upcoming elections.
The ruling is based on state constitutional law only, and therefore won't and can't be appealed to the United States Supreme Court.
The state high court ruled that Act 595's voter ID requirement added a voter requirement to those set in the state constitution. Arkansas's constitution, art. 3, Section 1, says,
Except as otherwise provided by this Constitution, any person may vote in an election in this state who is:
(1) A citizen of the United States;
(2) A resident of the State of Arkansas;
(3) At least eighteen (18) years of age; and
(4) Lawfully registered to vote in the election.
The court said, "These four qualifications set forth in our state's constitution simply do not include any proof-of-identity requirement." The court struck Act 595 on its face.
The court also rejected the argument that voter ID was simply a procedural method of identifying a voter, and therefore constitutional under a state constitutional provision allowing such methods:
We do not interpret Act 595's proof-of-identity requirement as a procedural means of determining whether an Arkansas voter can 'lawfully register to vote in the election.' Ark. Const. art. 3, Sec. 1(4). Under those circumstances, Act 595 would erroneously necessitate every lawfully registered voter in Arkansas to requalify themselves in each election.
Justice Courtney Hudson Goodson concurred in the result, but because Act 595 failed to get a two-thirds majority vote in both houses of the legislature as required by a 1964 amendment to the constitution that sets the requirements for identification and registration of voters (and does not include photo ID) and allows for legislative amendment of those requirements if the legislature votes by two-thirds in both houses.
Friday, August 29, 2014
Texas Supreme Court: Injunction Prohibiting Future Defamation an Unconstitutional Prior Restraint But . . .
In its unanimous opinion today in Kinney v. Barnes, the Texas Supreme Court (pictured) considered the constitutionality of requested relief on an injunction in a defamation case for removal/ deletion of speech that has been adjudicated defamatory, and that "prohibits future speech that is the same or similar to the speech that has been adjudicated defamatory."
The court held that an injunction of the former type would be constitutional, while the latter would not.
The court's opinion, authored by Justice Debra Lehrmann, squarely rested its conclusion on state constitutional law, TEX. CONST. art. I, § 8, even as it relied heavily on United States Supreme Court cases on prior restraint under the First Amendment. However, the court specifically declined to "determine whether the Texas Constitution provides greater protection than the First Amendment on the specific issue presented to us, as the U.S. Supreme Court has not definitively addressed it."
The trial and intermediate appellate court both granted summary judgment in favor of the defendant based on the unconstitutionality of the relief sought. However, the court found that an injunction could
order Barnes to remove the statements at issue from his websites (and request that third-party republishers of the statements do the same) upon a final adjudication that the statements are defamatory. Such an injunction does not prohibit future speech, but instead effectively requires the erasure of past speech that has already been found to be unprotected in the context in which it was made. As such, it is accurately characterized as a remedy for one’s abuse of the liberty to speak and is not a prior restraint.
This would be true assuming that the standards for an injunction were otherwise met, with the understanding that damages are the preferred remedy for defamation. However, as to future statements, an injunction would be an impermissible prior restraint, in part because it would be almost necessarily overbroad:
The particular difficulty in crafting a proper injunction against defamatory speech is rooted in the contextual nature of the tort. In evaluating whether a statement is defamatory, the court construes it “as a whole in light of surrounding circumstances based upon how a person of ordinary intelligence would perceive the entire statement.” [citation omitted]. Given the inherently contextual nature of defamatory speech, even the most narrowly crafted of injunctions risks enjoining protected speech because the same statement made at a different time and in a different context may no longer be actionable. Untrue statements may later become true; unprivileged statements may later become privileged.
Yet in some ways, this observation highlights the problem with the removal of the adjudged defamatory statement. It too is contextual and time-bound, but arguably this becomes (temporarily) determined if there is a finding that it is defamatory.
The court rejected the notion that "the Internet is a game-changer" and also rejected the assertion of the importance of "cyber-bullying and online hate speech": "It is enough to say that neither of those is at issue here."
Monday, July 28, 2014
Affirming the federal district judge's decision in February, a panel of the Fourth Circuit in a divided opinion has held in Bostic v. Schaefer that Virginia's same-sex marriage prohibitions are unconstitutional.
violate the Due Process and Equal Protection Clauses of the Fourteenth Amendment to the extent that they prevent same-sex couples from marrying and prohibit Virginia from recognizing same-sex couples’ lawful out-of-state marriages.
