Sunday, January 22, 2017
The Office of Legal Counsel memo that concludes that President Trump can hire son-in-law Jared Kushner to the White House staff is mostly statutory construction. (It concludes that the anti-nepotism statute does not apply to the President's hiring authority for the White House Office. At the same time, however, it also concludes that conflict-of-interest laws do apply.)
But it contains just a wee little bit of separation of powers, too. Check it out:
Finally, we believe this result--that the President may appoint relatives to his immediate staff of advisors in the White House Office--makes sense when considered in light of other legal principles. Congress has not blocked, and mostly likely could not block, the President from seeking advice from family members in their personal capacities. Cf. In re Cheney, 406 F.3d 723, 728 (D.C. Cir. 2005) (en banc) (referring to the President's need "[i]n making decisions on personnel and policy, and in formulating legislative proposals, . . . to seek confidential information from many sources, both inside the government and outside"); Pub. Citizen v. U.S. Dep't of Justice, 491 U.S. 440, 466 (1989) (construing the Federal Advisory Committee Act ("FACA") not to apply to the judicial recommendation panels of the American Bar Association in order to avoid "formidable constitutional difficulties"). Consequently, even if the anti-nepotism statute prevented the President from employing relatives in the White House as advisors, he would remain free to consult those relatives as private citizens.
Because conflict-of-interest laws apply to White House staff, according to the memo, this leaves the President with a choice: (1) seek the advice of a relative on an unofficial, ad hoc basis; or (2) "appoint his relative to the White House under title 3 and subject him to substantial restrictions against conflicts of interest."
Check out Seth Chandler's piece in Forbes, arguing that President Obama's unilateral executive actions on the Affordable Care Act set a precedent for President Trump's executive order scaling back the Act. "[A]ctions taken by the Obama administration to play fast and loose with administrative procedures and separation of powers have opened the door to the Trump executive branch to derail the ACA even without Congressional action." One example (of a few):
President Obama, after all, delayed enforcement of the employer mandate for a year for some large employers and delayed enforcement for two years for others. It was, the President asserted, too burdensome to comply with. President Trump might equally assert that, given the poor quality and high prices of ACA policies in many jurisdictions, it is too burdensome to comply with the individual mandate today.
Friday, January 20, 2017
A few days before he was sworn in as President of the United States, the complaint in Zervos v. Trump was filed in New York state court alleging a cause of action for defamation, raising several constitutional issues.
First, the issue of whether the chief executive of the United States is entitled to a stay of the proceedings while he occupies the office seems to be resolved by the United States Supreme Court's unanimous 1997 decision in Clinton v. Jones. Jones was decided on a separation of powers issue, of course, given that Paula Jones had filed an action alleging sexual harassment by Bill Clinton before he became president. However, the general reasoning seems applicable. The Court in Jones stated that it was not persuaded of the seriousness of the alleged risks that this decision will generate a large volume of politically motivated harassing and frivolous litigation and that national security concerns might prevent the President from explaining a legitimate need for a continuance, noting that it had confidence in the ability of judges to deal with both concerns.
Second, a complaint of defamation almost always raises a First Amendment concern. Interestingly, here one question would be whether the plaintiff, Summer Zervos, was a public figure under Gertz v. Robert Welch, Inc, so that she would have to prove "actual malice" on the part of the defendant. It would seem that Zervos appearance on Trump's television show, The Apprentice, would make her at least a limited public figure. Moreover, even if not then, her decision to "speak publicly" about her interactions with Trump after sexual harassment became an issue in the campaign, most likely made her a limited public figure.
Yet even if Zervos is a public figure, the complaint alleges that Trump made the statements knowing that they were false or with reckless disregard of their truth or falsity. The complaint makes allegations of numerous statements, including embedding a tweet with a photograph of Zervos:
Interestingly, the complaint also alleges that "all these liars" - - - the women who claimed Trump had sexually harassed them - - - "will be sued after the election is over." Trump has been called a "libel bully" in an article that briefly made headlines for being stifled by the American Bar Association for fear of it provoking the very conduct it analyzed. But it seems as if the tables have been turned.
It's far too early for predicting outcomes, but meanwhile ConLawProfs could use this as an interested Con Law problem - - - or an exam question.
With the notable exception of torture, in restoring the rule of law, [President Obama] did not actually renounce Bush's extraordinarily broad vision of executive power. Instead, Obama sought to put it on firmer legal footing--sometimes with help from Congress or the courts, sometimes simply by articulating a legal justification for government actions.
This choice may prove to have fateful consequences. . . .
Check out Linda Greenhouse's analysis at the NYT of Peruta v. California, the case testing whether the Second Amendment protects a right to carry a gun outside the home. We last posted on the case here, when the Ninth Circuit denied rehearing its 7-4 en banc ruling upholding California's "good cause" requirement for a concealed carry permit. Plaintiffs sought review at the Supreme Court last week.
Thursday, January 19, 2017
The Seventh Circuit ruled yesterday that Chicago's restrictions on firing ranges violate the Second Amendment. The ruling means that the City can no longer enforce two of its zoning restrictions and an age regulation for firing ranges, and that Chicago will have to go back to the drawing board if it wants to zone or regulate.
The case has some history. Chicago previously banned all firing ranges from the City. But the Seventh Circuit struck that ban, ruling that it intruded on "the core individual right of armed defense[,] includ[ing] a corresponding right to acquire and maintain proficiency in firearm use through target practice at a range."
