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Friday, January 25, 2013

First Circuit Dismisses as Moot Contracts Case with Constitutional Implicatons

HHSIn 2006, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) recieved funds under the federal Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA) and contracted with the United States Conference of Catholic Bishops (the Conference) to provide services to trafficking victims.  It did so after issuing a request for proposals (RFP) and receiving submissions only from the Conference and the Salvation Army, both of which are religiously affiliated.  

The Conference insisted that the contract provide that neither the Conference nor any of its sub-contracts would use the TVPA funds to counsel or provide abortions or contraceptive services and prescriptions to trafficking victims.  The panel that reviewed the RFP's deducted points from the Conference's submission because of that condition, but it still rated the Conference's RFP far more favorably than that of the Salvation Army.

USCCBThe Conference did not provide any direct services to trafficking victims.  Rather, it subcontracted with hundreds of other organizations, which provided services to over 2200 victims over a four-year period.  The Conference entered into agreements with its sub-contractors prohibiting them from using TVPA for any purposes relating to contraception or abortion, but the sub-contractors were not prohibited from using their own funds for those purposes.  

In 2009, the American Civil Liberties Union of Massachusetts (ACLUM) brought suit alleging that the contract violated the First Amendment's Establishment Clause.  The contract expired in 2011, and HHS replaced its program run through the Conferece with a grant program in which the Conference as not involved.  The District Court nonetheless granted ACLUM's motion for summary judgment in March 2012, finding that the claim was not moot because the "voluntary cessation" exception to the mootness doctrine applied.

On January 15, 2013, the First Circuit issued its opinion in American Civil Liberites Union of Massachusetts v. United States Conference of Catholic Bishops, and it reversed.  It remanded the case to the Distrcit Court for an entry of an order of dismissal because the case is rendered moot by the expiration of the contract at issue.  In so doing, the First Circuit noted that the voluntary cessation doctrine has no application where the cessation is unrelated to the litigation.  The exception exists to deter strategic behavior in which a party ceases the challenged behavior only to avoid further litigation and may reasonably be expected to resume the behavior once the threat of litigation has subsided.  There is no likelihood that a contract will be awarded to the Conference in the foreseeable future, as HHS has locked itself into three-year agreements with other organizations under its new grant program.

As long as our first lady has ba-ba-ba-bangs [relevant "analysis" starts about a minute into the video], it seems unlikely that HHS will be contracting with the Conference and that, it seems, is enough to render ACLUM's challenge moot.

[JT]

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