At various times, the court blends Due Process and Equal Protection analysis and precedent, but both spring from its conclusion that "marriage" is a fundamental right and that "marriage" includes same-sex marriage. After discussing Loving v. Virginia, Zablocki v. Redhail, and Turner v. Safley, the court notes:
These cases do not define the rights in question as “the right to interracial marriage,” “the right of people owing child support to marry,” and “the right of prison inmates to marry.” Instead, they speak of a broad right to marry that is not circumscribed based on the characteristics of the individuals seeking to exercise that right. The Supreme Court’s unwillingness to constrain the right to marry to certain subspecies of marriage meshes with its conclusion that the right to marry is a matter of “freedom of choice,” Zablocki, 434 U.S. at 387, that “resides with the individual,” Loving, 388 U.S. at 12. If courts limited the right to marry to certain couplings, they would effectively create a list of legally preferred spouses, rendering the choice of whom to marry a hollow choice indeed.
The court's use of "couplings" implicitly addresses a portion of the oft-called slippery slope argument that is raised by Judge Paul Niemeyer in his dissent: what would prevent this rationale from extending to polygamy? The dissent also invokes incest, accusing the majority of "dictionary jurisprudence" when it (re)defines marriage to include same-sex marriage. But of course, the definitional conundrum plagues the dissent as well, when it argues that certain qualities are "foundational" to marriage and other qualities are "irrelevant." For the dissent, this is the "biological link between procreation and marriage," a link that does exist in the polygamous and incestuous marriages the dissent disapproves.
For the majority, after finding marriage a fundamental right deserving of strict scrutiny, the five governmental interests argued as supporting the marriage laws not surprisingly fail to pass constitutional muster:
- (1) Virginia’s federalism-based interest in maintaining control over the definition of marriage within its borders,
- (2) the history and tradition of opposite-sex marriage,
- (3) protecting the institution of marriage,
- (4) encouraging responsible procreation, and
- (5) promoting the optimal childrearing environment.
More surprising is that although these interests are raised by the parties the court calls the "Proponents" of the Virginia marriage laws, there is little in the court's opinion that analyzes their standing to appeal. The court does analyze the standing of the plaintiffs to sue the defendants George Schaefer III (in his official capacity as Clerk of Court for Norfolk Circuit Court) and Janet Rainey (in her official capacity as State Registrar of Vital Records). And since these parties were indeed defendants, there may be little need for an extensive analysis of appellate standing as was necessary in the same-sex marriage cases decided by the United States Supreme Court in June 2013. Nevertheless, recall that the (new) Virginia Attorney General had decided during the district court litigation that the Virginia laws were unconstitutional and filed a notice of change of position; however the laws continued to be enforced.
The Fourth Circuit thus joins the Tenth Circuit in holding that a state's same-sex marriage ban violates the Fourteenth Amendment. While these circuit court opinions are divided, the dozen or so federal district judges who have considered the issue have been unanimous in reaching the same conclusion.
July 28, 2014 in Courts and Judging, Due Process (Substantive), Equal Protection, Family, Fourteenth Amendment, Fundamental Rights, Opinion Analysis, State Constitutional Law, Tenth Amendment | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)
Thursday, July 3, 2014
In its opinion in People v. Marquan M, the New York Court of Appeals (NY's highest court), found that Albany Local Law 11 (2010) criminalizing cyberbullying was unconstitutional under the First Amendment.
The local law for Albany County criminalized cyberbullying against any "minor or person" (with "person" interestingly defined as including corporations) with cyberbullying defined as:
any act of communicating or causing a communication to be sent by mechanical or electronic means, including posting statements on the internet or through a computer or email network, disseminating embarrassing or sexually explicit photographs; disseminating private, personal, false or sexual information, or sending hate mail, with no legitimate private, personal, or public purpose, with the intent to harass, annoy, threaten, abuse, taunt, intimidate, torment, humiliate, or otherwise inflict significant emotional harm on another person.
The majority opinion, authored by Judge Victoria Graffeo for four additional judges over a two-judge dissent, found that the law was overbroad under the First Amendment: "the provision would criminalize a broad spectrum of speech outside the popular understanding of cyberbullying, including, for example: an email disclosing private information about a corporation or a telephone conversation meant to annoy an adult."