The City came back with a bevy of regulations, including three at issue here: (1) a zoning restriction that limits firing ranges only as special uses in manufacturing districts; (2) a zoning restriction that prohibits ranges within 100 feet of another range or within 500 feet of a residential district, school, place of worship, and multiple other uses; and (3) a provision barring anyone under age 18 from entering a shooting range.
The court applied the familiar two-part framework to Second Amendment challenges. It first asked whether the regulated activity fell within the scope of the Second Amendment. It next asked, if so, do the regulations meet the sliding scale of heightened scrutiny, where a regulation must more closely fit the government's objectives the most closely the regulations touch on the core of the Second Amendment?
Drawing on its earlier case and the "Second Amendment right to maintain proficiency in firearm use via target practice at a range," the court said that the three regulations all fell within the scope of the Second Amendment. The court then held that the City failed to provide any evidentiary support for its claimed concerns to justify the regulations--firing range attract gun thieves, they cause airborne lead contamination, and they carry a risk of fire--and therefore they must fail.
Importantly, the court held that the two zoning restrictions had to be considered as a package, not separately. The court then noted that between the two, only about 2.2 percent of City area was available to firing ranges. Moreover, since the court's earlier ruling, no firing range had opened in the City.
Judge Rovner wrote a lengthy opinion dissenting on the distance-zoning regulation, but concurring on the other points. Judge Rovner argued that the court should have analyzed the two zoning regulations separately, and, if it had, it should have ruled that the City had sufficient interests in regulating the distance between a firing range and certain other sites. Judge Rovner also wrote that the City should have greater leeway in regulating "the limited rights of minors under the Second Amendment," citing a host of stories about injuries and deaths of youths at firing ranges. But ultimately she agreed with the majority that "the outright ban on all children under the age of eighteen entering a firing range is impermissible . . . ."
An unusually short-stafffed Supreme Court heard oral arguments yesterday in Ziglar v. Abbasi, the case testing whether detainees in the early post-9/11 round-ups could sue government officials for damages for constitutional violations based on their harsh conditions of confinement. (Our preview is here.)
The Court leaned toward the government.
The deck was already stacked against the detainees, what with Justices Sotomayor and Kagan both recused. This left a six-member Court, with just two (Justices Ginsburg and Breyer) more likely to favor the detainees. But even if Justices Ginsburg and Breyer would rule for the detainees, they'd need a third vote to tie and affirm the Second Circuit's ruling, or a fourth to outright win. It didn't look like that will happen.
The deck was stacked for another reason: defendants challenged the Second Circuit's ruling on three independent grounds--failure to meet the pleading standards in Iqbal, lack of a Bivens remedy, and qualified immunity. A ruling for the officials on any one of these grounds would result in a loss for the plaintiffs. And based on the arguments, it seems likely that the Court could rule on different grounds for the different classes of defendants.
Much of the arguments focused on Bivens, and whether the plaintiffs' claim raised a "new context" for Bivens. Chief Justice Roberts and Justice Kennedy--the two perhaps next most likely to rule for the plaintiffs, after Justices Ginsburg and Breyer--both said yes, based on the national security and immigration context of the case. (The plaintiffs have always maintained that the context is the condition in ordinary prison detention (and therefore a familiar Bivens context), not national security and immigration, because that's what they complained about. But Chief Justice Roberts and Justice Kennedy didn't buy it.) If so, the Court will likely rule that Bivens doesn't extend to this case, and toss the plaintiffs' claims.
Pleading standards and qualified immunity got somewhat less attention, but could also defeat the plaintiffs' claims. As to pleading standards, the government argued that this case is simply a re-do of Iqbal itself, with the same pleading deficiencies. As to qualified immunity, the government argued that high-level DOJ officials couldn't be held liable for establishing policies, while the prison officials argued that they couldn't be held liable simply for implementing policies. If so, qualified immunity puts the plaintiffs between a rock and a hard place, getting relief neither against high level DOJ officials nor lower-level prison officials.
At the same time, the Court (particularly Justice Kennedy) seemed concerned that the plaintiffs would have some remedy, even if not a Bivens remedy. Habeas, the Administrative Procedures Act, injunctive relief, civil rights conspiracy (42 U.S.C. 1985), and the Federal Tort Claims Act were all floated at one time or another as potential remedies, but each has its limits or outright problems. Between some or all of these, though, there's probably enough of a non-Bivens remedy to satisfy Justice Kennedy and even Chief Justice Roberts, if, indeed, that's a concern that might sway them.
Check out The Federalist Society page, where it posted videos of its recent Faculty Conference, and a registration announcement for its annual Student Symposium on March 3 and 4, in New York.
Wednesday, January 18, 2017
The Court heard oral arguments in Lee v. Tam involving the constitutionality of the denial of trademark registration to a band called "The Slants" on the ground that the mark would be disparaging. Recall that 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, was unconstitutional because it violates the First Amendment. The en banc majority found that the disparagement provision constituted viewpoint discrimination and failed strict scrutiny.
However, like so many First Amendment controversies, the case involves a contest between doctrines, as today's oral argument illustrated and as we discussed in our case preview.