The defendant and his actions here - - - a 15 year old who used Facebook to anonymously post "photographs of high-school classmates and other adolescents, with detailed descriptions of their alleged sexual practices and predilections, sexual partners and other types of personal information," with "vulgar and offensive" "descriptive captions" - - - were within the "cyberbullying" that the Local Law intended to proscribe. But even Albany County agreed that the local law was overbroad. However, the County argued that the severability clause of the local law should be employed to excise the word "person" so that the only covered victims were minors. But the court found that even that would not "cure all of the law's constitutional ills." The dissenters would have engaged in saving constructions.
In ruling that a local law intended to criminalize as a misdemeanor cyberbullying did not survive the First Amendment because it was overbroad, New York's highest court left open the possibility that a prohibition of cyberbullying could be more narrowly crafted to survive First Amendment review: "the First Amendment does not give defendant the right to engage in these activities."
However, the court's opinion offers little guidance about how such a law or policy should be drafted. New York's Dignity for All Students Act as amended in 2012 places the responsibility for developing "policies and procedures intended to create a school environment that is free from harassment, bullying and discrimination" on school boards. While Albany's law was a general criminal statute, school boards will undoubtedly be considering Marquan M. as they review their current "cyberbullying" prohibitions in light of the First Amendment. They may also be recalling the Third Circuit's unhelpful intervention in a pair of "My Space" cases in which principals were arguably "bullied.
And undoubtedly, those interested in cyberbullying in and out of schools will be watching the "true threats on Facebook case," Elonis v. United States, to be heard by the United States Supreme Court next Term.
The Louisiana Supreme Court this week upheld the state's prohibition on the possession of firearms by convicted felons against a challenge that the law violated the state's gun-rights amendment. The court described the prohibition as "effective, time-tested, and easily understandable," and said that "[c]ommon sense and the public safety allow no other result."
Lousisiana's gun-rights amendment is notable because it explicitly sets strict scrutiny as the standard for laws infringing on the right to keep and bear arms:
The right of each citizen to keep and bear arms is fundamental and shall not be infringed. Any restriction on this right shall be subject to strict scrutiny.
Article I, Section 11. Louisiana voters enacted the amendment to ensure that laws regulating guns are subject to the strictest standard of review (and not some lower standard that the courts might have used under the Second Amendment and Heller.) The previous version of the state constitution read, "The right of each citizen to keep and bear arms shall not be abridged, but this provision shall not prevent the passage of laws to prohibit the carrying of weapons concealed on the person."
The court, with little analysis, concluded that Louisiana's law banning the possession of guns by convicted felons for a period of 10 years after their release met strict scrutiny. The court said that the state had a compelling interest in public safety, and that this ban was easily narrowly tailored to meet that interest (again, with little serious analysis). The court also looked to legislative history of the amendment that suggested that the amendment wouldn't affect gun laws already on the books at the time of the amendment.
The court's cursory analysis (under strict scrutiny, no less) says that certain gun restrictions get a free pass, and that provisions like Louisiana's amendment are strong on paper but but weaker in application. It also suggests that the amendment, with its strict scrutiny test, bit off more than it can chew.
Thursday, June 12, 2014
Seattle - - - a "progressive and expensive city" - - - "struck a blow against rising income inequality" by raising its municipal minimum wage to $15 per hour earlier this month, as Maria La Ganga reported in the LA Times. Seattle Ordinance 12449 becomes effective in 2015, with a phase-in schedule of pay rates dependent on type of employer. But it has already been challenged as unconstitutional.
The complaint in International Franchise Association, Inc. v. City of Seattle challenges the ordinance on a variety of constitutional grounds: (dormant) commerce clause, equal protection clauses of the Fourteenth Amendment and state constitution, the state constitutional privileges or immunities provision, preemption under the Lanham Act (trademarks), the contract clauses of the federal and state constitutions, and the First Amendment.
A central issue in this complaint is the Ordinance's definitions of schedule 1 and schedule 2 employers as the definitions relate to franchises. As paragraph 50 provides:
The Ordinance provides that, for purposes of determining whether an employer is a Schedule 1 or Schedule 2 employer, “separate entities that form an integrated enterprise shall be considered a single employer ... where a separate entity controls the operation of another entity,” but this test applies only to a “non-franchisee employer.” Under the Ordinance, if a small franchisee is associated with a franchise network that employs more than 500 workers, the small franchisee is deemed a Schedule 1 Employer even if it is not part of an “integrated enterprise” as so defined.
Filed by Bancroft LLC and signed by Paul Clement, the pleading contains various arguments detailing why such a distinction is unconstitutional, largely revolving around the competitive disadvantage the ordinance will place on franchised and parent businesses by requiring higher wages.
LawProf David Ziff of University of Washington School of Law in Seattle has some helpful discussions of the complaint on his blog, including an overview and a specific discussion of the "classes of corporations" argument under the state constitution's privileges or immunities clause.
Certainly this is litigation to watch. And certainly cities across the United States that are considering similar measures will be looking closely. Cities are often rightly concerned with state constitutional powers of "home rule" allowing municpalities to vary from the state mandated wage; for example, the courts declared the 1964 attempted minimum wage raise from 1.25 to 1.50 in NYC to be beyond the powers of the city. But the Seattle challenge raises federal constitutional issues that are necessarily obvious.
June 12, 2014 in Cases and Case Materials, Current Affairs, Dormant Commerce Clause, Equal Protection, Federalism, Privileges and Immunities, State Constitutional Law | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)
Wednesday, June 11, 2014
In a 16 page "tentative decision" in Vergara v. California, Los Angeles Superior Court Judge Rolf Treu has declared that the state tenure statutes for public school teachers violate the California Constitution's provisions on equal protection and provision of education.
The so-called "tenure statutes" challenged in the action are provisions of California's Education Code governing teacher employment, including
- permanent employment statute (§44929.21(b));
- dismissal statutes (§§ 44934; 44938(b)(l) and (2) and 44944);
- and a seniority statute, "Last In First Out" or "LIFO" statute (§44955).
The California constitutional provisions at issue include the state's equal protection clause in Article I §7, and the Article IX provisions relating to Education, including the "general diffusion of knowledge" section, §1 and the requirement that the legislature "shall provide for a system of common schools by which a free school shall be kept up and supported,"§5.
Judge Treu based his decision largely on equality grounds, but noted that the California Supreme Court had previously held education to be a fundamental right. Importantly, the judge found that the trial showed that "there are a significant number of grossly ineffective teachers currently active in California classrooms." Judge Treu also found, although did not elaborate, that there was a "disproportionate impact on poor and minority students." The judge applied strict scrutiny to the challenged statutes.
As to the permanent employment statute, Judge Treu found that it disadvantaged both students and teachers, noting that California's short time frame for tenure - - - less than two years - - - was an outlier: the vast majority of states (32) have a three year time frame.
Regarding the dismissal statutes, Judge Treu noted that dismissal of a teacher could take two to ten years and "cost $50,000 to $450,000," and that while due process for teachers was an "entirely legitimate issue" these statutes provided "uber due process." The judge found that the provisions were "so complex, time consuming and expensive" that the statutes violated the state constitutional equal protection rights of the student plaintiffs.
Likewise, Judge Treu found that the LIFO statute violated the state constitutional equal protection rights of the student plaintiffs. Judge Treu again noted that California was in a distinct minority of 10 states in which this seniority system was absolute and allowed no consideration of teacher effectiveness, with 20 states providing that seniority was a factor, and 19 states leaving the decision to the discretion of government.
Judge Treu's relatively brief decision followed a rather high profile trial financed by a tech entrepreneur. The opinion does not have a full discussion of the facts, especially those supporting the impact on poor and racial minority students.
Vergara is heir to cases such as San Antonio School District v. Rodriguez (1973), in which the United States Supreme Court rejected a challenge to school financing as disadvantaging students of color, and Edgewood Independent School District v. Kirby, in which the Texas Supreme Court found the school financing scheme unconstitutional under the state constitution, including a "general diffusion of knowledge" provision. Yet Vergara turns the focus from state resources to "bad teachers" and can tap into anti-teacher and anti-union and anti-government worker sentiments.
Judge Treu concludes his decision with an invocation of Alexander Hamilton's Federalist Paper 78 on separation of powers, noting that it is not the task of the judiciary to advise the legislature on a solution. But as the history of Texas' Edgewood Independent School District v. Kirby demonstrates, legislative solutions in school equality can have an extended career in the courts.
Most likely, Judge Treu's Vergara decision will itself be subject to further judicial interpretations in the appellate process.
Thursday, June 5, 2014
The Michigan Supreme Court ruled this week in Makowski v. Governor that former Michigan Governor Jennifer Granholm lacked authority under the state constitution to revoke her valid commutation of a prisoner's sentence. The ruling means that the prisoner, whose sentence was first commuted but whose commutation was later revoked, is now eligible for parole.