For example, it is unclear whether the First Amendment is applicable at all. At issue is whether the band can register this specific trademark, as opposed to whether or not the band can use the name or even whether the band could sue others who used the name for unfair competition. Perhaps the trademark is actually government speech, a prospect that Justice Ginsburg surfaced with an allusion to 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).
Or perhaps, even if the First Amendment does apply, the analysis should be more akin to a one involving a subsidy, as Malcolm Stewart, Deputy Solicitor General, argued, analogizing to National Endowment for the Arts v. Finley (1998), in which the Court found constitutional a requirement that "general standards of decency" be considered.
Or perhaps the "trademark" is best analyzed under a limited forum analysis, as Stewart also argued, although Chief Justice Roberts seemed to disagree that the "entire trademark program" could be properly considered limited. Additionally, Justice Kennedy later questioned the appropriateness of a forum hypothetical:
STEWART: . . . . Another example I would give, and it's a hypothetical example, but at least I have a strong instinct as to how the --the case should be decided. Suppose at a public university the --the school set aside a particular room where students could post messages on topics that were of interest or concern to them as a way of promoting debate in a nonconfrontational way, and the school said, just two ground rules: No racial epithets and no personal attacks on any other members of the school community.
It --it would seem extraordinary to say that's a viewpoint-based distinction that can't stand because you're allowed to say complimentary things about your fellow students
JUSTICE KENNEDY: So --so the government is the omnipresent schoolteacher? I mean, is that what you're saying?
JUSTICE KENNEDY: The government's a schoolteacher?
STEWART: No. Again, that analysis would apply only if the public school was setting aside a room in its own facility. Clearly, if the government attempted more broadly to restrict disparaging speech by students or others rather than simply to limit the terms under which a forum for communication could be made available, that would involve entirely different questions.
Yet Justice Kennedy seemed equally displeased with the notion that "trademark law is just like a public park" - - - "the classic example of where you can say anything you want. The attorney for The Slants seemed to approve of this analogy, but Justice Kagan found it troublesome:
JUSTICE KAGAN: Well, Mr. Connell, this can't be right, because think of all the other things, the other --I mean, I'll call them content distinctions because they are --that trademark law just makes. I mean, Section 2 prohibits the registration of any mark that's falsely suggestive of a connection with persons likely to cause confusion, descriptive, misdescriptive, functional, a geographic indication for wine or spirits, government insignia, a living person's name, portrait, or signature. You couldn't make any of those distinctions in a --in a --in a public park, and yet, of course, you can make them in trademark law, can't you?
Or perhaps the benefit/forum analysis in combination might be a proper guide. Chief Justice Roberts, questioning the attorney for the respondent, raised this possibility again, in a hypothetical about the government putting on a Shakespeare festival in which presentations disparaging Shakespeare would be excluded. This also led to Justice Ginsburg analogizing to Pacifica v. FCC, which Justice Breyer noted might be apt as a permissible time, place, and manner regulation: The Slants can use the words in the entire universe, except as a trademark. Eventually, Justice Sotomoyor took the argument to an interesting turn:
SOTOMAYOR: . . . . But your argument earlier was that if someone slanders or libels an individual by saying --Trump before he was a public figure --Trump is a thief and that becomes their trademark, that even if they go to court and prove that that's a libel or a slander, that trademark would still exist and would be capable of use because otherwise canceling it would be an abridgement of the First Amendment?
MR. CONNELL: I believe that's correct.
JUSTICE SOTOMAYOR: That makes no sense.
Finally, the relevance of commercial speech surfaced, although not particularly convincing. The attorney for The Slants referred to the commercial vs. the noncommercial aspects of trademark, but this did not seem to gain much traction. Justice Alito did, however, ask whether "viewpoint discrimination is always prohibited in commercial speech," and used as an example, whether "a manufacturer of cigarettes could not place on a package of cigarettes "Great for your health. Don't believe the surgeon general." The attorney for The Slants replied that viewpoint discrimination in commercial speech was prohibited under IMS v. Sorrell (2011).
Another "hypothetical" - - - Blackhorse v. Pro-Football, Inc., in which a divided Trademark Trial and Appeal Board canceled a football team's trademark under the disparagement clause - - - was not broached in the oral argument, but looms large in any decision the Court will render.
Tuesday, January 17, 2017
The D.C. Circuit rejected a claim today that the Park Service's set-aside of Freedom Plaza for the Inauguration Committee violated the free speech rights of a group that sought to protest in that space during President-Elect Trump's inauguration.
The ruling ends this challenge, and means that the group will have to find some other place to protest.
The case involves a 2008 Park Service regulation that authorizes a priority permit setting aside a portion of space along the Inaugural Parade route to the Presidential Inaugural Committee for ticketed spectator bleachers. (The set-aside amounts to about 13 percent of the space along the route. In total, about 30 percent of the space along the route is not open to the public; the other 70 percent is available on a first-come, first-served basis.) That area includes Freedom Plaza, a park along Pennsylvania Avenue.
The set-aside priority permit does not displace the regular permit process for protestor along the parade route. But it means that protestors can't use the area set aside for the Inaugural Committee.
That's where ANSWER (Act Now to Stop War and End Racism) comes in. ANSWER sought to protest on Freedom Plaza, but couldn't, because the space was reserved for the Inaugural Committee. ANSWER sued, arguing that the set-aside violated its free speech rights.