The Michigan constitution gives the governor the power "to grant reprieves, commutations and pardons after convictions for all offenses . . . ." Art. 5, Sec. 14. Governor Granholm exercised this authority when she granted a commutation on the recommendation of the parole board to an individual who was serving a life sentence for felony murder. But when the family of the victim contacted her office to express its dissatisfaction after the commutation was signed and sealed, she instructed the parole board to halt all commutation proceedings and revoked the commutation.
The Michigan Supreme Court ruled that she couldn't do that it. The court first said that the case did not present a political question, because the state constitution limits the governor's power to commute "to those procedures and regulations that the Legislature enacts," and "[a]ccordingly, the distribution of power between the Legislature and the Governor regarding commutations creates a legal question that this Court must answer." The court said that legislative silence as to those procedures did not mean that the court should defer; instead, the court said that it had a duty to determine the extent and limits of executive authority regarding commutations. The court also ruled that its determination of the merits did not violate the separation of powers, because "this Court may review the Governor's exercise of power to ensure that it is constitutional."
As to the merits, the court held that the text and context of the commutation document indicated that it was final, and that the state constitution provided no power to revoke a commutation.
Tuesday, May 13, 2014
The Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts ruled last week that the daily recitation in school classrooms of the Pledge of Allegiance, with the words "under God," did not violate the state constitutional equal rights amendment. The case, Doe v. Acton-Boxborough Regional School District, was brought by a group of atheist and Humanist students, who claimed that the words "under God" alienated them and caused them to become outsiders because of their religion. (The plaintiffs only argued equal protection; they did not bring a religion clause claim.)
The Massachusetts high court rejected the argument. It said that the Pledge was voluntary; that reciting the Pledge was a "patriotic exercise," not a "religious exercise," even with the words "under God"; and that in any event the plaintiffs didn't show that they had been treated differently because of their religion. On that last point, the court said that the practice or reciting the Pledge treated all students the same: each student, regardless of religion, could say it along with the rest of the class, or not. Here's the court:
Where the plaintiffs do not claim that a school program or activity violates anyone's First Amendment religion rights (or cognate rights under the Massachusetts Constitution), they cannot rely instead on the equal rights amendment, and claim that the school's even-handed implementation of the program or activity, and the plaintiffs' exposure to it, unlawfully discriminates against them on the basis of religion. [Citing Harris v. McRae and San Antonio v. Rodriguez.] Where the program or activity is applied equally to all students, and where those who object to it are not required to participate, or may choose to participate in all parts of it that they do not find objectionable, the feeling of "stigma" caused by seeing or hearing the program being provided to others is not legally cognizable for purposes of the equal rights amendment. Any claim that, by conducting the program or activity for others who do not choose to participate, the school has publicly repudiated a plaintiff's beliefs and thereby rendered him or her a "second-class citizen" or "outsider" is not tenable, and we decline to apply [state constitutional equal protection] in this fashion.
Friday, May 9, 2014
In an opinion issued late today in Wright v. Arkansas, Circuit Judge Charles Piazza declared unconstitutional Arkansas Act 144 and Arkansas Amendment 83, both of which define marriage as limited to one man and one woman. The decision rests on the Fourteenth Amendment's Equal Protection and Due Process Clauses, as well as on ARK. Const., art 2 §2, with equality and liberty provisions.
The relatively brief opinion - - - 13 pages single spaced - - - tracks familiar ground, highlighting Windsor v. United States and the post-Windsor cases, emphasizing Kitchen v. Herbert and Bishop v. United States. Judge Piazza also points to Justice Scalia's dissenting language as other cases have done; Judge Piazza bolsters his finding that "tradition" is not a legitimate state interest by stating:
And, as Justice Scalia has noted in dissent, " 'preserving the traditional institution of marriage' is just a kinder way of describing the State's moral disapproval of same-sex couples." Lawrence, 539 U.S. at 601 (Scalia, J., dissenting).
Judge Piazza also confronts possible charges of judicial activism with a reference to Dred Scott v. Sandford (1856), including an extensive quote from Justice Taney's opinion, before moving onto Loving v. Virginia and Griswold v. Connecticut. He also relies on Arkansas' precedent:
The Arkansas Supreme Court has previously addressed the right to privacy as it involves same-sex couples. ln Jegley v. Picado, the Arkansas Supreme Court struck down the sodomy statute as unconstitutional in violating Article 2, §2 and the right to privacy. 349 Ark. 600, 638 (2002). Justice Brown, in Arkansas Dep't of Human Services v. Cole, noted "that Arkansas has a rich and compelling tradition of protecting individual privacy and that a fundamental right to privacy is implicit in the Arkansas Constitution." 2011 Ark. 145, 380 S.W. 3d. 429, 435 (2011) (citing Jegley, id. at 632). The Arkansas Supreme Court applied a heightened scrutiny and struck down as unconstitutional an initiated act that prohibited unmarried opposite-sex and same-sex couples from adopting children. Id at 442. The exclusion of same-sex couples from marriage for no rational basis violates the fundamental right to privacy and equal protection as described in Jegley and Cole, supra. The difference between opposite-sex and same-sex families is within the privacy of their homes.
The judge did not stay the opinion; it may be that some attorneys for the state of Arkansas will have a very busy weekend.
Wednesday, May 7, 2014
New Hampshire Supreme Court: Vanity License Plate "Not Offensive to Good Taste" Requirement Violates First Amendment
Relying on its state constitution, the New Hampshire Supreme Court's opinion today in Montenegro v. New Hampshire DMV held that the regulation prohibiting vanity license plates that are "offensive to good taste" was unconstitutional.
David Montenegro, who represented himself, appealed an order denying him a vanity registration plate reading "COPSLIE" and argued that the "offensive to good taste" exclusion in the regulation violated his speech rights under Part I, Article 22, New Hampshire Constitution as well as the First Amendment.
The unanimous court considered the relationship between vagueness and overbreadth, which it contended may certainly overlap, but ultimately settled on vagueness. The court ultimately concluding that
Because the "offensive to good taste" standard is not susceptible of objective definition, the restriction grants DMV officials the power to deny a proposed vanity registration plate because it offends particular officials’ subjective idea of what is “good taste.”
This vague standard thus violated the New Hampshire guarantee of free speech according the supreme court.
From the news report, Montenegro seems as "colorful" as his predecessor George Maynard, whose challenge to New Hampshire's "live free or die" motto on its license plates was resolved by the United States Supreme Court in Wooley v. Maynard (1977). And this case will take its place in developing "license plate jurisprudence": the "infidel" license plate denial; the unsucessful challenge to the Native American image on the Oklahoma license plate; and the unconstitutional "choose life" license plate offering.
Tuesday, April 15, 2014
Matt Ford writes over at The Atlantic that there's an irony in rancher Cliven Bundy's land claim against the federal Bureau of Land Management, now brewing in Nevada. That's because the very state constitution that Bundy so forcefully defends (in the spirit of states' rights, state sovereignty, and the like) contains a "paramount allegiance" clause, enshrining federal supremacy right there in the document. Here it is, from Article I, Section 2, in the Declaration of Rights:
All political power is inherent in the people. Government is instituted for the protection, security and benefit of the people; and they have the right to alter or reform the same whenever the public good may require it. But the Paramount Allegiance of every citizens is due to the Federal Government in the exercise of all its Constitutional powers as the same have been or may be defined by the Supreme Court of the United States; and no power exists in the people of this or any other State of the Federal Union to dissolve their connection therewith or perform any act tending to impair, subvert, or resist the Supreme Authority of the government of the United States. The Constitution of the United States confers full power on the Federal Government to maintain and Perpetuate its existence, and whensoever any portion of the States, or people thereof attempt to secede from the Federal Union, or forcibly resist the Execution of its laws, the Federal Government may, by warrant of the Constitution, employ armed force in compelling obedience to its Authority.
Ford explains that the clause originated in Nevada's first constitutional convention in 1863, and that state constitutional framers, overwhelmingly unionists, retained it in 1864.
Nevada isn't the only state with a Paramount Allegiance Clause. As Ford explains, Reconstruction-era state constitutions throughout the South had one. While most were dropped in subsequent revisions, some states, like Mississippi and North Carolina, still have it.
Saturday, March 22, 2014
Delaware Supreme Court Interprets State Constitutional "Second Amendment" Provision to Protect the Right to Firearms in Public Housing Common Areas
Responding to a certified question from the Third Circuit, the Delaware Supreme Court interpreted its state constitutional "right to bear arms" provision expansively in its opinion in Doe v. Wilmington Housing Authority.