The D.C. Circuit rejected this claim. The court ruled that the Park Service set-aside was a content-neutral, time, place, manner regulation of speech in a public forum, that was narrowly tailored to achieve a significant government interest (celebrating the inauguration), and left open ample alternatives for speech.
The court rejected ANSWER's argument that the regulation was viewpoint based, because the group sought to protest against President-Elect Trump: "ANSWER's admittedly viewpoint-based reason for seeking access to the Plaza does not, however, make any rule that stands in its way content based."
The Supreme Court will hear oral arguments tomorrow in Lee v. Tam, the case testing whether the Patent and Trademark Office violated free speech when it denied a trademark to an all-Asian-American dance-rock band called The Slant, pursuant to a statutory prohibition against registering a "disparaging" mark.
Here's my preview, from the ABA Preview of U.S. Supreme Court Cases, with permission:
Simon Tam is the front-man for an all-Asian-American dance-rock band called The Slants. Tam formed the band in 2006 not only to play music, but also to express his views on discrimination against Asian-Americans. So when Tam turned to name the band, he sought to embrace a term that has been used as a racial insult against Asian-Americans, “slant.” (In so doing, Tam drew on a tradition of “re-appropriation.” Re-appropriation is when members of a minority group reclaim terms that have been used to insult or stigmatize them and redirect those terms as badges of pride.)
The Slants’s political statements sweep well beyond the band’s name. For example, their first album was called “Slanted Eyes, Slanted Hearts”; their fourth was called “The Yellow Album.” Some of their song lyrics advocate for Asian pride and promote cultural heritage. (For more on The Slants, check out their web-site, at www.theslants.com.)
In 2011, Tam sought to register The Slants as a trademark. The trademark examiner refused to register the mark, however, because it was likely to disparage persons of Asian descent, under Section 2(a) of the Lanham Act. (As described below, this section prohibits the Patent and Trademark Office from registering scandalous, immoral, or disparaging marks.) The Trademark Trial and Appeal Board agreed.
Tam appealed to the United States Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit, arguing that the Board erred in finding the mark disparaging and that Section 2(a) violated the First Amendment. A three-judge panel affirmed the Board’s determination that the mark was disparaging, and rejected Tam’s free-speech claim. The full court, however, reversed and ruled that Section 2(a) violated the First Amendment. The government brought this appeal.
Congress enacted the Lanham Act in 1946 to provide a national system for registering and protecting trademarks used in interstate and foreign commerce. In enacting the Act, Congress sought to help assure consumers that a product bearing a particular mark is, indeed, the product that the consumer seeks, and to protect a markholder from misappropriation and misuse of the mark.
Under the Act, trademark registration comes with significant benefits. For example, the holder of a federal mark has the right to exclusive, nationwide use of the mark where there is no prior use by others. Moreover, a markholder can sue in federal court to enforce the trademark; obtain assistance from U.S. Customs and Border Protection in restricting importation of infringing good; and qualify for a simplified process for obtaining protection in countries that have signed the Paris Convention. Finally, a markholder can use registration as a complete defense to state or common law claims of trademark dilution.
Under the Act, the PTO must register a trademark unless it falls into one of several categories of marks precluded from registration. One of those categories, Section 2(a) of the Act, bars registration of a mark that “[c]onsists of or comprises immoral, deceptive, or scandalous matter; or matter which may disparage or falsely suggest a connection with persons, living or dead, institutions, beliefs, or national symbols, or bring them into contempt or disrepute.” The PTO has used Section 2(a) to deny or cancel “disparaging” marks such as Stop the Islamisation of America, The Christian Prostitute, Marriage is for Fags, Democrats Shouldn’t Breed, Republics Shouldn’t Breed, and others. Perhaps most famously, the PTO used Section 2(a) to cancel six trademarks of the Washington Redskins NFL football team (although this decision is now on appeal and may be affected by Tam’s case).
In denying a mark under Section 2(a), the PTO denies a significant government benefit to speech based on the content and viewpoint of that speech, even though the government does not prohibit the speech itself. (The Slants can still use The Slants, even if the name does not enjoy trademark protection.) The parties dispute whether this kind of denial violates the First Amendment.
The government argues that Section 2(a) does not violate the First Amendment, because it does nothing to restrict Tam’s speech. The government argues that laws that restrict speech can violate the First Amendment, but that federal programs that subsidize speech (like the Lanham Act) cannot. The government points to precedents upholding the denial of federal tax-exempt status for non-profit organizations’ lobbying activities and sustaining federal regulations that prohibited the use of family-planning funds for abortion-related services. The government also says that it can decide not to subsidize speech at all, and, based on a case from just two Terms ago, that it need not provide a “mobile billboard” for offensive messages on state specialty license plates. Walker v. Texas Div., Sons of Confederate Veterans, Inc., 135 S. Ct. 2239 (2015). In short, the government contends that it has “significant discretion to decide which activities to fund and what criteria to use for inclusion in government programs.”
The government argues that Section 2(a) falls squarely within these principles. It says that trademark registration confers a significant government benefit, and that it has discretion in determining how to allocate this benefit. The government claims that the PTO’s denial of registration does not restrict Tam from using “The Slants”; it just means that Tam does not get the benefits of federal registration.