At issue were two policies of the housing authority. The first, the Common Area Provision, prohibited "residents, household members, and guests from displaying or carrying a firearm or other weapon in a common area, except when the firearm or other weapon is being transported to or from a resident’s housing unit or is being used in self-defense." The second, the Reasonable Cause Provision, required "residents, household members, and guests to have available for inspection a copy of any permit, license, or other documentation required by state, local, or federal law for the ownership, possession, or transportation of any firearm or other weapon" if there was reasonable cause to believe there was a violation.
The court interpreted Article I §20 of the Delaware Constitution as inconsistent with the housing authority policies. The constitutional provision provides: “A person has the right to keep and bear arms for the defense of self, family, home and State, and for hunting and recreational use.” As the court noted, this was not adopted as part of the state constitution until 1987, given concerns of the original state constitutional framers because of concerns "over groups of armed men," but nevertheless "Delaware has a long history, dating back to the Revolution, of allowing responsible citizens to lawfully carry and use firearms in our state."
Importantly, the Delaware Supreme Court clearly stated that it was interpreting Article I §20 as an independent ground and did not base its opinion on the Second Amendment. It considered its four previous cases, noting that only in one did it cite Second Amendment cases. Interestingly, however, in three of the four cases, the court rejected the Article I §20 claim, and in one it remanded the case on the basis of the jury instructions in the criminal trial.
Here, however, the court found that the "common areas" in public housing deserved special consideration. Applying the "intermediate scrutiny" standard developed in its precedent, the court reasoned that even "active and retired police officers who are residents, household members, or guests are disarmed by the Common Area Provision," and that an "individual’s need for defense of self, family, and home in an apartment building is the same whether the property is owned privately or by the government." Thus, the court concluded that
the Common Area Provision severely burdens the right by functionally disallowing armed self-defense in areas that Residents, their families, and guests may occupy as part of their living space.
As to the Reasonable Cause Provision, the court found that it was not severable from the Common Areas provision, and was therefore also unconstitutional.
The Delaware Supreme Court's unanimous opinion clearly articulates the adequate and independent state grounds of Article I §20of the state constitution, but less clearly articulates and supports its reasoning for interpreting the state constitutional provision to invalidate the public housing prohibitions of firearms.
Tuesday, March 18, 2014
Alabama Supreme Court Chief Justice Roy Moore and Justice Tom Parker issued advisory opinions to the state legislature last week that said that the legislature's article-by-article approach to amending the state constitution is unconstitutional.
The opinions came after the legislature began an organized effort in 2010 to rewrite the state's 1901 constitution. That constitution is widely considered an outdated relic crafted to perpetuate white supremacy in the state. (The document still contains provisions for a poll tax and segregated schools. It also sharply limits home rule for local governments--so that local governments dominated by African Americans couldn't gain political power. But that's part of why the document is now so long, and so amended: In order to get anything done at the local level, the state has to change the constitution.) It's also quite long: with over 800 amendments, it's the longest constitution in the United States, and one of the longest in the world.
The constitution allows for amendment by way of the state legislature and Alabama voters. It also allows for a constitutional convention if the legislature and voters agree to hold a constitutional convention. Several efforts to overhaul the entire document have failed, however.
So the Constitutional Revision Commission, a panel formed in 2011, began an article-by-article rewrite.
Chief Justice Moore's and Justice Parker's advisory opinions said that the article-by-article approach was an unconstitutional side-step around the requirement for a constitutional convention in order to change the whole document. Those opinions appear to have chilled the rewrite effort--at least temporarily.
Thursday, March 13, 2014
Florida Supreme Court Finds Statutory Wrongful Death Damages Cap Violates State Constitution's Equal Protection Clause
Responding to a certified question from the Eleventh Circuit, the Florida Supreme Court's opinion in Estate of McCall v. United States held that the statutory cap on wrongful death noneconomic damages, Fla. Stat. § 766.118, violates the right to equal protection under Article I, Section 2 of the Florida Constitution.
The statute put a cap in medical malpractice cases, providing that
- Noneconomic damages shall not exceed $500,000 per claimant;
- No practitioner shall be liable for more than $500,000 in noneconomic damages, regardless of the number of claimants; and
- The total noneconomic damages recoverable by all claimants from all practitioner defendants under this subsection shall not exceed $1 million in the aggregate.
The Florida Supreme Court's plurality opinion applied the rational basis test to this statutory scheme (given that there were no suspect or quasi-suspect classes or fundamental rights involved). But it nevertheless found that the
statutory cap on wrongful death noneconomic damages fails because it imposes unfair and illogical burdens on injured parties when an act of medical negligence gives rise to multiple claimants. In such circumstances, medical malpractice claimants do not receive the same.
The plurality found that the damages cap "bears no rational relationship to a legitimate state objective."
In a subsection tellingly entitled "The Alleged Medical Malpractice Crisis," the plurality rejected the legitimacy of the government interest. It essentially rejected the Report of Governor’s Select Task Force on Healthcare Professional Liability Insurance (Task Force Report), issued in January 2003, on which the Legislation relied. The opinion dismantles specifics of the Report, ultimately concluding that "the finding by the Legislature and the Task Force that Florida was in the midst of a bona fide medical malpractice crisis, threatening the access of Floridians to health care, is dubious and questionable at the very best."
As to the rational relationship of the means chosen to address the government interest, the plurality reasoned that
Even if these conclusions by the Legislature are assumed to be true, and Florida was facing a dangerous risk of physician shortage due to malpractice premiums, we conclude that section 766.118 still violates Florida’s Equal Protection Clause because the available evidence fails to establish a rational relationship between a cap on noneconomic damages and alleviation of the purported crisis.
Finally, the plurality reasoned that
even if a “crisis” existed when section 766.118 was enacted, a crisis is not a permanent condition. Conditions can change, which remove or negate the justification for a law, transforming what may have once been reasonable into arbitrary and irrational legislation.
The disagreement in the concurring opinion found fault with the court's power to "engage in the type of expansive review of the Legislature’s factual and policy findings" although not questioning the "plurality’s excellent scholarship regarding the flaws in the Legislature’s conclusions as to the existence of a medical malpractice crisis." However, the concurring Justices agreed that if there were a crisi, there was not one any longer, and emphasized that "the arbitrary reduction of survivors’ noneconomic damages in wrongful death cases based on the number of survivors lacks a rational relationship to the goal of reducing medical malpractice premiums."
The dissenting opinion stressed the deference due to the legislature in the rational basis test.
As the plurality noted, other courts have similarly found damages caps in medical malpractice cases unconstitutional. Such cases demonstrate that equality claims under state constitutions can prove a potent limit on legislation.
[image: Henri Geoffroy, "Visit day at the Hospital" via]
Thursday, March 6, 2014
In its unanimous opinion in Commonwealth v. Robertson, the Supreme Judicial Court of Massachusetts avoided the constitutional challenge to the state's statutory prohibition of "secretly photographing or videotaping a person 'who is nude or partially nude,'" G.L. c. 272, § 105 (b ), by interpreting the statute not to apply to taking photographs at the areas under women's skirts ("upskirting").
The defendant had argued that if § 105 (b ) "criminalizes the act of photographing a fully clothed woman under her skirt while she is in a public place, it is both unconstitutionally vague and overbroad," but because the court "concluded that § 105 (b ) does not criminalize the defendant's alleged conduct," it did not reach the constitutional questions.
Yet, as in many cases, the court's statutory interpretation does occur in the shadow of the constitutional challenge. The court reasoned that the statute "does not penalize the secret photographing of partial nudity, but of "a person who is ... partially nude" (emphasis in original). Courts have long struggled with definitions of "nudity" - - - recall the United States Supreme Court's recent foray into this area in FCC v. Fox with an oral argument that drew attention to the nude buttocks in the courtroom decor.
Additionally, the court reasoned that the statutory element of in "such place and circumstance [where the person] would have a reasonable expectation of privacy in not being so photographed" did not cover the alleged acts of photography in a public place, such as the Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority (MBTA) trolley. The court rejected the Commonwealth's argument emphasizing the "so" in "so photographed" - - - that "because a female MBTA passenger has a reasonable expectation of privacy in not having the area of her body underneath her skirt photographed, which she demonstrates by wearing the skirt" by interpreting "so" as simply referential.
The court concluded that at the
core of the Commonwealth's argument . . . is the proposition that a woman, and in particular a woman riding on a public trolley, has a reasonable expectation of privacy in not having a stranger secretly take photographs up her skirt. The proposition is eminently reasonable, but § 105 (b ) in its current form does not address it.
And the court noted that in the past legislative session proposed amendments to § 105 were before the Legislature that appeared to attempt to address precisely the type of "upskirting" conduct at issue in the case. Given the court's opinion in Robertson, this issue will most likely be again before the Massachusetts legislature.