The government argues next that the lower court erred in ruling that Section 2(a) was facially unconstitutional. The government says that Section 2(a) is not an unconstitutional condition on a government program, and it is not an impermissible viewpoint-based restriction on speech. Instead, Section 2(a) simply sets out criteria for a government benefit in a way that the Court has upheld, again, just two Terms ago. The government contends that Section 2(a)’s criteria serve legitimate government interests not to encourage the use of disparaging terms and to disassociate itself from racial slurs and other offensive speech. Finally, according to the government, “[t]he Constitution does not put Congress to the choice of either eliminating the federal trademark-registration program altogether or promoting the use of racial slurs in interstate commerce.”
In response, Tam argues that Section 2(a) creates an impermissible viewpoint-based burden on speech. Tam says that Section 2(a) permits the registration of marks that express a positive or neutral view, but not those that express a negative view. He claims that the government’s only interest is in protecting people from offensive trademarks, and that this interest is not sufficiently compelling to justify the viewpoint-based burden.
Tam argues that the government is wrong to try to shoehorn Section 2(a) into First Amendment principles that would allow a burden on speech. Tam says that trademark registration is not a government subsidy, because (unlike the subsidies in the Court’s precedents) it involves no actual disbursement of funds. He claims that registration does not amount to government speech, because the speech involved is by the markholder, not the government. And he contends that trademarks are not commercial speech subject to certain government regulation (and he says that it would fail the commercial speech standard, anyway).
Tam argues next that Section 2(a) is unconstitutionally vague. He says that the provision is inherently vague—what does “disparaging” mean?—and that the PTO has applied the provision inconsistently. He claims that the PTO’s methodology, which considers whether a name disparages an entire racial or ethnic group, only compounds the problem, because the PTO does not have a determinate way to measure whether and how a name disparages an entire group. Tam contends that Section 2(a), as a vague restriction on speech, chills speech, and facilitates discriminatory enforcement. He claims that it is therefore unconstitutional.
Finally, Tam argues that Section 2(a) does not bar registration of The Slants, even if Section 2(a) is constitutional. Tam says that the The Slants is not disparaging under Section 2(a); instead, it is exactly the opposite—a re-appropriated term used as a badge of pride. He asserts that the PTO was wrong to deny registration based on whether The Slants disparages an entire racial or ethnic group. He claims that the Act requires the PTO instead to apply Section 2(a) only when a name disparages “persons,” not groups. The Slants, he says, does not meet this test.
While this case is certainly important to Simon Tam and his ability to protect his use of The Slants, the underlying issue has received far more attention in the dispute over the NFL’s Washington Redskins. Using the same Section 2(a) involved in this case, the PTO in 2014 cancelled trademark protection for six Redskins trademarks at the request of a group of Native Americans. A federal judge upheld the cancellation, ruling that “Redskins” was disparaging to “a substantial composite of Native Americans” when each of the marks was registered. The Redskins appealed, but the case is on hold pending the outcome of Tam’s case. (The Redskins asked the Supreme Court to review their case along with Tam’s, but the Court declined.) The Redskins’s case illustrates the stakes involved to the markholders: Losing federal trademark protection would mean that markholders could not protect their marks against others’ uses in the federal system, potentially costing markholders substantial revenue and exclusive name rights. The two cases—Tam’s case and the Redskins’s case—together also illustrate the difficulties in identifying and withholding trademark protection from disparaging names, while extending protection to non-disparaging names.
At the same time, denial or cancellation of federal trademark protection does not mean that a person cannot use the name. Tam could still use The Slants, and the Redskins could still use the Redskins, even if they do not receive federal trademark protection. They simply would not get the benefits of federal trademark protection. Moreover, individuals could still seek trademark protection at the state level. (But this would provide protection only within the state, not nationwide. Moreover, states may have restrictions similar to Section 2(a), so that Tam, the Redskins, and others might not qualify at the state level, either.)
Although much of the briefing in the case is couched in constitutional terms, the Court could rule on narrower grounds. For example, the Court could simply rule that the PTO misapplied Section 2(a) in rejecting Tam’s application. (Tam sets the stage for this kind of ruling by arguing that the PTO erroneously considered disparagement to a group, not to “persons,” in evaluating his application.) If so, the Court could simply remand the case with instructions on interpreting Section 2(a), without ruling on its constitutionality. This kind of ruling could limit the application of Section 2(a), but it would not strike the provision.
If the Court engages the constitutional arguments, look for the Court to determine as an initial matter whether the First Amendment even applies. The Court could dodge the harder constitutional issues simply by ruling, as the government argues, that Section 2(a) does not impose a burden on speech, because trademark registration is a benefit or subsidy, and because Section 2(a) does not restrict speech. If so, the Court would uphold Section 2(a), although it might limit it, as above.
If the Court sees Section 2(a) as a burden on speech, however, the Court is almost certain to strike the provision as unconstitutionally vague or as a viewpoint-based restriction on speech. (The Court has consistently expressed its distaste for content-based restrictions on speech in recent years. Viewpoint-based restrictions are even more suspect.)
The Supreme Court will hear oral arguments tomorrow in Ziglar v. Abbasi, the case testing whether post-9/11 detainees can sue federal officials for constitutional violations. In particular, the case asks (1) whether the plaintiffs have a Bivens claim, (2) whether the federal defendants enjoy qualified immunity, and (3) whether the plaintiffs sufficiently pleaded their case for direct liability.
Here's my preview, reprinted with permission from the ABA Preview of United States Supreme Court Cases:
Soon after the 9/11 attacks, the FBI and other agencies in the Department of Justice initiated an investigation aimed at identifying the 9/11 perpetrators and preventing another attack. The investigative unit, PENTTBOM, the Pentagon/Twin Towers Bombing investigation, was initially run out of the FBI’s field offices, but moved to the FBI’s Strategic Information and Operations Center, or SIOC, at FBI Headquarters in Washington, D.C. FBI Director Robert Mueller personally directed PENTTBOM from the SIOC and remained in daily contact with FBI field offices.
As part of DOJ’s response to the attacks, officials, including Attorney General John Ashcroft and Mueller, developed policies on the arrest and detention of alien suspects based on tips that the FBI received from the public. As part of the policies, according to the plaintiffs’ complaint, “any Muslim or Arab man encountered during the investigation of a tip received in the 9/11 terrorism investigation . . . and discovered to be a non-citizen who had violated the terms of his visa, was arrested.” Ashcroft also created the “hold-until-cleared” policy, which required that individuals arrested in the investigation would not be released from custody until FBI Headquarters affirmatively cleared them of ties to terrorism.
In order to coordinate efforts among the various agencies within DOJ that had an interest in, or responsibility for, detainees, the Deputy Attorney General’s Office (DAG) established the SIOC Working Group. The Group included representatives from the FBI, the INS, and the DAG. The group met at least once a day in the months following the 9/11 attacks. Its responsibilities included “coordinat[ing] information and evidence sharing among the FBI, INS, and U.S. Attorneys’ offices” and “ensur[ing] that aliens detained as part of the PENTTBOM investigation would not be released until they were cleared by the FBI of involvement with the September 11 attacks or terrorism in general.”
The FBI dedicated more than 4,000 special agents and 3,000 support personnel to the investigation and the effort to prevent additional attacks. It received about 96,000 tips in the week after the 9/11 attacks alone. (Many of these, including the tips on some of the plaintiffs in this case, were astonishingly weak or unreliable or had nothing to do with terrorism.)
The INS maintained a national list of aliens in which the FBI had “an interest.” Separately, the New York FBI created its own list of individuals that were “of interest” or “special interest.” (The New York effort differed from similar efforts in the rest of the country at least in part because of the New York FBI’s and U.S. Attorney’s Office’s long tradition of independence from their headquarters in Washington, D.C. For at least some number of individuals on the New York list, arresting officers failed to conduct the same vetting that detainees on the INS list received.) FBI Headquarters learned of the New York list in October 2001, and officials eventually merged the two lists. Ultimately, 762 detainees, including the plaintiffs, were placed on the INS Custody List and were subject to the hold-until-cleared policy. (491 of these detainees were arrested in New York, but it is not clear how many of those were arrested as a result of the efforts of the New York FBI.)
(For more on the identification, arrest, detention, and treatment of individuals in the post-9/11 investigation, see the DOJ’s Office of Inspector General Report, A Review of the Treatment of Aliens Held on Immigration Charges in Connection with the Investigation of the September 11 Attacks (April 2003), available at https://oig.justice.gov/special/0306/full.pdf.)
The plaintiffs were held at the Metropolitan Detention Center (MDC) in Brooklyn, New York. Under the MDC confinement policy, created by MDC officials in consultation with the FBI, these plaintiffs were placed in the MDC’s Administrative Maximum Special Housing Unit (ADMAX SHU), a particularly restrictive unit within the Center. Conditions in the ADMAX SHU were severe. For example, detainees, including the plaintiffs, were placed in small cells for over 23 hours a day, they were strip-searched whenever they were removed from or returned to their cells, they received “meager and barely edible” food, they were denied sleep, and they were denied basic hygiene items, among other problems. MDC staff also physically and verbally abused the plaintiffs. (The conditions are described in greater detail in the lower court opinion and in the plaintiffs’ briefs. For yet more on the conditions at the MDC, see the DOJ’s Office of Inspector General Report, Supplemental Report on September 11 Detainees’ Allegations of Abuse at the Metropolitan Detention Center in Brooklyn, New York (Dec. 2003), available at http://www.justice.gov/oig/special/0312/final.pdf. ) The plaintiffs were held from three to eight months.
The plaintiffs filed a putative class-action lawsuit against Ashcroft, Mueller, former Commissioner of the INS James Ziglar, former MDC Warden Dennis Hasty, former MDC Warden Michael Zenk, and former MDC Associate Warden James Sherman, alleging that they discriminated against them and mistreated them in violation of the Constitution. They also alleged a conspiracy to violate their civil rights. (There are eight plaintiffs now in the case. It has not been certified as a class action.) The district court dismissed all the claims against the DOJ defendants and some (but not all) of the claims against the MDC defendants. The United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit reversed in part and ruled that many of the claims against all of the defendants could move forward. This appeal followed. (The defendants appealed in three separate petitions, but the Court consolidated them into a single appeal. Ashcroft and Mueller are represented by the Solicitor General; Ziglar is represented by private counsel; Hasty and Sherman are represented by different private counsel.)
The case involves three discrete issues. Let’s take them one at a time. (The various defendants make largely the same arguments on each point below. But where they make different arguments, this summary distinguishes between the arguments of the FBI defendants and those of the MDC defendants.)
Can the plaintiffs bring a federal civil rights action?
Civil rights in the U.S. Constitution are not self-executing. This means that Congress has to enact legislation in order for individuals to enforce them in the courts. Congress has not enacted such legislation for civil rights claims against federal officials. But the Supreme Court has recognized an implied right of action against federal officials in Bivens v. Six Unknown Named Agents of Federal Bureau of Narcotics. 403 U.S. 388 (1971).
Bivens is a quite limited remedy, however. The Court has recognized Bivens actions only in certain contexts (including, as relevant here, a case where a prisoner challenges the conditions of his or her confinement). And the Court will not extend a Bivens claim to new contexts when “special factors counsel hesitation,” that is, when circumstances suggest that Congress, and not the courts, should decide whether an action is appropriate.
The defendants argue that the plaintiffs’ case presents a new context, and that special factors counsel against a Bivens remedy. The defendants say that the context here is the executive branch’s response to an “unprecedented terrorist attack and the detention of foreign nationals illegally in the United States.” They claim that the plaintiffs seek to challenge high-level policy decisions on national security and immigration—new contexts for Bivens. Moreover, they claim that the case implicates the correctness of FBI terrorist designations and federal law enforcement lines of authority and chains of command, in addition to the DOJ’s response to a national-security threat and its implementation of the nation’s immigration laws. They contend that these are all special factors that counsel against extending a Bivens remedy to this new context.
The plaintiffs counter that their case falls squarely within a recognized Bivens context, prisoner challenges to conditions of confinement. But even if their case presents a new context, the plaintiffs argue that a Bivens remedy is appropriate. They say that their claims have nothing to do with national security or immigration enforcement (some of the special factors that the defendants raise that, they say, counsel against a Bivens remedy), and that the interests in deterring federal officials from violating constitutional rights and compensating victims cut in favor of a Bivens remedy. The plaintiffs assert that these points are especially true against the MDC defendants (even if not against the DOJ defendants), because the MDC officials were directly responsible for their conditions of confinement.
The doctrine of qualified immunity protects government officials from civil liability for alleged constitutional harms, so long as their conduct does not violate “clearly established statutory or constitutional rights of which a reasonable person would have known.” In determining whether a right is “clearly established,” the Court looks to “whether it would be clear to a reasonable officer that his conduct was unlawful in the situation he confronted.” Saucier v. Katz, 533 U.S. 194 (2001). The inquiry necessarily looks to Supreme Court rulings on the right in question at the time of the officer’s actions.
The defendants argue that they are entitled to qualified immunity, given the special situation in which they operated. The FBI defendants claim that the plaintiffs did not have a “clearly established right to be immediately released from restrictive confinement” when the federal officials learned that “in some instances, arresting officers had failed to conduct the same initial vetting that other September 11 detainees received.” They contend that applying the hold-until-cleared policy was not clearly “so arbitrary as to constitute an impermissibly punitive or impermissibly discriminatory act.” The MDC defendants assert that they were simply implementing FBI and BOP policies in holding the plaintiffs, and that no clearly established law required them to “impos[e] less restrictive conditions [of confinement] based on their own subjective assessment of the [plaintiffs’] terrorism connections.” They claim that the strip-searches did not violate clearly established Fourth Amendment law, because they were reasonably related to prison security.
The plaintiffs argue that the defendants are not entitled to qualified immunity. As to the FBI defendants, the plaintiffs claim that at the time of their arrests and detentions, precedent clearly established that officials could not detain individuals arbitrarily and without a purpose reasonably related to a legitimate government interest. They also say that precedent clearly established that officials could not single out individuals for arrest and detention based on race, religion, or ethnicity. As to the MDC defendants, the plaintiffs contend that placing individuals in restrictive detention without individualized justification violates Bureau of Prisons policy and clearly established law at the time of the detention.
While this case was moving through the lower courts, the Supreme Court clarified and heightened the pleading standard that a plaintiff must satisfy in a civil rights case. In particular, the Court ruled that a complaint must “state a claim to relief that is plausible on its face.” This means “more than a sheer possibility that a defendant has acted unlawfully,” or that the alleged facts are “merely consistent with a defendant’s liability.” Ashcroft v. Iqbal, 556 U.S. 662 (2009). Moreover, a plaintiff’s Bivens claim cannot move forward based on supervisory (or vicarious) liability; instead, a plaintiff must plead that a defendant is directly liability for the unconstitutional conduct.
The defendants argue that the plaintiffs have failed to meet the Iqbal standards. The DOJ defendants point to Iqbal itself and contend that the Court in that case refused to credit similar assertions against the hold-until-cleared policy. They also say that the plaintiffs failed to plead that the DOJ defendants’ decision to merge the New York list and the INS list was based on discrimination, instead of a valid concern that “the FBI could unwittingly permit a dangerous individual to leave the United States.” The MDC defendants claim that they were simply implementing FBI and BOP policies, not acting to discriminate or treat detainees arbitrarily. They also say that they were not personally responsible for certain abuses within the MDC (like strip-searching), because they did not create or approve or even know about those abuses.
The plaintiffs counter that they have met the Iqbal standards against all the defendants. As to the DOJ defendants, the plaintiffs contend that their complaint included sufficiently detailed factual allegations that the DOJ defendants established policies to target Muslim men of Arab and South Asian descent and to hold such men in isolation and to treat them harshly. As to the MDC defendants, they assert that their complaint plausibly claimed that the MDC defendants were deliberately indifferent, and even willfully blind, to the abuse against them. They also say that the MDC defendants failed to correct the abuse when they learned of it.
This is an incredibly important case that tests the boundaries of civil rights claims against individual federal officials for designing and implementing policies on the identification, arrest, detention, and treatment of individuals in the investigations into the 9/11 attacks. In other words, it tests when and how federal officials might be personally liable for civil damages arising out of these hotly disputed events and extremely challenging times for both law enforcement and targeted Muslims and Arabs alike.
But it’s important to remember that this case only touches on threshold defenses, and not on the underlying merits. The Court won’t examine whether the defendants actually violated the plaintiffs’ rights, except to the extent necessary to determine whether the claims arise in new context, whether the defendants are entitled to qualified immunity, and whether the plaintiffs sufficiently pleaded their case. (Moreover, the Court will almost surely say nothing about the merits of the underlying policies in investigating or preventing terrorist attacks.)
At the same time, however, these threshold defenses are very important. They operate as gate-keepers to the courts for any plaintiffs who seek to bring civil rights claims against federal officials. As such, they largely control whether a plaintiff has a remedy in the federal courts for a federal violation of civil rights. (And for many federal-civil-rights plaintiffs, the federal courts provide their only remedy.) How the Court rules on these defenses will determine whether plaintiffs have access to a federal judicial remedy in this case, and beyond.
When the Roberts Court has ruled on issues like those in this case, it has fairly consistently restricted access to the courts (and not expanded it). But this case involves three different threshold issues with two (or more) sets of differently situated defendants, so it gives the Court a unique opportunity to more carefully explore the particular metes and bounds of these doctrines.
The Court will be particularly short-staffed in this case. That’s because Justices Sotomayor and Kagan are recused. If the Court divides along conventional ideological lines, three justices (Chief Justice Roberts and Justices Thomas and Alito) will likely rule in favor of the defendants, and two (Justices Ginsburg and Breyer) will likely rule in favor of the plaintiffs. Justice Kennedy could join the conservatives to hand the defendants a win, or he could join the progressives to create a tie. If so, the Second Circuit ruling will stand, although it will have no nationwide precedential value. Given the number of issues and differently situated defendants, however, it is also possible that the Court could issue a more nuanced ruling.
Monday, January 16, 2017
While we often think of protest and civil disobedience under the First Amendment, in her article Protest is Different in Richmond Law Review, Professor Jesssica West of University of Washington essentially argues that the First Amendment has not been a sufficiently robust defense criminal prosecutions. Instead, she contends that we should reconceptualize protest relying upon evolving concepts of capital jurisprudence flowing from the Eighth Amendment contention that "death is different." She argues that similar to the complexity of the moral determination inherent in a sentence of death requiring a judgment of community condemnation, a criminal conviction resulting from acts of protest likewise involves deep and complex values of individualization and community conscience.
It's a worthwhile read on this Martin Luther King Day: "One has not only a legal but a moral responsibility to obey just laws. Conversely, one has a moral responsibility to disobey unjust laws." Martin Luther King, Jr., Letter from a Birmingham Jail, Apr. 16, 1963.
Thursday, January 12, 2017
The First Circuit ruled yesterday that plaintiffs lacked standing to challenge New Hampshire's abortion clinic buffer-zone law. The ruling ends the lawsuit and leaves the buffer-zone law in place, although it's not enforced (and that's why there's no standing).
The case arose from a pre-enforcement challenge to New Hampshire's law that permits (but does not require) a reproductive health care facility to establish a zone "up to 25 feet" onto public property adjacent to its facilities and to exclude members of the public from that zone through civil enforcement measures. Plaintiffs challenged the law soon after the Court handed down McCullen v. Coakley, striking Massachusetts's buffer zone.
But no New Hampshire clinic had established a buffer zone, and none was set to establish one. The plaintiffs therefore couldn't allege a harm, and the court kicked the case for lack of standing:
[T]he plaintiffs have not alleged that the Act has meaningfully altered their expressive activities, nor that it has objectively chilled their exercise of First Amendment rights. Because no facility in New Hampshire has yet demarcated a zone, and there is no present evidence that a zone will ever be demarcated, the plaintiffs' "alleged injury is . . . too speculative for Article III purposes." Clapper v. Amnesty Int'l.
The court also ruled that the case wasn't ripe.
Wednesday, January 11, 2017
Check out Steve Vladeck's new ACS issue brief, The Bivens Term: Why the Supreme Court Should Reinvigorate Damages Suits Against Federal Officers. Vladeck explains that the Court has two important Bivens cases this Term, Ziglar v. Abassi and Hernandez v. Mesa, and argues that the Court should use the opportunities to reinvigorate Bivens actions, allowing plaintiffs to sue federal officers for monetary damages for constitutional violations.
Although cases raising the scope of Bivens don't tend to generate the same headlines as those involving hot-button social issues, the more general principle of which Bivens is a critical element--that federal courts have an obligation to provide remedies for unconstitutional federal government conduct--is a bulwark of our constitutional system. Without such remedies, there would be little reason for federal officers to comply with the Constitution--especially those provisions that are least likely to be protected through the political process.